The life (and luck) of Nigel

Photo: Gage Skidmore. Wikimedia Commons

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage

Michael Crick, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 606 pages, £25

KEN BELL reflects on the career of Brexit’s cheeky chappie

Many of the people involved in the Brexit debate will merit footnotes in the histories of the period that have yet to be written. Nigel Farage, on the other hand, will have whole volumes dedicated to him, and Michael Crick’s biographymarks a worthy first contribution to the many that will arrive down the decades to come.

Farage is without doubt the most successful politician of our times. He did more than virtually anyone else to get the United Kingdom out of the European Union, and so has succeeded in all his political aims. He is also the luckiest. How much his success owes to pure chance is something for future historians to debate, but reading Crick’s work it is hard to argue with the notion that Farage was incredibly lucky with the opponents that he was given.

UKIP, the party he came to dominate, was founded in 1993 and would have probably remained a fringe outfit that would have been lucky if it had ever won a clutch of council seats. But then Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown came together, to provide the party, and Farage, with their first big break.

Prior to the 1997 general election, both Blair and Ashdown had discussed ‘The Project’, a plan to combine Blair’s Labour with Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats. But once Blair won his massive majority in 1997, he reneged on most of that, which left his erstwhile partner desperate to avoid being left completely out in the cold. Crick notes, ‘Ashdown fought to ensure that as a kind of consolation prize he at least got Blair to stick to his public pledge of PR [proportional representation] for the European elections of 1999.’ Blair tossed him that particular bone, but this also meant that minor parties now had a chance to gain seats.

UKIP took three seats in 1999, and came close in a clutch of others. It must be chastening for a Liberal Democrat to realise that had that election not been fought with PR, then the party would not have won any seats, and would probably have contented itself with another one of its internal rows that activists loved and real people hated. UKIP could quite possibly have split into its various factions, and the whole EU debate would have been held back for another generation.

One of the newly minted MEPs was Nigel Farage and given that UKIP had now gone from being a fringe outfit to a serious political party, invitations to appear on television came thick and fast. Farage could be relied upon to get his party’s supporters cheering at the TV, and at the same time enrage his party’s opponents. It made for perfect television, so Farage became almost overnight the household name he remains today. Again, luck played its part as the ‘Cavalier’ Farage was surrounded in UKIP by some pretty gruesome ‘Roundheads’ whom nobody sane would want anywhere near a television studio, representing the party or anything else.

Farage’s womanising activities are awarded a chapter all to themselves, which they deserve as Farage is an enthusiastic swordsman. However, I was struck with just how disapproving his ‘Kipper’ colleagues were with his women, and his carousing in general. Farage clearly enjoyed himself hugely in Brussels and that left his opponents looking even more gammon-like than usual. As he left to take up his seat in Brussels, a journalist asked if he was worried that he might become corrupted by the ‘lunches, dinners, champagne receptions’ and the like, to which Farage replied: ‘No, I’ve always lived like that.’

Anyone who has met Farage will recognise at once that he is very introverted. I met him once in 2013 after he had raised the roof at a rally. I asked him to agree to have his photo taken with me and he quite grumpily replied, ‘Yes, alright,’ before taking my hand and going into full grin-mode for the camera. As soon as it was over he scampered off before anyone else he didn’t know could talk to him. As an introvert myself, I knew immediately how difficult it must be for Farage to interact with strangers in any un-staged environment.

The author and Nigel Farage in 2013

Fast forward to 2019. In the run-up to the European elections, Farage came to address a monster rally in Edinburgh. I was one of the activists who were told to hang around after the event to go backstage and meet Farage. The idea was a bit of ego-stroking for us from the leader, with a few photos to show to our friends and handshakes all round. Instead, Farage left as soon as he walked off stage, which left a group of about a dozen people feeling very miffed indeed. Politicians know that a short pep talk to their senior activists is a big ingredient of any campaign dish. The politician tells the activists how important they are, mentions a few by name, before having the photos taken and then scampering off to the next campaign stop.

Farage broke that rule as he broke so many other rules of the political game. He got away with it partly because of his incredible luck, but also because for us it was always about campaigning to get Britain out of the EU, and nothing more. Nigel Farage, with his beer, his cigarettes, his women and cheeky grin, was the symbol of that but never its organiser.

Carrie On comedy

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First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson

Michael Ashcroft, Biteback, 2022, 304pp, £20

KEN BELL is unconvinced by an attempted character assassination

Michael Ashcroft’s biography of Caroline ‘Carrie’ Johnson takes the art of reputational destruction to a completely new level, gleefully combining the hatchet and stiletto.

By all accounts, Carrie was a bright young thing, and Ashcroft presents her as being of the type who go up to universities such as Bristol or Durham, as they ‘are among the most popular choices for pupils of her ability.’ Not Oxbridge in other words – but the universities that take those who have been rejected by Oxbridge. Thus the stiletto goes in, to be quickly followed by the hatchet, as one of her friends is quoted as saying: ‘Carrie’s very socially intelligent. She’s very good academically in terms of exam achievements. But she herself knew that by doing Theatre Studies at Warwick she wasn’t reading astrophysics at Cambridge.’

The idea of Carrie as being ‘socially intelligent’ helps to account for the rise of the ‘young lady’ after she graduated. Through her social set she met a relative of Zac Goldsmith, then used an introduction to him to start working her way up the ranks of the Tory nomenklatura. Through Goldsmith, she got a job with the party and from there inveigled a position as a special advisor, first to John Whittingdale when he was Culture Secretary, then Sajid Javid, when he ran Housing. By the age of 29 she had become the party’s Communications Director – not bad going for a woman who had never actually worked as a journalist.

The problem with all of this is that Carrie does not seem to have been much interested in either the policies of the party that she was representing, nor the minutiae of actual policy formation. She was often missing from the office a lot even when she was in London, and took several overseas holidays a year which left her completely out of touch for long periods.

Carrie’s broad social group seems to have protected her from much criticism, and her reported ruthlessness at dealing with people, especially other women, she did not like, tells us a lot. My favourite story out of many concerns the use of taxis, with each aide being given a code to use when they called a cab from a particular firm. According to Ashcroft, Carrie used the code that had been given to a girl she seems to have disliked, and used it on her days off to book cabs to ferry her around at the party’s expense.

As presented by Michael Ashcroft, Carrie is a flighty party girl who made a bee-line for important men and then attached herself to gain preferment. Although she briefly became the mistress of one Tory MP Ashcroft declines to name, she was not the lover of any of the individuals named in the book, which may be why they still speak highly of her. It may just have been that she knew how to tickle the middle-aged male fancy with a ‘girly’ persona. Boris Johnson was tickled enough with her to take her on as his latest mistress, with former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre speaking for many when he noted that she was ‘the 31-year-old minx who is the current Boris Johnson bedwarmer.’ However, Dacre was a poor prophet, going on to write: ‘As for the minx, mark my words: there will be tears before bedtime.’ Lord Ashcroft can afford an army of researchers for his biographies, but none have turned up even a whisper that the minx ever cried herself to sleep.

The biography starts to falter somewhat from the time that Carrie became first Boris’ mistress and then his wife. We are told via another anonymous source: ‘For Boris, Carrie was a fling. He never expected to be with her long-term. He was shocked when Marina said she was divorcing him. He never expected it. So he settled for Carrie.’ The problem with this line, which Ashcroft seems to accept without question, is that Boris had no good reason to take Carrie on as a long-term proposition if he didn’t want to. By this time, a sizeable number of senior Tory administrators had realised how useless she was at serious administration. He could have presented her as a problem that had been dealt with and within days she would have been forgotten. He didn’t, which suggests that he may actually have been in love with her, hard though that may be to believe for his legion of detractors.

Sadly, the rest of the biography is a chronicle of tittle-tattle, with no attempt being made to explain why the events mentioned actually happened, assuming they ever did. The wallpaper that supposedly cost £850 a roll for the Downing Street flat is probably the easiest to explain, since few men are even aware of the colour of their wallpaper and leave home décor to their womenfolk. Likewise, Boris’ dismissal of people by saying that Carrie didn’t like them may even be true, but a plausible reason for such events is that Boris was performing the old trick of blaming ‘‘er indoors’ for an action that he intended to carry out anyway. Finally, to what extent can we blame Carrie for interfering in decisions to the extent, supposedly, of whispering advice into his ear when he was speaking to senior figures on the telephone? If it happened, then surely the fault lies with her husband for not hushing her?

Much of this should be treated with a great deal of scepticism, especially at a time of international crisis. One would think that this would be a perfect opportunity for a girl who thinks a lot of herself to stick her oar in, but Boris really seems to be running the show, with Carrie, presumably, supporting him in the background by running the home and caring for the children. Put another way, if she was the Lady Macbeth figure of Ashcroft’s imagination, people would be complaining about her and they are not.

So what we are left with is a biography that was excellent when it described a flirty girl’s rise in the Tory ranks, but which cannot present a coherent, plausible explanation for what has happened since she was promoted from mistress to wife. That said, there is enough gossip in the volume to keep the most demanding political anorak happy for many long evenings down the pub as the tales that Ashcroft tells are told and retold, at least as long as Boris remains in Downing Street. After that, I fear the work will date very quickly.

Courtoom farces

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A Matter of Obscenity

Christopher Hilliard, Princeton University Press, 320pp, 2021, £30

KEN BELL follows the story of English law and ‘dirty books’

With its seventy-two pages of footnotes, Christopher Hilliard’s A Matter of Obscenity manages to combine the original archival research of the heavyweight historian with a lightness of touch that should appeal to the general reader.

His aim is to show that from the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, Britain had a system of ‘variable obscenity,’ which can be summarised in the words of a judge who held that if a work was to be condemned all that mattered was that it tended ‘to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.’ In simple English, if a magistrate thought that the gullible could be harmed by a work, he could order its destruction. That was the law in Britain until the 1960 Chatterley case.

Needless to say, gullibility was defined by education and wealth. It was assumed that a wealthy man was also a well-educated one, so such an individual could be trusted to view a sensuous painting in a gallery. On the other hand, a postcard-sized print of the same work could be bought for coppers by a poor man who, almost by definition, would be uneducated – and thus unable to understand the subtlety of the work, so would likely treat it as porn.

Hilliard presents many examples of this policy in action, with my favourite probably being Boy, a homosexual-themed novella written by James Hanley and first published in 1931 by a small publishing house called Boriswood, after The Bodley Head had rejected the manuscript on the grounds that it was ‘nothing but buggery, brothels and filth.’

Boriswood then took up the work and published it on handmade paper in a limited edition without any problems. The company then slightly bowdlerised the text and took a chance on a trade edition, again without any problems. However, even trade editions were so expensive in those days that the average man could not afford to buy one, which is why many readers were members of circulating libraries which charged a membership fee to allow people to borrow books. Thus Boriswood produced an even cheaper edition to sell to those libraries, which is why Boy became the talk of Bury in 1934, when the owner of a small circulating library picked up a few copies of Boy as part of a job lot of new books.

I think the reader can tell where this is going, and sure enough, all were prosecuted and fined heavily. The owner of the circulating library had wanted to fight his corner on the grounds that the book had been in distribution for several years by that time, but he was prevailed upon by various legal firms to plead guilty, with one stating, ‘The subject matter of the said work is one which is strictly forbidden, relating as it mainly does to intimacy between members of the male sex…no bench in this country would hesitate to designate the said work as obscene.’

Although the cinema and theatre also operated under variable censorship rules, Hilliard focuses on the world of publishing. The work is full of short comments that could be elaborated into chapters all of their own, such as the fact that William Dugdale, who along with his two brothers pretty much dominated the London pornography trade in the middle of the nineteenth century, had been involved on the periphery of the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820. In 1818 a spy’s report held that he was ‘a very active incendiary of profligate and deistical principles,’ so it is quite possible that following the crackdown on British radical politics which followed the Napoleonic Wars he used his old distribution network to sell the porn that he then produced on presses that had been used for political pamphlets.

The legitimate publishing houses dominate Hilliard’s work, of course. It is fitting that the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover receives a chapter all to itself, as that marked the final high-water mark of the state’s attempts to censor written texts. Thanks to Hilliard’s research, we discover that Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the prosecutor at the Chatterley trial had advised against prosecuting Lolita in 1959. So he was less the cartoon buffoon that popular legend has it, and more a man who would leave a work alone if, like Lolita, it appeared in an expensive, hardback edition.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was produced by Penguin as a cheap paperback, so it could be seen as a breach of the implicit agreement between the state and the publishing houses that pornography could only be produced in expensive editions. Griffith-Jones took the view that if it wasn’t prosecuted then it would be very difficult to ever prosecute written works ever again.

The fact that he then went on to do more than anyone to ensure that Penguin was acquitted with his fatuous rhetorical question to the jury which asked if they wanted their wives or servants to read the work, is actually not the main error he made. When the jury burst out laughing at his pomposity it must have become clear to Griffith-Jones that this was a trial that pitted the future against the past, and as is usually the case in such matters, the future wins. He should have objected to the prosecution in the first place, but he does not seem to have realised just how far outside the Zeitgeist he and others were.

Literary censorship did not end with the Chatterley trial, as attempts were made to prosecute other works, but either they were overturned on appeal, such as happened with Last Exit to Brooklyn, or the jury refused to convict, which was the case with Inside Linda Lovelace in 1970. It was after that last fiasco that the Director of Public Prosecutions ‘that in future their default position would be not to institute obscenity proceedings over prose.’ With one or two upsets, invariably overturned on appeal, that has been the case up to the present day.

A Matter of Obscenity travels a long road from William Dugdale to Penguin paperbacks, but between the two there is clearly a line of people who pushed against the notion that what was acceptable for the wealthy should be forbidden to the ordinary man in the street. We owe our thanks to Professor Christopher Hilliard for helping us follow their path.

Turned off by the turned on decade

Growing Up: Sex in the Sixties

Peter Doggett, The Bodley Head, 400 pages, £25.00

KEN BELL finds a survey of Sixties sex is really about 2020s attitudes

In Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin reflects famously:

‘Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.’

Britain in 1960 was still a country that belonged to its past, and a time traveller from the 1930s would have felt very much at home there. However, Britain in 1970 had become a country that looked to the future with great optimism and really seemed to be casting off its uptight and censorious past. Cultural historian Peter Doggett’s Growing Up: Sex in the Sixties casts a jaundiced eye over the decade and argues that it was all very bad indeed. That is not to say that Doggett is a full-blown fan of Mary Whitehouse, but he does treat her with far more respect than she ever deserved.

The 1960s was a disruptive decade where the future collided violently with the past, and the future won hands-down. That victory owed a lot to the contraceptive pill that was introduced in 1961. If you want to know why the Sixties swung, much of it was due to the fact that young women could have sex without fear of their actions having untoward consequences. Doggett does not mention this crucial point, but seems to take the view that women were generally victims of the decade, rather than liberated by it.

Growing Up is divided into twelve chapters, and three of them are devoted to looking for, and finding very dubious evidence of, the growth of underage sex. Most of these chapters are concerned with Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, which was first published in the UK in 1959 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a publishing house not noted for pornography. The publication was controversial, but no attempt was made to prosecute the publishers; that had to wait until 1961 when Penguin was unsuccessfully prosecuted for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Lolita was left alone because there are no sex scenes in it, unlike Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Both novels are fine literature, but Lolita is one of the greatest works of the twentieth century, and even the Director of Public Prosecutions wasn’t going to go up against a literary work, published in hardback by a major house, which had the support of most of the literary figures of the day. It is hardly Nabokov’s fault that the title of his novel became a code-word for underage sex. Had Lolita never been written then something else would have emerged to provide the key word that putative punters of such material would use to find what they were looking for.

The growth of underground pornography of all types in the sixties owed very little to Nabokov and a lot to another bit of disruptive technology, in this case the Xerox 914 photocopier that was introduced in 1959. It was a brute of a machine that weighed a hernia-inducing 648lbs, but it was a gift to the Soho publishing trade that until then had relied on Gestetner duplicating machines. The one-man aficionados of a particular kink also took advantage of the Xerox 914 to increase the output of their newsletters which they advertised in magazines such as Exchange & Mart. The machines were very expensive, but plenty of companies set up shop to cater for small businesses that needed photocopies and, in Soho especially, they were not too interested in what they copied so long as payments were made in cash.

From young girls, Doggett moves to young women, who are little more than the victims of men’s wickedness in his eyes. He has hunted down a series of nasty murders and assaults and presents these as somehow typifying the decade. Actually, far more typical of the period was women’s new power to control their own fertility thanks to the contraceptive pill, coupled with the liberation of Vidal Sassoon’s geometric haircut and the miniskirt. These things taken together gave young women the confidence to throw off their mothers’ iron perms and passion-killing corsets.

