The Power Broker

Robert Caro is the author of the wonderful Lyndon B Johnson biographies, of which there is one more instalment to come.

The Power Broker – a Pulitzer winner – came first. Its subject is Robert Moses and the story is relentlessly one of the awe-inspiring, and terrifying exercise of bureaucratic power. Moses became the most powerful – and for a while the most popular – figure in New York state despite never achieving elected office.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 01.06.54Unsurprisingly the parallels between Moses and Caro’s subsequent study, LBJ, emerge frequently. Both possessed huge intellects, knowledge of the law – which they used to selectively break it – and a willingness to employ huge sums of money in their cause. (Unlike Moses, LBJ also had charm, good fortune and none of Moses’ conceited sense of noblesse oblige).

In 1934, Caro writes, Moses featured in New York papers more than J Edgar Hoover, the sensational mobster-busting FBI chief. He was the subject of 29 flattering New York Times editorials and hundreds of articles that year.

In those years Moses was a genuine reformer with a shrewd understanding of how to, well, broker power. Gradually that skill would become all-consuming. It took too long for newspapers to realise that the man they had built up was busily tearing New York City apart.

And it took too long to put the brakes on his perverse vision of urban development, which accounts for a fair chunk of New York City’s problems to this day. Through his public authorities Moses accumulated all the power of high elected office, including the power to evict tenants and raze whole neighbourhoods to the ground to make way for ugly highways, with little accountability.

Those public authorities, quasi-state entities, were initially granted by elected lawmakers as efficient means to get infrastructure built. Moses turned them into his own multi-billion dollar empires – all the while projecting an image as a frugal public servant. The special status provided by U.S. law to bondholders’ rights left those authorities, and Moses, immune to outside pressure for decades.

I’d recommend the book – at over 1,000 pages, it’s a summer project – to those interested in cities or power or both.

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Roy Jenkins

I’ve just finished Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life. It’s a hefty tome but an easy read, provided you find the intricacies of post-war politics and Establishment culture interesting.

For a figure whose career stretched comfortably into the Blair years the most striking thought I am left with is how dated the era feels. The leisurely claret-sodden lunches, even at the height of Jenkins’ ministerial career; the litany of affairs accepted, without comment, by an obliging press; and Jenkins’ stark defence of elitism and Establishment values within a left-liberal movement that, today at least, is ostensibly hostile to them.

(In fact it sat uncomfortably with many of his contemporaries too; Jenkins’ soft left politics combined with the ‘aristocratic embrace’ in his social life led to accusations of ‘MacDonaldism’ throughout his career*)

Are we better off, today, with fewer libertines in public life? I doubt it.

For a theme that John Campbell, the author, is keen to remind the reader of is Jenkins’ remarkable capacity for work. Jenkins once remarked of “Churchill’s extraordinary combination of an almost puritan work ethic with a great capacity for pleasure.”**

The insight that Jenkins, who wrote 22 books, makes vis-a-vis Churchill, his last major biographical subject, rings with some truth. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is a sound mantra not simply because a varied life has value, but because a serious commitment to each vocation enhances the something-ness of both.

I also enjoyed the chapters detailing the story of the SDP, which succeeded in briefly capturing the progressive imagination but also split the left in the 1980s. To avoid splitting the right, ushering in a generation of left-wing governments, UKIP sympathisers might do well to read up.

Though conflicts over tactics and personality only emerged later, the SDP, I learned, was divided on a fundamental question of strategy from the beginning.

On the one hand it could seek to usurp and replace the hard left Labour party. On the other – and this was the sort of movement Jenkins favoured – it could position itself as a progressive centre party, drawing support from across the political spectrum and cooperating closely, potentially to the point of amalgamation, with the resurgent Liberals under David Steel. In the end it succeeded in doing neither.

Campbell suggests that the Falklands conflict drew momentum away from the SDP in the crucial months leading up to the 1983 election. In fact there’s a good case to be made that political folklore is mistaken in identifying the Falklands as the decisive factor in 1983. In any case Britain’s FPTP electoral system prevented the SDP-Liberal Alliance from making the breakthrough that, given the share of the popular vote received, it deserved.

