Books

Keith Simpson's Easter Reading List

3 Apr 2014 at 09:23

Guest Post by Keith Simpson MP

Whilst FCO ministers will be spending the Easter Recess valiantly dealing with many “little local difficulties” abroad, many MPs of all parties will be going around the country, in the words of Willie Whitelaw, “stirring up apathy” for the Euro elections.

But for those who have some time for relaxation or wish to stretch their little grey cells, there is a good selection of mainly historical, political and conflict books published over the past few months.

There are a lot of myths surrounding UKIP, including its membership and electoral appeal. Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have written a “must read” analysis of UKIP based upon extensive polling and interviews with both leaders and activists. Unlike so many worthy and substantial academic books, it is well written and easy to read. In Revolt on the Right Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Routledge) the authors argue that UKIP’s support is largely working class heavily concentrated among older, blue-collar workers, with little education and few skills – groups who have been left behind and marginalised by the main political parties. UKIP appeals as a protest vote with the message no more immigration, no more EU, and no more cosmopolitan liberal elite condescension. And they have learnt “pavement politics” from the Lib Dems.

Roy Jenkins was a big beast of British politics in the last four decades of the twentieth century. A liberal reforming Home Secretary, a competent Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose career in the Labour Party foundered on his principled commitment to the EU. A founder member of the SDP he was effectively godfather to New Labour. A bon viveur, womaniser, writer and reviewer, his biography by John Campbell has been waited for with anticipation. Roy Jenkins A Well-Rounded Life (Jonathan Cape) is a substantial biography by an author who cut his teeth on F E Smith and Margaret Thatcher. Campbell even wrote a slim biography of Jenkins whilst he was still alive. An admirer of Jenkins, he has not, however, written a hagiography.

Joan Trumpington is today a caricature of a Tory politician of the old school. The daughter of an Indian army officer and an American heiress whose fortune disappeared in the Wall Street Crash. In Coming Up Trumps A Memoir (Macmillan) she describes leaving school without ever taking an exam and went to Paris to study art and French and German before returning to Britain on the outbreak of war to become a landgirl. Then she was recruited into naval intelligence at Bletchley Park. After the war she worked in New York in advertising then returned to Britain and became a headmaster’s wife. She was active in local politics as a Tory councillor in Cambridge, was made a life peer and served as a minister in the Thatcher government. Recently filmed in the Chamber of the House of Lords giving a Churchillian salute to Lord King of Bridgewater who had commented on her age. Forthright, witty and opinionated this is a wonderful memoir.

Somewhat in contrast is Jerry Hayes An Unexpected MP Confessions of a Political Gossip (Biteback). Jerry Hayes was a particularly unconventional Tory MP in the Thatcher years, and his book is not a standard biography, but rather a roller-coaster journey through parliament moving from one outrageous anecdote to another.

With the Scottish referendum in September and the possibility of a referendum on British membership of the EU in the next Parliament, constitutional matters have taken centre stage. Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and in The Politics of English Nationhood (Oxford University Press) he provides an interesting account of the idea of Englishness and how this relates to politics.

Linda Colley is a distinguished academic historian who has written extensively on “Britishness”. Acts of Union and Disunion What Has Held the UK Together – And What is Dividing It? (Profile) is a short book based on a series of programmes broadcast on Radio 4. Colley is convinced that to understand current decisions and choices, it is history more than geography that accounts for the current situation in the UK.

Many books written about Parliament are worthy but dull. The Labour MP, Chris Bryant, has now provided a history that is well researched, stimulating to read, and addresses a number of myths. The author has written biographies of Sir Stafford Cripps and Glenda Jackson, is an active parliamentarian with trenchant opinions, and at times, an ability to seriously irritate both Conservative and Labour colleagues. Parliament The Biography, Volume I: Ancestral Voices (Doubleday) begins in 1258 and concludes in 1801. A second volume will cover the period 1801 to 1990.

