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Accepting that I would not become a politician


Being fascinated by politics for a long time
Anthony Howard Writer
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I find it very hard to know why I first became interested in politics. My father and mother had no interest in politics, really. I think my father was a liberal conservative, he was entirely opposed to capital punishment and things like that. He thought the whole Suez expedition in 1956, which I was engaged in as a national serviceman, was absolute, if not criminal, was at least lunacy. And he was quite right, of course. My mother, I think, eventually became a kind of… possibly even on my account, occasionally a Labour voter, but probably much more likely SDP material. I think my father probably always voted Conservative.

So where did it come from? I don’t really know. I was at school at Westminster with the son of a man who, at that stage, was very much, sort of, persecuted in the press, and that was John Strachey, who was the Minister of Food in the Labour Government at that time. And Charles Strachey, who was in the same house as I was, you know, I began to feel, sort of, rather protective towards him, because every day brought these terrible headlines about his dad in all the papers and all the rest of it. And so I think it was when I was at school that I converted from being, you know, a conventional schoolboy Tory, really, to being a supporter of the Labour Party. I didn’t join the Labour Party until, I think, just before I went to Oxford when I was 18. And I suppose the interest in politics came from, at that stage, to have been trained to be a political activist, that I became the youngest prospective parliamentary candidate in the country when I was 22, I think. Admittedly a hopeless seat, where my dad was vicar in Epsom. The seat was Epsom and Ewell. And I think it was first of all wanting to play the game, and then when that didn’t prove possible, mainly because of journalism... in those days it was very hard to ride the two horses of journalism and, at least it was in the Labour Party, because the Labour Party had gotten very suspicious of journalists. And so not playing the game, but becoming a kind of analyser and, you know, a spectator at it, was my… what happened.

And I think I did go on being fascinated by politics for a long time. But I remember thinking one of the attractions of America was that American politics was much, much more fun and more rewarding to study than British politics, in that they were so many more permutations. You become a governor of a state, you become a senator, you become, you know, a congressman, mayor of New York, mayor of Chicago. So there really were many more options open to you, whereas in Britain, all roads lead to Westminster. And you will not prosper unless you become an MP. And then, of course, it’s just the luck of the draw whether you’re… the tide is running with your party, which means that your party’s in government, and indeed whether you attract the favour of the leader of your party who, if the party is in government, will be Prime Minister. And I’ve known lots of politicians of great ability who’ve never really made it to the top at all.

I mean, let’s take the example of Dick Crossman. Brilliant man. Been an Oxford don, ran psychological warfare in wartime, elected to parliament for a safe seat in Coventry in 1945. And with one very brief, I think, period of about two months, when he sat on the Opposition frontbench when Gaitskell was still leader of the party, he had no kind of opportunity to shine on his frontbench at all. Never was given a job by Attlee during the period of the Attlee government, except somebody, I think it was Gaitskell, went to see Attlee once, said, 'I think you ought to do something for Dick Crossman. He’s very able, you know'.' Not a question of ability', he said, 'question of character. That’s the trouble there'. So Attlee didn’t like him, and that was partly because he’d been to… he’d been a friend of his parents, and he thought Dick had behaved in a very overbearing way as a young Wykehamist scholar, and as a young undergraduate. And he didn’t like him, so he’d taken against him in a big way.

So, you know, 19 years sitting there on the backbenches before becoming a minister. Much the same, too, of Barbara Castle, who… you know, she waited all that time to get into the cabinet. Now, it’s true they were very lucky. They vaulted from the backbenches straight into the cabinet. Normally, you have to sort of serve a progression: undersecretary, minister of state, cabinet minister or minister of cabinet rank, and then you go into the cabinet. But when you get a dramatic change like took place in 1964, you do get people… indeed, the same happened to Macleod... Iain Macleod. He went straight from the backbenches into the cabinet as Minister of Health. But it’s pretty rare.

So yes, I suppose it adds to the adventure of the trade, but it isn’t a trade in which you can assume you will get a reward because of your abilities at all. Some people have the luck, some don’t. And there were a lot of very, sort of, embittered politicians, you know, who may or may not end up in the House of Lords, because people have a guilty conscience about them and think it’s bad luck that they never became an undersecretary, even. I can think of one or two cases, better not mention them. And so their… out of guilt, their party leaders nominate them to go into the House of Lords. But it’s still… you know, after 20 years in the House of Commons, then to go into that upper chamber where it’s really life after death, it’s a pretty miserable life.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Evelyn John St Loe Strachey, Richard Howard Stafford Crossman, Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell, Clement Richard Attlee, Barbara Anne Castle, Iain Norman Macleod

Duration: 5 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 24 November 2009