Peter Clarke

Peter Clarke’s Mr Churchill’s Profession came out last year.

John Enoch Powell was an eminent classical scholar, as his entry in Who’s Who proclaimed: Craven Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1931; First Chancellor’s Classical Medallist; Porson Prizeman; Browne Medallist, 1932; fellow of Trinity, 1934-38; professor of Greek at the University of Sydney, 1937-39. He was 25 when he was appointed to the chair at Sydney. There was a classicist called...

The two most influential economists of the 20th century must surely be Keynes and Schumpeter. Influential, at any rate, in the English-speaking world, where Keynes fine-tuned his rhetoric with a good ear for what would carry with his different audiences (though he sometimes lapsed in appearing to patronise Americans, from President Roosevelt down). It was, too, primarily among anglophones...

At any rate, he had a happy death. Just over 80, in good health if a little deaf, well known and well liked, dignified and distinguished, he had addressed the House of Lords on Thursday 21 October 1993, choosing to intervene in a debate on a favourite topic: employee share ownership. His argument was double-edged or at least ambivalent. He did not object to the effect of 14 years of...

Knights’ Moves: The Treasury View

Peter Clarke, 17 March 2005

The Institute of Economic Affairs is approaching its 50th birthday, and has much to celebrate. It was founded in the heyday of the so-called Keynesian consensus that dominated British political economy for about thirty years after World War Two. The mission of the IEA was to challenge that consensus through an intellectual assault on its foundations and to proselytise instead for free-market...

It’s an odd job with an odd title. When the G7 meet there is only one chancellor of the exchequer in the room – other countries make do somehow with a finance minister or a secretary of the treasury – so a nod towards history is plainly needed by way of explanation. It seems that the present definition of the office was established through a process long characterised by...

Blair Must Go: why Tony Blair should go

Peter Clarke, 11 September 2003

All that Bush needed to justify war was the war itself. What Blair would need to justify the war would be not only the end of the former Iraqi regime, which nobody mourns, but a good peace. That is what he promised, not least for Palestine. What was at stake was always the consequences of his actions, not his moral convictions. Whether Iraq and Palestine and the whole region are now better off and a lesser threat to peace is still the test.

Squeamish: Lloyd George versus Haig

Peter Clarke, 3 April 2003

For the British, fortunate to escape the traumas of both Communism and Fascism, the two world wars were the defining experience of the 20th century. In both the country avoided invasion and ultimately evaded defeat, if only because in each case France was in the front line, because Russia suffered most of the casualties, and because the United States tardily but effectively identified its own...

The sudden death of Roy Jenkins took us all by surprise. He was over eighty, of course, and with a heart problem that had required major surgery. This latterly gave him a good excuse to sit down at receptions: all the better to conduct vigorous conversational campaigns while maintaining eye-contact, not least, at suitable intervals, with the wine waiter. And during his last couple of years he...

Thatcherism continues to cast its long shadow over British politics. At the general election Tony Blair explicitly claimed to be moving beyond Thatcherism and William Hague implicitly claimed to be moving back to it. During the campaign it was difficult to be sure what image best captured the brooding presence of the eponymous Lady. If she appeared to the Tory faithful as a painfully...

When the Guardian covered the recent Budget, it had a lot of fun unpacking the surprises sprung by Gordon Brown in the course of his demonstration that ‘all this prudence is for a purpose.’ The point was that his ‘updated Protestant work ethic’ offered rewards both for individuals and for the nation as a whole, in the form of tax cuts and increases in public spending. And the spectacle of this fiscal relaxation was so piquant precisely because ‘no Chancellor since Stafford Cripps has taken more relish in donning a hairshirt.’ The survival of this image is impressive. How many readers instinctively shivered or reached for their ration books? Not many under the age of 60, surely. Perhaps the near-homophone helps in ensuring that our flesh duly ‘creeps’; but the real Cripps is a largely forgotten figure today.‘

Sensitive and introspective persons keep a journal secure in the knowledge their secrets will never be exposed to public scrutiny. This was hardly why, in 1985, the former Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt began his diary. Sir Woodrow, having then served for nearly a decade as chairman of the Horserace Totalisator Board, had yet to reach his apotheosis with the life peerage that validated his sobriquet, Lord Toad of Tote Hall. Confidant of Margaret Thatcher, columnist in the News of the World, professional diner-out and social climber, Wyatt spotted his opportunity. His diary would be a secret but was, from the outset, intended for publication. Its rationale was as a nice little earner.

Can it be only eight years since Thatcher left 10 Downing Street? Since the tears were shed and the net curtains twitched? Historians of the Thatcher era in British politics are undoubtedly helped by the fact that it ended with both a bang and a whimper. The bang meant the precipitous termination of three notable political careers by 1990: that of Thatcher herself after the 20th century’s longest premiership; that of Geoffrey Howe, her lieutenant as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1979 to 1983, during the period of the so-called ‘Thatcher experiment’; and that of Nigel Lawson, who succeeded him at the Treasury from 1983 to 1989, during the period of the so-called ‘economic miracle’.‘

It may seem surprising that, within nine months of a famous election triumph, a government can look in such bad shape – its sense of purpose challenged by events and its supporter’ loyalty tested by unpalatable policy commitments. A particularly bitter personal twist is added when a prime minister, so recently hailed as the architect of victory, encounters increasingly open disparagement within his own party – not least from MPs owing their Westminster seats to his popular appeal. Or so John Major came to feel by the end of 1992. Tony Blair must be thankful that things are now working out so differently for his government, and that, having been elected as New Labour, it is finding it so easy to govern as New Labour, free of the ideological tensions, ministerial bungling, personal rivalries, sex scandals, financial sleaze and general bad publicity that dogged and doomed the Major Government.’

