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The lost herd

When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, he made great play of appointing figures from outs

On 11 May 2007, in a speech at the Imagination Gallery in the West End of London during which he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown promised a "new politics" of openness, reform and change. He pledged to govern "in a different way", with a fresh style and new personnel. "I will reach out to put national interest before sectional interest," he said, "and I will form a government of all the talents, bringing people together to listen, to learn and solve problems, building on a broad sense of national purpose."

Within 48 hours of entering Downing Street as Prime Minister, on 27 June, Brown announced that the former United Nations deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown, the former first sea lord Admiral Sir Alan West, the former secretary general of the Confederation of British Industry Sir Digby Jones and Ara Darzi, one of the country's leading surgeons, would be ennobled and made ministers in government. Over the past two years, other non-politicians have joined Brown's ministerial ranks, including his former chief of staff and ex-head of the television regulator Ofcom, Stephen Carter, and the former City fund manager and multimillionaire Paul Myners.

Today, the Prime Minister's big tent is slowly being folded away, its frame dismantled, as one after another of the chief recruits to his "government of all the talents", called "goats" by Whitehall insiders, slips the ministerial tethers to graze in pastures new. Of the original quartet, only Lord West remains in office.

Should we be surprised? The Prime Minister is by reputation both a party-political tribalist and a keen centraliser of power - his former permanent secretary Andrew Turnbull described him as "Stalinist" and his former cabinet colleague Charles Clarke called him a "control freak". He always seemed an unlikely goatherd. Here was an opportunity for him to show the country his pluralist intentions and bipartisan credentials.

Tony Blair had been a strong advocate of big-tent politics: think of the late Roy Jenkins's report on proportional representation and Chris Patten's commission on policing in Ulster. Brown went beyond Blair, who deployed the great and the good from across the political spectrum only to advise, review and report, by bringing political outsiders directly into government.

Goats, however, are notoriously stubborn creatures, unpredictable and difficult to control. Malloch Brown became Lord Malloch-Brown of St Leonard's Forest in the County of West Sussex and was appointed minister of state for Africa, Asia and the UN at the Foreign Office. Within a fortnight of taking office, he had announced, much to the annoyance of Washington, that Brown and George W Bush would not be "joined at the hip" in the manner of Bush and Blair, a remark that seemed to suggest the end of the "special relationship".

When Malloch Brown resigned this month for "personal and family reasons", he said he remained "completely loyal to the Prime Minister". Yet reports since have suggested that the former international diplomat could no longer tolerate working in chaotic Whitehall, and had told colleagues that he had been party to better "strategic thinking" in Latin America and south-east Asia than in Downing Street. In a farewell salvo on Wednesday, Lord Malloch-Brown became the first senior minister to admit that British troops need more helicopters in Afghanistan - contradicting the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary - and he conceded that Brown's future looked "bleak". So much for loyalty.

His resignation was followed on 14 July by that of the Iraqi-born Ara Darzi - who, as Lord Darzi of Denham, was appointed by Brown as under-secretary of state at the Department for Health. Known as Robo-Doc for his pioneering work in the advancement of minimal invasive surgery and his use of surgical robots, Darzi fuelled speculation about an early election in October 2007 by publishing an unexpected interim report on his plans for NHS reform. He also angered campaigners, and Labour backbenchers, in a speech to the Lords in January 2008, by abandoning Lab­our's historic commitment to eliminate mixed-sex wards from NHS hospitals.

Darzi said he was resigning to focus on his medical work and academic research, but one has to ask: is this the time for a health minister to quit, as the Department of Heath grapples with a swine flu epidemic? He leaves the government having failed to see through the "once-in-a-generation" reforms he announced the government would be making to the NHS. Perhaps his only memorable contribution to political life is the time he leapt across the red benches in the Lords to save the life of a fellow Labour peer, Lord Brennan, who had collapsed after a heart attack.

Arguably the most controversial resignation - and appointment - among the goats was that of Digby Jones. The corpulent, conservative recent head of the CBI took the title Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, and became minister for UK trade and investment in the (then) Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He quit the government after just 18 months in the post following a series of disagreements with Brown over spending and taxation, rows with civil servants, and a stream of gaffes - including some embarrassing remarks at a forum of Middle Eastern entrepreneurs. "We don't care what colour you are," he said. "We don't care if we can't pronounce your names and we don't care where your money comes from. We just want you to invest in our country." Jones then said: "I'm a goat, not a professional politician."

