Gangs of 4 and 7: history repeating itself???

Gang of Four, 1981

The original 'gang of four', Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Kenyan and Wang Hongwenan were prominent in orchestrating Chairman Mao's cultural revolution, 1966-76. So when four leading figures in the Labour Party set up the SDP in 1981, it was hardly surprising that the media dubbed them the 'gang of four'.

The reason they did so was that the January 1981 Wembley conference had committed the Labour Party to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community. They also believed that Labour had become too left-wing and had been infiltrated at constituency party level by Trotskyist factions whose views and behaviour they considered to be at odds with the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour voters.

If Militant and the far left made Labour unelectable for 17 years, Momentum looks like doing much the same to today's Corbyn-McDonnell left-wing Labour Party.

Bill Rodgers, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams

But the main beneficiary of the SDP-Liberal Alliance was actually none of the gang of four, nor was it Paddy Ashdown and the LibDems, or John Smith but (according to current Labour mythology) it was that arch-baddie Tony Blair, the first and only Labour leader to win three consecutive general elections (which might have been four had he not stood down in favour of Gordon Brown).

Gang of 7, 2019

Yesterday, a larger gang announced that they'd had enough of Corbyn, McDonnell and the left-wing  anti-semitic party they now belonged to. (below). 
Ann Coffey Angela Smith, Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes, Luciana Berger, Gavin Shuker, Chuka Umunna

Although 7 may be more than 4 but none of the rebels have anything like the clout of  Jenkins, Owen, Williams or Rodgers, all of whom had been cabinet ministers in earlier Labour governments. What happens next depends on how many of their colleagues decide to join them. Shadow-Chancellor McDonnell (predictably) says that they should resign their seats and stand in by-elections. 

But Tom Watson, current Deputy-leader and Roy Hattersley former Deputy-leader have had more moderate things to say. So what happens next is anyone's guess - but is bound to be fascinating (at least for some of us)....

Paddy Ashdown: the man who never slept in

The Atkinson-Kenny-Levick families have been close friends with the Ashdown family for many years and have been devastated by yesterday's sad news. Knowing that he was seriously ill was bad enough, but when someone as tough and resilient as Paddy is defeated by cancer it's depressing to the point of being almost unbelievable.

The only consolations for him, but of no comfort to Jane, Kate and Simon and their families, are that he avoided being a hospital patient for too long and he avoided ever having to make the impossible (for him) decision to stop working so hard at so many different things.

On a ski-holidays we always had to get up to the sound of his early-morning trumpet-call to be ready to catch the first lifts as soon as they opened at 9 a.m. sharp. One  night, one of our children asked him if he always got up so early and didn't he ever sleep in and if not, why not? 

When pressed by the young, and to everyone's amazement, he said that he could only remember ever sleeping that late once!

Eventually I hope to write more about him. But, for now, let me just  share this piece from the Independent by Sean O’Grady, his former secretary - paying tribute to the politician who revived the Lib Dems and had a ‘rip roaring career’

Life after Paddy Ashdown: Liberalism needs a new torchbearer

Paddy Ashdown says he joined the Lib Dems because "people should be empowered citizens, not subjects of a patronising state"

 Ashdown's career makes you wonder if you're doing enough with your life.
Born in New Delhi during the British Raj, he was at various points an MP, party leader, peer, marine, youth worker, EU High Representative in Bosnia and even a spy.
He was instrumental in remaking British politics into, at the least, a two-and-a-half party system.

Those involved with the short lived Social Democratic Party (SDP) had dreamed of "breaking the mould of British politics" but won only a slender number of parliamentary seats.
Lord Ashdown's death is being mourned by politicians from all corners of the political stage
Lord Ashdown's death is being mourned by politicians from across the board
Lord Ashdown celebrates wit his wife Jane after becoming Lib Dem leader in July 1988
Lord Ashdown celebrating with his wife Jane after becoming Lib Dem leader in July 1988
It was Lord Ashdown's force of personality and dynamism, bringing the old Liberals and SDP together into the Liberal Democrats, which made that remoulding a reality - winning a slew of new MPs at the 1997 general election.

Affable, real, always with a story up his sleeve, he connected with the British electorate. At a time where the public were to rail against "machine politicians", he stood out.
Although a Liberal to his fingertips, it's no surprise that his death is being mourned by politicians from all corners of the political stage. His was an un-tribal politics, pluralist and open.

He worked closely with Tony Blair in the late 1990s; had the 1997 general election produced a hung parliament or small Labour majority, there's little doubt he would have entered the cabinet.
Paddy Ashdown shakes hands at a 1992 campaign rally
'Patriot, statesman and visionary' at 1992 rally
Later, Gordon Brown offered him the post of Northern Ireland Secretary in his administration. Conversely, in 2010 he would become one of the fiercest defenders of Sir Nick Clegg's decision to enter into coalition with the Conservatives.

Lord Ashdown's ballast and stature within the Liberal Democrats gave Sir Nick the shield he needed to take such a momentous decision and sustain it in office.

Lord Ashdown defended Sir Nick Clegg's decision to enter into coalition with the Conservatives
Lord Ashdown defended Nick Clegg's decision to enter into coalition with the Tories
But despite all his achievements, the vim and the verve, it's hard not to conclude that the sort of politics Lord Ashdown embodied and fought for is waning. His brand of pluralism seems ill at ease in our own age of anger and hyper-tribalism.

The Liberal Democrats, which he worked so hard to build, are now a rump, unable to shake the shackles of the coalition years. Liberalism itself, both in Britain and the West, is on the retreat, rocked by the advance of populism and mainstream parties morphing into more extreme echoes of themselves.
Chair of the General Election Campaign and former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, speaks at the party's spring conference in Brighton, southern England March 9, 2013
Gordon Brown offered Lord Ashdown the post of Northern Ireland Secretary
And of course, Britain's place in Europe, at the centre of his politics, as an avowed pro-European, has rarely looked more uncertain. He ended his life publicly mourning what he saw as Britain's retreat from her internationalist role, her place in the post-war order in which he so fervently believed.

None of that can be blamed on Lord Ashdown. Few can say they held the torch of liberalism aloft with greater force than he.Liberalism though, clearly needs a new torchbearer, one with at least some of Lord Ashdown's qualities. At present, few seem available.

Book review: Memoirs by Michele Obama and Ken Clarke

A Political Memoir?

Having just finished reading the best selling book of 2018, Michelle Obama's Becoming, I can report that I couldn't put it down and that I'm not at all surprised it became a best seller so quickly.

She writes extremely well, as you'd expect from someone educated at Ivy League universities (Princeton and Harvard).

Interesting though the latter parts the book are (en route for the White House and eight years as First Lady), I didn't find it as fascinating as the story of her childhood and early life in in a tiny apartment on the South Side of Chicago.

This is the story of how a bright daughter (with a bright older brother) was brought up by Fraser and Marian Robinson respectable working-class parents who devoted their lives to making sure their children had the best opportunities possible for African-American kids in a deprived area of Chicago.

Craig Robinson was a brilliant basketball player who got into Princeton, and was followed there two years later by his younger sister Michelle. After graduating, she did a law degree at Harvard and was recruited to a highly paid job with good prospects at a law firm back in her home town - where she eventually met her husband.

She's candid about her experience of being an African-American-Woman, who shouldn't really have been be at a posh university like Princeton:
' was impossible to be a black kid at a mostly white school and not feel the shadow of affirmative action. You could almost read the scrutiny in the gaze of certain students and even some professors,  as if they wanted to say, "I know why you're here.".... Was I here merely as part of a social experiment?' (pp. 78-9).
It may not be officially categorised as a political memoir, but there are quite a lot of similarities with another excellent memoir that was published two years earlier and definitely is.

Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir

Image result for ken clarke kinda blue  royalty free picture
Like Mrs Obama, Ken Clarke also read law (at Cambridge, England). Unlike her, he'd become interested in politics fat an early age and one of the reasons he decided to do a degree in law was that his long-term ambition was to become a Conservative member of parliament. 

Working as a barrister was well known as a good training ground for anyone wanting to become a professional politician - with the added bonus of learning effective public speaking and making a comfortable living - essential in Clarke's case as, unlike many Tory MPs, he couldn't rely on any family money to support him.

In the book and on its cover, there's refreshing honesty about his humble origins and upward social mobility:
'I never thought very much of politicians who make a great deal of their poor-boy origins. Nevertheless, I was bon on 2 July, 1940, impeccably working class' (p. 1). 
' In Kind of Blue, Clarke charts his remarkable progress from working-class scholarship boy in Nottinghamshire to high political office and the upper echelons of both his party and of government... His position on the left of the party often led Margaret Thatcher to question his true blue credentials, and his passionate commitment to the European project has led many follow Conservatives to regard him with suspicion and cost him the leadership on no less than three occasions' (dust-cover blurb).
So, as in Becoming, the author of Kind of Blue makes no attempt to conceal his working class origins' 
or his own success in making the most of the opportunities available to him. Like Mrs Obama, Mr Clarke is a good writer with a good story to tell.  It's another memoir I couldn't put down when I reading it.  Although I've never voted Conservative, I've always had - and in these crazy days of anti-Europeanism - continue to have a lot of respect for him.

I also share and/or approve of some of his alleged 'eccentricities': he's a keen cricket fan who still smokes, likes drinking Scotch and wears suede shoes. I'm not as avid a jazz fan as he is, but, as an author, I do admire the neat way in which the book's title and chapter-headings are all famous jazz tunes.

Skiing with Paddy Ashdown: fond, if sometimes exhausting, memories



These pictures of Paddy and me were taken ten years ago on the last of many ski-holidays we'd spent together since 1988, when he'd become leader of the LibDems. 

It was also by far the most exhausting few days I ever spent on a ski holiday - on which more after the history of the Ashdown-Atkinson ski-tours below.

Ashdown-Atkinson ski-tours (pre-internet)
Very early in our friendship, we'd discovered that we both had children of a similar age, that all of us liked skiing and that our families tried to go skiing every every year. For them, the Ashdowns, weekend family skiing had been a pleasant perk of life in Geneva (between his lives in the Royal Marines marines and in politics).

After Paddy became party leader, I'd book apartments for the Ashdown and Atkinson families and he'd tell friends and colleagues (including MPs, party members, officials, activists, etc.) where and when we were going that year. Some would make their own travel and accommodation arrangements, others would phone me to ask about this year's available options.
Flaine: one of the first
Ashdown-Atkinson resorts

During the eleven years of his leadership, many people came on these haphazardly packaged holidays. Usually there'd be 15-20 skiers (+ partners and younger children who might or might not be old enough/good enough skiers to follow the leader).

"Follow me to the first lift - no matter how cold it is!"
Those wanting to ski with the group in the morning knew that they'd have to be at the first lift as soon as it opened at 9.00 am.

Anyone in or near the Ashdown apartment also knew that they'd have been woken up at 'sparrows' fart' (Ashdown family jargon for 'crack of dawn') by the sound of our leader's loud imitation of the military reveille WAKE UP! bugle call - after which there'd be no chance of ever missing the first lift.

Once on the slopes, there was no need to think any more, as it was a matter of 'follow my leader' -  who allowed for the fact that it was often a mixed ability group that he was leading. So the route he selected would be reasonably gentle and reasonably free from other skiers. After a few hundred yards, he'd stop and wait for everyone to catch up in as safe a place as possible.

More follow my leader down the slope and however many more catch up/rest/gossip interludes were deemed necessary before reaching the next lift queue, followed by a longer and more relaxing rest on a chair-lift.  

During the days, there'd be occasional breaks for coffee or beer at mountain restaurants but we were then left to fend for ourselves from about 12.30 hrs to 14.00 hrs.
Paddy, Kate and Simon went back to their flat, where Jane would have cooked them a wholesome lunch.

In his skiing Paddy managed, as in all other aspects of his life, to be thoroughly focused, thoroughly considerate and thoroughly pleasant.


Q:  Why was this the most exhausting few days skiing I have ever done?
A:  Because Paddy and I were the only two skiers in a house-party of four: Jane and Joey had long since given up skiing and were quite happy relaxing in the chalet and wandering around the village.

My need for a very cunning plan 
Having skied many times with my son and family, mainly in Les Arcs, I'd discovered that there was much to be said for NOT getting to the first lift as soon as it opened at 9 o'clock.
Later on in the day, snow gets softer and less icy - and, if the sun comes out, it gets even easier to ski as the day wears on.  

In blizzard conditions and/or if it's too cold and icy, you can just mooch around bars and restaurants.

On this particular holiday, I obviously couldn't avoid Paddy's early morning bugle call and the first challenge of the day (for a leisure skier like me) was to delay our departure for as long as possible after breakfast - which I succeeded in doing on most days.

Help from the dreaded G word
Fit and healthy though he always looked, Paddy had suffered for many years from a painful condition he never talked about in public (gout in one of his legs), a condition that made the laborious business of getting a heavy ski-boot on even more laborious (and painful) than usual. So it was a real help having someone there who was willing and able to help.

Having spent a few minutes helping him with his wooly socks and cramming his foot into the boot,  I'd an excuse to take many more minutes pretending that there was something wrong with my own boots - which bought me enough time to delay our departure until 10 o'clock).

A heavy price to pay: hours of non-stop skiing
Once on the slopes, there was little chance to stop for a rest and I had to spend the whole day trying to keep up up with him with few chances to  stop for breaks. What made it worse was that the resort seemed to have more drag-lifts than chair-lifts, so I couldn't even sit down, have a chat and rest between the different pistes.

The pictures of us at the top of the blog were taken on one such day when (after much nagging from me) he agreed to stop for a coffee - not in a restaurant or bar with seats, but standing in the fresh air at a table poking out of the snow on a stick. A quick coffee each and we were off again. 

As on Ashdown Tours, he always selected the routes and led the way. But with only two to think about, he stopped far less frequently and for much shorter periods than when there was a big gang skiing behind him. Reaching him wasn't a cue for a short rest, but more like firing the starting gun for Mr Boundless-Energy to be off again.

Exhaustion, enjoyment and fitness
That's why these were the most exhausting few days I ever spent on a ski holiday. Though two years younger than Paddy, I knew him to be much fitter, stronger and a better skier than I was. Managing to keep up with him on these exhausting days therefore gave me a real sense of achievement. 

And, needless to say, apr├Ęs ski in the chalet with Paddy and Jane was, as always,  a pleasure...