In an increasingly uncertain world shoddy deals rule

Harold Wilson

I have always had more than a passing interest in politics in spite of my life’s experience that the pursuit of it never seems to amount to very much. Political heroes sooner or later reveal themselves to have feet of clay. Certainties are invariably proved false, and at the end of every rainbow alliance there is a crock of disappointment.

It is often said we get the politicians we deserve. Really? There is something to be said for automatically disqualifying from office those putting themselves forward for election. No right-thinking person would do such a thing.

Some of my best friends are politicians (I don’t have many friends) but it must be said, the transition from ordinary citizen to elected representative seems to bring out the worst in people.

Inside most of us there is a narcissist struggling to get out. The political class appears to have no difficulty restraining its inner narcissist. It is said that a civil servant, witnessing the descent to earth in a helicopter of NIO minister Dr Brian Mawhinney, remarked: “The ego has landed.” It was a good joke then, and fitted its intended victim. But it could just as easily have been said of any politician using that form of transport.

Until I was eight I lived in Birmingham where I was the child of immigrant parents. With impeccable news judgment, my mother decided 1968 was the right time to return to Lurgan. I was a fan then of Harold Wilson – an Oxford don who hid his sophistication behind a northern accent and a fog of tobacco smoke.

In the 1969 Northern Ireland Parliament election, I remember naively arguing in my Catholic primary school playground that people should vote for the party that had the best policies – a notion deemed nonsensical then. Curiously such an attitude is still regarded as avant garde here 50 years on.

Over the years I must have voted for every party going (even the DUP, given the PR system allowed me to identify their candidates as the ones I least wanted to see elected). I even voted tactically for David Trimble to see off a DUP challenge. I think I was the only tactical voter in North Armagh, and I failed miserably, as did he.

When I was 50 and living in Scotland I had the opportunity, for the first time in my adult life, to vote for a party capable of forming the Government. Again I backed the wrong horse. The Tories got in.

Writing now, a little before publication, I am reluctant to comment too much on the current political situation. Things are changing so fast. By the time you read this, the Queen may have sacked her hapless PM and taken the reins of power herself.

As things stand, Theresa May has proved herself incapable of commanding the respect even of her colleagues; the Tories have abdicated their position as the ‘natural party of government’; and a quirk of arithmetic has handed the fate of the country to a party that cannot be trusted to manage a minor green energy scheme. Brexit negotiations opened yesterday without the British side having a clue what it wanted – no agreed government position, no briefing papers, no mandate.

You have to respect the choice of voters, and Sinn Fein’s principled decision not to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. But if the SDLP had managed to hold onto it seats, how different things would be.

Now all I can do is rant and rave powerlessly on Twitter. Apart from the crippling RSI in my right arm I have discovered a few things about myself.

Firstly, the more frustrated I get, the more left wing I become. They say if you are not a socialist in your youth you do not have a heart, and if you are not a conservative in maturity you do not have a brain. By that analyse I should be complacently moderate at this stage in my life. But now I am somewhat to the left of John McDonnell who is somewhat to the left of Trotsky.

Secondly, the more I contemplate the rise in the DUP’s political fortunes, the more republican I become. Intellectually, you cannot dispute the DUP’s right to extract as much out of the British government (if government is the right term for this shambolic collective); but emotionally it seems so wrong that once again political opportunism is rewarded, and the future safety and security of this part of the world is put at risk because of a shoddy deal in Westminster.


In the gutter … looking at the stars



Lord George Brown: a tired and emotional man

There’s a fabulous story about George Brown, the former British Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s first government. It’s almost certainly not true, but it should be.

Brown was a drunk in an era when it was quite acceptable to be a senior member of Her Majesty’s Government while being incapable of functioning as a rational human being. (Ok not much has changed.)

The story goes that Brown was on a trip to South America extolling the virtues of Britain in a post-colonial world. One night, he’d rather over indulged at a very grand reception. From across the room he spotted a talk willowy figure dressed from head to toe in scarlet. He decided he might be in with a chance and sauntered across to the alluring ‘lady in red’.

“Fancy a dance, dear,” he said in the seductive tones of a politically-correct Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

The tall slim figure looked down at Brown disdainfully.

“I’m sorry sir, there are three reasons why I can’t – you are blind drunk, this is not a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem, and I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”

For quite a while, the Press turned a blind eye to Brown’s indiscretions. Sobriety was not much valued in the newspaper business in those days, and he was a character. But Private Eye was less inclined to ignore Brown’s activities. The phrase “tired and emotional” was coined as a euphemism to describe his state of consciousness in the service of the realm.

From my teenage years I vaguely remember a story of Brown – then a peer – being found by reporters one evening in the gutter. The incident, which happened in 1976, when Harold Wilson was still in Number 10, prompted an observation in The Times that “Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than the Prime Minister sober.”

I had sort of forgotten about Brown until he popped up in my life again when I was going through the papers of the late Alastair Hetherington in the special collections at the London School of Economics.

Hetherington, a former editor of the Guardian, ended his career as a professor of journalism at Stirling. Most of his papers are in the University of Stirling library, but LSE has six boxes of material.

LSE’s holdings are almost exclusively file notes of meetings with politicians – mostly Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson (both of whom recognised the importance of the Guardian as the UK’s only left-leaning national newspaper); Jo Grimond the Liberal leader; and Dick Crossman (the Labour politician and professional political gossip).

There are a few records of meetings with Brown, including one at the Shepherd’s Hotel in Cairo where Hetherington walked in on a full-scale row between Brown and his Foreign Office minder; and another of a meeting to discuss the Middle East where Hetherington described Brown as “neither drunk nor sober”. Hands up if you know what he means by that.

In December 1964, two months after the General Election that first brought Wilson to Number 10, Hetherington had dinner with Brown where they gossiped about members of the cabinet, and discussed the economic situation, the state of the pound, and Vietnam – Wilson was decidedly uncomfortable about the Johnson administration’s policy there.

Brown – who was an impressive political operator at his best – impressed Hetherington. But the editor noted: “I was thankful nevertheless that he wasn’t prime minister.” He was not the only one who thought that. Tony Crosland, referring to the contest between Wilson and Brown for the Labour leadership had said it was a choice between a “crook” and a “drunk”.

I thought of the gutter story again on my last night in London when I lost my footing in a pothole near Covent Garden and fell dramatically at the feet of a tourist – finding myself in much the same position as Lord George-Brown in 1976 (though I was sober your honour).

As I lay there on the tarmac, two things came the mind. The first was whether my sprained ankle would be considered to be a work-related injury given I was a on a research trip; the second was Oscar Wilde’s observation: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

I bet George Brown thought that too.