In The Tories From Winston Churchill to David Cameron (Bloomsbury), Timothy Keppel offers a comprehensive and accessible study of the electoral strategies, leadership approaches and ideological thought of the Conservative Party from Churchill to Cameron.

Kim Philby was the most notorious Soviet mole and British defector in history, and is still much honoured in Russia today. It is difficult today to comprehend what a shock it was to the British establishment when over the 1950s and 1960s a number of British men who had served in either SIS or the Security Service were exposed as having spied for the Soviets. Much of the evidence has been available for some time, but Ben Macintyre has had access to new released Security Service files and previously unseen family papers. Very aptly his book is entitled A Spy Among Friends Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Bloomsbury).

Robert Gates was US Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011 serving under both Bush and Obama. Prior to that he was Director of the CIA. Gates was involved in both operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has critical comments about the Obama White House and the Pentagon monolith in Duty Memoirs of Secretary at War (W H Allen). It is a sobering fact that there is virtually no mention of the UK or any of our political or military leaders in the book.

David Starkey, who sees himself as the doyen of Tudor historians, is now being challenged by a younger generation of very talented female historians. Amongst them is Jesse Childs, who examines the Catholic predicament in Elizabethan England through the eyes of one family, the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall, in God’s Traitors Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England (Bodley Head)

The thought of another biography of Napoleon is enough to depress the enthusiasm of any reader. But Michael Broers Napoleon Soldier of Destiny (Faber & Faber) is the first life of Napoleon that makes full use of the new comprehensive version of his correspondence without the nineteenth century editing. In this biography through his correspondence, we can read the thoughts of Napoleon himself, his intense emotions, iron self-discipline, acute intelligence and immense energy and ambitions. A must read for any ambitious young back bench MP.

Following the death of Queen Victoria, Reginald Brett and Arthur Benson were selected to edit what became three volumes of her correspondence down to 1860. Both men were highly complex figures, with Esher being a Royal confidante who had a secret obsession for Eton boys, whilst Benson struggled badly from depression and yearnings for young men. In Censoring Queen Victoria How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon (One World) Yvonne M Ward, describes how Brett and Benson had to read some 400 volumes of the Queen’s correspondence, whilst promoting their own preconceptions about Victoria and her court, covering up scandals and promoting an image of royalty.

Mary, Madeline and Pamela – the three Wyndham Sisters – lived privileged lives in the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Their parents were liberal and romantic and friends with the Pre-Raphaelites. The three Wyndham sisters were attractive and unconventional. As Claudia Renton shows in Those Wild Wyndhams Three Sisters at the Heart of Power (William Collins) through the use of private correspondence and memoirs, the sisters found emotional connections with the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt, the Tory Cabinet Minister Arthur Balfour and the Liberal Foreign Secretary Edward Grey. Downton Abbey without the servants.

Hew Strachan, Oxford University Professor of Military History, adviser to Whitehall on defence matters and a prolific author, has long argued that in both the USA and the UK there is a failure to misread and misapply strategy. In The Direction of War Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press) he argues that wars since 2001 have not in reality been “new” as has been widely assumed and that we need to adopt a more historical approach to contemporary strategy in order to identify what is really changing.

Leaders, ministers and senior military frequently draw the wrong lessons from conflict experience. Eden saw Nasser as another Mussolini, George W Bush saw Saddam Hussein as unfinished business from his father’s watch. In Toppling Qadaffi Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention (Cambridge University Press), Christopher S Chivvis examines the role of the US and NATO in Libya’s War of Liberation and its lessons for future military interventions. He questions whether this specific kind of intervention can be repeated.

David Owen, former Labour foreign secretary and member of several parties, is now a crossbencher in the Lords. In The Hidden Perspective The Military Conversations of 1906-1914 (Haus Publishing), he argues that there was a “mind set” in the Foreign Office – and indeed in the War Office and Admiralty – which influenced political decision making and sentiment. This is quite a well trodden patch but David Owen does use with skill his experience as a former Foreign Secretary to breathe new life into a well known controversy.

