Hugo Young

Hugo Young was a political columnist on the Guardian. His books include One of Us, a biography of Margaret Thatcher, and This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair. He died in 2003.

The main island, the Great Isle, of what became known, centuries later, as the British Isles had a peculiar geography. It was ideally proportioned for the division that was eventually made of it. No inland location lay more than two days’ march from the coast, which gave a marked advantage to maritime invaders. The position of the main estuaries – the Solway, the Clyde, the Forth, the Dee, the Severn, the Thames and the Humber – made it possible for each of the more mountainous parts of the island to be isolated by invaders and guarded by them. When they lost the towns and forts commanding these estuaries, the resident Celts were pushed back into their mountain fastnesses. The inhabitants at this time mostly were Celts, of the British rather than Southern European variety – we’re speaking of the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries. The invaders were Angles, or other Germanic peoples, and they created a chaotic patchwork of statelets which took half a millennium to evolve into larger political and cultural units.’

Longing for Mao: Edward Heath

Hugo Young, 26 November 1998

In Modern British politics, Edward Heath is the Old Man of the Sea. Not quite as ancient as Methuselah, he has been around for five active decades which sometimes seem like a century. The ocean was what famously passed for his recreational hinterland, and the jacket of his autobiography shows an open, smiling face which could be that of a tweedy amateur sea-dog, weather-beaten and gimlet-eyed, and is, at a guess, at least ten years behind the corpulent, irritable landlubber who now rolls with some difficulty round the House of Commons. But Heath also has the Old Man’s figurative presence. He’s the burden from which the political system has not found release. He has never been persuaded to retire from the scene, but continues to perform the role he invented for himself two decades ago, as the face of the old, generous, socially concerned Conservatism that Margaret Thatcher destroyed and neither John Major nor William Hague has done anything to re-create. While most other believers in this brand of Toryism, not only from Heath’s generation but the next two, have slipped away, to the House of Lords and points east, this old, old man, 83 next birthday, is still there, fuming righteously.

Poped

Hugo Young, 24 November 1994

In Kiev in 1992, Colm Tóibín met the Bishop of Zhytomir, who was dressed in his full regalia. ‘He had that wonderful, well-fed, lived-in look that reminded me of several Irish bishops.’ The Bishop surely personified the universal assurance of the episcopacy and, although he had been back in Kiev for only a year, of Catholicism itself. He also had a cathedral, now returned to the Church from which it had been seized in 1937, and available for celebrating mass after half a century’s use as a dormitory, a planetarium, an atheism club and a porn video theatre. The cathedral, however, was almost a ruin. The only place where the Bishop and his three priests could live was in the organ loft. They lacked the most basic artefacts of the religious life, such as chalices, Bibles and books. In the diocese there were 25 churches in need of restoration, but almost no people to fill them. The Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches were competition, and the Catholic community no longer existed. The continuity of the faith in this corner of Europe had been just about destroyed. Although the Bishop maintained a despairing loyalty as he surveyed the wreckage, he was, says Tóibín, ‘the first Catholic clergyman I had met who had no power’.

Unmentionables

Hugo Young, 24 March 1994

Does Britain belong to Europe? Incredibly, this question dominated the politics of 1993. It had done the same in 1962, the year the Macmillan Government sought terms for entry into the Community; in 1972, when the Heath Government negotiated British membership; and in 1975, when the Wilson Government held a referendum. The referendum, in which 64 per cent of the voters said Yes, was supposed to determine the question, but long before 1993 the evidence accumulated that it had not entirely done so. For 11 years, Britain was led by a prime minister who took Britain further into Europe, by pressing for passage of the Single European Act, but simultaneously conducted a relentless propaganda campaign against ‘Europe’ and all its works. This was perhaps the main reason why the apparently settled verdict of 1975 proved to be the beginning not the end of an argument, and why the 1993 version of the argument was more virulent than any of its predecessors.

Rubbishing the revolution

Hugo Young, 5 December 1991

A year after the Great Fall, there is already a fin-de-siècle air about memoirs of the Thatcher era. It seems so long ago. The lady herself clutches on to a form of political existence more as a menace than a force. She rages, more in reported than direct speech, against developments in the European Community. She has a group of followers on the backbenches who continue to see her as a leader, and possibly as her successor’s nemesis, on this issue. But she is leaving the House of Commons – and even a countess will seem like an extinct volcano in the Lords. Her allies in the press are falling away. The Sunday Telegraph has ceased its passionate flirtations with nostalgia. Besides, John Major is either dismantling some of what she did or failing to conceal his embarrassment at the consequences of what he cannot undo. In the balance between exalting the Thatcher years and distancing itself from them, the Major Government has slowly but inexorably moved towards the second option. This may prove to be an impossible task: as, indeed, it deserves to be, since only one member of the present Cabinet can show a clean pair of hands. But the choice has been made. The Conservative Party is engaged in breaking with the recent past. It is a process that has happened before.’

Her way of helping me

Hugo Young, 6 December 1990

Sir John Junor made his reputation mainly as the man prepared to be more bitchy about famous people than any other newspaper columnist. This was the basis on which he conducted his column on the Sunday Express, the paper he also edited for 32 years, and which underpins its less successful appearance nowadays in the Mail on Sunday. Junor is the man whose mind, however squalidly obsessed, they cannot gag. He is regarded by some people as a great journalist. But if he is, that is a tribute to the power of longevity and self-created myth. To be read for the studied perversity of one’s opinions, and the calculated outrage provoked by one’s means of expressing them, supplies celebrity of a sort. As a contribution to public knowledge and even public entertainment, though, it can easily be exaggerated, especially if this process enjoys the assistance of those who have from time to time been the butt of the column in question. This, if Junor’s own account is to be believed, is roughly what has happened to him. His memoirs recount a lifetime not of controversy so much as of systematic tireless fawning, the regular stance not just of editor towards politician but of countless politicians towards the great man who commanded their access to the pages of the Sunday Express.

Falklands Retrospect

Hugo Young, 17 August 1989

When the Falklands War broke out, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office was Sir Michael Palliser. He was not disposed to blame his department for the catastrophe. Unlike the Prime Minister, for whom the war was proof of Foreign Office incompetence if not perfidy, Sir Michael pleaded after the event that he had been, in a sense, let down. Ruminating at leisure to Michael Charlton, he recalls that his old department ‘has always had to accept a relatively low level of hope and expectation, because it has never been very easy to persuade ministers and cabinets to pay much attention, either to Argentina or to the Falklands’. He might have added that his expectations of the public, the voters who put these ministers into office, were lower still. In the era of modern communications, the Falklands War was the first war in which the vast majority of citizens of the victorious power began with no idea even of the whereabouts of the territory in dispute. These post-colonial specks in the South Atlantic were, supremely, a diplomat’s preoccupation.

Hauteur: Britain and Europe

Ian Gilmour, 10 December 1998

For most of the last half-century, Britain has had two options: to be a whole-hearted member of Europe or to be a satellite of the United States. In this field there has been no ‘third...

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Is this successful management?

R.W. Johnson, 20 April 1989

In February 1981 Mrs Thatcher made an ecstatic pilgrimage to Washington to commune with the new President, Ronald Reagan, about such then modish topics as supply-side economics and the evil...

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