Ed Miliband’s new populism doesn’t have to end with energy prices | Jonathan Freedland

From banks to railways, even welfare and immigration, Labour can go much further and still keep the public onside

An iron law of politics has been broken. The rulebook states clearly that if traditional Labour red meat is gobbled up inside the conference hall, the electorate watching from afar will start to gag. For at least three decades that has been the received wisdom, accepted by Labour luminaries along with the rest of the political class: if it tickles Labour's erogenous zone, then it's too leftwing for the country.

But that was before Ed Miliband's proposed 20-month freeze on energy bills. It sent the Brighton conference hall into convulsions of ecstasy, of course, but it also received an "off the charts" welcome from the public. Indeed, it's had the Conservatives and their allies reeling in rare confusion as they head to their own clan gathering in Manchester. Usually the Tories can cheerfully brand any Labour move leftward as a doomed journey into electoral Siberia: what should they say now, when Ed's hint of red is unarguably popular?

It prompts an intriguing thought: if using the state to rein in the energy behemoths finds favour with the voters, what other left ideas might be popular? Can Miliband repeat his success and craft a populism of the left?

If populism often comes down to channelling public anger against a perceived elite, there is plenty of rich terrain for Labour to explore, much of it in the same area exploited so adroitly this week. The party's former pollster, Deborah Mattinson, says that any action against the banks, widely loathed since the crash of 2008, remains an automatic vote-winner. It seems there is not a spending measure yet invented that cannot be sold to the public, so long as it is funded by a levy on bankers. Meanwhile, the corporate giants exposed for paying next to no tax – Starbucks, Amazon, Google and the like – have also made "hitting big business very popular".

The polling suggests that Miliband could go much further and still keep the public onside. Forget a mere freeze on bills followed by a "reset" of the broken energy market: 69% of the public want to see the energy companies renationalised. A similar number would like the railways back in public hands. Any action on petrol prices would enjoy huge approval: along with home heating, it's the daily cost voters complain of most. While he's at it, Miliband can draw comfort from the knowledge that a 50p top rate of tax commands 68% support, with equal enthusiasm for Labour's proposed mansion tax on £2m-plus properties.

All of this would be both in Labour's comfort zone and popular. What, though, of those areas where Labour's instincts apparently diverge from the public's – tough matters such as welfare or immigration? Surely on those, it is only Ukip and the Tories who can play the populist card? Not necessarily.

Start with welfare – or, as Labour would need to rebrand it, social security. The Conservatives see this as Labour's prime weakness: why not play Tory bingo in Manchester, counting up how often Labour is dubbed "the welfare party". It's a George Osborne-Lynton Crosby favourite, knowing it fits with a focus-group perception of Labour as the layabouts' champion. Yet Labour need not resign itself to this fate. There could be a way to make its own views connect, even here, with the public's. Presentation makes a difference: emphasising children who need help is always powerful, as is highlighting the plight of people with disabilities, central to the effective campaign against the bedroom tax. But it's not enough.

Nick Pearce, the one-time head of the Downing Street policy unit who now runs the IPPR thinktank, offers a reminder that state provision of, say, education, health and pensions remains hugely popular: "The collective approach still resonates with people." Britons still recoil from a world in which it's every man for himself: the challenge is to extend that impulse to those who have fallen on hard times, those currently branded "skivers". Pearce suggests a crucial step is giving welfare provision an institutional embodiment. People do not resent paying for education and health because they can see schools and hospitals with their own eyes. Income transfers that show up as digits on a bank account don't have the same emotional power. Labour got it right this week, says Pearce, by ensuring its increase in childcare provision will come through neighbourhood children's centres rather than by giving parents more in tax credits. Tangible services run by people you get to know – local institutions – trump mere benefits every time. The public will grow attached to, even come to love, the former, but can eventually despise the latter.

Still, that does not get to the heart of the matter. Public frustration with welfare mostly centres on unfairness, the sense that some people are getting something for nothing. The remedy here surely lies in what Labour's thinkers call reciprocity, or the contributory principle: reasserting the ethos that underpinned the long-gone mutual and co-operative societies that paved the way for Labour – ensuring that what you get out relates to what you put in. This way, when a woman over 50 gets laid off, she can expect more help, reflecting the fact that she's been paying into the kitty for longer than most. Jon Cruddas, Liam Byrne and others around Labour's top table are keen on just such an approach: Miliband himself, it seems, is wary, believing that it's someone's need, not their past contribution history, that should determine how much they get.

Immigration is similar, starting with, among other feelings, that same fear of unfairness: why are these people able to come here and enjoy a health service I have been paying into all my life? Labour needs to acknowledge that anger, but then speak to other instincts that are just as popular. The Blue Labour grouping recently did some provisional "paradoxical polling" which produced fascinating results, suggesting exactly where a left populist sweet spot might lie. Large numbers were ready to describe themselves as, for example, "pro-business but anti-bank" or "pro-European but anti-EU", to say nothing of "pro-worker but anti-union". Importantly, they also said they were "pro-immigrant, but anti-immigration".

That could be the cue for a campaign arguing that "the NHS would collapse without immigration: we need the doctors and nurses who have come here to work for it", a proposition that enjoys 52% support. Next would come the attempt, there in Miliband's Tuesday speech, to reframe the immigration issue as one chiefly about a labour market so deregulated it's become ripe for exploitation, channelling people's anger away from migrants themselves towards the "shady gangmasters" who make their lives a misery and keep wages down.

There are similar moves possible on patriotism or crime. It doesn't mean parroting the mantras of the right, but rather finding that place where Labour beliefs and public attitudes meet. For years, left populism would have seemed like an oxymoron in Britain. The Tory-supporting press still want that to be true. But this was the week they began to worry they might be wrong.

Twitter: @Freedland


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The Unknown Maggie

Published in the New York Review of Books September 26, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands

by Charles Moore
Knopf, 859 pp., $35.00

1.

In the more than seven hours set aside for parliamentary tributes to Margaret Thatcher in April this year, only one member of the House of Commons dared to speak unabashedly ill of the just dead. Glenda Jackson, the actress who won two Oscars and then traded Hollywood for the lesser theater of Westminster, delivered a scorching attack on the Conservative former prime minister who had led Britain from 1979 to 1990. This anti-eulogy, more memorable than any other act in Jackson’s less than stellar political career, culminated in her response to Labour colleagues who had felt they ought to pay tribute to Thatcher’s achievement in becoming Britain’s first woman prime minister. “A woman? Not on my terms.”

Chris Ware/Hulton Archive/Getty Images - Chris Ware/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Margaret Thatcher studying a parliamentary reference book with a colleague during her first political campaign, for the seat of Dartford, Kent, January 1950

Chris Ware/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Margaret Thatcher studying a parliamentary reference book with a colleague during her first political campaign, for the seat of Dartford, Kent, January 1950

In this, the MP was picking up a thread familiar to those who lived through the turbulent Thatcher decade of the 1980s, a period that was, like Thatcher herself, both conservative and revolutionary. Veterans of that era remember the satirical TV show Spitting Image, which rendered the politicians of the moment as foam puppets. The baritone-voiced Thatcher was shown in a pinstripe suit, often barking instructions over her shoulder to quivering underlings as she stood, legs apart, at a urinal. She was seen as a man in all but name. In similar vein, Edward Heath, who never forgave Thatcher for ousting him as Tory party leader in 1975 and maintained a decades-long froideur that became known as “the incredible sulk,” once said, “It’s a matter of opinion whether you think she’s a woman or not.”