Amongst the plethora of books appearing on the origins and consequences of the First World War, two stand out. The Cambridge historian Christopher Clark – much demonised by Michael Gove – has exhaustively examined the sources and arguments over the origins of the war in The Sleepwalkers How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane). Clark places Serbia and the Serbian government at the centre of the crisis and suggests that the Austro-Hungarian government had a lot of justice on its side. He argues that France and Russia were more complicit in the crisis than has been accepted, and that Germany was perhaps less of a villain than has previously been thought. Not surprisingly this book has topped the best seller list in Germany and is used as primer on diplomacy and negotiation in the current crisis over the Ukraine.

Complementing Christopher Clark is another Cambridge historian David Reynolds, whose The Long Shadow The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster), addresses the political, parliamentary, cultural, military and social legacies of the war and corrects many of the myths that have been perpetuated. How we interpret the war today depends as much upon the post war mood as what actually happened at the time. If you read no other book on the First World War, it should be this one.

Finally, in the finest tradition of Tory lady novelists – Sandra Howard, Ann Widdecombe, Frances Osborne and Louise Mensch – Nadine Dorries has contributed to the genre. Based, one suspects on some of her own childhood experiences, The Four Streets (Head of Zeus), is a novel set in the tight-knit Irish Catholic community of 1950s Liverpool. This is a serious novel and readers should be warned that it is not in the bodice ripping category.

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Radio

Nominated For Interview of the Year Award

2 Apr 2014 at 14:37

Bit of a good day at work. For the second year running I have been nominated for a Radio Academy Award, something which I have to say wasn’t at all expected. It’s for Radio Interview of the Year, for my interview with James, an eyewitness to the Woolwich murders. The other nominees are Stephen Sackur, Iain Lee, Winifred Robinson and Becky Milligan.

If you don’t remember the interview I wrote it up on the blog HERE. Here’s the interview, which came right at the start of my show on May 22.

Obviously I am delighted to be nominated, and one of the reasons is so I can acknowledge the work of my two brilliant producers Matt and Laura. Matt took the call from James on that afternoon in May 2012, calmed him down and then briefed me in about 30 seconds before I had to start the programme. Laura is leaving the LBC to return to her north east roots, but it was she who not only talked to James immediately after the interview, to ensure he was OK she phoned him back several times over the next twenty four hours and has remained in touch with him ever since. That’s called exercising a duty of care.

LBC has picked up 9 nominations, a record for the station. Call Clegg and Nick Ferrari deservedly got two each, with our senior reporter Tom Swarbrick being nominated for radio journalist of the year and also getting two nominations for his ‘Slavery on our Streets’ documentary. And we’re also nominated for Radio Station of the Year. And finally, I was delighted to see Newsbeat’s Declan Harvey getting a nomination two. He was at LBC for my first two years and is a star in the making.

Looking forward to the ceremony on May 12th!

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Why I'm Writing David Cameron's Authorised Biography

1 Apr 2014 at 08:07

Back in 2006 I nearly wrote a semi-authorised biography of David Cameron, only shortly after he had been elected leader of the Conservative Party. I had decided to take six months off, having been fairly burnt out by two failed election campaigns during 2005 (my election in North Norfolk and then the DD leadership campaign) but during that period I pitched the idea of a Cameron biography to a couple of publishers and to Cameron’s team. In the end, I pulled the project partly because I got a new job, but also I heard that Francis Elliott and James Hanning were pitching the same idea.

However, eight years later, I can announce today that I have been commissioned by HarperCollins to write an authorised biography of the Prime Minister to be published in the autumn of 2015, a few months after the general election. I am delighted that David Cameron has agreed to cooperate with the book. In return I have promised him a soft interview on LBC at a time of his choosing.

As readers may know, Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott are also writing a biography of David Cameron, to be published at the same time. Er, by me.

Awkward.

