Detail of David Wilkie's The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch (1822). Image: Apsley House/The Wellington Museum/Bridgeman Images
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What the Battle of Waterloo teaches us about Europe today

The centenary of the First World War has reopened old wounds. Yet Germany and Britain once enjoyed a special relationship – as when they defeated Napoleon at Waterloo – and they could do so again.

The past few years have not been good for Anglo-German relations. The two countries have clashed repeatedly over the future of the European Union. A more robust London and a cautious – even appeasing – Berlin remain far apart on how to deal with threats as diverse as Islamic State/Isis in the Middle East and a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin. At the popular level, the start of a sequence of First World War anniversaries which will last until 2018 has reopened some of the old wounds. The question of responsibility for the conflict, which historians had long attributed largely to Germany, now rages anew with the publication of important and persuasive works on both sides of the Channel, including Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, which spread the res­ponsibility more widely. And, of course, the Second World War remains omnipresent in British culture and popular memory.

However, the deadly “Anglo-German antagonism” – in Paul Kennedy’s resonant phrase – that so shaped the 20th century is of relatively recent provenance. For hundreds of years the British and the Germans enjoyed a special relationship.

The fate of central European Protestants was an important preoccupation for 16th- and 17th-century Englishmen and it played a decisive role in the downfall of the Stuarts. When Britons before the late 18th century spoke of “the empire”, they meant the Holy Roman empire – Germany – rather than their own overseas possessions. In the 19th century, British and German liberals were united in their opposition to tsarist autocracy and their belief in progress. Respect for German scholarship and music was more or less universal in Britain. Until shortly before the First World War, the two peoples thought of each other as kindred; the British often spoke of the Germans as “cousins”.

But the greatest symbol of the Anglo-German special relationship was the Personal Union of 1714. This brought George Louis, elector of the north German principality of Hanover, to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland, in order to provide a suitable Protestant, and non-Stuart, successor to Queen Anne, who had died without a surviving male heir. The 300th anniversary of this event has been somewhat eclipsed by the centenary of the First World War, but it was marked on 20 October with a service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, organised by the British-German Association. The royal family was represented by the Duke of Kent and members of the British and German governments attended.

After 1714 Britain’s geopolitical horizons were delineated by two German rivers, the Elbe and the Weser, as much as by the English Channel, the Ohio River in North America, or any other more obvious natural boundary. The Union flag – scarcely seven years old – remained unchanged, but the White Horse of Hanover became a distinctive feature of 18th-century political polemic and iconography. By virtue of the Hanoverian succession, Great Britain – or Britain-Hanover, as she might better be called – lay, whether she liked it or not, at the heart of Europe. For the next 120 years or so, Britain became indisputably a German power, reigned over by Germans.

The Hanoverians were well suited to their new role. They were not, as critics claimed, despotic rulers in Hanover, where they collaborated closely with the local nobility. As princes of the Holy Roman empire, with its panoply of imperial law courts, the imperial Diet and the at least notional supremacy of the emperor, the Georges were quite used to irksome constraints on their power. In Britain, they worked with and through ministers responsible to parliament. The Civil List paid only for the rudimentary civil service, the royal household, the diplomatic service and the secret service. Most other important expenditure, especially on the army and navy, had to be approved by parliament. There was plenty of political controversy under the Georges, but their rule was not marked by the destructive confrontations with parliament that had characterised the Stuart era. No bill that had passed both houses of parliament was refused royal assent after 1714.

The Hanoverian succession was also a big step in the development of a British national identity. This was originally moulded by the 16th-century struggles against Spain and forged again during the wars with Louis XIV. As Linda Colley has shown in her book Britons, fear of universal monarchy and anti-Catholicism were important factors in welding the English to the Scots, as was – increasingly – imperial expansion. The German connection reshaped this identity after 1714. To a significant minority, the allegedly “despotic” and “boorish” Hanoverians became a rallying point for nationalist display. To most, however, the Hanoverian connection reaffirmed the sense of a common European project to defend their own freedoms and the “liberties of Europe”. They saw George, who had served with distinction against France in the War of the Spanish Succession, as a British warrior king, the vindicator of European Protestantism, and thus the defender of the balance of power.