Charles Moore, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph handpicked by Thatcher to write her authorized biography—and given access to previously undisclosed papers, friends, colleagues, and, in many hours of interviews, the Lady herself—has no patience for such doubts. He insists throughout this fluent, forensically detailed first volume of what will surely become the definitive account that his subject’s “sex”—the word he prefers over the presumably too Guardian-ish “gender”—is the key to understanding her character and her career. After the Lady’s funeral he wrote:

In understanding another person, one must never neglect the obvious. Once, she took me aside and whispered, “You know what’s the matter with Helmut Kohl?” I didn’t. “He’s a German!” she revealed. I laughed at this absurdity. Yet as I review my biographical subject, I ask myself, “You know what is the key to Margaret Thatcher?” and I answer, “She was a woman.”1
He supplies ample evidence to show how Thatcher’s being a Mrs. rather than a Mr. altered the course of events. She was able to wrest the party leadership from Heath partly because he underestimated her. “He was so surprised at the idea of being challenged by a woman, and found it so distasteful and disloyal, that he could not quite face it or work out how to deal with it,” Moore writes. Later, cabinet colleagues, restless or disgruntled, found themselves similarly at sea. Officials likened Foreign Secretary Francis Pym to Lewis Carroll’s dormouse, overawed by the mighty Queen. He would become flustered and inarticulate in her presence. “Pym was probably one of those men, quite common in his generation, who hated arguing with a woman, and found Mrs. Thatcher intimidating.”

Moore speculates that even the Irish Republican Army lost its footing when confronting a female antagonist, initiating the 1981 hunger strikes by republican prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maze jail partly because it calculated, wrongly as it turned out, that Thatcher would eventually buckle, “perhaps because she was a woman.” In 1979, her advisers recommended she refuse presidential-style TV debates in her campaign against Labour incumbent James Callaghan because, “if she had won, that would have been a woman humiliating a man, and this would have been unsettling for many male voters.”

Moore makes a persuasive case that, whatever Jackson or Heath might say, plenty of those Thatcher encountered, overwhelmingly men, struggled to see her as anything but a woman. François Mitterrand famously declared that the British leader had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe,” while his predecessor, the high-born Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, could not shake the memory of his children’s English nanny:

She was very correct, very tidy, with a very neat hairdo. She was efficient, religious, always opening the windows, especially when the children were ill; rather tiresome. When I met Mrs. Thatcher, I thought “She is exactly the same, exactly the same!”
For quite a few men, not all of them predictable, their most immediate response to Thatcher was sexual. After a party arranged so that the prime minister might meet a dozen leading British writers, the novelist Anthony Powell reported: “I did some market research as to whether people find her as attractive as I do and all, including Vidia [Naipaul], were in complete agreement.” Moore adds that Philip Larkin was similarly smitten, the poet remarking that “very few people are both right and beautiful.” Kingsley Amis was another admirer, while David Owen, the rather dashing doctor who had served as Callaghan’s foreign secretary, is quoted telling the journalist Brian Walden, “The whiff of that perfume, the sweet smell of whisky. By God, she’s appealing beyond belief.”

The incorrigible Tory MP, sometime government minister, and diarist Alan Clark told Moore, “I don’t want actual penetration—just a massive snog.” The author concludes that “a significant factor in Mrs. Thatcher’s political success was that quite large numbers of men fell for her.” If so, it suggests that Henry Kissinger’s oft-cited declaration that power is the greatest aphrodisiac applies equally to both men and women.

It also undermines the Glenda Jackson view of Thatcher as essentially sexless. So too does the find that probably counts as Moore’s freshest discovery, a cache of letters from the young Margaret to her older sister Muriel. These flesh out the earliest chapters, in which the bright, ambitious daughter of a provincial grocer simultaneously chafes against and learns at the feet of her strict, devoutly Methodist father. Established early is the complex and contradictory relationship Thatcher would come to have with British tradition, at once zealously deferential to it and desperate to shake off (some of) its stifling weight and usher in the new.

Still, the letters to Muriel are remarkably free of politics. Instead, even when the epic events of wartime rage around her, Margaret Roberts is usually most exercised by the pressing matter of what to wear. “Mrs. Prole has made me a smaller black velvet hat with a white ostrich feather on it and it looks very charming. Not so dressy as the green cock feathers—much more a hat for any occasion.” Moore quotes dozens of letters in this vein, also dwelling at length on his subject’s first romantic involvements, usually with men substantially older than her. Partly his motive is the understandable one of any biographer given first access to new material: he’s got it, so he wants to use it. But it’s clear he is also out to explode the Spitting Image once and for all, to confirm how very feminine was the first female prime minister.

Plenty of feminist readers will readily cede this point, insisting that what matters more is Thatcher’s record on what might loosely be called women’s rights. Here the mountain the Thatcher defender has to climb is steep. In all the cabinets she formed, scores of appointments over eleven and a half years, Thatcher only ever selected one woman to sit at the top table. That single, low-profile exception apart, Thatcher surrounded herself with men. She was regularly accused of pulling the ladder up behind her, of being unsisterly. In Thatcher’s Britain, Richard Vinen’s crisp primer on the period, we learn that the Lady was adamant that she was no feminist and once told a TV studio audience of children:

I think most of us got to our own position in life without Women’s Lib…[which], I think, has been rather strident, concentrated on things which don’t really matter and, dare I say it, being rather unfeminine. Don’t you think that? What do the girls think, don’t you think Women’s Lib is sometimes like that?2
But Moore has some unexpected, countervailing evidence. In the first stages of her career, as a candidate in the 1950s, an MP in the 1960s, and a minister in the 1970s, Thatcher repeatedly spoke as a woman, voicing what would now be deemed at least a version of feminism, albeit of the high-flying, having-it-all variety. In 1960 she wrote a newspaper article under the headline “I Say a Wife Can Do Two Jobs.” In 1952, in an article titled “Wake Up, Women,” she made the case for the “career woman,” insisting that such a person need not be “hard” or unfeminine, but would “be a much better companion at home.” She called for the removal of “the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places,” asking her readers, “Why not a woman Chancellor—or Foreign Secretary?” In the Commons and as a junior minister she spoke up against aspects of tax or benefit policy that discriminated against women. When she made her first extended trip to the US, she specifically asked to meet “some women members of the Congress.” Against type, Moore writes of this period that “Mrs. Thatcher was working to what would now be called an agenda, and it was a feminist one.”

If that was indeed the case, Thatcher’s feminist impulse seems to have faded as her career advanced and as she proved that she at least could succeed in a man’s world. The volume ends with a victory dinner following the Falklands conflict of 1982. There had been no room for spouses, who were invited only to after-dinner drinks in the drawing room. This meant Thatcher was the sole woman present at the main event. After her speech and the subsequent toasts, the prime minister rose in her seat and said, “Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?” Moore thinks this “may well have been the happiest moment of her life.”

Even so, the larger point stands: Thatcher’s gender is central to her story, central to what we might call her myth. Strong female leadership exerts quite a hold on the British, and especially English, folk memory. From Boudicca to Elizabeth I to Victoria, those few women who have sat at the apex have earned a lasting place in the national consciousness, one achieved by few of their male counterparts. This myth-making habit is in full swing again now with the current queen: witness the West End hit The Audience, which projects Elizabeth II as a paragon of preternatural wisdom and constancy.

This, it seems, is what the British do to their female leaders, making it plausible that the Thatcher legend—which this book certainly does its best to foster, explicitly ranking her alongside Henry VIII, Admiral Nelson, and Winston Churchill—will endure. As Moore points out, Thatcher became, with the Falklands, “the first female war leader with executive power in the British Isles since Elizabeth I.” The all-but-state funeral granted to her, an honor accorded to no prime minister since Churchill, was an attempt to put aside the fact that she had been one of the most divisive figures in recent British history and to seal her place in the pantheon of the greatest Britons. If that effort succeeds, it will in no small part be owing to the fact that Thatcher was a woman.

