Cameron, Blair and historical gaffes

Some history on the lack of history . . .

David Cameron is taking a battering in the newspapers and the blogosphere. In the midst of his first visit to the United States as prime minister, he told Sky's Adam Boulton:

I think it's important in life to speak as it is, and the fact is that we are a very effective partner of the US, but we are the junior partner. We were the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis.

Hmm. The Americans, of course, didn't participate in the Battle of Britain. In fact, the United States was plunged into the Second World War by the "surprise" Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, followed by Adolf Hitler's declaration of war against America.

The Daily Mail has gone to town on the story, citing General Sir Patrick Cordingley, former commander of the Desert Rats: "I am quite sure if Winston Churchill were alive today he would be dismayed." The Spectator's James Forsyth writes: "The error is even odder given Cameron's penchant for war movies: he's watched Where Eagles Dare 17 times apparently."

So what did Cameron gain from his expensive Eton education? You'd think, given the British educational establishment's obsession with the Second World War, that our collective historical knowledge of this particular conflict might be, um, er, above average. But you'd be wrong.

Cameron is the self-professed "heir to Blair" and Blair himself made a similar gaffe in the run-up to the Iraq war. As Robert Fisk has written:

Blair, of course, also tried on Churchill's waistcoat and jacket for size. No "appeaser" he. America was Britain's oldest ally, he proclaimed -- and both Bush and Blair reminded journalists that the US had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain in her hour of need in 1940.

But none of this was true.

Britain's old ally was not the United States. It was Portugal, a neutral fascist state during World War Two. Only my own newspaper, the Independent, picked this up.

Nor did America fight alongside Britain in her hour of need in 1940, when Hitler threatened invasion and the German air force blitzed London. No, in 1940 America was enjoying a very profitable period of neutrality -- and did not join Britain in the war until Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.

Ouch!

Blair exposed his embarrassing ignorance of history on several different occasions. Once, during an interview with Channel 4's Jon Snow on the subject of Iran and its alleged nuclear threat, the then prime minister had to concede that he had never heard of Muhammed Mossadeq -- the democratically elected Iranian prime minister that Britain helped depose in a 1953 coup.

But, hold on, things just got a bit better: it seems Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts are on their way to rescue our school history lessons!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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