Since leaving government, Jones has spent his time criticising both Brown and civil servants, telling a Commons select committee in January this year that the job of junior minister was "one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences a human being can have".

So who is left? The sole remaining goat from the original herd is the former first sea lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, who became Lord West of Spithead and was appointed under-secretary of state for security and counterterrorism at the Home Office by the Prime Minister in June 2007. Home Office press officers have since described him as "gaffe-prone", a "liability" and a "nightmare to manage". In November 2007, he questioned the government's plans to hold terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge, stating in a live BBC radio interview that he was not "totally convinced" of the case for change - only to perform a U-turn less than two hours later, after a hurried meeting with Brown.

His explanation: "Being a simple sailor, not a politician, maybe I didn't choose my words well." (The PM's spokesman issued his own memorable clarification: "I think he thought it was necessary to make sure his position was properly understood. I'm not sure he has changed his mind. Lord West made his position quite clear. Lord West gave his views quite clearly in his second statement.")

West is known for his bravery. In 1982, as the 34-year-old officer in command of the frigate HMS Ardent when it was sunk by Argentinian bombers during the Falklands conflict, he was the last to leave the sinking ship. His action earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. Nearly three decades on, the "simple sailor" remains the last man standing on the sinking ship of government. One source close to West says he has no plans to quit and that he is committed to his Home Office role - but adds "for the foreseeable future".

Brown's aides are curiously unwilling to lay any blows on the fleeing goats. One Downing Street aide told me each of them had "enrichgovernment" and that their contributions to public life "remain a genuinely positive story". What about Digby Jones? "Digby is Digby," I was told. "We knew he would be outspoken from the moment he was appointed."

But is this a genuinely positive story? One could argue that it was foolhardy to tread down this path in the first place. Political outsiders are, almost by definition, either ignorant of political rules, regulations, conventions and customs, or unwilling to conform to them. This was an accident waiting to happen.

Then there is the issue of ideology. As James Purnell (who resigned from the cabinet in June) has been busy pointing out, ideas matter, and constructing big tents in politics, welcoming as they may be, risks losing sight of this. New Labour was built on the assumption that modern politics is no longer ideological, substantive or divisive, that what matters is what works, and that there are bureaucratic, technical and pragmatic fixes to every political problem. This has proved to be a fiction. Bringing in outsiders to add expertise and experience to government is not new: Clement Attlee succeeded with the trade union leader Ernest Bevin, and Margaret Thatcher with the businessman David Young. Brown's mistake was to pretend that he could defy the laws of politics by appointing people who neither owed him party loyalty nor necessarily shared his political values. Jones, for example, is said to have discussed becoming a Con­servative MP once with the then Tory leader, Michael Howard. As head of the CBI, he had long opposed a range of Labour economic and social policies, chief among them the minimum wage. Why make him a Labour minister?

But, above all else, this is a story of a government of all the talents that could not keep those talents for long. On the one hand, we had a prime minister who thought he wanted independent goats in his administration but really needed loyal sheep; on the other hand, we had non-politicians who thought they could adapt to politics simply by virtue of their experience or expertise.

The shortsightedness identified by Lord Malloch-Brown and the bureaucracy singled out by Lord Jones are now hallmarks of modern British governance. The end result is a group of outsiders who have returned to the outside world, disillusioned, disappointed and depressed. That Lord Myners has announced he is leaving the Treasury to become a student of theology speaks volumes about life as a minister today. Whether we like it or not, politics will continue to be dominated by professionals.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right

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The Somme and modern memory

My father was 16 when he enlisted in the army in September 1914. Within nine months he was fighting on the Western Front.

On 30 June 1916, the day before the Battle of the Somme began, my father’s regiment, the Cambridgeshires, were 40 miles north at Richebourg-Saint-Vaast. What happened the next morning was a great acceleration of attrition along the front. My father’s diary – a black hardbacked book, fraying at the edges 100 years on, but with his immaculate pencil handwriting still legible – records that the Royal Sussex Regiment, in the line in front of his, launched an attack but “had to retire with great loss leaving hundreds of dead and wounded behind”. The Cambridgeshires also suffered; 28 were killed or wounded.