 

2.

Less obviously, Margaret Thatcher’s story was also about class. In this, she broke no new barrier: Heath had come from stock similar to her own, the grocer displaced by the grocer’s daughter. But both her appeal and her impact were always bound up with class. Of course, that was most obvious when she unleashed what felt at the time like a class war, setting out to crush the trade union movement that had represented Britain’s industrial working class for more than a century. That battle, however, is beyond the reach of this volume, which ends in 1982—before the fateful, year-long strike by coal miners that would become the defining contest of Thatcherism.

Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos - Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, London, December 1987Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, London, December 1987

Also glimpsed rather than fully realized in this first volume is the extent to which Thatcher would become the champion of the middle class, the English (as opposed to British) middle class in particular. Her later privatizations of state-owned industries, in which shares in British Gas or British Telecom were sold to individual citizens who had never owned shares before, and her granting to tenants of public housing the right to buy their homes—all this was aimed squarely at the middle class. She called it a “crusade” to spread “popular capitalism” and it was derided by both the Labour Party and trade unions, at one end of the class spectrum, and by the aristocratic, landowning Tory old guard at the other. Speaking for the latter group, the patrician former PM Harold Macmillan would later come to the defense of the striking miners—whom he called “the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies”—and condemn the program of denationalization as akin to selling off the family silver.

All this is yet to come, but the ground is laid in this first book. Moore evokes well Thatcher’s upbringing, her councilman father instilling in his daughter his shopkeeper’s ethos of hard work, frugality, and patriotism alongside regular doses of provincial, pursed-lip disapproval for those considered outside the norm. Years later she would regularly present herself as a prudent housewife, claiming to apply the same principles of middle-class common sense to the national economy as she would to a domestic budget. In this, she was not only drawing on her childhood but implicitly drawing a contrast with the cushioned, and therefore out-of-touch, landed elite that had dominated Tory politics for centuries.

The result is that class is a constant undertone in Moore’s book. Every new character is introduced with a footnote, each of these beginning with a reference to where that person went to school: not university, but the school he or she attended as a child. This is doubly telling. First, that such information is included at all speaks volumes about the place of class in British life and schooling’s role as a measure of it. (Biographers of US presidents would not even think to mention such a thing about their story’s minor players.) Second, the pattern is striking. We soon see that the overwhelming majority of the diplomats, mandarins, and Conservative politicians Thatcher encountered were educated at exclusive, fee-paying schools: Eton, Harrow, Sherborne, Rugby, Winchester. Usually it was only her Labour enemies who went to lower-status, state-funded schools. Accordingly, the second chapter of the book is entitled “Scholarship Girl,” putting Margaret Roberts exactly in her place: talented enough to break through on her merits, but needing subsidy to compensate for her lowly origins.

This matters beyond its value as social anthropology. It partly explains Thatcher’s success. She had a drive lacking in the languid, complacent Tory men she sought to overtake. She surpassed all rivals in 1975 partly because she, unlike them, did not believe she was born to rule: she knew she had to earn it, through effort and force of personality. If many professional women believe they must be twice as good as any man to advance, then the scholarship girl knew she had to be twice as good again.

Class added an extra layer of tension to her dealings with her own party. The battle of Wets versus Dries loomed large in her first term, pitting those who sought government intervention and spending to combat recession against the fiscal hawks. It ran partly on class lines. Wets looked to the aristocratic Macmillan or the gentleman farmer Jim Prior; Dries included the new breed of Conservative, self-made men from the suburbs. (Viewers of Downton Abbey will be familiar with the difference: Lord Grantham is a classic Tory Wet, the super-rich newspaper proprietor Richard Carlisle is an archetypally Dry Thatcherite.) High Tory resentment at taking orders from a Grantham shopkeeper’s daughter bubbled up at intervals, rarely expressed more eloquently than by the minister (and son-in-law of Winston Churchill) Lord Soames, who complained after his dismissal “that he would have sacked his gamekeeper with more courtesy than Mrs. Thatcher had shown him.”

Intriguingly, Moore tells us, for some it was Thatcher’s class, rather than simple anticommunism, that explained her attachment to the United States. Shortly after Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands, Alan Clark told Tory backbench colleagues he was sure the PM would be robust in the islands’ defense. “Don’t bet on that, Alan,” one replied. “She is governed only by what the Americans want. At heart she is just a vulgar, middle-class Reaganite.”

 

3.

If her gender and her class, both potential liabilities, were crucial factors in her ascent, they do not tell the whole story. It helped that she had a spouse in Denis Thatcher who was both compliant and rich, but it was the nature and power of her personality that did much to propel her to the top. The defining traits in Moore’s portrait are a relentlessness that made her both formidable and unbearable and, more unexpectedly, a pragmatism that runs counter to the Iron Lady persona she did so much to cultivate.

On the first count, her stamina became the stuff of legend, starting with her famous need to sleep no more than three or four hours a night. Her work rate was prodigious, exemplified by her ability to plow through box after box of state papers—putting a wiggly line under proposals she disliked, scrawling fierce rebuttals in the margin beside those she despised. Often powered by whisky, she could keep going into the small hours, better briefed than her interlocutors on almost every topic. (Part of her success running the Falklands war, Moore suggests, is that, lacking military experience or knowledge, Thatcher was forced, for once, to defer to the wisdom of others.)

But this ferocious determination could shade easily into outright aggression, directed most often at those around her. She once burst into a late-night meeting of her chancellor and his officials and proceeded to berate him, the most senior man in her government, as his aides looked on. She was, a witness recalls, “quite full of whisky.” In 1981, the head of her policy unit, John Hoskyns, sent her a memorandum whose candor was so unforgiving that surely no prime minister, or president for that matter, has ever received one to match it. Entitled “Your Political Survival,” it read:

You break every rule of good man-management. You bully your weaker colleagues. You criticise colleagues in front of each other and in front of their officials. They can’t answer back without appearing disrespectful, in front of others, to a woman and to a Prime Minister. You abuse that situation…. This demoralisation is hidden only from you. People are beginning to feel that everything is a waste of time…. You have an absolute duty to change the way you operate.
It is to Thatcher’s credit that Hoskyns survived in his post, if only for another year. But the impression his memo conveys is buttressed by other examples of what one would charitably call a lack of emotional intelligence on Thatcher’s part. It’s not only that, as Moore writes, she could be “intensely annoying,” inconsiderate, excessively demanding, and too focused on the short term. There was something else missing. Thatcher was famously deficient in humor, needing the jokes in her own speeches explained, and Moore sketches a few strokes in a similar direction even if he does not stand back and explicitly assess the picture he has painted. He describes Thatcher’s “literal-mindedness,” how she was perplexed by metaphorical expressions such as “look before you leap” and confused by the play of children, remarking on one occasion: “What a funny gesture. I wonder what it means.”

Some of Thatcher’s contemporary devotees would doubtless find such observations easier to stomach than the copious evidence that their heroine was—whisper it—a pragmatist. Revered now as an unswerving ideologue, iron in the defense of freedom and markets and against totalitarianism and terror, she was in fact a highly flexible politician if the situation so demanded. She could not have stayed at the top for so long if she had been anything else.

So, for all the bluster about never talking to terrorists, she did negotiate with the IRA. Even in death she remains the poster girl for Tories hostile to the European Union, yet her early pro-Europeanism is undeniable and documented. She was, at various stages, open to diplomatic solutions to the Falklands crisis. Most unexpectedly of all, she was a pioneer on climate change, making what is regarded as the first major speech on the topic by any world leader.

