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Commons confidential: Meryl Streep and the self-publicist peril

Unluckily for MPs yearning for the limelight, Meryl Streep will be filming her role as Emmeline Pankhurst in Westminster during the Easter recess.

Voters can be awkward people, as Nick Clegg discovered during a stunt with Liberal Democrat MPs. The idea was to hold up a banner in Victoria Tower Gardens, the patch of green along the River Thames at the Lords end of parliament, declaring the Con-Dem coalition’s minor party to be marvellous or some such vacuous nonsense. TV crews assembled and commenced filming the Yellow Peril propaganda palaver – so far, so mundane. Until a demonstrator joined in. “Nick Clegg,” yelled the protester, “you know BEEP BEEP is a paedophile.” BEEP BEEP is the name of a once-prominent politician who may be recognisable to some NS readers. I understand that serious allegations have been made to the police about sexual abuse of boys and young men. Broadcasters, perhaps Clegg and certainly BEEP BEEP will be relieved that the event wasn’t transmitted live.

Colonel “Bonking” Bob Stewart is on manoeuvres. The commander of British forces in Bosnia-turned-Tory MP is the only Conservative on the Commons defence committee lobbying Labour MPs hard to succeed James Arbuthnot as chairman. I’m told that others – Julian Brazier, Adam Holloway and James Gray – are concentrating their drinks on fellow Tories. The position is decided by a vote of the entire House. A Tory MP by the name of Bercow successfully went behind enemy lines to be elected Speaker.

MPs are dividing into two camps after an email informed them that the veteran documentary-maker Michael Cockerell is preparing to make Parliament: the Movie. The Invisibles want nothing to do with the Beeb four-parter while the self-publicists clamour to be on the small screen. The authorities came up with a solution to prevent the self-publicists hassling Meryl Streep when she is filmed playing the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst: the Hollywood shoot is scheduled for the Easter recess, when they will be on holiday.

Should Streep be looking for an unusual memento, she could always buy a £16.95 model of the Houses of Parliament or a £19.95 House of Commons chamber. Both are assembled out of wooden blocks and sold in a gift shop. I counted a dozen nondescript MPs in the chamber box. That many shows it must be based on a busy day.

Back in TV land, a producer muttered disapprovingly that Diane Abbott was observed filling a paper bag with the pastries put out for guests.

The Egyptian rapper and star of Arabs Got Talent Mayam Mahmoud flew to Britain to collect the Freedom of Expression arts award from Index on Censorship. The teenager uses hip-hop to fight sexual harassment and stand up for women’s rights in Egypt but nothing prepared her for London. She was pickpocketed, the money being filched from her handbag. And we’re warned to be careful in Cairo. 

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear