William Hague unveiling his waxwork at Madame Tussauds in 1997. Photo: Dave Gaywood/AFP/Getty
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You find out who your friends are when you’re following William Hague and Ffion round the States

“Can you tell us who he is? So we know which one to photograph?”

There are many good reasons not to like someone. But sometimes it’s personal.

Once, you see, I was asked to follow William Hague around America. It was back in the mists of time when he was leader of the Tory party and he and his team were to go to the States to learn about this great newfangled idea, “compassionate conservatism”.

His press people cleared my presence on the trip.

I never understand why the Tories don’t just embrace “callous conservatism”. You cannot combine empathy with cold-bloodedness, any more than Hague could make himself lovable with a baseball cap and a blonde wife.

All were very keen that I get to see Ffion up close. Newspapers, even the high-minded ones, have an unhealthy interest in the wives of politicians, whereas I couldn’t care less if they’ve married a waste-paper basket.

So there I was in New York, embarrassed, really. No one in the States had a clue who Hague was. I stood outside a plush hotel as he went to breakfast with Henry Kissinger (Compassion Central) and all the American journalists were interviewing me.

“Can you tell us who he is? So we know which one to photograph?”

It was the same at a school in what used to be called Spanish Harlem. There I saw what compassionate conservatism meant: rows of kids doing science under banners “Sponsored by Estée Lauder”, or English literature “Helped by McDonald’s”. The Puerto Rican girls were excited by the arrival of English people.

“Do you know the Spice Girls?” they asked me.

“No.”

Hague’s advisers attempted that dreadful fake interest in the schoolkids’ work.

The girls did their nails.

Two other journalists arrived. One had missed his flight and had an overstuffed suitcase: Boris Johnson. The other was Michael Gove, who was nothing but charming and helpful to me.

We had to go to Austin, to meet the then governor of Texas, George Dubbya Bush. All these guys were travelling together on some Tory transport. They could have easily let me on, but no, they would not.

One callow boy of 27 would not look at me, or let me near Hague. His disdain was apparent. He and the Tory journalists all got on the prearranged plane but he wouldn’t let me board. As a result, I had to trail around on my own, booking tickets and arriving at places alone in the middle of the night.

The young man who would not speak to me wrote speeches for Hague. They say you’re either on the bus or off the bus: he certainly did not want the likes of me near any bus he was on. I was not one of them. He didn’t even bother with the rudimentary courtesies of the well-born. For the few days he had any kind of power over me, he chose to make my life way more difficult than it needed to be. Making people’s lives more difficult turned out to be his life’s work. His name was Gideon Osborne. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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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.