I am sure the Good Lord will see the funny side of the situation and won’t be at all irritated by his own publisher writing a book on the same subject for a, er, different publisher. He’s got a great sense of humour….. hasn’t he???

I’d like to thank LBC for being very understanding about the time I will need to devote to this project. So from today I will no longer be hosting a four hour daily show. Instead, I will be broadcasting for 15 minutes every other Friday afternoon.

If I can spare the time.

UPDATE: April Fool…

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If You Don't Like Gay Marriage, Don't Marry a Homosexual

29 Mar 2014 at 10:06

Today we live in country where love and commitment are celebrated between a man and a woman, a man and a man and a woman and a woman. Some people still don’t like that. They should watch this seven second video.

It really is as simple as that.

Video H/T LiarPoliticians

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ConservativeHome Diary: Just Before I Interrupted Myself...

28 Mar 2014 at 20:02

As I was saying…

It’s that time of year when every Minister of State, and quite a few Parliamentary Under Secretaries, start pushing themselves forward with a single aim of getting two people to notice them: the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip. Why? Because they know that in two months’ time there will be a reshuffle, and it’s likely to be the last before the election. They also know it’s probably going to be quite a radical reshuffle with five or six cabinet departures and promotions. There’s also another dead certainty. If you’ve got a pair of knackers the odds on you being promoted to the cabinet are near to zero unless your surname is Hancock. Or perhaps Fallon. If these things were done on merit Michael Fallon would be a shoo-in for a top Cabinet job, but if that were the case it’d have happened last time around. No, this is going to be a reshuffle in which several women get promotion, and in each case I think it will be fully merited. Who are they? Esther McVey, Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and possibly the much tipped (not least by herself) Liz Truss. Assuming the current female cabinet ministers remain in situ, that would bring the total number of women at the top table to eight if they are all promoted. Three of the four are PUSS’s rather than ministers of state, so it would be a stratospheric and some would say risky thing to do to promote all of them, but in the run-up to the election Cameron may calculate that he needs media friendly faces around the cabinet table.

Of course, if five or six people come in, that means five or six people must leave. I don’t buy the rumours that Grant Shapps will be sacrificed at the altar of George Osborne’s government takeover. He will be rescued, if he needs to be, by the Prime Minister, but a move from the party chairmanship is probable. That’s not a reflection on him, but a new face who can work hand in glove with Lynton Crosby is on the cards. And the face probably belongs to Michael Fallon. Who else might get the chop? I hate putting the black spot on people, but Ken Clarke, Andrew Lansley and Sir George Young must all fear the worst.

I think it is also entirely possible that William Hague might decide to free up the Foreign Office to give the PM a little room for manoeuvre at the top. Hague has enjoyed being Foreign Secretary more than I suspect he thought he would, but he may be hankering after a more normal life after four years of travel. I wouldn’t bet my house on it, but you never know in politics.

At the beginning of this piece I suggested that lots of junior ministers would be prostrating them in front of the chief whip. Actually, they needn’t bother. Traditionally it is the chief whip who decides on most junior appointments and they are rubberstamped by Number Ten. Not under this prime minister. I’m told that the chief whip was barely consulted about the last reshuffle and the whole thing was done by Number Ten. Bizarre, but apparently true.


Someone said by returning to do this diary, I am like a dog returning to its own vomit. Mr Goodman can be a persuasive chap, so I am coming back to do a weekly diary between now and the Euro-elections. It may not be as long as it used to be (the problems of old age, eh?) but nonetheless I hope it hits the spot. See, two double entendres in one sentence. You can’t say fairer than that. I like to provide good value. And to those who love to complain about the smut in my column [no, stop it – ed], the more you whinge, the more I’m likely to be smutty. If you don’t like it, feel free not to read, or collect your refund at the exit. Bye bye UKIPpers and BNPers.