Someone Else, Somewhere Else

Peter Clarke, 13 November 1997

Decisions, decisions – when are we free of them? Decide to vote Labour, get excited, get bored. Decide to ride a motorbike, get drunk, get injured. Decide to go to university, get an education, get a good job. Decide to get married, start a family, get a mortgage – no problem with a good job (see above). Decide no more Labour-voting, no more drink-driving, no more risks. Decide on safe family holiday in Florida, get mugged. Decide to fly home, get killed in a plane crash. Some good decisions, some bad decisions; some highly predictable outcomes, some wildly unexpected consequences. With hindsight, it’s obvious which is which. Now and then we may devote a sententious moment to thanking our good judgment or good fortune that we decided to do the right thing – right because it worked out so happily. But we surely spend far more time in rueful contemplation of opportunities missed, or agonised remorse about good advice ignored, or, worse still, numb incomprehension over the best-laid plans that nonetheless went tragically agley.’

Balfour’s Ghost

Peter Clarke, 20 March 1997

Penguin published these three books simultaneously on 17 February: good timing, as it turned out, nicely anticipating the general election without being overtaken by it. Over the last half-century, Penguin have intermittently filled this kind of slot, beginning in 1947, when they commissioned the Labour MP John Parker and the Conservative MP Quintin Hogg, now Lord Hailsham, to produce books of a couple of hundred pages each. ‘When the manuscripts were received,’ the publishers were forced to reveal, ‘it was found that while Mr Parker had kept closely to the length suggested, Mr Hogg’s exposition had run to about double the size we had anticipated.’ The result was that readers had to choose between the economical Labour case at one shilling and Hogg’s Case for Conservatism at twice the price. The latter was also twice as good, it has to be admitted, and it is still worth picking up in a second-hand bookshop, where its price (I see that I paid 50p) has lagged behind inflation. Today, in the era of soundbite politics, Penguin keep to a standard hundred-odd pages from each contributor – half what Parker had, let alone Hogg – but it is enough.’

Smart Alec

Peter Clarke, 17 October 1996

He was famously (to use LRB-speak) a 14th earl, and this he essentially remained. He had inherited the title from his father, the 13th Earl, and lived at the ancestral family seat, the Hirsel, near Coldstream, to his death at the age of 92; whereupon he was duly succeeded by his son as 15th earl. Indeed, had the Peerage Bill of 1963 not been amended so as to provide that a hereditary peerage itself was not extinguished if the current peer decided to disclaim the title, the 14th Earl of Home would not have agreed to avail himself of the new procedure, even to become prime minister of the United Kingdom. There was too much at stake. The family’s old motto said it all: ‘A Home, a Home, a Home.’ Brought up to believe that there’s no place like it, no race like it, Alec would hardly have let the family down, amid the hubbub of a leadership contest which turned the coroneted head of another contender, the once and future Lord Hailsham, by unmasking him as nothing more than a professional politician out of the chorus line in Iolanthe.

So far, so-so

Peter Clarke, 6 June 1996

There is no time like the present for looking at the history of socialism. In Britain, the Labour Party stands poised to win office, maybe this year rather than next, and with a credible prospect of an electoral landslide on the scale of 1906 or 1945. Is it bliss to be alive in such a dawn? Is it very heaven to be a socialist? Not many avowed socialists behave like it. Of course they want to get the Tories out at long last, of course they want to be rid of the weak and wily Major, of course they would prefer to see Blair as prime minister. But this is the politics of pis aller, the grim strategy of the better ’ole, the weary realism of second-best options. The point hardly needs labouring that the old-time religion of socialism, which was good enough for generations of true believers, no longer seems quite good enough today. Of course, as in most faiths, there was always plenty of sectarian strife about the doctrine itself, with followers of different prophets passionately denouncing each other for backsliding and apostasy. Today, however, not only in Britain but throughout Western Europe, parties of the Left that once claimed the inspiration of a socialist vision have settled for the politics of accommodation as the price of survival. The mythology of the red flag has been replaced by the iconography of the rose in both France and Britain, while the Italian socialists settled on the carnation as the symbol of their reincarnation.