Such pragmatism informed her relationship with Ronald Reagan. That there was a rapport between them, there is no doubt: not yet president or even the Republican nominee, he was the first foreign politician to call to congratulate Thatcher on her victory in May 1979. (The Downing Street switchboard did not put him through.) But when support for him ran counter to her own interests, she resisted. They nearly fell out over Reagan’s desire to impose sanctions on a Soviet gas pipeline in which British companies had a direct stake: for her the financial well-being of British business trumped any principled stand against communism. During the stand-off she became, reported an aide, “dismayed at how little understanding Reagan seemed to have of the issues…. He was a bear of very little brain. It was disappointing for her.”

In this way, an image that existed in two dimensions acquires a third. We learn that Thatcher could behave like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in front of a camera, yet was uninterested in how the media portrayed her. She could be vicious to her subordinates when faced with their weakness, yet felt a “motherly” tenderness to one minister on account of his past history of depression. She had time only for work, yet continued to do the cooking for husband Denis, even in Number Ten. She was a modernizer, yet harbored distinctly unmodern attitudes toward those who were decidedly not “one of us,” to recall a pet Thatcher phrase. “You don’t expect anything decent to come from an Irishman,” she said privately.

Moore is gentle toward and admiring of his subject, accepting that “she was never drunk,” for example, but he admits too much evidence for the prosecution ever to lapse into hagiography. He has chased down every last detail of her life, correcting Thatcher’s memoirs when she got the facts wrong. This book is a testament to the value of thoroughness, a virtue the Lady would have appreciated. The footnotes alone are a source of constant interest and insight and Moore has an eye for the telling detail:

At Denis’s funeral in July 2003, when her anguish and mental confusion were such that she was not sure whether it was her husband’s or her father’s coffin in front of her, she was seen to sing all the hymns, word-perfect, without looking at the service sheet.
What is missing is that part of her record that had some Britons—not many admittedly—sipping champagne on news of her death. We hear of the inner-city riots of 1981 and her first skirmishes against the trade unions, but these are mere overture to the crashing symphony of discord yet to come. In this volume, we do not see the consequences of her campaign to rid Britain of socialism—including its mild, Labour variety—a whirlwind that left the country’s manufacturing base hollowed out and whole towns and cities broken, many of them still in pieces to this day. All of that should come in the second volume of this work, which if it matches the first will be admirable indeed. Besides, there is no particular hurry to tell that next part of the story. In Britain it is well known—for we live with its consequences every day.

 

1. Charles Moore, “Radical, Egotistical, Romantic, Innocent—the Real Margaret Thatcher,” The Daily Telegraph, April 19, 2013.

2. Thatcher’s Britain: The Political and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era (London: Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. 26.

Ed Miliband stakes out leftwing positions in Brighton speech

Labour leader offered the faithful a policy-packed speech to sell his party – and himself – on the doorstep

Is Red Ed back? The delight that greeted Ed Miliband's address to the Labour party conference inside the hall in Brighton, coupled with dark mutterings about "statist socialism" from the conservative commentariat outside it, suggested he might be. Advisers close to Miliband were prepared for such a response, knowing as they worked on the leader's speech it would prompt the question: "Is Ed Miliband too leftwing for Britain?" They are gambling that that question just got a whole lot more complicated.

That he staked out a series of positions avowedly to the left is hard to deny. Back in the 1970s, his headline-grabbing call for a freeze on energy bills would have been bracketed under "price controls". His use-it-or-lose-it ultimatum to developers sitting on valuable real estate could easily be recast by its opponents as Bolshevik-style land confiscation.

No less revealing was what was missing from the speech. New Labour-style triangulation is over: Miliband did not feel obliged to include the once-mandatory promise of tough-as-nails welfare reform or anything more than a fleeting demand for responsibility from those on benefits. On the contrary, he suggested his defence of one now-totemic benefit expressed the essential difference between himself and David Cameron: while the latter "was the prime minister who introduced the bedroom tax, I'll be the prime minister who repeals the bedroom tax".

All of which will be seized on by the Tories and their allies to paint Ed red. But here's why it might not work. Miliband has picked his battles very deliberately, adopting positions that might be left but are also both populist and popular. Labour tested the energy freeze on focus groups and saw approval go "off the charts", according to one senior figure. The party is quite happy for the Tories to denounce market meddling, reckoning that on fuel costs voters are crying out for government intervention. And if the big six energy companies object that they can't afford to cover their costs, especially if global prices rise, Labour is poised to brand them fatcats who ought to dip into the mega-billion profits they've amassed over the years.

Miliband knows he'll get a kicking from the Telegraph and the others on this. But he's gambling that that won't matter. He intends to talk over the heads of the Tory-supporting press, reaching viewers of Watchdog and readers of Which? – consumers sick of paying too much to heat their homes. His party reckons there'll be similar public support on unused land and when the Conservatives try to brand Labour anti-business, the latter will hold up its new promise to cut the taxes of 1.5m small enterprises (albeit paid for by increasing the amount levied on big business).

This was the thread that ran through Ed Miliband's fourth speech as party leader: a new and emerging strain of left populism. It confirms Miliband's larger ambition: not merely to win power the Blair/Brown way, within parameters set by Conservatism, but to redraw those lines, to shift the centre ground itself leftward.

Not that he said anything of the sort, of course. This was no abstract essay, but a speech written in concrete, packed with what the wonks call "crunchy" nuggets of policy. One close to the drafting process said that after last year's widely acclaimed one-nation effort, they faced "the difficult second album problem". They solved it by complementing last year's lofty, but vague, instrumental theme with some lyrics rooted in the real world. The key slogan pulled off the tricky task that faces every opposition, somehow conveying both aspiration and discontent: "Britain can do better than this."

The new approach will bring relief to both the shadow cabinet and Labour MPs. They have struggled to explain what one nation means, to convert an academic insight into a doorstep-ready pitch. Now they have a set of specifics, tailormade for retail – with the 20-month freeze on energy bills bound to be the first sample pulled from the salesman's suitcase. As the FT observed, the speech marked Miliband's shift from pamphlet to leaflet, from thinktank to letterbox.

The task now is for the wider Labour tribe to amplify the message it heard today, to prevent a repeat of last year's loss of momentum following a successful conference speech. But today's politics is never solely a team effort. The particular challenge facing Miliband was to dispel the doubts that linger about him personally, expressed in persistently poor poll numbers.

To that end, he reminded his own party of his technical skill in delivering a fluent, compelling set-piece speech, leaving his audience marvelling at an extraordinary feat of noteless memory. He showed too that he has a nice line in self-deprecation and is capable of altering his register from light to shade, even if the lower-decibel passages sometimes veered toward the mawkish and had one or two unkind voices in the press corps recalling the notorious "quiet man" performance of Iain Duncan Smith.

But, after last year, his speechmaking skills are not in doubt; he gained no extra credit for that this time. His larger task was to convince the country that he is not just a platform speaker but a potential national leader. Here he smartly decided not to tiptoe around his perceived weakness, but to drive right through it, partly by defining leadership in his own terms. What mattered was the ability to empathise, he said, to walk in the shoes of others. He acknowledged Cameron's prime ministerial patina, his perceived "strength", but sought to turn it against him: "He may be strong at standing up to the weak, but he's always weak when it comes to standing up to the strong."

It was clever, the message reinforced by his "be my guest" agreement to go mano a mano with Cameron on leadership. It may not be enough. Plenty of people still struggle to see Ed Miliband as a future prime minister. But in Brighton he gave that ambition a helpful push – and proved he is still in the game.


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My most embarrassing university memory? Sitting on a toilet for a day

We asked writers and famous former students to recall their most awkward student memories. Jon Snow, Laura Mvula and Jonathan Freedland are some of those revealing all. Don't try this in halls …

Jon Snow

Unquestionably the most embarrassing thing I did at university was to attempt a world record for sitting on the lavatory. The miserable porcelain beast was established on a platform at the entrance to the student union. I sat on it with my trousers round my ankles for 24 hours. A screen was dragged around me on the thankfully rare occasions when I actually needed to "go". We raised £1,200 for the somewhat self-indulgent cause of an overland exchange with students in India. At the end of it all, the Guinness Book of Records proved too prudish consider it a worthwhile record. I blush even writing this.