On Wednesday night I had the unique experience of hosting the pre debate build-up and post-match commentary for the Clegg v Farage contest. And quite an experience it was too. I thought both Farage and Clegg put in strong performances and it was a real debate between two political leaders who were at the top of their game. The polls showed a decisive victory for the UKIP leader, but I have to say I thought it was a lot closer than that, not that I hold any candle for Clegg or his Europhilic views. In political terms I think both of them got out of it what they wanted and needed to. For LBC it was a massive night, and I think we surprised a few people with the show we put on. Eat your heart out BBC. It will be interesting to see if the BBC debate next week generates as much interest.

It was quite clear after the debate that it engaged a lot of people in politics, so well done to everyone involved for that. I think it also put beyond doubt the fact that there will be pre general election debates between the party leaders. I think that there is a very strong case for the UKIP leader to be included in one debate. My preferred scenario would be one Miliband v Cameron heads to head debate and a second debate involving any party leader whose party puts up candidates in 95% of seats across the United Kingdom. So, yes, that could include the leader of the Green Party. This idea that only parties whose leader could potentially be prime minister should be included is a complete red herring.

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The Ban on Sending Books to Prisoners is Just Plain Wrong

26 Mar 2014 at 07:58

The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation – Goethe

I know I have developed a reputation for being as wet as a lettuce on prison reform, so no doubt what I am about to write will just burnish that reputation.

When I heard that the government was banning friends and family from sending books to prisoners in jail I almost scratched my head in disbelief. If you’re banged up in a cell for 23 hours a day, surely allowing prisoners free access to books is just the sort of thing a prison governor would want to encourage just to keep them occupied. If you believe the maxim that the devil makes work for idle hands it is a pretty obvious thing to do.

In November the government decided to ban family and friends from sending any packages into prisons, not just packages containing books. They justify it on the basis that drugs and other things were being sent, hidden in packages. An understandable response maybe, but in my view totally over the top. I did an hour’s phone in on my show on this on Monday, which Chris Grayling got to hear about. Later in the evening he texted me refuting the allegation that books were being banned. Er, that was never the allegation actually. I quite understand that prisons have libraries so books are indeed available to prisoners, but quite often they have a fairly restricted choice. They are not run by prisons but by local authorities. Chris also explained that prisoners were still able to buy books themselves through their allowances or money they have earned. On the face of it a fair point, but in reality a smokescreen. If a prisoner earns £4 a week he or she is likely to spend it on necessities rather than a book, which inevitably will cost a lot more anyway.

If there is such a problem with smuggling things into prison I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that the Prison Service needs to look at its security procedures. And in addition, would it be beyond the wit of the Ministry of Justice to come to an arrangement with Amazon or Waterstone’s so family and friends could order books from them to be delivered securely by them to prisons? Apparently so. Chris Grayling points our that prisoners can order via Amazon or Waterstone’s but the deliveries have to go via the prison shop.

Prison is indeed about punishment, but it is also about rehabilitation. You don’t have to be left wing to believe that. It is the mark of an decent society. I have a lot of respect for Chris Grayling, but i think he has got this one wrong, and that is why I have signed the letter along with 80 others, organised by the Howard League for Penal Reform to urge him to think again. He may regard the organisation with disdain, but on this one I think they are right. Here’s the letter

SIR – We are extremely concerned at new rules that ban family and friends sending books to prisoners. While we understand that prisons must be able to apply incentives to reward good behaviour by prisoners, we do not believe that education and reading should be part of that policy.

Books represent a lifeline behind bars, a way of nourishing the mind and filling the many hours that prisoners spend locked in their cells. In an environment with no internet access and only limited library facilities, books become all the more important.

