The NS Interview: Neil Kinnock

“Will we win on 6 May? At the moment, it doesn’t look like it”

How is life in the House of Lords?
When I was chairman of the British Council, I didn't go a lot. But I've been more in the last ten months or so. It's not a preoccupation.

And is the Lords all it should be?
Oh, no - it should be abolished. Before I accepted the nice invitation to go, I asked Robin Cook what he'd do. He said, "If we're going to change it, we need people there to vote for it."

What about electoral reform more generally?
I've long been in favour [of it]. I will enthusiastically campaign for it and vote for it.

How would you feel about a Lib-Lab coalition? A cabinet with Nick Clegg or Vince Cable in it?
I'm not even going to speculate on that. I am not as fearful of hung parliament as some. What the country wants is stability.

Many believe that having Cable as chancellor, for example, could help achieve stability.
The likely outcome of this election is more difficult to predict than any other in our political life. I've got a lot of time for Vince. I'd have more time for him if he hadn't torn up his Labour Party card, of course.

When was the Labour Party at its best?
Probably in 1997. Gutsy, purposeful. I hugely respect the party of 1945, but we're not fighting the same battles.

And who are the party's rising stars now?
Ed Miliband, definitely. Ed Balls. And Yvette Cooper has massive potential. I knew her when she was a student - she's a very good woman.
Are any of them a future Labour leader? The future is a long time. And if I was to single one out, I would probably ruin their career.

Why isn't Gordon Brown more popular?
He has been poisonously misrepresented by the press. People say they haven't been as nasty to anyone since I was leader, but I hadn't been the chancellor of the Exchequer, and Gordon produced this long period of sustained growth.

What part have the Murdochs played?
They never intended to support us. Untrustworthiness is in their DNA.

Do you regret Labour's courtship of them?
Tactically, it was handy, but a democracy that defers to them is a much-weakened democracy.

Will Labour win a majority on 6 May?
At the moment, it doesn't look like it. But it is within reach. The cliché "too close to call" really fits. And the current electoral system makes it even closer.

Why are the polls looking so bad now?
Thirteen years is one reason. Some in the party speak to journalists like therapists, articulating worries about this person, that figurehead.

Aren't there other considerations - Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance?
Iraq and Afghanistan certainly don't help. And I recognise the depth of feeling generated. But the people who are most concerned by the circumstances of these wars should be the most ready to support a progressive government.

What are your memories of the 1992 election?
The biggest difficulty was not communicating my conviction that we couldn't make it. I told Charles Clarke I only had a dilemma if we lost by ten seats: then I might have to hang on.

Do you regret shouting, "We're all right!" at the Sheffield rally in 1992?
It wasn't until about ten days after the election that people started writing about the "hubristic Sheffield rally" and all the rest of it. Given my time again, I wouldn't repeat it - but the great legend is complete, bloody rubbish.

What political decision do you regret most?
I didn't call for a ballot at the start of the miners' strike in 1984. I'll regret that until my dying day.

Does Labour still need the unions?
They played a very significant part in the party's formation and survival. It's vital the alliance continues. The myth is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. They never called the tune.

Your wife, Glenys, is a minister of state now. What is it like being married to a politician?
We've been married for 43 years, and the reason we maintain such loving amity is that we've only lived together for two. Glenys has a mission: justice. I watch her in action and think, "My God, I'm glad I'm on her side."

Was there a plan?
No. My first real experience of ambition was as party leader. It was my ambition for Labour to win, in which event I would be prime minister.

What would you like to forget?
I could tell you the things I would rather hadn't happened. But those, I simply can't forget.

Are we all doomed?
Far from it. This is the best time to be alive.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.