2007 and all that

Was this year a good thing? Ben Yarde-Buller casts his sideways glance over the past 12 months

Happy New EU

As is traditional the new year* began just after midnight with a wave of parties, treaties and new E.U. member states such as Bulgaria and even Romania. As the Bulgarians and Romanians had very few Gross Domestic Products* they were unable to drink any champagne to celebrate being the new poor men of Europe. However they managed to cheer themselves up by gathering in public places and attending free concerts, often simultaneously.

* 2007
* except some raw materials e.g. cabbage

Cash for Honours

Tony Blah did not have much time to govern in 2007 as he kept popping round to his local police station to swear that he had never made an Honours Penny in his life. He did not enjoy this at all, as the police refused to treat him as a suspect or indeed with any caution whatsoever, even though he was a Prime Minister and thus by definition a V.I.P.

Shaat Al-Arab

Shaat Al Arab is not a racist slur. On the contrary it is the name of a disputed waterway running between Iraq and Iran* where fifteen British sailors were humiliatingly captured by Irani terrorists in March. This was quite outrageous as at the time of their capture the sailors were very much minding their own business by boarding and searching Irani ships for smuggled goods.

Eventually Blah made a diplomatic effort and persuaded the Iranis to give the sailors right back. However he soon regretted his actions as on their return they all sold their stories to the tabloids, thus damaging Britain’s reputation (as the stories were rather boring and not even particularly well-written).

* or vice-versa depending on one’s viewpoint

The End of the Blah Era

In geological terms the Blah Era was a mere blip but to most of the people involved it didn’t seem that way at all.

Towards the end of his Era, Tony Blah started trying to work out what his Legacy should be. At first his main ideas were:

  • Africa
  • The Middle East
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Northern Ireland
  • Afghanistan
  • Bosnia
  • A.N. Other Country
  • Good Friday

However in the end it turned out that Blah’s Legacy was none of the above but Gordon Brown* instead.

* no relation of Bennett

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown hotly denied that he was Blah’s Legacy, arguing that if anything it was the other way round (or vice-versa). He tried to prove this by having some very firm policies of his very own, fizz:

  • almost calling several elections
  • almost pulling several troops out of Iraq
  • almost gaining the confidence of several middle class voters

This is almost known as Leadership.

Smoking Ban

Smoking harms your unborn child (especially in public spaces) and was thus banned by the government on July 1st. This is known as a smoking ban and is a highly complex and controversial issue, as will now be proved beyond reasonable doubt:

Main Arguments (for the Smoking Ban)

  • I do not smoke
  • I do not like the smell of smoke on my clothes
  • Smoking harms my unborn child

Main Counter-Arguments (against the Smoking Ban)

  • I do smoke.
  • I do like the smell of smoke on my clothes.
  • Why should I believe you? Are you a scientist?

Sub Prime Lending Crisis

This unmemorable crisis was something to do with the American economy and is thus excessively relevant though not at all interesting except to:

  • people who have a lot of money and/or free time (and/or both)
  • people who are into northern rock
  • economists, doom-mongers, sub-prime-ministers* etc

Sub-Prime Lending might (but shouldn’t) be confused with the Cash for Honours Scandal, The Abrahams Affair or Political Donations in general.

* e.g. Gordon Brown

Afghanistan, Iraq and all that

Afghanistan and Iraq should on no account be mixed up even though they are both fundamentally somewhat Muslim and thus contain millions of disaffected young men with a negative attitude (and bombs). Also they are both Asian and larger than Europe and thus ideal venues for a war on terror.

In Afghanistan the War on Terror continued steadily towards Peace by means of skirmishes, massacres, roadside explosions, the Caliban and Class A drugs.

In Iraq the War on Terror brought so much Peace, security, schools, policemen, chaos and mayhem that British troops chose to withdraw in an orderly yet shambolic fashion before they were all killed. They tried their very best to hand over power to genuine Iraqis, but by mistake gave it to some Shia* Militias instead. This was A Bad Thing but can on no account be viewed as an abject failure (least of all by the politicians in charge).

* Irani

2008

It was thus finally time for everyone* to put their feet up and take a well-earned rest before 2008 (and all that…).

* especially politicians and other important types

END OF YEAR EXAM

1. Arrange in order of preference, starting with your absolute favourite: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Northern Ireland, Congo. Give four glib reasons for your answer.

2. In your personal opinion, what is a Mullah?

3. Which European country has the Grossest Domestic Product? (Hint: The answer is Germany.)

4. Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. Whatever next? Turkey?

5. Is this a libellous statement: “Tony Blah solicited cash for the Labour Party in return for dispensing honours.”? How about this: “Tony Blah sexed up the September Dossier in order to bolster his case for going to war against Iraq.”?

6. On a scale of 1 to 10 (via 5) how humiliating was the capture of British sailors by Irani terrorists?

7. Mind your own business (while straying into another country’s territorial waters and searching their ships for smuggled goods).

8. How cool is Britannia? (N.B. This is not a rhetorical question.)

9. Imagine for a brief moment that you trust Gordon Brown. How was it?

10. Pay lip-service to the crucial importance of the American economy then turn your mind to something more interesting (e.g. football or The X Factor).

11. Confuse and contrast Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban and (if you still have time) North Korea.

12. Write an email to your local M.P., expressing yourself in no uncertain terms.

13. “A Scot, a Presbyterian and an Economist.” How accurate do you find this assessment of Sub-Prime-Minister Brown?

14. Using only unavailable evidence, assess the situation in Basra.

15. Was 2007 A Good Thing? Your answer should take account of all of the following: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Taliban, North Korea, the England Football Team, Floods, Sub-Prime Mortgages, Sub-Prime Ministers, Russian Democracy, Anglo-Russian Relations, the Housing Market, Madeleine McCann, the Dafur Region, Chlorine Bombs, Global Warming and Paul Potts.

2066 AND ALL THAT - a memorable
Memorable Modern History from the Suffragettes to Saddam and Beyond (via the Coronation Chicken) by Ben Yarde-Buller & Sophie Duncan
ISBN: 978-1-90584-729-7
Price: £ 9.99
Publisher: Old Street Publishing
December 2007

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

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

0800 7318496