Homosexuals were also victims in this period, according to Doggett, who devotes far too much space to people who were peddling cures for that predilection. Yes, they existed, but by the end of the decade, homosexuality had not only been decriminalized, but pubs and nightclubs that were known to cater to a homosexual clientele were operating with only minimal interference from the police or the licensing magistrates.

Disruptive eras are untidy and often chaotic and the Sixties had all that, and more. Yet, by the end of the decade, Britain was groping towards a new consensus where adults felt much freer socially than they had at the start of the period. The author simply ignores the social liberation that became accepted after the decade, and concentrates only on the reactions to it during the era. In the end, his work is more about present day beliefs than the decade when suddenly everyone seemed to be getting it on.

Refighting the last war

The Armchair General: Can You Defeat the Nazis?

John Buckley, Century, £14.99

KEN BELL goes on the counterfactual offensive

Many historians like to say that counter-factualism is a waste of time, at least until the port has been around the table twice and then they tend to become as keen as the rest of us on the what if game. John Buckley’s The Armchair General is probably one of the best examples of counter-factualism I have seen in a long time, probably because he sticks as closely as possible to either what happened, or to what we think would have happened had things been slightly different.

Buckley takes eight major events from the Second World War and sets the scene for each of them in turn. Then, the reader has to make a choice from two options that are presented to him. Depending upon his choice, he then moves to another section of the book, where that scenario plays out and further options are offered.

Let’s take the aftermath of the Norway Debate in May 1940 as a case in point, as it is the first chapter in the book. Chamberlain has won the debate, but with a party that is badly split. Playing the role of David Margesson, the Tory Chief Whip, you take soundings and find that Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax are the two favourites to succeed him. Labour will not form a coalition under Chamberlain and lean towards Halifax, but will accept Churchill. Who do you recommend?

If you choose Halifax then the possibility of Italian mediation would probably have come into play. The war would end with a British defeat, but the army would have been allowed to leave the continent in good order and with all its equipment intact. Germany would probably have taken back the African colonies that she had lost in 1918 and possibly Malta would have gone to the Italians as a reward for their efforts at peace. All this would have amounted to a defeat, but not the end of the world, and a lot of people in Britain would have been happy enough to take the deal and ignore future events in Europe.

On the other hand, if you opt for Churchill, then your options can lead you to the actual historical outcome, but that is far from certain. The other option is based on the fact that Churchill was afraid that Halifax might have resigned as Foreign Secretary and taken Chamberlain with him to form a peace faction unless peace feelers went out. In reality that did not happen, but had Halifax threatened it unless he could at least explore the Italian option he would have probably got his way. In this version that is exactly what he does so we head towards a mediated peace brokered by Italy.

The really engaging aspect of this book is that by keeping to what we know about these events the younger students of history will be encouraged to see that historical outcomes are the result of the decisions that were taken by real men. Those men were often acting with unclear information against a backdrop of real pressure to come up with something.

It would have been very easy for Professor Buckley to fall into what I call the fantasy trap of the counter-factual game and go off with ludicrous flights of whimsy. Sir Winston Churchill as a writer did that with a piece that speculated on what might have happened had the Confederacy won the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He started by allowing General Lee to abolish slavery in the new republic, an utterly risible thought. Buckley keeps to the conservative options at all times, which makes his work very credible indeed.

The Armchair General takes the reader from May 1940 to the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Some chapters are more complicated than others, with the one devoted to the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa being a case in point. As part of the Soviet leadership do you remove Joe Stalin? If you keep him can Moscow be held? That section was one that I really enjoyed as the reader gets to play an NKVD officer, and I have always thought that I would have been rather good at that role.

The whole book is similarly great fun, based on solid research by a professional historian. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Punishing treatment

Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and the Cult of the Iwerne Camps

Andrew Graystone, Darton, Longman & Todd, £12.99

KEN BELL winces through a sad story of sadistic abuse and cover-up

John Smyth QC had a public image in the 1970s and 1980s as a conservative activist who worked with Mary Whitehouse in her failed campaigns to hold back the twentieth century. He lived near Winchester College, and was well-known there as a senior figure in the Iwerne Trust, which recruited young men to Evangelical Anglicanism. John and Anne Smith often entertained boys from the college at their home, and Smyth became known as a man who would openly discuss matters that troubled the budding Evangelicals. Masturbation was one, and the need for a man who has given himself to Christ to suffer for his sins was another.

You can see where this is going, and sure enough it made a marvellous cover for Smyth, a moralistic homoerotic sadist who used his position to take youths and young men to his garden shed, order them to strip naked before administering ferocious canings to their bare bottoms. As part of the ritual, Smyth was also naked, and lotion was helpfully kept on a side table which Smyth used to soothe the ravaged backsides before putting the victim into adult nappies so that the blood after a caning of up to several hundred strokes would not stain his trousers. Then the fellow would be sent off to the house, for a nice cup of tea from Anne, who would offer him a cushion to sit on. Smyth had thoughtfully soundproofed his shed and a small pennant was stuck in the garden as a sign to Anne not to approach.

On one level the story of John Smyth and his predilection for BDSM is yet another account of an older, upper-class, closeted homosexual getting his rocks off with younger men. There is no suggestion in Andrew Graystone’s account of anybody being coerced, and neither can Smyth be accused of paedophilia, as none of the submissive participants were pre-pubescent. However, it is always the cover-up that is important with these matters, and the concealment of Smyth’s activities involved rather a lot of people who did an excellent job of keeping a lid on the story for many years.