Laura Barton

At first, university was achingly miserable. I was shy and lonely, and so desperately worried about money that I used tea bags twice and lived on beetroot sandwiches. A year and a half in, I ended my long-distance relationship with a boy back home, but my attempts to live a new, single life of joy, dancing and thrilling promiscuity fell at the first hurdle. I began dating a visiting American student, and one night he came back to mine. All was going well, I thought (despite his Taz boxer shorts), until he paused, awkwardly, and showed me the silver ring he wore on his left hand. It was, he explained, a sign of his commitment to abstinence before marriage and his devotion to God. I remember then sitting in my underwear in my student room while he talked to me about Jesus. I don't think I'd ever felt so lost and untethered and thoroughly humiliated as I did in that moment. But it did get better: the tea got stronger, I made friends, and eventually I fell in love.

Jack Straw

My most embarrassing moment (of many) at Leeds University still makes me cringe. On a 56 bus into the university, my best pal and I were boasting to a couple of women students about the party we were planning in our rooming house – to which they were invited. Knowing that I lived in the attic and that my pal was in the very damp basement, the women asked where the party would take place. "Oh, it's fine," I said. "We're borrowing the front room. That's Peter's room, that hermit. We haven't asked him, but he'll be away." Whereupon the guy in the seat in front of us turned round. It was Peter. I wound my scarf around my face and hoped I'd sink through the floor of the bus.

Zoe Williams

At the end of my first term, a satirical magazine (ie "a mean piece of paper") came out, detailing what its authors thought were the major flaws of the college. It started with the fact that the library smelled like farts, and ended with me: "ZOE WILLIAMS: UGLIER THAN BIG BIRD", it ran all capitalised. "MORE UNAWARE OF HERSELF THAN CAMILLA LAMONT." (I can't remember what was wrong with her.) "WE'D LOVE TO BOMB HER. ALL THE FIREMEN WOULD FIND WOULD BE BITS OF GRISTLE. It goes without saying, I hope, that I hadn't done anything. I'd done nothing but smoke and be quiet for two months. I never found out who the bastards were.

Aluna Francis (of Alunageorge)

I was doing art foundation at college. I had virtually shaved my head and dyed the remainder lilac. I was trying to be unique but it just looked as if someone had been sick on my head. I also had a fashion obsession: dressing like a 70s pimp. That winning combo left me achingly single with plenty of time to hone my craft. Which brings us to the really embarrassing bit: a visiting lecturer once looked at my work in class and asked me what I was up to. I immediately launched into a rambling monologue of total crap about the concept (that I was meant to have come up with, but hadn't) that would explain my paint thrown about on a canvas. He replied with a sigh and said, "Sometimes, I wish someone would just answer, 'I have no bloody idea,' and leave it at that". Changed my life that did.

Jonathan Freedland

The lowlights of my student past? How long have you got? When you recall the mullet haircuts, the ill-timed vomiting and the clumsy passes, it's hard to know where to start. But one contender revealed itself on my very first day.

I'd been allocated a shared room, with no say over my room-mate. I started unpacking my stuff – much of it consisting of souvenirs of a gap year in Israel – while my new companion did the same. Soon he was covering the mantelpiece with old black-and-white photographs, including snaps of two old men, their expressions severe. He proceeded to tell me of his great pride in his two grandfathers: one a Spaniard who had served as a close aide to General Franco, the other an American who had risen to the rank of Imperial Wizard in the Virginia chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. As I stuck my Hebrew posters to the opposite wall, I began to fear this might not be an ideal match. I moved out three weeks later.

Suzanne Moore

The most shocking thing I did at college was to go in the first place. Having left school at 16, I had spent years travelling, working, living. College had not been on my radar. Even now when people talk about going up or down to Oxbridge to "read" stuff, I feel like an interloper. I am embarrassed only in that I chose psychology as it was mostly made-up, reactionary garbage to explain the status quo. Though I liked the rats we used in experiments. When I got pregnant in my second year, the head of my course embarrassed himself by saying a woman should be at home when she had a baby. It never entered my head not to carry on and I had the backing of a lovely anthropologist who said, "Nonsense. You can feed her in my office", before going on about some tribe she had lived in.

So I took my eldest to every lecture and both fellow students and tutors were rather lovely taking turns to hold her. Of course, I took her out if she made any noise ... and I just had to learn to read and write in bursts rather than writing essays at 3am on Pro Plus. We both did very well.

Looking back, no young women in that position now – pregnant, poor, desperate to learn – would have the financial and emotional support I did. Which of course enabled me to work and pay taxes for the rest of my life. Someone ought to seriously embarrassed about that.

Ann Widdecombe

At Lady Margaret Hall [Oxford] the vice-principal had a large yellow cat called Willow. Missing my own cat at home, I regret that I used to feed Willow and entice her to sleep on my bed at night. One morning I tripped as I was applying perfume and poured Je Reviens all over the poor creature, which fled in fright. A few hours later I was walking down the corridor when I heard loud sniffs coming from behind. I turned around, expecting to find someone in distress, but there was the vice-principal with her head buried in Willow's fur and a look of utter disbelief on her face. I will never forget the accusing look in the eye of that fragrant feline!

Russell Kane

My mum and dad moved my stuff into halls the day before I arrived. Being traditional working class, this was a foreign world to them; so, meaning well, my Dad carpeted my room and fitted in a mini fridge too. This went down badly with the token collectivists that comprised my redbrick. My nickname for the first semester: Carpet Muncher.

Laura Mvula

"There aren't too many embarrassing moments from uni because I don't get embarrassed that easily … but I do remember a day when I was really stressed out and was already running late when a pigeon did its business on my head. It was a nightmare – I had long hair then. I had to try and get rid of it in the bathroom, before I sat in class with a big patch of wet hair.

Example

I used to love climbing stuff whenever I was on my way back from the campus pub – creatively entitled the Stumble Inn – trees, lamp posts or buildings, I was a bit obsessed. One night, I climbed up the side of the library building at about 3am but couldn't climb back down again. My friends got bored waiting and left me there. The campus security didn't seem too bothered that I was stuck up there and I had to wait for four hours until the caretaker arrived at 7am with a ladder for me. I had quite a decent little nap, though. Luckily it was May and not January.

What is your most cringe-making moment from university? Tell us below


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Luckily for Ed Miliband, Labour is not as ruthless as he | Jonathan Freedland

Another good Labour conference speech may boost ratings, but it is the day-to-day combat that will decide who occupies No 10

They might be gone, but they still cast a giant shadow. Once again the Labour party gathers for its annual conference suffering from a bad case of the TB/GBs, the followers of the once mighty Tony Blair and Gordon Brown pulling on their torn and stained battledress for yet another civil war re-enactment.

At least a dozen Labour conferences began this way, the two sides locked in a combat more bitter and consuming than their struggles with the Tories ever were. And yet, the memoirs of Brownite Damian McBride and the email dump of Blairite Benjamin Wegg-Prosser have not quite brought the old poison to the boil, riveting though they are for those of us with PhDs in New Labour studies.

They do raise the awkward question for today's leader of how much he knew of McBride's dark materials, but otherwise these are accounts of wars fought long ago, slipping fast into history. Reaching for his rose-coloured spectacles, one senior shadow cabinet minister reckons dredging up all this muck might even help, serving as a reminder that "we've come a long way from the era of Blair and Brown". There's no denying that the current Labour team is the very picture of unity and self-discipline by comparison.

