The crown on Richard III's coffin. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Labour in a trap, Cameron’s decade debacle, democracy at the Guardian and Leicester’s losers

Plus Richard III interred - and that end-of-term feeling as Parliament closes down.

My nightmare of a decisive Tory election victory refuses to go away. George Osborne’s Budget may have disappointed Tories who hoped for a cut in headline tax rates, and encouraged Labour supporters who think he blundered by failing to mention the NHS. Yet YouGov’s post-Budget polls show his personal ratings rising. Asked who would make the better chancellor, twice as many choose Osborne as choose Ed Balls.

True, the Tories’ poll position hasn’t improved so far, and chancellors’ ratings usually rise immediately after a Budget. But, I fear, the Tories will do themselves no harm whatever by promising more austerity until 2019. Labour’s “responsibility” for the financial crisis and subsequent recession has been firmly (and falsely) implanted in voters’ minds. So has the equally false allegation that Labour’s spending brought Britain close to Greece-style ruin. The more the Tories talk about austerity, therefore, the more voters are reminded of Labour’s supposed recklessness and incompetence. And the longer austerity goes on – or is said to begoing on, given that, in fact, Osborne largely abandoned it in 2012 – the worse Labour’s legacy looks. “They left such a mess that it’s taking us nearly ten years to clear it up,” the Tories will say. Eds Miliband and Balls are caught in a trap that will be hard to escape.

 

End-of-term feeling

No prime minister since Lord Liverpool has served three full terms of office consecutively. The fates of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair tell us that, after a decade, everyone becomes sick of the sight of whoever’s in Downing Street, and the PMs themselves go at least slightly mad. Because the law says a term now has to be five years rather than the more usual four, it was a statement of the obvious for David Cameron to say he wouldn’t serve a third term. But it was still a foolish error – we haven’t given you a second term yet, sunshine, and didn’t really intend you to have a first – which shows again that Cameron rarely thinks through the consequences of what he says and does. Neville Chamberlain was once described as a good lord mayor of Birmingham in a bad year. It may be said of Cameron that he was a good PR of Carlton TV in a bad year.

 

The infantry has spoken

Newspapers’ internal affairs, someone once said to me, are more political than politics (she worked for David Owen when he and David Steel led the SDP-Liberal Alliance, and so she spoke with authority). Several commentators saw lots of politics in Katharine Viner’s success in the staff ballot for the next Guardian editor and her subsequent appointment. The result, they suggested, represented a rejection of the legacy of Alan Rusbridger, the outgoing editor, and particularly of his single-minded focus on Edward Snowden’s revelations about the intelligence agencies. But without denying that such considerations had some influence, I prefer a simpler explanation: Viner is a more charming, more inclusive and less threatening figure than Janine Gibson, who started as the bookies’ and Rusbridger’s favourite.

Viner, a former editor of the Saturday paper and latterly head of the Guardian’s US operation, campaigned vigorously, buttonholing staff in corridors and telling them to vote from the heart. She said staff should get more feedback and career development, and the Guardian should have more “warmth and fun”. She thus won over the poor bloody infantry – reporters, specialist correspondents, sub-editors, all of whom feel desperately insecure and somewhat marginalised as the Guardian transforms itself into an international digital brand – and took the ballot by a thumping margin, with the slightly scary Gibson, boss of the company’s digital journalism, languishing in third place.

 

Insider dealings

The result wasn’t binding on the Scott Trust, which appoints the editor; had Viner won narrowly, it might have gone ahead with its plan to give the job to Gibson. But the rulers of a newspaper that shouts its commitments to democracy and equal opportunities could hardly ignore such a decisive result. Nor, with three plausible female candidates, could it do more than pay Ian Katz, a former deputy editor who moved to edit BBC2’s Newsnight, the compliment of making him runner-up. As for the various Americans it encouraged to apply – they included a former editor of the International Herald Tribune – they all disappeared without trace.

That is the trouble with allowing staff a significant voice. They will always favour an inside candidate – better the devil you know, etc – and outsiders usually want to keep their interest confidential lest they upset their current employers. (Katz, though his application was an open secret, was not on the journalists’ ballot paper.) Proprietors frequently appoint insiders anyway but sometimes newspapers need an editor from outside their culture. Would anybody have voted for Andrew Neil, an obscure Economist hack when Rupert Murdoch made him Sunday Times editor? Or for Max Hastings, best known as a rather self-aggrandising foreign correspondent when Conrad Black installed him at the Telegraph?