Smyth looked for participants amongst the older pupils at Winchester, which was an inspired choice as the school, according to Graystone, comes over as a closed world where what happens in the school stays in the school. The pupils speak what amounts to a cant tongue, where words that are really only known to the initiates are used; thus homework is called ‘toytown’ and bicycles are ‘bogles,’ to give just two examples. The whole institution seems to operate with its own ‘complex and arcane culture’ that had been handed down the generations with its original meanings probably long forgotten but which were adhered to religiously. New pupils were tested at the end of their first term on their grasp of the cant, and any who failed could often expect a dose of the cane to encourage further study.

His chairmanship of the Iwerne Trust allowed him to recruit volunteers for the rod from a wider field than just Winchester. The trust ran summer camps to provide intense religious training in Evangelicalism and entry was restricted to pupils at the elite public schools. The aim of the camps was to take tomorrow’s leaders of Britain and ensure that as many as possible became Evangelicals. John Smyth must have been in his element.

Eventually, of course, the complaints about Smyth’s activities began to mount, but incredibly enough, all the complainers did was contact the senior figures within the same Evangelical sub-section of Anglicanism that was part and parcel of the problem. A gaggle of fathers descended on Winchester College to demand that something be done, but at the same time they insisted that whatever was done had to happen quietly.

A report on Smyth was prepared in 1982, which runs to twenty-two short paragraphs, and sets out succinctly what he had been up to. This report was then hidden away and only shown to a few senior Evangelicals. Its author, Mark Ruston, was very concerned that Smyth’s activities may have been heretical. In particular, he believed that the canings strayed dangerously close to ‘a flirtation with Popery,’ owing to the obsession with ‘penance’ and it seems to have been that theological concern, rather than the BDSM dungeon that Smyth had created out of his garden shed that was the most troubling.

The headmaster of Winchester College banned Smyth from the premises, which mollified the fathers at least. The Evangelical capos concluded that Smyth was in error theologically, and that issue could be corrected quietly.  Smyth helped the process along by taking his collection of canes and nappies into the garden and making a bonfire out of them.

Finally, the Iwerne Trust arranged for Smyth and his family to move to Zimbabwe in 1984 with a special trust fund to cover his living expenses. There, he pretty much carried on as before only this time with African youths rather than English ones. Eventually, the heat became too much in that country, so he scampered off to South Africa and there continued in his old way until the local church expelled him. By 2018, with the story having finally broken, he very conveniently for all concerned died of a heart attack in Cape Town.

This fairly unpleasant tale is not really about Anglicanism or its Evangelical sub-section. It is actually the seemingly endless story of upper-class abuse, the sense of entitlement that those people have and the code of omerta that governs it all. By helping to break the story, Andrew Graystone has helped to shed some light into the activities, mores and attitudes of our country’s rulers and the state that exists for their benefit. That, finally, is a very good thing indeed.

Brownshirts under the bed

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How to Stop Fascism

Paul Mason, Allen Lane, 256 Pages, £20

KEN BELL finds a noted Labour intellectual fighting an imaginary enemy

Paul Mason is one of those interesting characters who now seem to pop up everywhere, telling the rest of us what to believe. In his student days he was a member of Workers’ Power, a Trotskyite grouplet that never had any actual workers in it. After a period as a teacher he moved into the media, first as economics editor of BBC Newsnight, then switching to Channel 4 in a similar role. He is now a freelance writer who pops up often in the Guardian, and his work seems to influence today’s left, which is probably why Labour keeps losing elections.

His latest offering, How to Stop Fascism, is a case in point. It argues that there is a new, fascist menace in Britain which must be rooted out. However, he presents no evidence to back up that claim, but then it is quite likely that he doesn’t need any. Mason’s works are clearly aimed at a particular middle-class readership – people who are convinced that working people are a racist tribe to be overcome.

That does not stop him from looking around to find evidence of this threat, and funnily enough his working class enemies always turn up to illustrate and confirm everything he is saying to his readership. So, in the 2019 general election, he went back to his home town of Leigh to campaign for the Labour candidate in that division, and on the doorsteps he heard “men my own age openly fantasizing about the ethnic cleansing of Romanian migrants.” Of course you did, Paul. My experience of canvassing is that if you can get people away from the TV long enough to open the door they tell you just what you want to hear to get rid of you, before going back to Coronation Street. The last thing you get is anything approaching a political debate.

Fast forward to June 2020 and our hero is in London, “an obviously multicultural city.” On the day that he was there, the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square had recently been defaced by the Black Lives Matter rabble, so understandably, groups of British working people had turned up to protest at that outrage to one of the nation’s heroes. Mason was just outside the square and found that he had

…entered a zone of white monoculture. Suddenly there were no students, no people of colour, no tourists, no out-gay people. I was back in the world I grew up in. White men, working class… shouting profanities and swilling lager.

It really is amazing how this author manages to keep bumping into working class men who confirm his colourful thesis. He even managed to see a postman in the crowd, and you can’t get prolier than that.

He ropes in Donald Trump to help bolster his case, even though he admits that “Trump is not a fascist”. However, he then goes on to say that “there is a plebeian mass base for American fascism, and Trump has chosen to lead it”. It is hard to know what to make of that concept, which reads as if Trump is a sort of Schrödinger’s Politician, simultaneously in two states of being at the same time. I was also taken with his “plebeian mass base” line: presumably he feels that the problem with today’s world is that patricians (like him) do not rule it. Mason goes on to say:

Trump’s victory in 2016 was a turning point. It confirmed that there is a massive constituency in the United States for economic nationalism and isolationism, and forced all other countries to accept deglobalisation as a strategic reality.

Now, given that for most of its history up to the advent of the Progressive Era in the 1890s the USA had been firmly isolationist and had protected its nascent industries behind a massive tariff wall, a very good case can be made for arguing that all Trump wanted to do was to restore the status quo ante, which is hardly the mark of a fascist. More importantly, Mason claims to be a socialist, and since when have socialists been in favour of globalisation? It should be remembered that globalisation is not the same as internationalism. I can remember when Communist shop stewards in British factories collected money to buy bicycles that were shipped to Vietnam. There they were used on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to carry war supplies to the South, as part of Vietnam’s war of national liberation. The aim was not the globalist one of opening Vietnam’s borders to all and sundry, or seeing Vietnamese people flooding over here to provide cheap labour in nail bars. It was the internationalist one of providing help to a people who wanted to govern themselves without interference from outside. (A bit like us with Brexit, perhaps?)

Mason is clearly a great fan of globalisation, since the politicians he hates, specifically Trump and Johnson, are “authoritarian nationalists” who “broke with the globalist consensus in the 2010s”. It is difficult to imagine either man as being authoritarian, with Boris in particular anguishing over the lockdown to try and control the coronavirus and Trump leaving all that up to the states. However, both men did break with the “globalist consensus” and since Mason is all in favour of that consensus it must mean that they are authoritarians. Or something; you can never tell with this author.

He never gets close to actually pointing his finger at any real fascists, or explain what fascism is, so that we can recognise its followers if we ever see them. To get around that problem he tells us,

Once we move beyond sterile definitions and understand fascism as a process of social breakdown…we can see the nit-picking formalism among some historians and the left as an obstacle to comprehension

I hope that is clear to you, because it reads like gibberish to me. The best I can come up with from a reading of the text is that fascists are the socially conservative, perhaps economically radical, “plebeian mass” who refuse to listen to Paul Mason.

Do I recommend this book to my readers? Surprisingly, I do. If you are a Tory worried by the shenanigans of Boris and his surreal cabinet, then you may be worried that your party will lose the next election, so read Mason’s book and put your mind at ease. On the other hand, if you are a Labour supporter who hopes your party will win the next election, you should probably have your hopes dashed now, so you will be emotionally prepared for defeat at the next election. People like Mason obviously detest traditional British values and the people who uphold them, and they now control the Labour Party, especially at local level. They are the ones who read works like this and believe the arguments in them because they tie in with views that the readers already hold. Come the next election, all Boris has to do is point out the contempt and disdain so many Labour intellectuals have for ordinary people – the plebeian mass – and then ask if they want people like Paul Mason ruling over them? I think that the answer to that question is obvious.

Another portion of Chips

Chips and Honor Channon

Henry “Chips” Channon, Diaries Vol. 2, 1938-1943

Edited by Simon Heffer, Hutchinson, 1,120 Pages, £35

KEN BELL renews his acquaintance with the famous Tory diarist

The Conservative MP and socialite, Henry “Chips” Channon, was a brilliant writer with an acid wit who also had an amazing capacity to misunderstand the people and events of the days he lived through and chronicled.

His wife, Honor, an heiress to the Guinness fortune, had been having affairs since at least 1937 with various muscular European skiing instructors, and this volume begins with Chips devoting many words to his fears that the marriage was breaking up. He could not understand why, and tied himself in knots trying to make sense of Honor’s attitude. In 1940 when the Luftwaffe bombed a farm belonging to Honor, Chips was disgusted by the attitude of Frank Woodman, Honor’s land bailiff, towards her:

He is insolent, swaggers about, and treats her with scant respect. She allows herself to be so familiar with that sort of people.

To anyone reading Chips’ diary entry it is so blindingly obvious that Honor had become Frank Woodman’s lover. When eventually Honor told Chips that she wanted a divorce, he went into an engaging meltdown and then on almost the next page he listed the money that he would make after a divorce, starting with the £5,000 a year that will be paid to him by her for agreeing to it. (That is about £250,000 in today’s money, by the way.)

By that time Chips had met Peter Coates, the upper-class rent boy who was known by those in the know as ‘Petticoats’, and by the more waspish amongst them as ‘Mrs Chips’. The two stayed together until Chips’ death in 1958, but as Simon Heffer points out in his editor’s introduction, Chips spent about £1,000 on Coates between their first meeting in mid-1939 and the end of that year. This would be around £55,000 today, so Chips was clearly much taken with Petticoats.

Channon was no better at understanding the political events that also swirled around him. He had supported Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938, and was devastated at the decision by Germany in March of 1939 to recognize the breakaway state of Slovakia, and then to grab the Czech-speaking rump of Czechoslovakia. However, in Chips’ mind this seemed more like Hitler betraying Neville Chamberlain personally, and less like the mark of a reckless gambler who was always playing double or quits, which is what it was.

The Norway debate in 1940 which led to the downfall of Neville Chamberlain is a masterpiece of reportage, mixed with a complete failure to understand just what was actually going on. Chamberlain won the division by 80 votes, and for Chips that was more than enough. However, it obviously wasn’t when such large numbers of Tories had either voted against their own government or abstained. To Chips’ disgust, the man he hero-worshipped resigned and Steepledick (the mocking nickname that the anti-Churchill faction had for Winston Churchill) took office as Prime Minister. Simon Heffer, who is no bad hand at dry wit, explains that the steeple part of the jibe was a play on the first syllable of Churchill’s name before going on to remind us that the nickname never really took off.

Channon kept his junior government post until mid-1941, and his war entries have a lot of good information. For instance, on 20th June 1941, Channon mentioned to friends that the Germans were going to attack Russia on the 22nd, which they duly did. That information about the attack had reached down to such low levels in the government, and that Channon could mention it over dinner, suggests that knowledge of the attack was pretty widespread in London. Once the attack did commence, instead of looking at ways to aid Russia, Channon slipped into his old habit of not understanding what needed to be done; instead, he dedicated much wordage to what would happen if Germany succeeded in her war-aim. He was convinced that she would win, and that would be the end of the British Empire, and the likes of Chips and his circle.

These caveats aside, Chips wrote incredibly well in a gossiping, housewifely style. He met Lord Alfred Douglas, the infamous ‘Bosie’ who had done so much to destroy Oscar Wilde’s life and reports without comment that Bosie had denied ever being “Wilde’s catamite”. Then, his advice was sought by a constituent who was also the mother of an 18-year-old daughter who was being courted by an over-60s baronet. Chips advised the mother to encourage the match, presumably so that in a few short years the girl could become a merry widow. Finally, he got into the habit of giving lifts to people during the bombing raids and one working man gave him a shilling tip when he alighted from Chips’ car. For once, Chips was rendered speechless. Normally, Chips had an answer for everything, usually very cutting, as at Chamberlain’s funeral in 1940 when he asked a fellow mourner who had not supported Chamberlain if the man had sent a wreath. When told that he hadn’t, Chips remarked that of course, “Decent Judas Blossoms are out of season,” before strolling away to leave his victim seething.

As a war diary this volume is sadly lacking in many ways, but as an account of life during the war for Channon and people of his circle it is a valuable source of information and gossip. Sadly, once Chips was out of office, the social scene takes over almost completely, along with tedious yearnings for Peter Coates who was away with the army.

Regretfully, Simon Heffer made the editorial decision to censor one entry which refers to a still living person. There are only two people this could be – the first being Clarissa Eden, who is 101 and an unlikely candidate. The other is the present Queen, and in spite of Heffer’s protest that the entry “adds nothing to historical knowledge”, that really is for us to decide in a volume that is sold as unexpurgated. That objection aside, enough remains to make this work a worthy successor to the first volume and leaves the reader eagerly anticipating the third and final part, which is due in 2022.

The year of Dr. No – and rural poverty

On the Cusp: Days of ’62

David Kynaston, Bloomsbury, 239 P, £18.99

KEN BELL admires a study of 1962, but wonders why that year was singled out for attention

David Kynaston must be the premier social historian of post-war Britain writing today, and his latest book is a fine, standalone work which really captures the air of a country that was about to change beyond all recognition.

The first three volumes of his putative series that will take the British national story from 1945 to 1979, Austerity Britain, Family Britain and Modernity Britain are house-brick sized volumes that really capture the themes embodied in their titles, and take the reader from 1945 to the early months of 1962. The next volume, which we have been waiting for since 2013, is to be called Opportunity Britain and will take the story from late 1962 to a point in 1967. However, that has not been written so what we have to keep us going is this short volume which argues that the starting point for the 1960s was October 1962 when the first James Bond film (Dr. No) and the first single by the Beatles (‘Love Me Do’) were released on the same day.

The Beatles clearly embody much of the 1960s, as do the Rolling Stones who also played one of their first gigs before a paying audience of two in a North Cheam pub “while four people stood outside listening for free”. However, it was far from certain in 1962 that either of those two groups would amount to anything at all, but the same cannot be said of what must surely be the real start to the 1960s which came about the year earlier in 1961.The contraceptive pill was only prescribed by the NHS to married women until 1967, but it was available on a private prescription from its 1961 introduction. That, along with the five-point geometric haircut invented by Vidal Sassoon in 1965, and the miniskirt of 1966, must embody the hedonistic spirit of the decade that only ended with the oil crisis in 1974. The music was background noise to the glorious New Britain that actually began with the Pill.None of those factors are mentioned by Kynaston, who instead chose to concentrate on three themes not discussed in his earlier works – rural life, industrial Wales, and immigration.

Life in the agricultural regions began to change in 1947 with the Agriculture Act:

On the one hand, cheap food for urban consumers without a heavy reliance upon imports; on the other hand, price-support manipulation, capital grants, subsidies and so on for the farmers. 

It was a system that worked very well, especially for the large-scale farmers, in what we think of today as agri-business. But the lot of the rural poor remained drab and miserable. Kynaston illustrates this with the tale of two spinster sisters, both in their 50s, who had pooled their limited resources to buy the farmhouse where they had both been born. They kept a few cows and other livestock. Water was brought in from a well, the cows were milked by hand and the resulting milk was churned by them into butter which was sold to their neighbours. The sisters’ way of life died with them as the young left the countryside to seek better wages in the towns and the urban middle class began to move into the vacated villages.

The old squirearchy became irrelevant, with only a few from the old order hanging on in greatly reduced circumstances. At the same time, as farm-sizes increased, the number of actual farmers and farm workers fell. Although farmers were involved in local politics and many of them served on district councils where they sat as the replacements for the old manor house caste, many stopped doubling up as local politicians because running their farms as businesses took up far too much time. Thus the professional, middle-class incomers began to run life in the rural areas, for better and for worse.

Over in Wales, coal was still king, but the throne looked decidedly wobbly. Oil was taking over as a means of heating and steam engines were giving way to diesel ones. Luckily for the Welsh, steel making boomed, as did the ancillary industries that relied on steel, so a redundant miner had few problems finding work that was a lot cleaner, a lot safer and often a lot better paid than mining. Few in Wales objected to pit closures; that would come decades later when mining had become the only game in many Welsh towns. Politics was dominated by Labour who had run Wales as a fiefdom for most of the century. By the 1960s that had led to the usual story of civic corruption and local cronyism, but demands for change were muted at best. The desire for Home Rule was a minority interest, mainly amongst the declining numbers who spoke Welsh. It is true that the Welsh Language Society was formed in 1962 to fight for the language, but Wales in that year still looked like the country that had been formed by the valleys, the mines, the chapels, the temperance societies, the unions and above all the Labour Party. Given that Wales is still dominated by Labour, one might ask what was really so special about 1962 in the country’s long history?

