Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Peter Wilby: Her Majesty’s Nazi salute, the left’s gut feelings and Corbyn’s Foot problem

Do no Harman.

The footage of the Queen, as a six- or seven-year-old Princess Elizabeth, giving a Nazi salute in the 1930s cannot be dismissed as mere playing around. She had no idea what the Nazis stood for but her parents, the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and her uncle, then the prince of Wales and later Edward VIII, certainly did. Most Britons probably regarded Hitler as a somewhat comical figure, rather as they regard Kim Jong-un now, but the royal family and the prince in particular – whom Hitler later regarded as a potential figurehead of a collaborationist regime – may have been in earnest.

The royal family moved in aristocratic circles and, even now, few people understand the extent of pro-Nazi sympathies among the British upper classes of the 1930s. Most of us associate the period with working-class hunger but members of the aristocracy believed themselves to be in equal distress. With death duties at 50 per cent, their great estates seemed doomed and, if communist ideas took hold, their demise would have been greatly hastened. Since aristocrats’ patriotism depended on their continuing to own the country, many had no problem about flirting with treachery.

Like their German counterparts, to whom they had close links, British aristocrats considered Hitler a bulwark against communism. Before his career as a Soviet spy in the British secret services, Kim Philby joined the Anglo-German Fellowship, formed in 1935. Its members included Lord Redesdale, the Fascist sympathiser and father-in-law of Oswald Mosley, and Lord Brocket, a guest at Hitler’s 50th birthday celebrations. Philby knew that membership would put his credentials as “one of us” beyond question.

Given that she grew up among people willing to go to any lengths to protect their privileges, I suppose it is a miracle that Elizabeth II turned out as well as she did. We’d be foolish to rely on further miracles.

 

No privacy by appointment

Where the Queen is at fault – or, at least, where her advisers err – is in believing that she can reasonably expect to keep an eight-decades-old family film out of the public domain. The royals are not private citizens. Because the monarch’s position as head of state rests on hereditary entitlement, even royal sex lives and child-rearing practices are matters of public interest. Thanks to their palaces, estates and legions of servants, the Queen and her family have more privacy than most of us. They should, however, have no legal right to private lives; news­papers, broadcasters and historians should be allowed to publish what they discover.

Besides, if the clips are so private, why are they in something called an “archive” and not gathering dust in a forgotten box of junk, as most people’s old home movies and family photographs are?

 

First, do no Harman

The trouble with the left, we are frequently told, is that it deals too much in abstract concepts and not enough in gut emotions. So, allow me to engage my gut. It strikes me as shameful that, among 650 well-paid and comfortable MPs who have just got a 10 per cent pay rise, only 124 voted against a Tory bill that proposes to take money away from people, including children, who are infinitely worse off than they are. I am thankful that a few Labour MPs dared to join Nationalists and Liberal Democrats in the “No” lobby. Harriet Harman’s argument that because Labour lost the election it should abandon all opposition to welfare cuts is preposterous. Labour lost because it put its case badly. It should resolve to do a better job next time, not abandon its principles.

 

Surviving No 10

My gut also tells me that, since Jeremy Corbyn’s views are closer to mine than those of any other Labour leadership candidate, I should be thrilled by his 17-point YouGov poll lead. Even if I believe the figures, however, I have two problems. First, Corbyn is 66; if he fought an election in May 2020 he would be a year older than Michael Foot was when he lost in 1983. Voters would question his capacity to survive five years in Downing Street. Second, a Labour leader needs a supple mind, a willingness to compromise, a reassuring manner and a capacity to present the party’s policies in a way that gives them wide appeal. I fear that Corbyn lacks such qualities.

 

Northern fiction

My holiday reading this year included ­Jonathan Freedland’s The 3rd Woman and, on Kindle, D T Kiernan’s Barnsley Boys. Both are thrillers, which I do not often read, but one author is a fellow hack, the other a former schoolmate, and I regard it as a duty of solidarity to follow their work. Freedland’s is the more politically correct novel, as you’d expect from a Guardian columnist; he puts a superwoman journalist in the leading role and portrays most male characters as corrupt or deluded. Nevertheless, I preferred Kiernan’s because nearly all of his characters are working-class northerners, many speaking in Yorkshire dialect.

Perhaps my reading isn’t wide enough but since the days of John Braine and Stan Barstow such figures seem to have become an endangered species in English fiction.

 

Natural-born cricketers

Sport plays strange tricks with one’s emotions. Now the selectors have dropped Gary Ballance, born in Zimbabwe, for his Yorkshire team-mate Jonny Bairstow, born in Bradford, following the calamitous English defeat in the second Test at Lord’s, we are very close to an England team whose members were actually born in England. The only non-English player left is Ben Stokes, a New Zealander who came here at 12. Over the past 50 years, the England cricket team has rarely been without exiled South ­Africans, Australians, Zimbabweans, West Indians and others. In immigration debates, I am on the extreme liberal wing. Yet I shall feel more comfortable with an all-English (or nearly all-English) team. Perhaps my gut isn’t so left-wing after all. 

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 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.