And yet the party hardly meets in Brighton full of cheer. It might not miss the internecine bloodletting of the New Labour years, but it does miss the power. And right now, the prospect of it is looking elusive. The problem is the numbers, of both the polling and economic variety. The former are anaemic, Labour's lead shrivelling; the latter are improving, the latest showing the UK borrowed less in August than expected. If once Eds Miliband and Balls could hope that an apparently never-ending recession would discredit the coalition and return Labour to office in 2015, they have to think again. They face a Conservative party whose morale is boosted by its belief that a recovery is under way.

Labour's optimists have an answer to both concerns. On the polling, they refer to the history books, which suggest governing parties never increase their share of the vote, and to the electoral map, which requires Labour to scrape not much more than 35% to form a government. In other words, Cameron can't improve on 2010 and Labour does not need to improve all that much (though gaining a 5% swing is no cinch). Its best hope is that Lib Dem refugees who fled the party once it partnered with the Conservatives stay with Labour, and that ex-Tory Ukip voters stay similarly loyal to their new home, rather than returning to David Cameron. If all those stars align, Miliband might just end up in No 10.

As for the economy, a few good headline figures do not rattle Labour's treasury team – yet. For one thing, they believe they are in tune with a public who say, regardless of the data, "It doesn't feel like a recovery to me." Labour will continue to talk about living standards, about high prices, low wages and zero-hours contracts – helped by concrete policies such as the just-announced promise to scrap the bedroom tax – casting George Osborne as out of touch for suggesting the economic pain is at an end. Labour reckons Osborne has played into its hands, claiming premature credit for green shoots that are all too fragile. "This recovery is now his," says one close to the top. "If it goes wrong, he owns it."

But there is a larger topic, which hovers over every Labour conversation, even if it remains "unspoken", as McBride might put it. The polling numbers remain stubbornly awful on the question of the leader himself. On too many key measures – strong leader, best candidate to be prime minister – Miliband lags far behind Cameron. His defenders offer a variety of responses: that British elections are not presidential and leaders don't matter that much; that Ed has shown great boldness, even ruthlessness, taking risks on Murdoch, Labour's trade union link and Syria, to say nothing of that initial contest against his own brother; that in the end, personal charisma counts for little, it's substance that counts. That last line was offered from a veteran Brownite who used to say the same about his former master. When I reminded him of the fact, he had the good grace to wince.

Those prepared to admit the problem offer a range of remedies. Among the more outlandish, one Labour frontbencher's whispered suggestion that Labour copy the Tories' 2003 despatch of Iain Duncan Smith and installation of Michael Howard: in this version, Miliband would give way to Alan Johnson, an elder statesman who would put up a respectable fight in 2015, creating a platform for a leader from the new generation after that.

Others say what's needed is a really good speech from Ed on Tuesday, providing the definition and clarity so far missing. His "one nation" address last year was excellent, forcing many in the political class to take a second look. The trouble is, quality speech-making is now taken to be a given for Miliband; he cannot surprise twice. A first-rate performance will help, but it won't move the needle. It's in day-to-day combat, forcing his way into the national consciousness, that he needs to do well and where he has so far had only intermittent success.

Realists in the Labour high command implicitly acknowledge the problem by promising the 2015 campaign won't be all about Ed. They suggest Miliband emphasises the team around him – though, I'm told, that is an approach he is yet to approve – and advances a simple core message: "David Cameron just wants to run the country, Labour wants to change the country." Couple that with good, on-the-ground organisation, cultivated by US-based organiser Arnie Graf and a smart online team, boosted by new recruits from the Obama digital operation, and Labour will do better than you think.

It sounds good when you hear it, but Labour folk with long memories will feel edgy all the same. They remember the narrow poll leads Neil Kinnock enjoyed over Margaret Thatcher before the 1987 election, his adoption of new and slicker campaign techniques – and the thundering defeat that followed. Some of this angst has been noticed across the Atlantic. "Labour party finding fault with its leader," ran a headline in Thursday's New York Times. "Were Mr Miliband a Tory leader with similar ratings," the paper reported, "he would be subject to a possible putsch. But Labour has little tradition of dumping its leaders."

That's true. In this at least, Ed Miliband is rather lucky – he leads a party that is not nearly as ruthless as he is.

Twitter: @Freedland


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Washington DC shootings: America’s gun disease diminishes its soft power | Jonathan Freedland

The spate of shootings in the US and the lack of political will to tackle gun control shows the country as a basket case, not a model state

If this isn't a matter of national security, what is? When 13 people end up dead at a US military base, that surely crosses the threshold – putting America's problem with guns into the category reserved for threats to the mortal safety of the nation. At its narrowest, Monday's massacre at the Washington navy yard is a national security issue because it involved hostile entry into what was meant to be a secure military facility. Plenty will now focus on how a man twice arrested in gun-related incidents was able to gain such easy access to the nerve centre of the US navy. There will be inquiries into the entry-pass system, use of contractors and the like.

But that would be to miss the wider point. America's gun sickness – which has turned massacres of this kind into a fairly regular, rather than exceptionally rare occurrence – endangers the US not solely because it can lead military personnel to lose their lives, nor even because it can lead to the murder of schoolchildren, as it did at Sandy Hook elementary school last year, or the death of young movie-goers, as it did in Aurora, Colorado, also last year – dreadful though those losses are.

The foreign policy experts who gather in the thinktanks and congressional offices not far from the navy yard often define national security to encompass anything that touches on America's standing in the world. That ranges from its ability to project military force across the globe to its attractiveness, its "soft power". For decades, this latter quality has been seen as one of the US's primary assets, central to its ability to lead and persuade other nations.

But America's gun disease diminishes its soft power. It makes the country seem less like a model and more like a basket case, afflicted by a pathology other nations strive to avoid. When similar gun massacres have struck elsewhere – including in Britain – lawmakers have acted swiftly to tighten controls, watching as the gun crime statistics then fell. In the decade after the rules were toughened in Australia in 1996, for example, firearm-related homicides fell by 59%, while suicides involving guns fell by 65%.

But the US stays stubbornly where it is, refusing to act. When President Obama last tried, following the deaths of 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook at the end of 2012, his bill fell at the first senate hurdle. He had not proposed banning a single weapon or bullet – merely expanding the background checks required of someone wanting to buy a gun. But even that was too much. The national security pundits who worry how a US president is perceived when he is incapable of protecting the lives of innocent Syrians abroad should think how it looks when he is incapable of protecting the lives of innocent Americans at home.

On guns, the US – so often the world leader in innovation and endeavour – is the laggard, stuck at the bottom of the global class. Bill Clinton perfectly distilled the essence of soft power when he said in 2008, "People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power." He was right. But every time a disturbed or angry individual is able to vent his rage with an assault weapon, killing innocents with ease, the power of America's example fades a little more.

@Freedland


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I’m getting older. Does that mean I’m becoming more rightwing? | Jonathan Freedland

Polls show the old less tolerant of gays and working women. But that doesn't make conservatism an inevitable part of ageing

How do you know you've turned 40? According to the veteran comedian Jackie Mason, it's when you bend down to tie your shoelaces and think, "What else can I do while I'm down here?"

When I first heard that gag, I only half got it. Now that I'm deep into my forties, and bending down is no longer, shall we say, effortless, I really get it. But what are the other tell-tale signs of getting older? There's the greying at the temples, not knowing what song is No 1, and, politically, the steady drift rightward. That last one is not controversial, is it? After all, to quote the aphorism regularly, andwrongly, attributed to Churchill, "If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain."

