Literary Review - August 2007
cultural themes (he is very good, for example, on Ealing Studios, and the early history of British pop music), but the core of his book, written to accompany the BBC television series, consists of a political narrative that begins with Churchill and Halifax arguing over the merits of a compromise peace in May 1940, and ends with Tony Blair’s supporters egging on David Miliband to stand against Gordon Brown. It is a tale of the rise and fall of ruling orthodoxies, punctuated by crises at home and abroad, and populated by a political class he observes with a broad scepticism, qualified by a degree of respect for individuals with decent and sincere convictions. Edward Heath and Neil Kinnock are both in his good books. The late Roy Jenkins, when asked about his researches into the life of Winston Churchill, replied that he had not felt it necessary ‘to go gwubbing about in the archives’. Andrew Marr has not been ‘gwubbing about’ either. In a strictly factual sense there is not much here that is not to be found in the work of other historians and biographers. But as in the days when he was the BBC’s chief political editor, it is the clarity of his judgements, the arresting insights and the irrepressible wit that keep us hanging on his words. Among his other qualities, Marr is the ideal history teacher that most people never had at school. I picture him, chalk in hand, leaping around the classroom and making the Suez affair or the ‘Winter of Discontent’ intelligible to the most backward pupil. Up his sleeve he carries a fund of funny stories and vivid metaphors to capture the attention of the class. Scotland, he writes, now feels more distant from England than it used to be, and the two countries are like ‘two pieces of pizza being gently pulled apart, still together but now connected only by strings of molten cheese’. Just so, and here he is on the workings of a bafflingly technical topic, the Exchange Rate Mechanism in the days of John Major: Europe’s old currencies ... were supposed to move in close alignment, like a flight of mismatched aircraft in tight formation. They would stick together against outsider currencies, notably the US dollar, behaving almost as if they were one currency. Speculators would not be able to drive them apart. Eventually, they would fuse and become one, which is where
How it all began...
the aircraft analogy falls down, because so would the aircraft. It is a measure of Marr’s professionalism that his judgements inspire the kind of trust which Tony Blair and his allies squandered through spin and outright lies. While not acquitting Blair of his share of responsibility for a disaster greater than Suez, Marr’s explanation of the sequence of events that led him step by step from success in Kosovo to the invasion of Iraq is notably fair-minded and almost awakens our sympathy. As for his claim that Frank Dobson, the first of Tony Blair’s Secretaries of State for Health, was ‘a staunch traditionalist and the man with the filthiest sense of humour in British politics’, who could doubt it? Not that he treats us to any of Dobson’s jokes. Marr is in fact very discreet about the private lives of politicians and only refers to sexual escapades when political history demands it. ‘This history’, Marr concludes with a flourish, ‘has told the story of the defeat of politics by shopping.’ All the visions promoted by the political elites, from the socialism of the Attlee governments to the modernising rhetoric of Wilson and Heath, the Victorian values of Mrs Thatcher, and the Blairite regime of bureaucratic centralism in schools and hospitals, have been rejected by a public that has retreated from citizenship into consumerism. With the role of the state much diminished, and conflicts over ideology and class largely forgotten, there is little now to connect the public and the politicians. It is doubtful, of course, whether the British ever trusted their rulers or ever took much more than a passing interest in politics. But Marr is surely right to argue that challenges such as climate change or the threat from militant Islam can only be met by a country which takes its politics more seriously. Sir John Reith, a pillar of the age of deference, would not have approved of Marr’s more irreverent remarks at the expense of the political elite and he might even have objected to his tactful description of Cherie Blair as ‘unreasonably frightened of not having enough money’. But he would surely have recognised in his fellow Scot another ambitious Reithian with a mission to educate as well as entertain. Seriousness has been out of fashion under Tony Blair, but it may be coming back under Gordon Brown, and not a moment too soon. To order this book at £20, see LR Bookshop on page 37
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007