Archive | October, 2016

The Time of His Life , Dennis Healey, Silly Billies and Molly Sugden

30 Oct

I am an avid consumer of British politics in the seventies, and so can’t believe I have only just read Dennis healey’s autobiography. Healey goes by the title of the best Prime Minister we never had, which is of course a meaningless phrase. How do you test such a thing. How do we know that he or Rab Butler or Roy Jenkins or any of the others who share his title would have been any good. Its a best losers prize really. I incidentally think I am the best Prime Minister we never had, and also the best opening batsmen that never was.

Healey is rather contemptuous of his rivals. Jenkins, Foot,Callaghan and Wilson were all busted flushes. Tony Benn though gets most of his disdain, and the little bit left over gets doled out, rather unceremoniously to Stafford Cripps.

Healey is famous for being a bit of a bruser. He was a plain talking chancellor in the 70s , tabling a budget every couple of months, dealing with the IMF, shouting at Trade Unions. So much of this fails to come across in his book. He seemed more interested in being Defence Secretary than Chancellor. Doing it because no one else could. He had the same approach to breeding his goldfish !

Of course he isn’t really famous , and isn’t famous at all for being a bruser. Its sort of made up. Like Silly Billy. He never said it, Mike Yarwood did. Then he stole it. Imagine stealing Mike Yarwoods material. Silly billy was a parliamentary joke well before Healey though. There was a bit of a scrap about in in 1887. In 1976 the Prime Minister was asked if Healey was a silly-billy . He didn’t answer. Edward Garner called himself one in 1998. Healey also never wanted to make peoples pips squeak. Again I think I would have preferred it if he did.

He decided to drop the Punk Monetarism insult because his kids told him it was insulting to Punks.

He was a light entertainment politician, despite his real interest being in the classical sphere. I remember him turning up on any old guff in the 80s, some memorable, most not.

Oh and he went to the same school as Molly Sugden.

Thresher gate

29 Oct

Somewhere in the lower points of what was a fairly unsuccessful Ministerial Career, Norman Lamont got hit by a wave of odd and at times puzzling “ scandals”. The most perplexing was, well they all were. Thresher gate though was perhaps the time the media finally got the point of adding-gate to an issue that was so insignificant in its ability to rival watergate that the similarity only only occurred through the power of spelling.

Norman Lamont was exposed as living outside his credit card limit and ignoring his warning letters, embarrassing for a Chancellor. However it then turned out two employees of the Paddington Threshers (off licence ) claimed he had bought a bottle of champagne and a packet of raffles. Paddington it seems was considered a bit seedy ( like the bear ) and the link being made was that as neither he nor his wife smoked raffles then he must have been socialising with someone else. The press even thought they had found a woman Lamont was having an affair with.  His fellow MPs thought it hilarious. Visiting his shortly afterwards Gyles Brandreth apologised for not bringing a bottle, but Threshers was closed and his visa card is over the limit. Lamont we are told laughed.

Eventually the receipt turned up, for 2 bottles of wine from the connaught street branch ( more respectable apparently ) . Gateau Margaux indeed. The two employees admitted to lying , one was sacked and the other discovered to be an overstayer from Nigeria was deported! And this advert was taken off air ?

The Politics of Passport to Pimlico

16 Oct

At the end of the Second World War, Britain underwent a period of fiscal restraint and recovery, often at the behest of the mighty US dollar, the period is often referred to as “Austerity Britain”. George Osborne might have pulled his best jazz singer impression 60 years later and reminded us “ you aint seen austerity yet “..but he didn’t. Austerity Britain in the late 1940s was a confusing and contradictory place to be in.

Having won the war and secured a brave new world, Brits suddenly found themselves queuing for bananas, continuing to live within someone else means, and those means were rather meagre. Just what was the concept of freedom they had suffered and sacrificed for ? Surely not one that imposed limits on sugar ?  Concerns were raised by the British medical Association that the post war austerity diet was less substantial and healthy than the wartime diet.