The next morning was a “lovely day, very hot”. Relieved in the afternoon, his company “passed graves of men who fell on the 30th. It was a sad sight to see the rows of dead waiting to be buried, with a chaplain reading the burial service over them.” He was 18 years and six months old: 2578 Signaller James Heffer, 1/1st Cambridgeshires, had enlisted on 7 September 1914 at the Hills Road recruiting office in Cambridge, aged 16 years and eight months, two days after the Kitchener poster was published in the press. He had lied about his age, claiming to be 19, the minimum at which one could be sent abroad. He was a tall, healthy lad and the recruiting sergeant might just have been taken in. He was on the Western Front by May 1915 and served there for most of the rest of the war as a signaller (he was fluent in Morse code even in old age) and despatch rider before manning the first tanks. The war, and particularly the Somme, coloured the rest of his life and cast a perspective on everything. If you could survive that, you could survive anything.

I was a child of his second marriage. He was widowed in his late fifties and was 62 when I was born. I recall the Saturdays before Remembrance Sunday in the 1960s, when he would drive to Cambridge for his regimental reunion. He came back uplifted: he was in no doubt about how awful the war had been, how duped the people had been, and what a terrible price men such as those with whom he served had been called upon to pay for the mistakes of politicians. Yet he made friendships in the trenches that lasted for life; the Cambridgeshires had their share of losses but were not devastated in the way that some other regiments were.

James Heffer and his three brothers all served on the Western Front for over three years and came back in one piece. When I was a child, he would take out some maps he had of the front, used so often that their seams were patched with brown Sellotape. He had marked the trenches on them and would talk me through passages in the diary with reference to the maps and recall long-dead men whose names he had noted. Visiting war cemeteries in the 1990s, many years after his death, I found some of them. For him, remembrance was never abstract.

***

In July 1916, word went up the line about how well things were going further south. “British and French still making good progress in the Somme – 9 villages taken,” my father wrote on 3 July. There was no mention of the inconceivable number of dead and wounded on that first day. As a signaller, he received information to which most in the ranks had no access, and in keeping a diary he was in breach of King’s Regulations. It seems that the men at the front were told only good news: villages captured, huge numbers of prisoners taken. However, as they met those who had been in the thick of it, the truth could not be contained. After a month just outside Lens, the Cambridgeshires were relieved by the East Yorks. “By what they said,” my father noted on 10 August, with commendable understatement, “the Somme ­offensive is not at all a success.”

James Heffer spent the next week just outside Arras, learning a new form of visual signalling and being trained in attacking enemy trenches. Both skills were felt to have been deficient in the great battle and the next wave of soldiers had to be better. “I had seen better attacks made by Boy Scouts,” he wrote on 18 August. Within five days, he was on the front line of the Somme battlefield, country he knew well, as the regiment had been there in October 1915. As they neared Pozières, he noted a bombardment of unusual force and duration. By 26 August he was at Thiepval, where Lutyens’s great monument now crowns the battlefield. “Everywhere you looked there were guns and they were keeping up their fire. I had no idea we had so many guns. I bet they give the Germans a merry time.”

The bombardment continued all night, most of the following day and all the following night. James remained standing in mud and water, even though the hot weather had persisted. The rations had deteriorated. This was a harshness of warfare he had not experienced in his 15 months in France. A gas attack was launched on the night of 28 August; the following day, a British plane was shot down in no-man’s-land. “Both airmen killed: they lie just the other side of the trench riddled by the Germans’ bullets.” By 30 August, after four days of non-stop shelling and comrades being picked off around him, he was “tired and miserable”. A high point was the arrival of a German deserter, who admitted that things were no better on the other side.