Opposition to non-white immigration was fairly widespread, with some managers at some factories letting the immigrant workers go first if there was a retrenchment. As one manager pointed out, “there would be a riot” if he hadn’t done that. The unionised workers were often opposed to the new influx as they saw the incomers as a tool that would be used by management to cut the wages. Peter Rachman was still alive and still letting out properties to West Indians most landlords would not rent to. Kynaston suggests that much of the opprobrium that settled on Rachman later came about not by his actions, but by those of his underlings who found him his tenants and collected the rents. Rachman set a rent, and the underlings increased it substantially, so that they could rip off both Rachman and the tenants. Opposition to New Commonwealth immigration was widespread but inchoate, as both main parties supported the government’s policy. Sometimes a hard line was attempted, as when a Jamaican shoplifter was deported back to her home country – something today’s government cannot seem to manage – but by and large a lid was kept on popular discontent via a quiet agreement between the two parties. It is hard to tell what has changed since then, to be honest.

One error that has crept into the text is a reference to my old tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, Raph Samuel. Kynaston refers to him as “Ralph (later Raphael) Samuel,” but he was never called by that name and was known to everyone who knew him as Raph. That minor caveat aside, On the Cusp is a worthy addition to anyone’s shelf, and reminds us of just how close and yet so far away we are from the early 1960s.

Social ranking redux

Credit: Shutterstock

The New Snobbery

David Skelton, Biteback Publishing, 253 pp, £16.99

KEN BELL says many members of the middle classes have found ingenious new ways of disliking people

Britain is notoriously obsessed with class, but now there is a new, ideological way of looking down on people. David Skelton, a native northeasterner who is director of the Conservative-supporting think-tank Renewal, argues that we have replaced old forms of snobbery with new ones, based on beliefs rather than birth. Contemporary British politics shows no sign of Nancy Mitford’s famous ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ distinctions (napkin or serviette, long A or short), or inherited privilege, or Captain Mainwaring-like painful insecurity, but has developed new prejudices instead. The new breed of snob is not interested in how a man speaks or what his background is, but in his outlook.

The new political arbiters are the products of the post-1992 expansion of the education system, and for over a generation they have felt that they set the tone of public debate, a debate which often seemed to involve attacking the people they regarded as being beneath them:

Comedians, who are first to loudly claim to be offended in most circumstances, are the first to savage the so-called ‘crap town’ within the UK and ridicule narrow-minded, proletarian values. The likes of the BBC’s The Mash Report and Radio 4’s The News Quiz had a regular habit of punching down.

When, in 2016, a coalition of traditional middle class voters and even more traditional working class ones voted to take the UK out of the European Union, their sense of entitlement exploded in a righteous outrage that continues to this day as the reaction to the Conservative victory in the 2021 Hartlepool by-election shows. One writer argued that “a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots,” before going on to ask: “How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?” This is not the old middle-class directing its angst at blue-collar ‘inferiors’; today’s snobs are the products of those former polytechnics that now degrade the name university, who almost invariably have well-paid roles as members of the local government nomenklatura.

What Skelton overlooks in his attack on today’s left is that Labour has never been an entirely plebeian party so the problem is not new. George Orwell made that point in The Road to Wigan Pier when he described the average Labour activist as being a rather shabby clerk, with “a background in Nonconformity”, possibly also a vegetarian, and the possessor of a position that he would not give up under any circumstances. Orwell could have been writing about the ancestors of today’s social work industry, teaching trade, NHS managerial caste and ancillary workers, but what saved Labour in those days were the industrial trades unions. Whenever some insane policy was thought up by the activists, the union block vote could be relied upon to knock it firmly on the head and keep Labour electorally sound.The destruction of industrial Britain, which led to the end of industrial unionism, has left the field wide open to Labour’s middle-class activists. The people they select for electoral office are as socially liberal as they are, and that factor pulls the party further away from its socially conservative voting base.

The snobbery and open contempt that Labour’s members have for their electorate is covered in great, depressing detail in Skelton’s work. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, far too many of them “hoped the Nissan plant in Sunderland would close” as the people there were “stupid” and deserved everything that was coming to them. “Others said they would be ‘pleased’ if the fishing industry was harmed by Brexit” as that was what people had voted for. At root, as Skelton says, this attitude is based on the belief that low-income workers are the authors of their own misfortune. The new snobs are meritocrats, who managed to wangle themselves a berth in a post-1992 “university” and believe that people who haven’t followed that road are too thick to bother about. This attitude now seems to encompass a sizeable chunk of the middle-class as a whole.

The problem is that the working-class is not stupid. They may have rejected Labour, but that is because whenever a Labour MP sneers at a house that flies an English flag, or the party opposes the opening of a new coal mine, as it did this year in Cumbria, the message that goes down the wires is that Labour is not the party of their values or economic interests. This is important because The New Snobbery is also a plea for a politics that treats the working class vote as something to be fought for. Skelton may be a Conservative, but he realises that unless Labour takes on board policies that appeal to its old, core voters, his party is not likely to do it entirely on their own. The Tories need always to be moderated, and pushed, by a Labour Party that has regained its sanity. Skelton’s analysis is shrewd and worthy of attention. The only problem is that having put his finger on the problem, he does not come up with any solutions. On the other hand, perhaps there isn’t one.