We urge Chris Grayling, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, to reconsider the Prison Service instruction that limits books and other essentials being sent to prisoners from family and friends.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive, Howard League for Penal Reform
Mark Haddon

Salman Rushdie

Julian Barnes

Ian McEwan

Carol Ann Duffy

Alan Bennett

Philip Pullman

Jeffrey Archer

Irvine Welsh

Joanne Harris

Hari Kunzru

Ian Rankin

Nick Hornby

Deborah Moggach

Ruth Padel

Mary Beard

Sir David Hare

Colin Thubron

Maggie Fergusson, Director, The Royal Society of Literature

Simon Stephens

Laura Wade

Samantha Ellis

David Edgar

Jack Thorne

John O’Farrell

Caitlin Moran

David Harsent

Linda Grant

Andrew O’Hagan

Iain Dale

David Eldridge

D C Moore

Caroline Moorehead

Stella Feehily

Alecky Blythe

Moira Buffini

Lucinda Coxon

Susannah Clapp

Kathryn Gray

April De Angelis

Elif Shafak

Vivienne Franzmann

Tim Gee

Colin Beveridge

Melanie McFadyean

Melanie McGrath

Shami Chakrabarti, Director, Liberty

Jenny Diski

Stella Duffy

Janice Galloway

Jackie Kay

Darian Leader

James Robertson

Niall Griffiths

Kamila Shamsie

Kathy Lette

Terence Blacker

Alice Rawsthorn

Jenni Fagan

Blake Morrison

Tiffany Murray

Rhian Jones

Rachel Holmes

Robin Tudge

Ahdaf Soueif

Nikesh Shukla

Sophie Mayer

Nikita Lalwani

Peter Hobbs

Maggie O’Farrell

Ian Dunt

Naomi Alderman

Lise Mayer

William Fiennes

Bidisha

Ali Smith

Helen Walsh

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The Quiet Rise of Nicky Morgan

22 Mar 2014 at 19:51

If David Cameron wants to promote more women to the cabinet he need look no further than Nicky Morgan, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. I’ve known Nicky and her husband Jonathan for more than ten years, although we’re no close friends. She was selected for Loughborough around the same time I got North Norfolk. She didn’t win the seat at the first time of trying, but unlike me she had another go, and in 2010 she won it with a majority of nearly 4,000.

Since her election she has risen through the ranks without attracting the notice of the Westminster lobberati. And that is a good thing. She started off as PPS to David Willetts before being appointed a whip in 2012. She’s been a Treasury minister for only six months but she is beginning to attract some rave reviews for her quietly effective performances. She has some steel in her and is no one’s pushover. It has been reported that as a backbencher she wasn’t backward in coming forward in the 1922 committee if she had criticisms, and her views on Sayeeda Warsi were said to be crucial in the decision to remove her from the party chairmanship.

Of all the Treasury ministers who appeared on the media trumpeting the budget this week, it was clear that Nicky Morgan was being pushed forward more than the others. She did a 15 minute stint on my show and was on the Daily Politics the next day for most of the programme. Her performances were superb. She looked good, she was eloquent, she displayed an infectious sense of humour and an ability to make partisan points without appearing to do so.

Nicky Morgan’s problem is that her profile, so far, has been so low that no one really knows what she believes. Her only foray into real controversy came a couple of months ago when she said Conservatives must send out an optimistic message and not just ‘the language of hate’ if they are to win the next general election. It might sound a statement of the ‘bleeding obvious’ but she attracted some approbrium from the usual suspects on the right. Expect her to up her profile in the next couple of months. She need to give the Prime Minister an excuse to promote her in the reshuffle which I imagine will come at the end of May after the European elections.

It seems to me that there are going to be five or six new entrants to the Cabinet at the next reshuffle. Nicky Morgan has every chance to be one of them.

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A Tribute to Corinne De Souza 1955-2014

18 Mar 2014 at 21:45

This site seems to have become a repository for obituaries and tributes in the last week, and I am afraid here’s another one.

John and I first met Corinne De Souza back in 1997 just after we opened Politico’s. It turned out that unbeknown to me at the time I had taken over her job at the PR firm Charles Barker back in January 1990. She became a very good friend to us both and also became a shareholder in Politico’s. Her book, SO YOU WANT TO BE A LOBBYIST, was one of the first books published by Politico’s Publishing in 1998. It was, it has to be said, not a brilliant book, as she herself admitted later. Only last year did she admit that she gave us the wrong disk… I had to laugh.

Corinne was one of the sweetest people John and I knew. She died on Thursday after a six month battle with lung cancer. When she first told us the diagnosis back in September she was only supposed to have two or three weeks to live. But it was only in her last few days that her health deteriorated very dramatically. She had come to terms with her death and planned every last detail of not only her last few months but also her funeral. John was with her when she died, along with several other of her close friends. She never complained once about her illness and bore it great fortitude. She didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her.

Corinne, as she would herself admit, was slightly eccentric. No, she was very eccentric. Two stops short of Dagenham would be another way of describing her. But in a good way. I remember one year she came to help us sell books at the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth. She drove down from London with our friend Rena. Corinne’s sense of direction left something to be desired, and as they drove along the M3 she suddenly said: “Sweetie, shouldn’t the sea be on the other side?” Somehow they ended up driving towards Portsmouth rather than Bournemouth.

It has to be said that Corinne wasn’t a natural retail sales assistant. She accessorised her bottle green Politico’s branded sweatshirt with a rather fetching neckscarf, and point blank refused to sell our politically themed knickers. “Sweetie, I couldn’t possibly sell them,” she bleated. Most of her sentences invariably started with the word “Sweetie”. I remember a very funny moment in Politico’s, just after George Bush’s Axis of Evil speech, when John was filling in the conference application forms. Corinne and Rena were upstairs in the coffee shop. John shouted up to them and this is how the conversation went…

JOHN: Corinne, I need your date of birth and where you were born!
CORINNE: 1955, Baghdad.
JOHN: Okaaaay… Rena?
RENA: 19xx, Tehran
JOHN: Riiiiight…. Oh. Right.

Corinne was born in Iraq to an English mother and an Iraqi father who worked as an agent for SIS. She wrote a book about him called BAGHDAD SPY. She had a very English upbringing, though and retained a delightful, sweet naivete about life in general for all her life. She was far too willing to place her trust in people who would let her down. One in particular.

Corinne started her own publishing company, Picnic Publishing. She was determined to make it succeed on her own and her stubborn streak prevented her from taking advice or well-meant help from others. When I found out she was having terrible distribution problems I offered to help sell her books through Biteback’s sales agents. There was nothing in it for us, but I knew it was the only way she could get her books out into the market. But she refused because she thought I was doing it out of charity. I explained that I was doing it as a friend, and not out of charity, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

It has to be said that Corinne was taken from this earth at a much too young age – 58. She outlived her beloved mother by little more than a year. She really was one of the sweetest, kindest people I have ever met. Those who knew her will miss her infectious laugh and happy go lucky nature. Her funeral will be a very sad event indeed.

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17 Mar 2014 at 23:09

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A Tribute to Tony Benn

14 Mar 2014 at 12:40

Even before I first met him in the mid 1990s, Tony Benn was always a source of endless fascination for me. I remember buying a volume of his diaries from a second hand bookshop in Cambridge and being transfixed. By the time I met him I had bought all the other volumes and I remember taking them down to the House of Commons for him to sign. He got out his red pen and put a different personal message in each of them. This became particularly poignant last November when I met him for the last time. We were sitting in the living room of his flat, just round the corner from the Holland Park house which he and his beloved Caroline had spent their whole married life in. I had just done a 25 minute interview with him, which had clearly tired him greatly. I produced three more volumes for him to sign. He started signing them and then instantly fell asleep. It was a rather touching moment. I couldn’t decide what to do, so I just let him have a little snooze. He woke up after a couple of minutes and carried on as if nothing had happened. His writing had become very spidery and almost illegible. I felt very sad as I bid him farewell. I just knew that it would be the last time I would see him. Over the years he had become a friend. He always called me his “favourite Thatcherite entrepreneur”, not that I am sure he knew very many others. We had so much in common, yet politically so much divided us.