Evidence of this hoary wisdom appeared to come with this week's publication of the British Social Attitudes survey. The standout finding was that Britain had changed its collective mind on homosexuality since the first such study in 1983. Back then, 50% regarded same-sex relationships as "always wrong". Now that figure is down to 22%. The hold-outs were the old. Among those born in the 1940s, 46% still thought homosexuality was wrong; only 18% of those born in the 80s said the same.

Indeed, when pressed to explain the overall shift, researchers explained that it wasn't so much that individual Britons were softening their previous hostility to gay people. Rather, those older people who had been implacably hostile were, to put it baldly, dying out – replaced by youngsters who were more tolerant.

It's the same picture on, say, women working outside the home – broadly accepted by most, still difficult for many over-65s. But it also fits with the archetypal image we have of the old – regularly reinforced by popular culture – as grumpy, stubborn and a little bit bigoted. This, we presume, is just how it is – an organic part of the ageing process, as inevitable as wrinkles.

But it's not quite like that. Talk to those who study these patterns and they'll explain that it's not the fact that people are in their late 60s or 70s that gives them these attitudes, but rather the specific period in which they were raised. On gay rights, many of today's senior citizens were shaped in a climate that saw homosexuals as deviants and criminals: for many, those views have simply stuck. It's not as if they were once tolerant and have hardened their hearts as they've grown older. Equally, there's no reason to believe that today's twentysomethings will become anti-gay as they age. On the contrary, the data suggests the attitudes forged now will be theirs for life.

Viewed like this, what matters is not someone's age so much as what Rick Nye, director of the Populus polling company, calls the "consciousness-defining events that happen when you're at your most porous". For the oldest Britons, that was the war. As that generation dies out, so too do many of its values. (To take one example: pollsters have noticed a steady disappearance of the old Edward Heath brand of pro-Europeanism, formed among those who had witnessed a European war close-up and did not want to see another one.) For the baby boomers, the formative experience was the 1960s, leaving a legacy of permissiveness that endures to this day. They may now be knocking 70, but they still have liberal attitudes. In an intriguing aside, Glasgow University's professor Patrick O'Donnell says that, though many boomers have given up on the drink and drugs, they have not abandoned the sexual mores of their youth: clinics now report a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among the over-70s. "That had never been a problem before," he says.

This pattern – of generations shaped by epochal events – shows itself often. Who has misgivings about nuclear power? Not the old or the young, but those in between who came of age at the height of the "No Thanks" campaigns. Who remains sceptical about collectivist, non-market ways of organising society? Those whose worldview was formed as the Berlin Wall came down and who saw trade unions crushed at home. The Iraq war has, it seems, convinced a generation to recoil from armed intervention abroad, especially in the Middle East. The evidence suggests such beliefs remain all but fixed for that generation – and influence the generations that follow.

By this logic, it would be perfectly possible for the old to stand to the left of the young. Indeed, the Social Attitudes survey found more sympathy among the over-65s for government redistribution of income than among any other group. But it's not the whole story. There are some political changes that do indeed come upon us as we grow older, no matter when we were born. Just as new parents suddenly find themselves interested in the previously tedious topics of childcare and education, so older voters start thinking about, say, pensions. That, though, can cut both left and right, as seniors demand both state payouts and a strong stock market to buoy their private retirement plans.

More deeply, those who have been around longer find they have more to protect. And that can become a conservative impulse. Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, believes it is "attitudes to risk and fears of uncertainty" that change most: people become more cautious as they get older. That's one reason why reform of public services used heavily by the elderly becomes so politically radioactive. But it also sheds light on, for example, the striking age profile of Ukip, which skews towards the old. Plenty of Britons are unsettled by our changing society, whether by immigration or new technology, but, says Kellner, "There's a fear of the modern world which is more intense among older people."

That fear doesn't grip everyone with years on the clock. Those who have money and options, who feel life is still ahead of them and their race not yet run, can handle change; they can afford it. Those who are on a fixed income, watching their savings dwindle, for whom life has become no more than managing decline – who would blame them for becoming defensive, holding on to what they have and what they know? Viewed like this, it's wealth, not age, that's decisive.

Either way, conservatism is not like grey hair – an inevitable part of the ageing process. It depends on when you came of age, how you saw the world and how life treated you. That's worth remembering. For it means the decisions we take now, shaping the young who witness them, will live on long into the future – long after we've gone.

Twitter: @Freedland


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I’m getting older. Does that mean I’m becoming more rightwing? | Jonathan Freedland

Polls show the old less tolerant of gays and working women. But that doesn't make conservatism an inevitable part of ageing

How do you know you've turned 40? According to the veteran comedian Jackie Mason, it's when you bend down to tie your shoelaces and think, "What else can I do while I'm down here?"

When I first heard that gag, I only half got it. Now that I'm deep into my forties, and bending down is no longer, shall we say, effortless, I really get it. But what are the other tell-tale signs of getting older? There's the greying at the temples, not knowing what song is No 1, and, politically, the steady drift rightward. That last one is not controversial, is it? After all, to quote the aphorism regularly, andwrongly, attributed to Churchill, "If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain."

Evidence of this hoary wisdom appeared to come with this week's publication of the British Social Attitudes survey. The standout finding was that Britain had changed its collective mind on homosexuality since the first such study in 1983. Back then, 50% regarded same-sex relationships as "always wrong". Now that figure is down to 22%. The hold-outs were the old. Among those born in the 1940s, 46% still thought homosexuality was wrong; only 18% of those born in the 80s said the same.

Indeed, when pressed to explain the overall shift, researchers explained that it wasn't so much that individual Britons were softening their previous hostility to gay people. Rather, those older people who had been implacably hostile were, to put it baldly, dying out – replaced by youngsters who were more tolerant.

It's the same picture on, say, women working outside the home – broadly accepted by most, still difficult for many over-65s. But it also fits with the archetypal image we have of the old – regularly reinforced by popular culture – as grumpy, stubborn and a little bit bigoted. This, we presume, is just how it is – an organic part of the ageing process, as inevitable as wrinkles.

But it's not quite like that. Talk to those who study these patterns and they'll explain that it's not the fact that people are in their late 60s or 70s that gives them these attitudes, but rather the specific period in which they were raised. On gay rights, many of today's senior citizens were shaped in a climate that saw homosexuals as deviants and criminals: for many, those views have simply stuck. It's not as if they were once tolerant and have hardened their hearts as they've grown older. Equally, there's no reason to believe that today's twentysomethings will become anti-gay as they age. On the contrary, the data suggests the attitudes forged now will be theirs for life.

Viewed like this, what matters is not someone's age so much as what Rick Nye, director of the Populus polling company, calls the "consciousness-defining events that happen when you're at your most porous". For the oldest Britons, that was the war. As that generation dies out, so too do many of its values. (To take one example: pollsters have noticed a steady disappearance of the old Edward Heath brand of pro-Europeanism, formed among those who had witnessed a European war close-up and did not want to see another one.) For the baby boomers, the formative experience was the 1960s, leaving a legacy of permissiveness that endures to this day. They may now be knocking 70, but they still have liberal attitudes. In an intriguing aside, Glasgow University's professor Patrick O'Donnell says that, though many boomers have given up on the drink and drugs, they have not abandoned the sexual mores of their youth: clinics now report a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among the over-70s. "That had never been a problem before," he says.

This pattern – of generations shaped by epochal events – shows itself often. Who has misgivings about nuclear power? Not the old or the young, but those in between who came of age at the height of the "No Thanks" campaigns. Who remains sceptical about collectivist, non-market ways of organising society? Those whose worldview was formed as the Berlin Wall came down and who saw trade unions crushed at home. The Iraq war has, it seems, convinced a generation to recoil from armed intervention abroad, especially in the Middle East. The evidence suggests such beliefs remain all but fixed for that generation – and influence the generations that follow.

