On a May afternoon 16 years ago, in the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho, the political journalist….
On a May afternoon 16 years ago, in the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho, the political journalist and essayist Alan Watkins was trying to think of a well-loved politician of the modern era – and not making much headway – when Michael Foot tottered past. He paused at our table and addressed his friend Watkins: ‘John Smith. Wretched luck. Wretched.’ Wretched indeed: for Smith had been buried a few days before.
When Foot had gone, I said to Watkins: ‘Well, there you are. We’ve just got our well-loved politician of the modern era. It’s John Smith.’
Watkins replied: ‘John Smith, absolutely! But he had to die first!’
An incidental curiosity of this exchange is that neither of us thought of mentioning Michael Foot as a possible well-loved politician of the modern era. He too had to die first – transforming him overnight from duffel-coated eccentric to universally adored statesman.
Since this conversation with Alan Watkins, there has been one well-loved politician and another with whom the British electorate had a brief infatuation.
Until the Iraq war, most of us were besotted by Tony Blair. His supporters did not at any stage include Watkins who, when I asked him what he made of the young man who was not yet leader of the Labour Party, replied dismissively: ‘There’s nothing there’. Watkins measured everyone by the intellectual standards of Antony Crosland; by that yardstick Blair fell well short. The electorate, for a while, took a friendlier view. Blair seemed to breathe into the body politic vitality and charm.
This brings me to the brief infatuation which goes by the name Nick Clegg.
As this dreadful week unfolds, the pre-election TV debates feel more and more like a bad idea, or a good idea gone wrong. Television over-simplifies everything; it certainly over-simplified the nature of parliamentary democracy, presenting the three party leaders as if they were presidential candidates rather than, as now appears painfully obvious, creatures of their parties. Out of this artifice arose an overnight sensation, handsome and articulate, enjoying an advantage over the others in that he seemed to be new stock.
In his last column on Sunday 18 April (he died last Saturday), Alan Watkins likened Clegg’s popularity to one of those old-fashioned Liberal by-election victories inevitably reversed at the subsequent general election. Watkins got his last prophecy pretty well bang on. Cruelly, however, the third of the three losers was left as the adjudicator of the others.
The right-wing press has made two attempts to throw him to the piranhas, most of whom bear an uncanny resemblance to Rupert Murdoch. When it seemed in mid-April that he would deprive the Tories of victory, they managed to inflict only superficial injuries. Now they are going for the kill. One tabloid accuses him this morning of ushering in a dictatorship. The Daily Telegraph says that his reputation will never recover. Everywhere you look, the bully boys are in overdrive.
One of the reasons for the continuing hysteria, and the difficulty of reaching any rational decision, is the appalling mismanagement of the talks. It is difficult to believe that people are actually being paid to handle the public relations.
When the two Cs entered negotiations, it should have been made clear that, given the amount of detail to be considered before any contract could be agreed, there would be no early outcome, no interim statements, no standing on steps uttering inanities. Instead a sense of bogus urgency was conveyed, feeding the media beast’s appetite for speculation and sensation. The journalists spent all of Saturday and Sunday talking to each other on pavements, failing to sniff out the real story – that the Prince of Darkness was having an unusually busy weekend behind the scenes.
In Europe, they do this sort of thing more methodically: they take weeks over coalition-building. In London, there was no suggestion of weeks. It had to be done in hours; the markets would brook no delay. If the prospective partners are now having their features rearranged by the media, they have only themselves to blame: their initial moves were inept and they have gone paying for it. As for the markets, they have just had their best day in years.
What, then, of Auld Broon? He would never be in the running for a well-loved politician award. That long-ago lunchtime in the Gay Hussar, Alan Watkins would not have given a second’s thought to Mr Brown’s claim for our affections; nor, I imagine, at any time since. But the brief fling with Nick Clegg suggests that, in politics, it is better to be warily respected than loved.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.