Thanks to Germany’s Salic law, which stipulated that only men could succeed to the Hanoverian throne, the accession of Queen Victoria in Britain in 1837 brought the Personal Union to an end. Relations between Britain and the German lands remained vibrant, not least because the queen married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The close strategic link with central Europe was broken, however, thus changing the history of both Britain and Germany. Indeed, one of history’s more intriguing counterfactuals, which a BBC radio programme explored ten years ago, is how things would have turned out if Victoria had been a man. A “King Victor” of Britain and Hanover would almost certainly have brought London into the wars of unification, or deterred Bismarck from launching them in the first place.

The Personal Union left a substantial legacy. Streets in the capital city and across the country are named after German towns, provinces and figures. In the heart of New Town in Edinburgh lies Hanover Street, linking Princes, George and Queen Streets, the three main avenues on the grid plan. In London to this day, Hanover Square, Mecklenburgh Street, Brunswick Place and many other addresses testify to the strength of the German connection long before Victoria set her eye on Albert. Across the Atlantic, the Hanoverian link was reflected in the naming of towns, counties and provinces, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes by state action. There, too, the Hanoverian succession was widely welcomed as a defence against popery, absolutism and French or Spanish aggression. By the mid-18th century, there were Hanover or New Hanover Counties in Virginia and North Carolina. Hanover townships could be found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. After all, George I ruled three kingdoms, 12 colonies and an electorate.

Bigger still was the strategic culture bequeathed by the Hanoverian connection. It was often contentious, with the 18th-century debates between blue-water Tory colonialists opposed to European “entanglements” and Whig continentalists, who supported alliances on the mainland, prefiguring the arguments of Eurosceptics and Europhiles today. The balance of the ledger was overwhelmingly positive. Hanover served as the cornerstone of the British alliance system in defence of the European balance of power, which in turn underpinned the Royal Navy’s dominance on the high seas. The electorate was also an invaluable source of troops, some of whom were used for home defence. There was scarcely a British conflict before 1815 which did not involve either German troops or a campaign in Germany.

During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars this relationship reached a new level of intensity. France represented an existential strategic and ideological threat to both parts of George III’s patrimony. Napoleon’s ambitions on the Continent were incompatible with the independence of Britain and the integrity of the electorate. His domestic programme struck at the heart of the old order in Germany and at parliamentary liberties in Britain. The battle against “French tyranny” thus became a common rallying cry.

The King’s German Legion epitomised this joint Anglo-German project. It was es­tablished in 1803 when Hanover was overrun by Napoleon. The War Office laid down that the legion should recruit “none but such are Natives of Germany and speak, or at least understand German, including all German countries”. Unlike most of the foreign formations that fought in the coalitions against Napoleon, the King’s German Legion was part of the British regular army. Some of its officers were British. The language of command was generally English and so was the rank structure; the men of its 2nd Light Battalion were equipped with standard-issue Baker rifles and wore the same distinctive green jackets as the British light infantrymen.

A hybrid Anglo-German identity developed in the legion. It adopted the English enthusiasm for physical exercises, such as rowing, wrestling, stick-fencing and boxing, and team sports such as football and cricket. Senior figures, including the commander of the British Light Division, Sir Charles von Alten, affected the manners of an English gentleman. Officers commonly switched between the two languages in conversation and correspondence. This acculturation extended to the rank and file. It was not unusual for enlisted men to adopt English first names.