The most interesting question of all in this vein centres on whether the SDP ushered in, or delayed, New Labour. Certainly Blair’s politics were close to those of Jenkins, though the latter lived out his final years increasingly frustrated that Blair had failed to ‘make the political weather’ on electoral system reform and the common European currency. My view, for what it’s worth, is that New Labour’s rise can be traced to the SDP moment – but only through the oblique, destructive method of helping keep ‘old’ Labour out of office for so long.

*   Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 116
** Guildhall lecture, quoted in The Independent, 16.11.01. Cited by Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 729.

Nick Robinson: Live From Downing Street

I’ve just finished Live From Downing Streeta political history-cum-biography, with a fat dollop of polemical musing, from BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson.

What to make of it?

In short: a Very Good Book, but mis-sold. This is emphatically not the ‘inside story’ that we are promised on the front cover; it is an astute, well-informed and colourful history of the British media-political nexus. The black and white years certainly merit all the pages Robinson devotes to them. How fascinating indeed, to discover the contempt with which Churchill held Reith, the founding Director General of the BBC, and vice versa.And who’d have known that today’s Beeb was, until staggering recently, a mere plaything of the Establishment and the incumbent government? Until the late 50s laws preventing debate of anything occurring in Parliament that week or the next remained on the statue. Having made his career in a media world unencumbered by any such restriction, Robinson is best-placed to describe the tedium, dullness and impotence of the broadcasters, which he does succinctly. It took the charisma and insolence of one man, Robin Day, a former barrister on the newly launched Independent Television News, to change that. And change it he did: the abrasive character of television and radio journalists today such as Paxman, Crick and Humphrys  is born out of his legacy.

Robinson’s account is generously embellished by anecdotes. The personal ones are cute and original. Recounting his first interview with Blair, Robinson was mischievously introduced by Alastair Campbell – spin doctor extraordinaire – as “the chairman of the Young Conservatives”. ‘Having anticipated such a welcome’ he recalls, ‘I had a response ready. “Prime Minister,” I said, “at the time of my life when I was involved in politics you had long hair and were playing the guitar with the Ugly Rumours.” Blair reacted instantly. “Yes, Nick, but I wish I still was.”

However some of the anecdotes that pre-date his career will, to those familiar with the political history of the period, come across as tired. Describing Atlee’s quiet and unassuming demeanor he refers to a famous Churchill quip – “one day an empty taxi drew up and Mr Attlee got out” – which is fine, perfectly adequate, but political junkies sort of expect more from the ‘inside account’ which they shelled £20 out for.

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The problem is that Robinson’s job makes him the ‘most important person in British political journalism.’ I know this because he says so. Ok, no, he doesn’t really- he quotes one of the US President’s advisors. Which President? Which advisor? I don’t know, I’ve just spent the last ten minutes thumbing through 413 pages trying to find that one excerpt. Needle in a haystack indeed.

Anyway the point is that Robinson’s ginormous influence, that is, his network of contacts, will evaporate away – hell, no, spontaneously combust (!) – if he tittle tattles on them all. The time for that will come, post-retirement, but it’s not yet.

Consequently Robinson pulls surprisingly few punches, surprisingly few for a character self-described as “northern, arsey and confrontational”. [For the record Robinson grew up down the round from me in a leafy Cheshire suburb] There is an unsubtle dig at Sky News: ‘other [channels] repeat it without needing to bother to establish the facts for themselves (which is what happens when the giveaway words ‘media sources’ appear at the foot of the screen on Sky News a minute after the story breaks on the BBC).’ More forcefully, in his narrative of the BBC-government war following the alleged ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq/WMDs, Robinson singles out Andrew Gilligan, then reporting for Radio 4’s Today, as a bandit.

What we are left with ultimately is a political history told by someone exceedingly well qualified to tell it, albeit more because of the author’s insightfulness and command of the facts, rather than his willingness to disclose much that couldn’t be deduced – or guessed at – anyway. If Robinson had written this book on the eve of retirement, rather than the peak of his career, he might have been more forthcoming: a second edition of Live From Downing Street circa-2020 would therefore be welcome.

Book Review: ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ by Richard Aldous

The book has been out a few years now, but I read it fairly leisurely over the summer and thought it would lend itself to a novice-like review. I’m keen to get a knack for book reviewing but this is my first ever proper attempt.Image

‘It is surprising that there has been no earlier attempt to write a book on their relationship’, opens Richard Aldous in his biographical account of Gladstone and Disraeli, the Liberal and Conservatives giants who carved up a fat chunk of the nineteenth century between them. He’s totally correct. Westminster politics is nothing if it isn’t bitterly antagonistic. Aldous tells a story about the two men that makes the Blair-Brown rivalry seem like a childish fall-out in the sandpit.