 

Pride of Leicester

The English are so stubbornly royalist that they will scatter roses, line the streets and wait hours to file past a coffin for a king who’s been dead more than 500 years. It seems appropriate that Leicester, poised to record the rare double of its football team coming bottom of the Premier League and its cricket team bottom of the County Championship, now turns out to celebrate Richard III, whose life ended in defeat not only for him but for the entire Plantagenet dynasty. Still, my birthplace always makes the best of what J B Priestley, in his curmudgeonly way, called “a very rum mixed list of historical associations”. As readers and viewers of Wolf Hall will know, Cardinal Wolsey died there – another loser, come to think of it – and he was commemorated by a local manufacturer stamping his name on men’s socks and underpants. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Daniel Hannan harks back to the days of empire - the Angevin Empire

Did the benign rule of some 12th century English kings make western France vote Macron over Le Pen?

I know a fair amount about British politics; I know a passable amount about American politics, too. But, as with so many of my fellow Britons, in the world beyond that, I’m lost.

So how are we, the monolingual Anglophone opinionators of the world, meant to interpret a presidential election in a country where everyone is rude enough to conduct all their politics in French?

Luckily, here’s Daniel Hannan to help us:

I suppose we always knew Dan still got a bit misty eyed at the notion of the empire. I just always thought it was the British Empire, not the Angevin one, that tugged his heartstrings so.

So what exactly are we to make of this po-faced, historically illiterate, geographically illiterate, quite fantastically stupid, most Hannan-y Hannan tweet of all time?

One possibility is that this was meant as a serious observation. Dan is genuinely saying that the parts of western France ruled by Henry II and sons in the 12th century – Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine – remain more moderate than those to the east, which were never graced with the touch of English greatness. This, he is suggesting, is why they generally voted for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen.

There are a number of problems with this theory. The first is that it’s bollocks. Western France was never part of England – it remained, indeed, a part of a weakened kingdom of France. In some ways it would be more accurate to say that what really happened in 1154 was that some mid-ranking French nobles happened to inherit the English Crown.

Even if you buy the idea that England is the source of all ancient liberties (no), western France is unlikely to share its political culture, because it was never a part of the same polity: the two lands just happened to share a landlord for a while.

As it happens, they didn’t even share it for very long. By 1215, Henry’s youngest son John had done a pretty good job of losing all his territories in France, so that was the end of the Angevins. The English crown reconquered  various bits of France over the next couple of centuries, but, as you may have noticed, it hasn’t been much of a force there for some time now.

At any rate: while I know very little of French politics, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the similarities between yesterday's electoral map and the Angevin Empire were a coincidence. I'm fairly confident that there have been other factors which have probably done more to shape the French political map than a personal empire that survived for the length of one not particularly long human life time 800 years ago. Some wars. Industrialisation. The odd revolution. You know the sort of thing.

If Daniel Hannan sucks at history, though, he also sucks at geography, since chunks of territory which owed fealty to the English crown actually voted Le Pen. These include western Normandy; they also include Calais, which remained English territory for much longer than any other part of France. This seems rather to knacker Hannan’s thesis.

So: that’s one possibility, that all this was an attempt to make serious point; but, Hannan being Hannan, it just happened to be a quite fantastically stupid one.

The other possibility is that he’s taking the piss. It’s genuinely difficult to know.

Either way, he instantly deleted the tweet. Because he realised we didn’t get the joke? Because he got two words the wrong way round? Because he realised he didn’t know where Calais was?

We’ll never know for sure. I’d ask him but, y’know, blocked.

UPDATE: Breaking news from the frontline of the internet: 

It. Was. A. Joke.

My god. He jokes. He makes light. He has a sense of fun.

This changes everything. I need to rethink my entire world view. What if... what if I've been wrong, all this time? What if Daniel Hannan is in fact one of the great, unappreciated comic voices of our time? What if I'm simply not in on the joke?

What if... what if Brexit is actually... good?

Daniel, if you're reading this – and let's be honest, you are definitely reading this – I am so sorry. I've been misunderstanding you all this time.

I owe you a pint (568.26 millilitres).

Serious offer, by the way.

 

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

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