God’s Endurance

Peter Clarke, 30 November 1995

The most eminent of Victorians has at last received a biography which makes his extraordinary life accessible and comprehensible. It is, inevitably, a post-Stracheyan view of the Victorian era, marvelling at how different its assumptions were from those of the 20th century. But there is no snide debunking in Roy Jenkins’s biography. The Gladstone who emerges – temperamentally commanding, conversationally charming, intellectually erudite, theologically obsessed, morally priggish, sexually tormented, socially hierarchical, politically populist, administratively meticulous, oratorically thrilling, physically energetic, medically valetudinarian – is a remarkable man, as Jenkins affirms more than once. When Lloyd George once tried to convey to Clemenceau that Gladstone was simply a very great man, Bonar Law chipped in with the even simpler Tory view: ‘He was a very great humbug.’ Though Jenkins is wry and penetrating in peeling the Gladstonian onion of its infoliated layers of self-righteousness and self-deception, this is not an exercise in diminishing the Grand Old Man to a silly old man (or even a dirty old man).’


Peter Clarke, 21 September 1995

The troubles at the LSE go back a long way. Perhaps they began on the day in July 1894 when Henry Hutchinson shot himself, thus activating the terms of the will that he had made. A loyal if morose member of the Fabian Society from Derby, Hutchinson had stipulated that the bulk of his sizeable fortune – say a million in today’s money – should be applied by his executors ‘to the propaganda and other purposes of the said Society and its Socialism’. What he could hardly have anticipated was that Sidney Webb would use his position as an executor to deflect most of the money away from the obvious political uses that had been intended. George Bernard Shaw’s indignant account of a subsequent meeting of the Fabian executive, at which Webb ‘hinted that the bequest had been left to him to dispose of as he thought fit, and that the executive had nothing to do with it’, was not just Shavian hyperbole. His incredulity at the Fabians’ supine acceptance of some token Hutchinson Lectures, duly propagating socialism, at the price of Webb being allowed ‘to commit an atrocious malversation of the rest of the bequest’, was hardly unreasonable. But, as Beatrice Webb’s diary records, Sidney was already irrevocably committed to his own scheme: ‘His vision is to found, slowly and quietly, a “London School of Economics and Political Science” – a centre not only of lectures on special subjects, but an association of students who would be directed and supported in doing original work.’’


Peter Clarke, 6 July 1995

Whatever you think of Hardy, you have to admit that Jude the Obscure is one of the most gripping books ever written about university entrance requirements. For a novel about an equally unpromising subject, ‘the drama of English local government’, Winifred Holtby did pretty well with her bestseller South Riding in 1936. The prologue depicts a novice reporter in the press gallery: ‘His heart beat and his eyes dilated. Here, he told himself, was the source of reputations, of sanitoria, bridges, feuds, scandals, of remedies for broken ambitions or foot-and-mouth disease, of bans on sex novels in public libraries, of educational scholarships, blighted hopes and drainage systems.’ It’s an acquired taste, of course; but acquired early in life, it might lead anywhere. Look what happened to the daughter of Councillor Alfred Roberts of Grantham.

Why Do the Tories Always Have the Luck?

Peter Clarke, 23 February 1995

The Left has often looked to history for reassurance. It has sought to buttress its implicit faith in progress, of which history supposedly offered some kind of guarantee through simple extrapolation of trends. Even when historical experience queried straightline theories of progress as naive blueprints of perfectibility, the sophisticated left-wing alternative was often a squiggly-line theory of progress. When Hegel talked about the cunning of reason, when Darwin dwelt on the countless false trails in the tortuous path of natural selection, they were unwittingly providing concepts so elastic that they could stretch to a thousand short-term excuses. Setbacks were thus reinterpreted as temporary aberrations or explained away in hindsight as necessary detours. The Left has thus been comforted through many a season of adversity by a perversely indomitable sense that, in the long run, history was on its side – and numbers too, as part of the same inexorable process. Shelley’s seminal contribution to political statistics – ‘Ye are many, they are few’ – was another heartening reassurance that the forces of reaction and privilege, though still going strong as late as the 19th century, were ultimately doomed.’

Is Quebec Crying Wolfe?

Peter Clarke and Maria Tippett, 22 December 1994

After Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo, the former British colonies went to France. In due course, Australia was opened up by French settlement, with a British cultural residue which remained long after the new nation’s independence. Only in New South Wales did a British community survive in appreciable numbers. Sydney, to be sure, became impressively bilingual, with the French élite long occupying the smart area of the city; but the bulk of the Anglophone population remained monoglot and showed a stubborn resistance to assimilation. Cultural links with Britain were one way of maintaining a sense of identity, which easily spilled over into politically sensitive assertions of independence. Hence the enormous fuss when a visiting British leader publicly endorsed the separatist slogan, ‘Free New South Wales’.

Serial Evangelists

Peter Clarke, 23 June 1994

The most famous words Keynes wrote – apart from the ones pointing out that in the long run we are all dead – were the concluding sentences of the General Theory:

Having it both ways

Peter Clarke, 27 January 1994

‘Writing history is like W.C. Fields juggling,’ was how he put it. ‘It looks easy until you try to do it.’ In 1977, when this comment was first published, some younger readers may have asked themselves: W.C. Who? Typically, this was not a forced, would-be trendy allusion to current vogues of popular culture in the electronic media but an authentically personal image, implicitly framed in nostalgia. Nothing odd about that from an Oxford don now past his seventieth birthday, fiddling with his invariable bow tie, while steadily regarding the follies of the world with an unnervingly non-committal gaze through old-fashioned spectacles. Yet this was also the first telly-don, instantly recognised by a wider public than any historian before or since; a man who peddled his idiosyncratic views down-market through the columns of the popular press; the author of controversial works which made news as well as money. No one asked A.J.P. Who?

