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Fighting on to the end

With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on

Ministerial reshuffles seldom, if ever, change anything. In fact, the only one I can recall that did (and then substantially for the worse) was "the Macmillan massacre" of July 1962. That was the occasion when Supermac lopped off the heads of a third of his cabinet (including that of his chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd) at a single stroke. All this act of carnage achieved was to leave him defenceless in the face of Jeremy Thorpe's devastating gibe: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life." The reputation of the supposedly "unflappable Mac" never recovered.

For some odd reason - though I suppose, given the tone of the just ended Tory jamboree in Birmingham, it may be understandable - I've been thinking about the first Labour victory of 1997. The episode I still remember most vividly from that election is its "Heseltine moment". Just before polling day the then deputy prime minister was to be heard on BBC Radio 4's Today programme stubbornly insisting to a sceptical John Humphrys that he still expected to see a Tory majority of 60 - "and nudging up".

Why do politicians in adversity always feel the need to tell such fibs? What's wrong with facing up to reality and conceding that things are bleak when they so obviously are? If I were Gordon Brown, I would be inclined to follow the example of Douglas Haig. This is the Order of the Day he sent to his troops on the eve of an offensive in April 1918: "With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end." Not a bad message to deliver to potential Labour voters today.

Old soldiers, General MacArthur once told the US Congress, never die. They simply fade away. I'm beginning to wonder whether the same may not be true of political journalists. Three of the idols of my youth - Ian Aitken, John Cole and Perry Worsthorne - are still very much with us, alive, alert and in their eighties. And yet we hardly ever get the chance of reading an article written by a single one of them, at least in the mainline press. I can't help thinking that we ought to be able to benefit from their wisdom and experience. After all, as someone said the other day, this is no time for novices - and that applies just as much to journalism as to politics.

Mike - I beg his pardon, Sir Michael - Parkinson has his autobiography coming out. I shall be fascinated to see if he reveals our dark secret: that it was I who first put him on TV. It all happened like this. Back in the Fifties we were both working (for £20 a week) in the reporters' room of the Manchester Guardian in Cross Street, Manchester. In a transparent effort to retain its northern franchise, ABC Television had asked me to launch a new Sunday-night current affairs programme, to be called ABC of the North. Eager to discover talent, I cast my eye around my colleagues and hit on the then unfurrowed, friendly, open countenance of the paper's Yorkshire correspondent. I trusted and was not confounded: "the Barnsley clodpole" (as I disgracefully and snobbishly called him) proved an instant hit.

Nowadays my own experience of broadcasting is largely confined to playing the provincial halls - BBC Scotland, BBC Wales, Radio Ulster, all that sort of thing. What regularly strikes me, whether with earphones plugged to my head in the "self-op" studio at TV Centre or with eyes on a TV monitor in a broom cupboard in Millbank, is what a high standard these BBC outlets all manage to sustain. At a time when ITV is ruthlessly cutting back on regional news - that tame poodle, Ofcom, having failed to put up any fight to defend them - this service deserves to be more widely appreciated. Only one minor worry. Would we still be getting it if Michael Grade, now wielding the axe at ITV, had stayed longer than five minutes in the chairman's seat - to which he was shamelessly appointed by Tony Blair - at the BBC?

It's a chastening thought, but it must now be more than half a century since I first wrote for the New Statesman. The piece, signed only by "A national serviceman", was all about my less-than-heroic exploits in Anthony Eden's less-than-heroic invasion of Egypt in November 1956. When I first wrote this Diary I can't now recall, but that, too, must now be more than 40 years ago. All of which, no doubt, risks making me seem like the Old Man of the Sea rising to the surface from the Deep. But at least it provides me with the cue to extend all my best wishes to the paper's new editor, a former colleague from the Times, whom I have already warned privately must be ready to stay en poste at a minimum until the celebration of the NS's centenary in April 2013. And that, come to think of it, is now miraculously not even five years away.

Anthony Howard was editor of the New Statesman, 1972-78

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power