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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.