Saturday, February 17, 2007


Young Cabinets Today…

‘Where have all the big beasts gone?’ asked Stephen Tall the other day, bemoaning the lack of substantial figures in the Labour Party beyond Gordon and Tony and summoning in aid the impressive politicians around the Cabinet tables of Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher. On the face of it this sounds persuasive: I have to agree that Mr Blair’s Cabinet are nonentities, and neither are there swathes of impressive Labour figures outside it. I wonder, though, if this isn’t one of those questions like ‘aren’t young people today a terrible let-down?’ that have been getting the same answer since Plato. Was Mr Wilson’s government unusual in having people that are actually remembered, or is this a genuine change? If it is, I think it came in before Mr Blair: surely it was Mrs Thatcher’s dominance that destroyed the ‘big beasts’ under her (or was it the media spotlight on ‘gaffes’ that annihilated free-thinkers?).

Stephen quotes Adrian Hamilton of The Independent and seems to go along with him in conflating the Thatcher-Major governments into one, but at the time Mr Major’s definitely felt like the fag-end rather than the big cigar of politics. My abiding memory of Mr Major’s Cabinet is that they were such nonentities even Spitting Image couldn’t think how to distinguish them and had to make a joke about it. ‘Which one’s Norman Lamont,’ they ask each other round the Cabinet table. ‘I thought it was you!’ he says to, oh, one of the other ones. I forget. The problem is solved with an innovation picked up from the table: Norman is the one with a yoghurt pot on his head. I may remember him because of singing in the bath and Edith Piaf, but not for his intrinsic charisma or intelligence; similarly, I can remember David Mellor for the unkind headlines about sex, but none of his political achievements, if he had any.

But as far as Mr Major’s Cabinet went, by then the Tories had… Who? Surely not Mr Hurd, whether he was deluded enough to think he could run for the top job or not (just look at the field for Labour Deputy; you can’t take the orange-hued apostate seriously, for example, merely because he’s running). Kenneth Clarke was an impressive figure, but Michael Heseltine already seemed a self-parodying anachronism, and – unlike scary, messianic Mr Blair, to give him his due – even the Prime Minister seemed over-promoted. And that was, as Conrad Russell used to point out, when he reached the giddy heights of junior minister at the DSS.

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If you think this is startlingly brief for me, you’re right. The secret is that it started life as a comment for Stephen’s blog, but I faffed around too long before posting and thought I’d better put it on mine instead ;-)
I certainly agree that Hamilton's article is slightly guilty of over-nostalgia.

But, still, if you look at the figures from the Wilson years - Crossman, Crosland, Benn, Williams, Jenkins, Shore, Castle, Callaghan, Foot, Healy - they do seem to be more substantial figures.

Agree about Major's government by the end - there were some exceptions: Heseltine, Patten, Clarke, and Hurd - all substantial figures.

When New Labour's history is written the substantial figures will be those from the 1997 victory: Blair, Brown, Cook, perhaps Dewar. Blunkett and Prescott would once have been in the list too.
Thanks for replying without faff! Yes, I admitted that Mr Wilson’s choices – or perhaps the pool from which he had to choose – were more impressive. I think you’re right on Robin Cook and Donald Dewar, too, though Mr Blunkett always struck me as just a bully. John Prescott is more complex; there was a point in the ’90s where he seemed to have a bit of courage and direction to him, but his ministerial grip has been lousy. Noticeably, all of them rose before Mr Blair’s ascendancy.

There was a millipede that was a ‘big beast’ on tonight’s Primeval… But you could tell it wasn’t real.

On the other hand, I found it difficult to take Douglas Hurd seriously even at the time, and his lucrative friendship with and apologism for middle-European war criminals since hasn’t raised him any higher in my esteem. His having written novels wins a few more points for having a mind of his own, but they probably weren’t as exciting as Woy’s Gladstone.

Did the Labour Party in the 1960s just have an amazing amount of talent at the top? If so, how come they didn’t do a better job of it? Alternatively, if there’s been a change since, say, the 1970s, what’s it down to? Is it over-mighty, long-running Prime Ministers under whose shadow independent thought wilts? Is it the tendency of parties to impose firmer control over their MPs? Is it because MPs are very much busier now than they used to be – not necessarily in Parliament, but in their constituency responses and responsibilities – and they don’t have time to think, write and set out alternative views? Does Parliament no longer attract people with breadth of vision? And I think it’s pretty clear that otherwise talented politicians just keep their mouths shut because otherwise the media will pounce on every interesting thought as a career-ending ‘gaffe’.
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