The Legionnaires had a distinctive ethos. Far from mere Continental mercenaries in the king of England’s pay, they perceived themselves as ideological warriors against Napoleon and French domination in general. When enlisting, Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann spoke of the need to “drive out the French who had no respect for any international law” and he looked forward to “we Germans and Swiss [having] an active role in the wars of liberation on the soil of the Fatherland”. The legion expressed none of the grudging admiration for “Boney” one often found in British ranks, nor the ideological sympathies for the Napoleonic project frequently expressed by other Germans. Friedrich Heinecke, who served as a recruiting officer for the legion in northern Germany, spoke of the men’s “patriotic sentiment”, their “mighty bitterness” against the hereditary enemy, and their determination to “fight against Napoleon and to cast off the yoke of French tyranny”. Such sentiments were shared by ordinary soldiers such as Rifleman Friedrich Lindau of the 2nd Light Battalion, who wrote a lengthy account of his experiences.

In 1815, the King’s German Legion came into its own. Early that year, Napoleon escaped from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba and once more threatened the peace of Europe. The legion made up a substantial proportion of the allied army sent to Belgium under the Duke of Wellington to deal with him. As veteran troops, they were allotted critical roles in the resulting Battle of Waterloo, at which the campaign was decided. The greatest feat that day was the defence of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, in the centre of the allied line. For a whole afternoon, fewer than 400 riflemen of the 2nd Light Battalion under Major George Baring, together with their reinforcements, held off a vastly superior French force. When they finally gave way in the early evening it was too late for Napoleon to finish off Wellington before Field Marshal Blücher’s Prussians arrived in strength. Without this epic defence – a kind of German Rorke’s Drift – Napoleon would surely have prevailed.

The centenary of the battle in 1915 caused embarrassment to the French, British and Germans alike because the global conflagration united Britain to her former enemy France against her erstwhile ally Prussia-Germany. “Our ally of that time,” the Hannoverscher Courier noted sadly in June 1915, “is today our sworn enemy.” When later generations of Britons “compare the accomplishments of the auxiliary peoples whom they are employing against Germany in this war with the services that German armies rendered them a hundred years ago”, the paper predicted bitterly, echoing the words attributed to the Roman emperor on hearing of the loss of his commander Varus’s men in the Teutoburg Forest in northern Germany, “it is only to be expected that they will one day send the baleful cry across the Channel: Germany, Germany, give me back your Legions!”.

Instead, the 20th-century Anglo-German relationship was to be dominated by the Second World War, in which the British empire and Hitler’s Germany were locked in a life-and-death struggle. Even after the creation of a new and democratic Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 and its accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation six years later, the unifying experience of the Personal Union failed to regain traction. This was not least because the Anglo-German relationship took second place to the growing Franco-German partnership. For instance, in 1965, on the 150th anniversary of the battle, a British attempt to send the Queen to place a wreath at the Waterloo column in Hanover during her acclaimed state visit to the Federal Republic was thwarted by the German government, anxious not to offend Paris.

Against this background, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015 represents both a challenge and an opportunity. The British government, mindful of the sensibilities of Paris, was initially reluctant to support the commemorations. Though it has since reversed course – as witnessed by George Osborne’s most welcome donation in the 2013 spending review to restore the Château d’Hougoumont, so courageously defended by Coldstream, Scots and Grenadier Guards and others – it is still not doing enough. This has caused widespread outrage. David Green, the director of the think tank Civitas, condemned the reticence, “especially if the reason is not to insult the French because celebrating the victory would be seen as triumphalist”. He added that “Britain was fighting a tyrant who had conquered Europe. It was a momentous moment that should be commemorated.” By contrast, Richard J Evans, the former regius professor of history at Cambridge, cautions against British triumphalism, partly out of respect for Napoleon’s progressive qualities, and partly because he stresses the “pivotal role” of Britain’s allies, which made the battle “more of a German victory than a British one”. The ambivalent nature of Bonaparte’s legacy is also a feature of Andrew Roberts’s monumental biography, published at the start of this month.

There is something in these reservations. The claim that Waterloo was a “German victory” was first made by the Prussian historian Julius Pflugk-Hartung before and during the First World War. He argued that the campaign was “a victory of Germanic strength over French rascality, in particular a success of the German people”.

