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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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