Here we go

Peter Clarke, 21 October 1993

So far the Nineties have given us the politics of bewilderment. It all began with John Major becoming Prime Minister, to his own apparent bewilderment, in November 1990; since when his performance has, by general consent, become increasingly bewildering. The Labour Party was bewildered to lose the General Election of 1992, which it had counted on winning. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, for whom the course of politics is constantly bewildering, felt lucky that the electoral system did not cheat them wholesale, just retail for once; and they saved themselves for a couple of bewilderingly spectacular by-election upsets in 1993. Do the Party Conferences herald the end of bewilderment? Have we reached a moment of truth in British politics?

Tale from a Silver Age

Peter Clarke, 22 July 1993

Time was when the leadership of the Tory Party passed smoothly and gracefully from one incumbent to the next, as the old leader, full of years and honours, felt moved to bow out and the new leader duly ‘emerged’. Behind the scenes, of course, it was often more tetchy, but appearances were decently kept up. No one supposed that Arthur Balfour, that inveterate political animal, was weary of politics when he pulled out in 1911, as he showed by insinuating himself into most of the Cabinets formed during the next twenty years. Like-wise, Austen Chamberlain’s displacement as Conservative leader in 1922 came as a rude shock. It was said that he always played the game and always lost it; having lost, his recriminations were private; in public he continued to play the game, in due course receiving the Foreign Office as a consolation prize.

Lawson’s Case

Peter Clarke, 28 January 1993

In a publishing season of big books, this must be the biggest. Nigel Lawson learned his trade as one of the ‘teenage scribblers’, whom he later disparaged, on the Financial Times. ‘The length that comes most naturally to me is, not surprisingly, that of a rather long newspaper article,’ he observes. His old skill in knocking out a story in a series of effective paragraphs has not deserted him, but here he has joined them up, story by story, each with its own sub-head, into no fewer than 81 chapters, not to mention fifty pages of annexes. The reason is evident. Since his resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1989, he has been left with a double burden: not only time hanging heavy on his hands but a mission to explain and to justify weighing equally heavy on his mind. And a good mind it is too. There is an impressive sense of intellectual engagement in this account which carries the flagging reader along, with incisive passages of real penetration redeeming the dense thickets of involuted detail in which we sometimes become trapped.

Maastricht or no Maastricht

Peter Clarke, 19 November 1992

When a Government loses the confidence of its own nominal supporters it is plainly in a bad way. There is a good deal of difference, however, between a chronic malady and a terminal collapse. The Maastricht vote was not the first crisis the Major Government has faced since its unnervingly recent electoral victory. Nor is it likely to be the last. But though these are disturbing symptoms, there are good reasons why they should be seen as debilitating rather than fatal, presaging Major’s decline rather than his fall.

Scoutmaster General

Peter Clarke, 24 September 1992

Where did it go wrong? How did it come unstuck? Here was the making of a gilt-edged, silver-spooned career in Labour politics, surely marked out for the leadership from an early stage. He was born with every advantage. Good-looking and good-natured, eloquent and earnest, well-educated and well-connected, Anthony Wedgwood Benn had the best of both worlds. Father was a radical Liberal MP who switched to Labour in the Twenties and ended up representing the Party in the House of Lords as the first Viscount Stansgate. The family lived at 40 Grosvenor Road, Westminster, next door to Sidney and Beatrice Webb. With his elder brother Michael, Anthony went to the local school (Westminster), and he grew up thinking that he might work locally too, just like his dad.

Baring his teeth

Peter Clarke, 25 June 1992

On 10 January 1957 the momentous news reached the family publishing house in St Martin’s Lane. ‘Mr Macmillan has just been made prime minister,’ his elder brother Daniel was told by an excited secretary. ‘No, “Mr Macmillan” has not been made prime minister,’ the chairman corrected her. ‘ “Mr Harold” has.’ Here, in a nutshell, is the theme of Richard Davenport-Hines’s book. Its early chapters form a heroic chronicle of upward social mobility. We first encounter an earlier Daniel Macmillan as a mid 18th-century crofter, scratching a living from the desolate but sublime landscape of the Isle of Arran. Next comes his only son, Malcolm, born on the bonny banks of Lochranza, the beauty of which inspired Sir Walter Scott to the curmudgeonly reflection that ‘wake where’er he may, man wakes to care and toil.’ So it proved with the Macmillans. Malcolm prospered though hard work on his poor land, becoming a tacks man, a kulak among crofters, who served as an elder of the Church of Scotland. His son Duncan, claimed by the revivalist preaching of the Baptists, was also a hard-working man who, according to his own son, ‘cared for nothing but his family – that is, did not care what toil he endured for their sakes.’ This was just as well, for he and his wife Katherine had no fewer than 12 children, though four of their daughters died tragically young in an epidemic which finally induced the family to forsake Arran. Their two younger sons deservedly get chapters to themselves in The Macmillans.’