By this logic, it would be perfectly possible for the old to stand to the left of the young. Indeed, the Social Attitudes survey found more sympathy among the over-65s for government redistribution of income than among any other group. But it's not the whole story. There are some political changes that do indeed come upon us as we grow older, no matter when we were born. Just as new parents suddenly find themselves interested in the previously tedious topics of childcare and education, so older voters start thinking about, say, pensions. That, though, can cut both left and right, as seniors demand both state payouts and a strong stock market to buoy their private retirement plans.

More deeply, those who have been around longer find they have more to protect. And that can become a conservative impulse. Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, believes it is "attitudes to risk and fears of uncertainty" that change most: people become more cautious as they get older. That's one reason why reform of public services used heavily by the elderly becomes so politically radioactive. But it also sheds light on, for example, the striking age profile of Ukip, which skews towards the old. Plenty of Britons are unsettled by our changing society, whether by immigration or new technology, but, says Kellner, "There's a fear of the modern world which is more intense among older people."

That fear doesn't grip everyone with years on the clock. Those who have money and options, who feel life is still ahead of them and their race not yet run, can handle change; they can afford it. Those who are on a fixed income, watching their savings dwindle, for whom life has become no more than managing decline – who would blame them for becoming defensive, holding on to what they have and what they know? Viewed like this, it's wealth, not age, that's decisive.

Either way, conservatism is not like grey hair – an inevitable part of the ageing process. It depends on when you came of age, how you saw the world and how life treated you. That's worth remembering. For it means the decisions we take now, shaping the young who witness them, will live on long into the future – long after we've gone.

Twitter: @Freedland


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Rabin, Arafat and a handshake of hope

It was twenty years ago today. On September 13 1993, in bright sunshine and nudged together by Bill Clinton – younger than the others, but playing the father figure – Yitzhak Rabin extended a reluctant hand to a smiling Yasser Arafat before an audience on the White House lawn.

In that moment it seemed that an end to more than a century of violence between Jews and Arabs was at least possible, if not imminent. Rabin certainly appeared eager to perform the last rites on the conflict. “Enough of blood and tears,” he bellowed, “enough.”

Euphoria was the order of the day. That even the old sabra warrior had been able to overcome his visceral revulsion and take Arafat's hand suggested a genuine peace was within reach. As a twentysomething journalist who imagined spending much of his future career covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I naively wondered if I would have to find a new area to specialize in.

I needn't have worried. As everyone knows, the Oslo accords agreed two decades ago did not bring the peace dreamed of that day. Less than a year later, Hamas suicide bombs were exploding on Israeli buses and within two years Rabin was dead at the hands of a Jewish extremist. Today the two sides remain as divided as they were then, all the key issues still unresolved. Talks are underway in 2013 to tackle questions that seemed about to be answered in 1993.

But today is not just a fateful anniversary. It is also Kol Nidre, the start of Yom Kippur when tradition demands we reflect and atone for what we have got badly wrong. The coincidence of the two dates has had me looking back on what I have written and said on Israel/Palestine these last 20 years - and wondering if I should regret the argument at the heart of it.

Again and again, I have insisted that the “current situation” is unsustainable, that Israel cannot indefinitely postpone the day it reconciles with the Palestinians, that it cannot forever occupy the territories it gained in the war of 1967. And yet I look at Israel 20 years after Oslo and, on the contrary, it looks like a country where the status quo is very sustainable indeed. The economy hums along nicely, the restaurants are full, the people sunning themselves on the beach. While violence rages in the surrounding region, Israel sees itself more than ever, says Haaretz editor Aluf http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/20/jewish-majority-isr... Benn, deliberately deploying a notorious phrase, as “a villa in the jungle.”

Even so, I cannot beat my chest and atone for saying that this cannot hold. Even if it has lasted 20 years, even if it lasts another 20, this will not be viable forever. As we welcome a new chief rabbi, it's worth remembering the words of an old one, Immanuel Jakobovits, who warned that Israel could not “lord” it over another people, ruling them against their will, without end. That was not a passing observation on the geopolitics of the day, but rather the statement of a moral truth that will assert itself eventually.

Now there is a chance to act. Bibi Netanyahu is unchallenged http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/09/netanyahu-israel-leade... at the top of Israeli politics; Mahmoud Abbas is in a rare position of strength, his Hamas rivals weakened by their Islamist allies’ removal in Egypt. Events have given the two the space to move toward each other. Perhaps this should be among our reflections, even our prayers, this Yom Kippur: the hope that we get closer to the peace we glimpsed in the sunshine two decades ago – and that this time, it is no mirage.

Syria: how a gaffe could stop a war | Jonathan Freedland

There are practical issues, but John Kerry's suggestion that Syria turn over its chemical weapons could give all the key players what they need

Write a new chapter in the diplomatic handbook. Dedicate it to the off-the-cuff remark – the gaffe, even – which averts a war.

We don't yet know if John Kerry's apparently unplanned comment in London, suggesting Syria could avoid a US military strike by turning over its stash of chemical weapons, has set in train a process that will ultimately prevent armed American action. But Barack Obama described it as a "possible breakthrough" and the relief can be felt across multiple world capitals.

Of course the practical problems are legion – one report claims that getting rid of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile could take not weeks or months but "years". Nevertheless, this latest initiative deserves to be taken seriously because it gives all the key players something they need. Crucially, it would allow the antagonists to step back from the brink without losing face.

For Bashar al-Assad, the prize is obvious. If he agrees to banjax the banned weapons, to use the vocabulary of the Northern Ireland decommissioning process, he can dodge the US bullet that was perhaps coming his way. Even with Kerry promising on Monday that any attack would be "unbelievably small", Assad would still prefer to avoid an American attack if he can.

For Russia, whose foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, seized on Kerry's rhetorical flourish and turned it into an initiative, there is a double benefit. First, Vladimir Putin gets to pose as the global statesman who stayed the hand of the mighty American hyperpower. Second, Russia has its own reasons for wanting to see Syria's toxic arsenal put beyond use. Moscow has long worried about such weaponry falling into opposition jihadist hands should Assad fall. Spiriting it out of Syria dampens that danger. (Tehran is said to support the latest Russian plan for similar reasons.)

Above all, though, the scheme is a life-raft for an American president who looked to be drowning. All the signs from Congress suggested Obama was heading for defeat, at least in the House, in his quest for approval for military action. Even if he had got it, there is no denying that Obama had long been reluctant to intervene in Syria's civil war by force – for the admirable reason that he could see all the same perils pointed out by his opponents.

Indeed, he only threatened military strikes because he could see no other way both to stay true to the declaration he himself had made a year ago – that the use of chemical weapons would by a "red line" – and to enforce the long-established "norm" against such arms. (It was on these grounds that some of us sympathised with his position.) The latest plan gives him that other way: if Assad gives up his chemical weapons, then Obama can argue that both his red line and the international prohibition were honoured.

Amid the current relief, two points are worth stressing. First, though hardcore anti-interventionists will not be keen to admit it, this breakthrough – if that's what it proves to be – only came about because of the threat of US force. It will be very hard to pretend that Assad would have agree to such a move under any other circumstances; Russia did not propose it until they suspected American missiles were on the way. For all the opposition Obama's threatened action has generated at home and abroad, that fact surely deserves to be recognised.

Second, there is no reason this initiative should end with the decommissioning of chemical weapons. If the US and Russia can make this scheme work, why can't they work together not just to prevent killing by poison gas but on a diplomatic solution that will end all the killing in Syria? If Iran is, even tacitly, brought into the circle on this process, why not keep that country involved in the wider political negotiation that is surely the only way this conflict will ever end?

Out of a moment of extreme crisis has come an opportunity. Now it's up to all sides to seize it with both hands.


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