On 3 September, he wrote: “At 5am every man was ordered to get into the trench as bombardment was about to commence.” However, three signallers – including James – were sent to a fort in the trench system to establish communications with another unit of the regiment. “The sky was coloured blood red by the rising sun and everything shook and trembled when all our guns opened out.” Looking through clouds of smoke, he wrote: “[The town of] Albert could be seen, with its shattered towers looming faintly above the smoke. It was a splendid but yet awful sight when you think of the lives to be lost and this bloody conflict through a country’s greed for territory.”

Eventually James went forward: “The rest of us made for trenches across country under heavy shelling. Reached communications trench, which was blocked up by dead and wounded. It was hell itself . . . The bottom of the trench was a mixture of blood and mud while it rained iron from above. Just missed getting buried alive several times by large shells.” There was no respite. He was sent back with a signal and “had to crawl over dead and wounded getting back. Some had awful wounds. What with the smell of blood, no food, no sleep it took me all my time to get along.”

He discovered that the rest of his battalion had been forced to retreat by the huge German bombardment. They managed to hold their original position until the Hertfordshires relieved them.

The next day they were back in the line, under a torrent of German gas shells. “Kept this up for six hours. Put on gas helmets. Had about 6,000 over with one on the top of the dugout. It was enough to send one mad when tired out as we were.”

The staccato nature of the writing reflects his exhaustion and, perhaps, an attempt to keep a distance from the constant horror. When the bombardment ceased he sustained a minor wound: “I got through with just one small knock from shrapnel,
bringing dead in.” He and his surviving comrades spent the whole of the next day bringing in the casualties: he estimated that 5,000 men in the division had been killed or wounded, and the Cambridgeshires had lost 140. For several days they braced themselves for a German attack. By the time they moved to Beaumont-Hamel on 13 September, it had not come.

Over the next fortnight, friends and comrades are killed by stray shells or snipers. There are near misses for the diarist, who is several times buried in mud, sandbags and chalk as shells burst on the trench parapet. A dugout he has just evacuated is obliterated by a direct hit. Attempts to take German positions fail, usually because of an inability to cut the wire. An officer is wounded and another who tries to retrieve him is taken prisoner; a third is wounded even more seriously in making another attempt; the next officer who goes out never comes back. It typifies the futility of the battle.

Regular transports attempt to bring in food but the Germans have taken a small hill nearby and wreck the vehicles before they reach the trenches, or attack them as they are unloading. On 25 September the shelling becomes so heavy that the transport goes “hell for leather” before delivering any food. However: “We had about 2 quarts of rum between 8 men so you can bet we had a jolly old time before the night was out.”

The next day, he watched British shells landing on the centre of Thiepval “like hundreds of volcanoes just exploding, and it looked as if the hill was slowly being blown to pieces”. The battle had been raging now for nearly three months and the ­attacks continued day and night. “At 11am [26 September] the artillery here opened out like one long crash of thunder and the earth rocked with the vibration: such an artillery action I had never heard before.” This was the attempt to recapture Thiepval.

He observed the enemy from a ridge: “The Germans I could see running towards us across the open, in places where the trenches had been knocked flat . . . There must have been a company of them without rifles and equipment running and falling down the trench in mad terror, exposed to anybody who would care to shoot them, our shells bursting right among them. I had never seen men run like it before.” The Germans were surrounded and he soon watched through his binoculars a wave of British troops jump into the same trench and start shooting – before the Geneva Conventions, prisoners were not always taken. He saw Germans using the remains of sandbags as white flags and surrendering.

On 29 September, after five weeks on the Somme, his battle ended with a “Blighty one”, a wound so bad that he had to be repatriated. He was standing by a trench mortar when a shell in it blew up. “With a smash, we were blown back, deafened and choking. I thought my heart was never going to start again.” His right hand was badly burned, “the fat burning on my fingers”. A corporal helped put out the flames on his hand: “I went mad: the pain was awful.” He recorded this a few weeks later at Leeds Infirmary, where surgeons managed to save his right hand, once he had regained the use of it.

***

James Heffer went back to France early in 1917 and was still six weeks from his 21st birthday when the Armistice was signed. He talked of the Somme, like the rest of his war, with the detachment of a historian (he became a tax inspector) rather than with the emotion of one who had been up to his ankles in blood there. Perhaps even for one so calm and as philosophical as he was, any detailed introspection was, even half a century afterwards, more than would be wise.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain