I have spent ages today re-establishing my love for history. Mainly by looking up books I want to buy on the internet. Before buying them. I have poor impulse control. Shut up. Yes I will read them. Shut up!
Anyway, I’d just seen a throwaway status about a politics textbook and it made me yearn to read about 20th Century politics again. I find it so incomprehensibly interesting. The way the same inter-party bullshit has been going on without change for such a long time. Always trying to win out for the next election, then the next, then the next. Motivated partly by power, and partly by some ever diluting ideals handed down from the founders, generation by generation. But then there’s also the complete and massive differences. The Prime Ministers from the first half of the 20th Century were all so immensely charismatic, with the possible exception of Clement Atlee. “A modest man,” said Winston Churchill, “With much to be modest about.”
“A sheep in sheep’s clothing.” Churchill was not, particularly about old Clem, a wonderfully taciturn man.
Maybe it’s the distance, the years and the trickle of time, but it all seems so interesting. So dramatic, but so harmless. Time has lent it an inconsequentiality that allows it to just be fascinating, and not be worrying. Nigel Farrage’s UKIP worries me. Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts endlessly fascinate me. Nick Griffin disgusts me. Oswald Mosley amuses me. His early allegiance changes from the Conservatives, to Labour, to his own British Union of Fascism entertains me. How can such shameless grubbing for power not? Even the bloody rallies that led to the legislation that effectively crippled the party interests me.
You know what else interests me? The video footage. Especially the black swim suits. Oh yeah. Fascists in black swimsuits at the beach. That’s a thing that happened in history. Fascists. In black swimsuits. At the beach. With moustaches.
Then there’s Mr Stanley Baldwin. A personal favourite. A man so brilliantly incompetent he was only given government because of a secretary’s memo and a kings carelessness. A man who had before this announced country changing international agreements with the press before telling his own Prime Minister. A man who, within a hilariously short time of becoming Prime Minister, accidentally called a general election. A man who successfully saw this country through the only general strike it has ever seen. A man who successfully led the country through the abdication crisis. A man who dominated politics in Inter-war Britain.
How can you not love that? Bumbling through government after government, only really shining when the shit has hit the fan so hard he should have been writing his resignation speech.
And all whilst wearing tweed. And smoking a pipe. You know why else I love history? There’s a legitimate school of thought that says that’s why he was such a political powerhouse. Because his dress sense and smoking habits ingratiated him with the working class. Although, there’s a certain anecdote that might scupper that they knew or even cared what the man looked like, or smoked. Baldwin was on a train. He happened to be sitting near a man he used to go to school with, and the man was looking at Baldwin oddly. After a while, daylight dawned. “Ah! Stanley Baldwin! Such and such a school, class of whatever! Never forget a face. What are you doing these days, hmm?” I can only imagine awkwardness ensued. The rest of the trip must have been spent in a somewhat uncomfortable silence.
There’s David Lloyd-George, who led the country through WWI. Whilst alienating every major politician and party, running parliament out of his own private brains trust, maintaining a mistress, selling honours, and conducting some very dodgy dealings with a shady man called Maundy Gregory. No, don’t ask me what these actually were, nobody is entirely sure. Those who may have been were in the habit of disappearing. Often without a trace.
Of course, some historians are all, ‘Ah, but he got things DONE. And then he restored the norm and things carried on, so we’ll hear no more about it.’ Others can then answer, ‘He didn’t restore the bloody parliament until a year after the end of the war! He risked all out war with the Irish with an empty bloody bluff! He is responsible for the bloody Black and Tans, for Christs sake!” And so it goes on. Indefinitely. Probably for ever.
Because history is brilliant, you see. We’re starting to get Neville Chamberlain apologists, people are starting to say he was trying to do what was right for the country. That he was acting with the public mood. You know what? I’m leaning toward agreeing with him. One of the saddest pieces of footage in the world is the man coming of the plane from Germany waving around his piece of bloody paper. “Peace in our time.” Honestly.
I love how absolutely unique the politicians were. Aneurin Bevan. Known as ‘Nye’. A Welsh miner. Unacademic, he even had to repeat a year. He left school at 13. He is the beautiful man you can thank for the NHS. He fought, on an almost individual level, each hospital in the land, begging, bribing, and threatening until they agreed to enter the NHS. In his own words, he ‘stuffed their mouths with gold.’ He was a fantastic orator, had a come back for any occasion, and flatly refused to make any allowances – the man even refused to dress up for Buckingham palace functions. He was a lower class man through and through, and in my mind should be held up as a paragon for Labour.
And the quotes! Ah, the quotes! The scene: The European Economic Community, or the EEC, was to go on to dominate the economic scene in Europe. Britain was in two minds about joining, not wanting to offend the commonwealth. When the decision was demanded, the Prime Minister was out of the country. As was his deputy. Eventually, responsibility fell to a young Harold Wilson. Who, scoffing, described joining the EEC as “selling our friends and kinsmen down the river… for a marginal advantage in selling washing machines in Dusseldorf,” and sent them on their way. The EEC blossomed. Later, when begging to be let in to the community, Britain were denied.
I find this hilarious. I’ve also been remembering that quote for something ever since I left sixth form, so even if you didn’t, tough.
I love historical politics. For so many reasons. The characters, the way it shapes today’s politics, the simple explanation of ‘how we got where we are’. The way it makes me think about today – will Clegg be remembered as the Lib Dem’s Ramsay MacDonald? How will history remember Cameron and Osborn? Will Brown be remembered for his premiership, or his financial skill? How many children will commit the name Boris Johnson to heart? How many will love his blundering efficiency?
I could go on for another 1000 words (Christ, is it that long? (it’s longer, I’m lying)) But enthusiasm can only hold an audience so long. I’ll leave now. Goodbye.