Up the avenue

Peter Clarke, 11 June 1992

Don’t be put off by the title, since it’s only a laboured allusion to Cobbett’s Rural Rides, lacking the alliterative euphony of the original. What Edward Pearce of the Guardian offers is a record of his 19 days on the road during the General Election, visiting as many constituencies, each time in the company of a particular candidate, of varying party. There are glimpses of the circumstances of its composition at several points, including one gratuitous (I trust) advertisement for the delights of the Hark to Bounty Inn in Slaidburn, a fitting climax to the lyrical expedition across the Pennines from Richmond to Clitheroe. It’s nice to see that the author pulled in quite a lot of ‘countryside of the sort lucky not to have been stripped out and exported to Japan’. How different from his final slog from Birmingham to catch the count at Huntingdon, which evinces the comment that ‘a journey across west central and east central England by major road is best occupied reading proofs.’ So that’s how the book came into my hands within a week of polling day! If it’s more of a diary than a work of retrospective lucubration, it’s none the worse for that. This wasn’t the election for pundits to be wise after the event, given their failure to be wiser than the rest of us before it.

Hook and Crook

Peter Clarke, 15 August 1991

There was a message on the piece of paper which fluttered to the floor when someone opened the door of the Commander-in-Chief’s room: ‘Hooknoses’ D-Day – 29 Oct.’ Throughout the late summer and early autumn of 1956 there had been a build-up of British and French forces in the Mediterranean, following President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The possibility of military operations by the former imperialist masters of the region was the object alike of Egyptian propaganda and American concern. Nor did it take much imagination to foresee that Israel might characteristically conclude that aggression was the best form of self-defence. This opened up the possibility of a collision between the war plans of the anti-Egyptian powers. But whatever the Hooknoses were up to, how could General Sir Charles Keightley, as Allied Commander-in-Chief, apparently possess privileged knowledge of what was afoot? Had collision been averted by collusion? This shocking thought crossed the mind of Air Marshal Bennett, commander of the Air Task Force, as soon as he gained his inadvertent glimpse of the note on Keightley’s floor. ‘Christ,’ he thought, ‘you aren’t in some bloody awful hook-up, are you?’’

Who ruins Britain?

Peter Clarke, 22 November 1990

As the subtitle indicates, as the author tells us on the first page, and as he reminds us in the last chapter, ‘a simple question’ states the theme and explains the origin of Jeremy Paxman’s book: Who runs Britain? There are fitful efforts to generate a sense of mystery about the answer. Thus at the outset ‘the only serious answer’ is mooted in terms which invite suspicion that we might be in for a counter-intuitive disclosure later: ‘Exaggerated though her influence might be, the hand of Britain’s first female prime minister was seen behind everything from the management of industry to the appointment of professors.’ This turns out, however, to be a double-bluff, setting up the Iron Lady as a straw woman, only to have her high ferric valency confirmed by analysis. No whodunit, this book belongs in another popular genre which has taken up an awful lot of shelf-space in recent years – the shedunit. Margaret Thatcher’s paramountcy remains ‘the only plausible answer’ after more than three hundred pages which have tracked the experience of the Eighties. ‘Scarcely any of the great institutions remained untouched by Thatcherism in its various manifestations, and when even museums and opera houses are talking the language of the marketplace, there can be no doubting the depth of its influence.’ Paxman’s theme is how this irresistible force met a hitherto immovable object – the Establishment – and succeeded in denting it without, however, permanently replacing it.’

Into the sunset

Peter Clarke, 30 August 1990

It is odd how much decades matter. The Twenties evoke an unmistakable image of self-consciously post-war modernity and frivolity; the Thirties of ideological polarisation in the face of the twin challenge of depression and dictatorship; the Forties of plain living and high thinking about the world after Hitler; the Fifties of affluence and complacency and the end of ideology. Then there were the Sixties, swinging from the technocratic confidence of the Kennedy era – imported into Britain in the youthful Harold Wilson’s hand-baggage – through the unfolding of the permissive society, to the radical disillusion on the left associated with the Vietnam War. Quite a lot of this actually spilled over into the early Seventies, although they never became charged with the sort of visceral response memorably conveyed in Norman Tebbit’s dismissal of ‘the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of that third-rate decade, the 1960s’. And the Eighties? Already we seem to have turned a corner in the winter of 1989-90, which saw the virtually simultaneous collapse of two central, load-bearing pillars of Thatcherism: the Communist menace and the British economic miracle. In each case this was suddenly brought home in an impatient, insistent, irresistible, ultimately unanswerable manner.’

Diary: True or False?

Peter Clarke, 16 August 1990

True or false?

Diary: Labour’s Return

Peter Clarke, 28 June 1990

It got out some time ago that in politics the medium is the message. It did not take those sharp-suited men stalking the Labour Party headquarters in Walworth Road to discover the name of a game which was already familiar to Daniel O’Connell and William Ewart Gladstone, even if the apparatchiks’ own discovery of the name of the rose had to await the advent of the cordless telephone. They now speak of having provided suitable ‘packaging’ for a new and improved ‘product’. Marketing claims of this kind inevitably encounter diverse sorts of consumer resistance. Has Labour sold its birthright for a mess of potage, or a potted message, or is the medium now the massage? When Tony Benn describes the Party’s new policy document as ‘profoundly anti-Labour as well as being anti-socialist’, not to mention ‘wildly pro-European’, it is an endorsement which many social democrats will find tempting. For those of us who supported the foundation of the SDP in the early Eighties, a question which has steadily become more insistent since the last general election can no longer be ducked: what price the Return of the Prodigal?

Jews on horseback

Peter Clarke, 10 May 1990

He remains one of the great outsiders and rogues in British politics: a man who lived down his earlier reputation as a radical to bring his biting sarcasm to the service of the Tories, always able to command an appreciative audience, albeit one with greater relish for his wit than respect for his political judgment. So much for John Vincent, the brilliant author of The Formation of the Liberal Party who became the populist professor of the Thatcherite tabloid press. Whatever else he has lost in the process, it is not his ironic sense of humour, and in appraising one of Disraeli’s early bellelettrist fables, Vincent is nicely deadpan in quoting Jupiter’s comment on Apollo’s career as an editor: ‘for my part I should only be too happy to extinguish the Sun and every other newspaper were it only in my power.’

Seeing it all

Peter Clarke, 12 October 1989

Considering that they have rejoiced so often in wrapping themselves in the Union Jack, Tory governments have an inglorious record on defence. Churchill’s notorious entry in the index to The Gathering Storm (‘Baldwin, Stanley … confesses putting party before country’) may not have survived as an objective historical judgment, but even fifty years on, Britain’s preparations for the Second World War hardly look inspiring. The next long spell of Tory government in the Fifties saw Britain’s conventional forces run down without revealing how her nuclear capability, which was supposed to justify this, could be made plausible. It was Macmillan’s lot to discover that, when he could no longer rely on British technology, the American weapons on which the ‘independent’ deterrent had become dependent were equally liable to end up on the junk heap. The Thatcher Government proved incompetent to defend even the Falkland Islands, though its gambler’s throw in belated overcompensation for its negligence hit the political jackpot on the rebound. And yet Tory prime ministers from Balfour to Home have found an excuse for clinging to office in the contention that the defence of the homeland simply could not be entrusted to their political opponents.

When the pistol goes off

Peter Clarke, 17 August 1989

To the man in the street – especially an American street – he was in his day the most famous historian in the world. On 17 March 1947 the ultimate accolade was bestowed: his picture appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, currently selling 1,500,000 copies. For the editors, as they put it, ‘the story of Historian Toynbee and his work in progress was an unusual challenge and opportunity.’ The response was ‘overwhelming’, and not only from ‘professors of history, philosophy and anthropology, from deans of American colleges and universities, heads of public and private schools’, but also from the ‘governors of seven States’, reinforced by an unnumbered throng of ‘businessmen, Congressmen and just plain citizens’. Time’s genius had been to spot the arcane potential in an uncompleted work in six thick volumes which had been gathering dust since their pre-war publication by a university press.’

Is it a bird, is it a plane?

Peter Clarke, 18 May 1989

Sometimes in the London Review of Books I find the sort of review that grabs me by the throat: a review that bowls me over, staggers and stuns me, dazes and dumbfounds me, astounds and astonishes me – in short, exhausts the thesaurus to impress me no end (do wonders, work miracles, surpass belief, beggar all description and beat everything). Then again, in the New York Review of Books I sometimes discover this same dash and élan, this zest and vim, this fire and mettle, this fizz and verve, this pep and go, this vehemence and violence, this thrust and push and kick and punch. What livewire or quicksilver – dynamo or dynamite – can be responsible for such truly transatlantic triumphs? Is it a bird, is it a plane? Well, as often as not, it turns out to be David Cannadine – easily mistaken for a plane, of course, because, as he confides in this volume of collected reviews, ‘not a few were pondered and drafted in mid-air.’ Now that this brilliant brain has dramatically drained, from Christ’s College, Cambridge to Columbia, and has lingeringly looked on the Last of England from the Heathrow departure lounge, he leaves us with a welcome reminder of what we have lost – and of the fact, too, that this is surely not the last of Cannadine.’


Peter Clarke, 30 March 1989

Grandfather was John Wesley Lloyd, son of the Rev. John Lloyd from Llanidloes; after an education at Kingswood School, entry to which was restricted to the sons of Methodist ministers, he became a dentist and moved to Liverpool. His own son, also John Wesley Lloyd, was ineligible for Kingswood and sent therefore to the Methodist-inspired Leys School in Cambridge as the next best thing; he qualified in medicine but, like his eponymous father, became a Liverpool dentist – chapel-going, teetotal, Liberal. This textbook story of steady, unspectacular upward social mobility and incremental secularisation was illustrated by the family’s suburbanisation, with the transfer of the dental practice from the city to the Wirral, first as a summer adjunct, but latterly as the main family home. It was here that Dr Lloyd’s third child and only son was born in 1904. Naturally he wished the boy to be christened John Wesley: but his Anglican wife had other ideas, and they settled on an appropriately Low Church compromise – Selwyn.’