Tony famously said it politics was all about the “ishoos”, not personalities. Yet, either knowingly or unknowingly, he cultivated a bit of a cult of personality. He loved the hero worship he would attract during his one man theatre shows. He adored people coming up to him in the street and paying their respects. He craved the approval of the crowds he would address up and down the country. I think he had convinced himself it was all about the ideas he was propagating, but in reality they came to see him because of his personality, not necessarily because they were waiting to be convinced by his latest political thoughts. The theatre audiences were a mix of out and out left wingers, but the majority were middle class Tories who came out to see someone they believed to be a conviction politician. He was fond of saying that you could divide politicians into two categories – signposts and weathervanes. He liked to think of himself as a ‘signpost’ and in many ways he was, although he did change his mind on many great issues of the day including nuclear power.
In his later years he was known predominantly as an anti-war campaigner. His stance on military conflict was at least consistent and he was a prominent supporter of CND throughout his life.

As a politician in government I am not sure he could be described as an unalloyed success, but I’ll leave others to evaluate his time in Harold Wilson’s cabinets. From his diaries he was never far away from resignation but could never quite bring himself to do it. He knew if he did he would become a marginalised figure with no real power, and one thing Tony Benn understood very quickly was that if you were in power, you had to wield it and lead public opinion.

In some ways Tony Benn successfully transformed his reputation from the ‘most dangerous man in Britain’ to the nation’s favourite political uncle. And it was quite a transformation. When I was a teenager in the 1970s to me, politically, he was the devil incarnate. He represented all that was wrong about the left of the Labour Party. His flirtations with the extreme left ensured that the Labour Party remained fractured throughout most of the 1980s and it is not an exaggeration to say that he was almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of the SDP in 1981. Some believe he was the single reason Labour was out of power for 18 long years in the 1980s and 1990s. That is inevitably somewhat of an exaggeration, but all exaggerations have a kernel of truth about them.

The Tony Benn I knew was a kind man. A family man, who idolised his children and grandchildren. He was tickled pink to see his granddaughter Emily stand in the last general election while still a teenager. He was so proud of his son Hilary when he made it into the cabinet. He positively beamed with pride, and it shines through the pages of his diaries. He went out of his way to help people and was always available to impart his words of wisdom to a pliant media.

I did several interviews with him. Apart from the most recent one for LBC back in November 2013, the one which sticks in my mind is one I did for Total Politics in 2009. I spent more than two hours with him in his basement in Holland Park and the result was an intensely personal exchange, which I wrote up verbatim in an In Conversation format. The whole time he puffed away on his trademark pipe. I remember walking out of the house after the interview thinking I had interviewed someone who was a truly great politician. But was he one of the political greats of the 20th century?

I’m not sure. I think he was certainly one of the great political personalities, but apart from serving in three cabinet positions and being an inspiring figure what did he actually achieve? He failed in his bid to become deputy leader in 1981, split his party and left parliament in 2001 to “spend more time on politics”. I don’t mean to diminish him as a figure of political importance, but if you drew up a list of top 20 post war Labour politicians, I wonder if he would really feature on it.

I was proud to know him. He enriched my life. I felt I was sitting at the feet of someone of historical importance and often found myself hanging on his every word. We agreed on more than we expected to. He developed an interesting strand of euroscepticism in later life and we shared common ground on many constitutional issues. But Tony was not a massive original thinker in his later years. He adopted and championed many causes, but in terms of changing the political weather, those days really ended in the 1980s.
In my Total Politics interview I asked him what he’d want as his epitaph. This was his reply.

“All I’d want on my gravestone, would be: HERE LIES TONY BENN: HE ENCOURAGED US”.

Note: You can hear my last interview with Tony Benn, recorded in November 2013 HERE

You can read my extended In Conversation interview with Tony Benn from 2009 HERE

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