The Lion and the Unicorn is more historical drama than political biography. It stresses, above all, their mutual loathing. Later in life Disraeli would call Gladstone the ‘A.V. [Arch Villain]’, Gladstone affectionately termed Disraeli the ‘Grand Corrupter’. They shared all of the characteristics that made them adversaries, and none that made them allies: a celebrity status, an eloquence rivalled only by the other and an attitude to principles coined best by Groucho Marx – ‘if you don’t like them, I have others!’

Aldous maintains a vivid and energetic narrative style. Each passage, 3 to 4 pages each, is episodic and the passages together are loosely chronological. It’s a style that works with the tone, pace and attention-grabbing situ-dramas that unfold from page to page (this can get irritating, but only if the book is read in one or two sittings without interlude). Even a nineteenth-century novice will have their imagination caught by Aldous’ powerful and witty account. The message of the book is imprinted firmly on the reader’s consciousness: politics is personal, and ugly, and thrilling.

This is not at the expense of scholarship however. It is difficult, though not impossible, to find assertions not adequately substantiated. Aldous has immersed himself in diaries, speeches and contemporary journals. Famously Disraeli was an accomplished novelist; the apocryphal line ‘When I want to read a good book, I write one’ is often attributed to him. It turns out that Gladstone, dismissive of Disraeli’s literary ‘dalliances’ had read every one of his works. “The first quarter clever, the rest trash” is how Gladstone judged Vivian Grey, Disraeli’s first novel. Yet it didn’t stop him reading the others.

Occasionally one feels that Aldous has not scratched far below the service. Concluding a chapter on Disraeli’s first yearin Parliament, he writes scathingly: ‘Disraeli had lived his whole life under the influence of [Lord] Byron. Now…he was dismissed by society as a sensationalist without either temperament or prospects. He was, at best, an amusement, or, at worst, an ostentatious Jewish upstart’. This rough and ready torpedoing of Disraeli’s nascent political character is probably unfair; Aldous’ characterisation seems just a little too close to that of the eponymous hero in Vivian Grey. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor probably better suited to Disraeli’s generation than his own, had always been derided as similarly louche – until he became the country’s favourite Tory.

To the extent that the two have a popular reputation today, it is Disraeli as the eccentric and Gladstone as the statesman. By delving into the personal Aldous turns that on its head completely. He spends a lot of time – too much, you think at first, until you to realise the full extent and persistence of the problem – talking about Gladstone’s sex life. His diaries recount “vigorous” masturbation, “which returns upon me again & again like a flood”. Later he became infatuated with prostitutes, visiting ’80 to 90’ of them between 1849 and 1852 under the guise of ‘rescue work’. Without any bite of his own, Aldous presented Gladstone as a rank hypocrite, preaching stern Christian virtue by day and prowling Soho by night.

Disraeli by contrast, though famed in his youth for affairs with older women, had found true love. The reader takes great pleasure in their relationship. After the first reading of the 1867 Reform Bill, Disraeli had routed Gladstone in the Commons debate. Already late in the evening, he declined the deluge of invitations from Tory grandees in favour of returning home to Mary Ann, the widow he’d married three decades previously. By now over 70, she waited up into the early hours for ‘Dizzy’ with a bottle of champagne and a Fortnum and Mason’s pie. “Well my dear” Disraeli remarked, “you are more like a mistress than a wife”.  Aldous is good for those anecdotal nuggets. They embellish his tale, rooting political history’s great happenings in genuine humanity.

Aldous is not obviously sympathetic toward to the one or the other, but in this work I noticed that Gladstone was flattered by one big omission: his 1862 Newcastle speech for instance, in which the then-Liberal Chancellor endorsed the Confederate States of America.

The book has much to recommend it, if you’re the right reader. To those interested in the art of politics, be aware: it is more entertaining than instructive. To those looking for another angle on Victorian Britain, it’s probably best to head elsewhere – Aldous either dispenses with the relevant details or tries to interpret too much through Gladstone and Disraeli’s battles. With those qualifications any student and advocate of Conservatism will have a thoroughly pleasant weekend leafing through The Lion and the Unicorn; no comparable study currently on the market is so crackling with political drama.