Starting up

Peter Clarke, 6 November 1986

Ramsay MacDonald christened it an ‘economic blizzard’, suggesting that the world slump of 1929-32 was an Act of God which his hapless Labour Government could not be expected to have foreseen or averted, much less mastered. John Maynard Keynes, by contrast, reached for a mechanical metaphor appropriate to the current state of the art. ‘We have magneto trouble,’ he wrote in December 1930. ‘How, then, can we start up again?’ Keynesian policies, at the time and subsequently, were presented as a magic toolkit which could not only patch up the machine but, with fine tuning, keep it running smoothly so as to develop maximum horsepower. In the enlightened post-war world, nearly everyone swore by the magic toolkit: then, faced with an old-fashioned breakdown, they swore at it.

Enemies Within

Peter Clarke, 7 February 1985

The showing of the SDP in the last General Election cannot entirely be explained on the supposition that it enjoyed widespread support from readers of the LRB, but they have as much right as anyone to know what has happened to it since. Let us begin by acknowledging that it is not yet a fit subject for ‘Where are they now?’ and to that extent things could be much worse. The strong popular vote for the Alliance – nearly two-thirds of the Tory poll and virtual parity with Labour – might have been the end of the road. The miserable Parliamentary representation of the SDP might have been enough to stifle it. At the time this unanswerably demonstrated the grotesque anomalies of our electoral system, and it still takes a bit of explaining to incredulous foreigners: but the presence of nearly ten times as many Labour members in Parliament inevitably handicaps the Alliance in presenting itself as an alternative opposition. Twelve months ago, while Neil Kinnock was enjoying his brief ascendancy in an aura of sweetness and light, the Labour Party relapsed into its know-nothing strategy for seeing off the Alliance: scorn and vituperation until it simply went away.’

What Keynes really meant

Peter Clarke, 19 April 1984

The centenary of Keynes’s birth in 1883 has come and gone. Last year saw the opportune publication of Robert Skidelsky’s much-heralded new biography – or at least of its first volume, which does not get further than 1920. It is a formidable work, designed to out-Harrod Harrod, which will be an unparalleled source for those interested in the rise of the junior clerk in the Military Department of the India Office and his extra-departmental interests. ‘Yes,’ he affirmed to his friend Lytton Strachey, ‘I am a clerk in the India Office – having passed the medical with flying colours, balls and eyesight unusually perfect they said.’ It is, as it happens, after 1920 that Keynes’s career acquires more interest for those concerned with other parts of his anatomy, especially what was happening inside his head – a story that remains to be told.–

Burrinchini’s Spectre

Peter Clarke, 19 January 1984

Time was when Clio had a seamless garment: but that was before the division of labour set in. Prefixless history is now condescendingly thought of as ‘straight’ history and her clothes have been stolen and shared out by her offspring, with continual squabbles over who wears the trousers. Intellectual history was tardy in asserting its separate identity and still has trouble in getting recognised – what is it, after all, but the history of intellectuals, by intellectuals, for intellectuals? One merit of That Noble Science of Politics is that it yields an answer to this question. Its subtitle proclaims it a study in intellectual history, and its authorship exemplifies the unity and coherence of the art.–

By the time the sun is up on Friday 10 June we shall all be a lot wiser – and sadder too, quite likely. Either we shall have found out that the Iron Lady is impregnable or she herself will have been found out. Margaret Thatcher is the favourite politician of those who like an exciting life. Her maxim in politics – she has claimed it as Thatche’s Law – is that the unexpected always happens. Certainly something always happens when she is around, and it is often something nasty. Yet she seldom takes the blame when things turn out badly. It is not just that she has been lucky in escaping the natural consequences of her own misjudgments: her impregnability rests upon a sort of ideological second-strike capacity which has enabled her to find vindication in discomfiture.–

First past the post

Peter Clarke, 17 February 1983

It is notorious that all societies manifest some sense of their history as part of their own collective self-consciousness. The past is drawn upon selectively, compounding nationhood, cultural heritage, class identity or historical destiny in the creation of a necessary myth. The myth may be necessary in order to fortify the ambitions of the restless, to gratify the complacency of the satisfied or to console the amour-propre of the dispossessed. The functions of the past, in this sense, are governed by the needs of the present. Much general interest in history arises in this way, explicitly or implicitly, and historians would be less widely read if they did not cater for it. Yet their own professional concerns, so they disdainfully affirm, are otherwise.

A Time for War

Peter Clarke, 21 October 1982

The SDP is just now at a critical juncture in its career. But then it has been at one critical juncture or another virtually throughout its brief existence. As much as the Labour Party, it has lived for two years in a state of endemic crisis, but whereas crisis has reinforced Labour’s chronic debility, so far the SDP has been able to thrive upon it. Roy Jenkins talked of an experimental aircraft in adumbrating the idea of a centre party in the early summer of 1980: a ‘dangerously caricaturable analogy’, as he admits in a retrospective comment in The Rebirth of Britain. He said then that it ‘might well finish up a few fields from the end of the runway’. At the time he was looked at askance by many social democrats within the Labour Party (people like me, as I readily admit) for supposing that there would be so much as a runway. Within a year, however, we had all strapped our safety belts, magnificently unprepared for life after take-off. Actually, it was called a ‘launch’ by then, and we realised that we were in for a heady but stomach-churning diet of mixed metaphors for some time to come.

