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I believe in yesterday

The history of the recent past is more popular with readers than ever – and just as well, because it

"All history is contemporary history," the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce once said, meaning, no doubt, that all history was written from the point of view of contemporary preoccupations. Inevitably, perhaps, we look at the past through the eyes of the present. Even so, until very recently, contemporary history was regarded with suspicion by the professionals. When A J P Taylor read history at Oxford in the 1920s, most of his time was spent studying the medieval period. When he reached the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, his tutor told him, "You know all the rest from your work at school, so we do not need to do any more." The further one gets from the present, the more "scholarly" one becomes.

Yet the contemporary history of Britain flourishes as never before, as shown by the success of historians such as David Kynaston and Dominic Sandbrook. The public feels a need to understand the age in which it lives. Surely part of the appeal of the 1950s is straightforward nostalgia for that lost Elysium when, supposedly, the young knew their place, crime was confined to scrumping apples, and good-natured policemen patrolled every street. Modern novels are difficult to understand, and rarely end happily. Why not put on rose-coloured spectacles and escape to the past?

But there is more to it than this. For contemporary history has a vital civic and educative function. To cast one's vote intelligently, one must understand something of the history of the welfare state, the interwar depression and the rise of Thatcherism. Opening his first education summer school at Dartington Hall in 2002, the Prince of Wales reminded the audience of Cicero's comment that "to remain ignorant of what happened before you is to remain a child". It is also to lack the equipment to make the complex judgements a modern democracy demands of its citizens. "Historical ignorance," Dan Jones has said, "breeds political apathy." The contemporary historian, therefore, need in no way feel embarrassed by his task, but can reply as François Guizot did when reproached for writing about recent events: "Thucydides and Machiavelli wrote and published contemporary history. Why shouldn't I try it?"

Naturally, contemporary history engages the passions in a way that the distant past generally does not. Most of us care little about William the Conqueror or the Crusades, but we do have strong feelings about Margaret Thatcher and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Yet there is no reason why the historian should not overcome partiality, as, for example, Richard Vinen did in his recent book on Thatcherism, Thatcher's Britain, and Alan Milward did in his official history of Britain's relations with Europe, The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy, 1945-1963. It may be difficult to be objective when writing contemporary history, but these books show that it is not impossible.

The contemporary historian has some compensation for the extra difficulties that he faces. For he generally enjoys some living contact or participation in the events he is describing. The best of the modern volumes in the Oxford History of England series, that on the years 1870-1914, was written by Sir Robert Ensor, a Fabian with personal knowledge of the men of whom he was writing - Ramsay MacDonald, David Lloyd George and Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Even if writing about a period not personally experienced, such as the Attlee government, one finds that contact with one's grandparents' generation will yield a personal touch not available to the medievalist or Tudor historian.

But the contemporary historian faces a difficulty that his colleagues dealing with earlier periods can avoid. If he is to write the history of a democratic age, he has to write the history of the people, not just of the elite. In his Oxford history, A J P Taylor tells us that a law-abiding Englishman could, until 1914, pass most of his life without stumbling upon the existence of the state. It was not until the First World War that, in his words, "the history of the English state and the English people merged for the first time". Historians of the recent past, such as Kynaston and Sandbrook, are right to emphasise popular attitudes. For, in a democracy, as Sir Robert Worcester, the doyen of survey research, insists, public opinion is king. Therefore, the history of modern times must be a history not only of political leadership, but also of how the rest of us lived our lives.
Fortunately, the contemporary historian has the great advantage that he can study public opinion scientifically. On 1 January 1937, Dr Henry Durant began publishing regular Gallup polls in Britain, under the auspices of the British Institute of Public Opinion. Today, scarcely a month goes by without the pollsters inquiring as to the popularity of the prime minister and the government.

Sponsors of the published polls, the media, use them to predict election results, even though they purport to offer no more than a snapshot of opinion at a particular moment in time. But survey evidence also tells us what the public actually thought rather than what its leaders believed or hoped that it thought. As David Butler and Richard Rose, pioneers in the study of contemporary history, declared in their book on the 1959 general election: "There has never been anything comparable to sample polls as a tool for advancing understanding of mass political behaviour."

There is, therefore, no longer any need for the historian to rely on the hunches of members of the elite, remote from the people. But the views of the people cannot be discovered from anecdotal evidence or the impressionism of organisations such as Mass Observation, whose interviews have been well described by Bob Worcester as "chance encounters", in which the investigators tried "unobtrusively to strike up friendships with the natives by buying them drinks". It is difficult to imagine anything less authentic or statistically reliable. By contrast, looking at the trends over time in the Gallup files can prove highly rewarding. Indeed, I am sometimes tempted to say that one could write the history of Britain over the past 70 years from survey evidence alone. Sometimes, the results are surprising. The most popular prime minister in the 20th century was Anthony Eden in the summer of 1955, and the most unpopular Margaret Thatcher before the Falklands war.

Politicians and the public alike would have been less often surprised had they taken notice of the polls. In February 1945, for example, although 85 per cent were satisfied with Churchill and 77 per cent with the government's conduct of the war, Labour had an 18 per cent lead over the Conservatives well before the election campaign had begun. Churchill's "Gestapo" speech, in which he said that socialism could be introduced only with the aid of a secret police, probably had less effect than is generally imagined, because the Conservatives actually narrowed the gap between February 1945 and election day in June.

Polls also tend to disprove "golden age" theories of politics, usually espoused by the elderly, who will insist on telling the rest of us how much better things were in their day. Yet, in our grandparents' time - for example, during the 1950 general election campaign in the Greenwich constituency - only a quarter could name their local MP, and just half knew which party he belonged to. The level of civic knowledge was pitiful.
It is, I suspect, the left that has suffered the most from the scientific study of public opinion. For the left has always prided itself on having
a peculiarly intimate relationship with the people. In the 1950s, Aneurin Bevan denounced opinion polls for taking the poetry out of politics. He knew what the people wanted, simply by looking into his own heart. The trouble was, sadly, that the people often did not want what he thought they ought to want.

In 1982, during the great debate on sending a task force to the Falklands, Tony Benn waved a handful of letters in the Commons and declared that public opinion was swinging massively against the war. He was quickly contradicted by a MORI finding published in the Economist a few days later, showing that 78 per cent of the British public was in favour of it.

In 1983, Bevan's disciple Michael Foot, shortly before Margaret Thatcher's landslide victory, insisted that the real election was not that described by the polls, showing a huge lead for the Conservatives, but was to be found instead in the cheering crowds who attended his election meetings. All too often, the left lives within a closed world of its own. It can be successful only when, as in 1945 and 1997, it is in tune with popular aspirations, not when it seeks to impose its own prejudices upon the people.

More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that democracy was a new kind of society requiring a new kind of history. It is the
development of the scientific study of public opinion that enables this new kind of history to be written.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book "The New British Constitution" was published in June by Hart (£17.95)

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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