US 2012 presidential race: Sarah Palin is back

The race for the Republican candidate for Election 2012 is finally getting exciting, and not before

The Republican race for 2012 just got way more interesting. Yes, Sarah Palin is back – launching her "One Nation" bus tour this weekend, with a series of high-profile events across the country. She's already bought a house in Arizona and made some significant new appointments to her staff. Now her specially decorated red-white-and-blue bus will be touring the north-east, trying to recapture some of the political momentum that she has allowed to drift away.

"As we look to the future," proclaims her website, "we are propelled by America's past." Well, that certainly obeys the laws of mechanics. And if you click on her page, you get an automatic message asking for donations – to help "promote the Fundamental Restoration of America".

Since Donald Trump formally bowed out, it's been Newt Gingrich who's provided some of the lighter moments, what with his comments about Paul Ryan's Medicare plan being "radical" and "right-wing social engineering". Then there was his $500,000 bill from Tiffany's: a rather unfortunate start for a candidate promoting the merits of fiscal conservatism.

Now, though – as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann prepare to make their formal announcements next week – we might have a race that's worth watching.

Polar star

But is Palin really a serious candidate, or just a sideshow? Fairly serious, according to the polls, though polls don't reveal much at this stage, given that many of the potential 2012 field are hardly household names. However, the latest survey, by Gallup, shows that the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney shares top billing with Palin among Republican voters, with other candidates left trailing in their wake.

The polls also show that she is one of the GOP's most polarising figures: overwhelming numbers of independent voters say they'd never vote for her, while more than a third of Republican supporters think likewise. Most people still think she's nowhere near qualified enough to be president – and attitudes like that are hard to break, when your character and track record are as public as Palin's.

But where her talents definitely lie is in self-publicity: the woman positively radiates self-confidence, and her rivals must be worried that she'll suck up all the oxygen of this campaign. None more so than Michelle Bachmann, the other right-wing Republican woman with her eyes on the White House, courting a conservative, Tea Party activist base.

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The Minnesota congresswoman is gearing up to announce her candidacy in Iowa next week – in the appropriately named town of Waterloo. She's just been holding an intensive fundraising drive, collecting an impressive $250,000 in a single day. But guess who's hogging the headlines? Palin.

According to the governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad: "We've never really had two dynamic women running for president in the Republican caucuses. I think it would be really interesting." Was that a euphemism for something? Is there even room for both?

Unlike Bachmann, Palin has yet to indicate anything definite about a possible run. She's still employed by Fox News, which has swiftly terminated the contracts of other presidential hopefuls – prompting Mike Huckabee, for one, to choose well-paid punditry over a far more nebulous political ambition.

And even though Romney's poll numbers show that he's steadily building quite a commanding lead among potential voters (not to mention a vast war chest of million-buck donations), many Republican luminaries are still searching for that magic someone who can capture the public imagination and heal the fractious divisions between the party establishment and its unruly Tea Party wing.

And if that's not Mr Romney, it sure isn't the Marmite of political candidates, Sarah Palin. Cue the flurry of speculation around the likes of Chris Christie, Rick Perry – even Jeb Bush.

At least the race is finally getting exciting, and not before time.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.