Can Maynard Keynes do it?

Peter Clarke, 3 June 1982

‘The question what Keynes would be advocating today is, of course, a nonsense question.’ So Lord Kahn warned us in a brilliant lecture in 1974, invoking Keynes’s propensity – ‘apart from the fact that he would be 91 years old’ – to develop new answers for new questions, rather than to make a fetish of consistency. The impact of Keynes’s thought has nonetheless suffered many attempts to encapsulate it within a cut-and-dried formula. In the 1950s and 1960s it was usually the redeemer theory, whereby Keynes was held to have supplied us with a box of tricks uniquely guaranteed to ensure permanent prosperity. When the long post-war boom, of which he was allegedly the ‘onlie begetter’, was succeeded in the 1970s by the disconcerting phenomenon of stagflation, the devil theory caught on, whereby Keynes was in turn arraigned as the architect of our misfortunes. A further variant was to say God is Dead, suggesting that the Keynesian revolution was a comprehensively over-inflated promise of general salvation from what turned out to be the peculiar and transient difficulties of one offshore island at an awkward corner in its history.

Crossman and Social Democracy

Peter Clarke, 16 April 1981

The intellectual in politics has often been tortured by the dilemma of his role. Either he has attempted to turn himself into a real politician, adopting the posture of his new travelling companions as men of action and decision, and jettisoning his bookish lumber as ‘not wanted on voyage’. Alternatively, he has minced around like a political eunuch, uneasily conscious that something is missing, but anxious that people should not suspect that it is his integrity. The career of Richard Crossman refuted these stereotypes rather in the manner that Samuel Johnson, by stubbing his foot against a rock, claimed to refute Berkeley: what was lost as a formal exercise was pure gain as an object lesson. For Crossman remained incorrigibly attached to the habits and training of an academic milieu without ever forgetting that it was as an intellectual in politics that he had a peculiar usefulness.

History’s Revenges

Peter Clarke, 5 March 1981

It is doubly true these days that the experts are the last people we can rely on. We rely on them because the compartmentalisation of knowledge in every field means that they are the only guides left. The last people, however, because they have retreated into their specialised enclaves, content to communicate with each other rather than a lay public. It never was any use putting a mathematician on the spot for a nimble piece of mental arithmetic. Likewise, if you want to know the time, the day is long gone when you could ask a policeman. We have now reached the stage when it is impossible to get a straight answer out of so humble a practitioner as a historian. ‘Not my period’ has become proverbial as an attempt to pass off ignorance as professionalism. So where can we get the facts? Historians are voracious consumers of reference works and it is wholesome that they should occasionally produce volumes like these, serving common needs in an unpretentious way.

The light that failed

Peter Clarke, 18 September 1980

There is sometimes rather a fine distinction between a paradox and a fallacy. It has often been remarked upon as a paradox that, in the great age of British expansion during the Industrial Revolution, the classical economists, especially Ricardo, should have taken such a dim view of the prospects for economic growth. But what if it can be demonstrated that this is a misreading of what Ricardo meant about the natural progression towards a stationary state? Such a revision is, in fact, one achievement of Maxine Berg’s exemplary study. By putting Ricardo’s contentions in context she offers a truly historical account of his thought, which shows that his model of ‘natural tendencies’ was a counterfactual or limiting case, intended precisely to identify the avenues of escape. One way out was via foreign trade. The other was via technical change.

It is odd that Lytton Strachey did not manage to strike up much fellow-feeling for Prospero. In an essay of 1904 on Shakespeare’s final period we find the puncturing remark (uncharacteristic of later deflationary measures only in the diffidence of the opening phrase): ‘To an irreverent eye, the ex-Duke of Milan would perhaps appear as an unpleasantly crusty personage, in whom a twelve years’ monopoly of the conversation had developed an inordinate propensity for talking.’ Yet Strachey shared with the ex-Duke a notable penchant for working his designs by command over light and air. The specific illuminating detail and the general atmospheric effect constituted his medium. Deadly in observation, lively in exposition, his biographical portraits made an irresistible impression upon his contemporaries.

Whipping the wicked

Peter Clarke, 17 April 1980

‘Most of the great positive evils of the world,’ John Stuart Mill asserted in 1863, ‘are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced to within narrow limits.’ This sort of confidence in the reality and efficacy of progress now seems to set the 19th century distinctively apart from our own. In calling his study of Victorian Liberalism The Optimists Ian Bradley seeks to make good a more specific claim. He is writing about Liberalism with a big L – the creed of the British Liberal party as expressed by its leading politicians, publicists and men of ideas. And of all these men, it is the Grand Old Man who uniquely commands attention, the pre-eminence with which he awed his contemporaries hardly diminished with the passing of time. It still seems slightly presumptuous not to refer to him as Mr Gladstone. Like Dr Johnson, Colonel House, or Professor Joad, he has laid peculiar claim from beyond the grave to a conventional style of address.

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