Against this background, or even creating it, the Government was battling a balance of payments deficit. It seems like another world. When did politicians last blink at trade figures. Before the bond market became the powerhouse of global politics it was the trade deficit.

So against this narrative of Austerity and Trade deficits the British Government pulled and pushed levers at will. Often with little thought of the impacts on the Citizens. Often with great thought on the impact. Some of those decisions sit within the contemporary political culture of 2016. Some don’t. And some such as the NHS fit in 2016 neat version of the politics of post-war Britain. But i digress. The Movies.

Britain still had a Board of Trade and its Minister Stafford Cripps spoke on everything – loofahs,herring barrels and hedging gloves. And films. Britain was heavily dependent on American movies, which cost American dollars. Cripps suggested a 25 per cent tax on American films, after protestation from the Rank group it was finally imposed at 75 percent. Well done Mr Rank. American film exports were embargoed and Rank came to the rescue, making 47 films in 12 months. The tax went away quickly but the films, well some of them lasted. Passport to Pimlico being one.

Over the last few months as urbane Scots and less couture Londoners have tried to fathom a logic to voting en masse to stay in the EU and yet being forced to leave, many random passer-by have shouted “ Passport to Pimlico “. Theres no real connection but its made the film seem relevant again.

Passport to Pimlico is set in the late 1940s. A London town discovers through the accidental explosion of a bomb that they are technically Burgundian. Whitehall realises that this requires some thought, the traders realise they can move in outside the scope of rationing and Government intervention. Theres soon an outcry and a border crossing imposed, the Burgundians are left to their own devices and fight back. Of course so they can negotiate an exit from a position of strength.

And Charles Hawtrey tickles the ivories.

There are a number of political threads in the film. Some of them stronger than others.

Some see the traditional Ealing theme of a group of sensible folk battling the might and potty bureacrats and showing how common sense belongs to them.It is the bureaucrats who seem stuffed suits and 2 steps behind. However the Pimlico residents don’t appreciate the complexity of the trade embargo they get. The border crossing works both ways, perhaps this is similar to Ranks feelings towards Cripps. Cripps gets a light ribbing in the film with signs of “ Forget that Cripps feeling” . The Pimlico residents then fight back, stopping the Tube on its way through. Well show em, cor blimey. Is this how 2 landlocked territories co-exist. Well it’s perhaps a mirror of the Berlin blockade, but in dear old blighty wed hope for something more civil.And we get civility in the face of Whitehall starving them out, the locals ( English not Burgundian ) start to throw food over the fence. Of course it was poor planning on their part that the food got flooded in the first place but anyway. Freedom it seems isn’t all it’s cracked up to be so the Burgundians negotiate to go back to limited nylons in exchange for the security of , well limited nylons. They negotiate a faux Marshall Aid agreement around a loan of the Burgundian assets and away we go. Back to the queues and traditional English rain. One senses England is the true home of these Burgundians rather than Britain.

But what of Austerity ? Passport to Pimlico is surely a pro-austerity film. Not just pro- but actually praise be and thank the english gods for it. While many people saw Austerity as a necessary evil, Passport trades it off as an end in itself. It is our ability to ration, to make good, to be happy under control that they wish for. “ You don’t know your well off until you aren’t “ Austerity is wonderful. So why do distressed Bremainers look to the film ?

Theres no logical support in the film, inevitable Londoners will be left waiting for the rain, running down the meagre supply of nylons and wondering how they can use their capital to get back into a life of drudge. But it was our drudge. Cripps never let Cigarettes be on ration, though the Chancellor advised slower smoking was better for your health. We can laugh at failed health warnings but from 2016 the message of doing what the Government tells you is still accepted.

Charles Hawtrey – Piano- over and out.

References 

David Kynaston A World To Build

Steven Fielding A State of Play : British Politics on screen,stage and page

Tom Sobchak Bakhtins “Carnivelesque” in 1950s British Comedy

Chris Bryant Stafford Cripps