This was elaborated on by Peter Hofschröer in a series of important but controversial works. It has even found popular expression in the James Bond film The Living Daylights. “I should have known that you would take refuge behind that British vulture Wellington,” the arms trader villain Brad Whitaker reproaches the hero. “You know he had to buy German mercenaries to beat Napoleon, don’t you?”

As many as 45 per cent of the men with whom Wellington started the battle spoke German of one sort or another, and the proportion increased with every Prussian formation reaching the scene. By the end, a clear majority of allied combatants were “German”; to that extent, Waterloo was indeed a “German victory”.

There are, however, no grounds for concern that the role of the allies will be neglected. The British have always been quicker to acknowledge the military contributions of foreigners than they generally give themselves credit for. Eighteenth-century heroes such as Prince Eugene of Savoy, who commanded in the War of the Spanish Succession, and Frederick the Great and Crown Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who commanded in the Seven Years War, were lionised by the British public in their own time. Sir David Wilkie’s famed Waterloo Dispatch painting (see page 22) shows a moustachioed Legionnaire alongside the usual assortment of Britons from across the United Kingdom. The Duke of Cambridge’s General Order, transferring the legion to Hanoverian service in February 1816, spoke of it having been “rendered immortal by the combined [author’s italics] exertions of British and German valour”. Foreign soldiers in British service feature prominently in the popular Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell and in their adaptations for television. The commemorative plaque recently unveiled on the wall of the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte was a British rather than a German initiative, executed by the Bexhill Hanoverian Study Group. There
is also a plaque in the Memorial Gardens, Bexhill, which was unveiled by the Wellington biographer Lady Longford.

Moreover, the Waterloo 200 campaign, which is co-ordinating the commemorations of the battle, not only rejects jingoism but also explicitly states: “Given the extensive structures which now exist within the European Union, with the profound habit of co-operation and pooling of sovereignty to defend and promote European values and common interests which has developed over the last 60 years among the European peoples, the commemorative themes of multinational co-operation, European integration and of pan-European security and stability are relevant and timely.”

We can in fact say that Waterloo was a “European” rather than a “British” or “German” victory. Thirty-six per cent of the troops in Wellington’s army were British (that is English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish), 10 per cent were King’s German Legion, 10 per cent were Nassauers, 8 per cent were Brunswickers, 17 per cent were Hanoverian regular army, 13 per cent were Dutch and 6 per cent “Belgian” (Walloons and Flemings). In the recent words of the D-Day veteran and former British chief of the defence staff Field Marshal Lord Bramall, Waterloo was truly “the first Nato operation”.

In this context, given the severe challenges the EU faces in eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the collective failure to address them by the eurozone generally and Berlin in particular, the King’s German Legion, and especially the 2nd Light Battalion, could serve as the model for a future European army. The citizens of the Federal Republic, understandably scarred by the experience of Wehrmacht crimes in the Second World War, should be comfortable with Major Baring’s achievement. The heroism of the garrison of La Haye Sainte was rational, not suicidal; they fought to the last bullet, but not the last man. Baring did not recklessly sacrifice his men on a point of honour, or in a spirit of death-defying hubris. He held on as long as he reasonably could, and then withdrew on his own initiative. He struck the right balance between completing the mission, the “honour” of the battalion and the responsibility he bore towards his men. Baring’s example is the very opposite of the “Thermopylae” or “Stalingrad” complex in German military history, where soldiers sacrifice themselves in total, whether usefully or pointlessly.

Baring’s men were a multinational unit, in a multinational army sent by an international coalition. In his final orders in February 1816, the Duke of Cambridge announced that at Waterloo, the legion had “powerfully aided the cause of Europe” as well as that of their sovereign, George III. The King’s German Legion, and especially Baring’s 2nd Light Battalion, thus represent a German military tradition on which the Federal Republic and the eurozone can draw to create a new unified military, either together with or alongside the UK. In this way, Germany will “give back its legions”, if not to Britain, then to the common project of European collective security. 

Brendan Simms’s latest book is “The Longest Afternoon: the 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo” (Allen Lane, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

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

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge