Reviews: In It Together & Humorous Quotes

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 28 November 2013 in Culture
Culture
Keith Simpson MP dips into an account of the Con-Lib Dem pact so far and cheers himself up with a quip and a quote

By Matthew D’Ancona  

Viking, £25

On the 7 May 2010, for the first time in over 30 years, Britain had elected a hung parliament. To the surprise of many of their MPs, David Cameron and Nick Clegg agreed to form the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition with a fixed-term parliament. It is the story of this coalition that Matthew D’Ancona describes in his book In It Together.

D’Ancona is well-placed to write an account; the political journalist was editor of The Spectator and now writes in the Sunday Telegraph. With good personal contacts at the top of the Conservative Party, particularly with George Osborne and his supporters, but also with Lib Dems, he has written a book that can be compared to Andrew Rawnsley’s accounts of the Blair and Brown Labour governments, Servants of the People (2001) and The End of the Party (2010). The challenge for D’Ancona, as it was for Rawnsley in his first book, is that the account is incomplete. Neither he nor the reader knows how the coalition will end in May 2015, making this exercise rather like a theatre critic writing about an unfinished four-act play that he has only read and seen after just two acts and the intermission.

And D’Ancona, while able, is no Rawnsley; the latter wrote a brilliantly acerbic and honest account of the fractional relations within the Blair/Brown governments. To be fair, however, the disagreements and tiffs within the coalition are tepid by comparison. As D’Ancona writes in his introduction, “What makes the coalition so compelling as a subject is its collective identity; what makes it so politically strange is the fact that it exists at all”. He also argues that the most singular feature of the coalition is not the character and political identities of its leaders but the genuine bi-partisanship of the administration, which is a partnership of two party elites.

Through this prism, D’Ancona analyses the personalities and policies of the coalition at the high politics end of the spectrum. He has interviewed dozens of those at the centre and writes about the relationship between Cameron and Clegg, the Lib Dem fall from grace over tuition fees, the “surprise” of Lansley’s NHS reform, the clash over AV and Lords reform, the decision to intervene in Libya, the debate over the EU, single-sex marriage, ‘Plebgate’ and above all else the economy and austerity measures.

Ideas and politics are important, but personal relationships bind the coalition together. In developing broad themes in the book, D’Ancona notes that the coalition has been very bad at public diplomacy. This is not spin, but the subtler work of explaining what it’s doing and why: “There are no natural teacher-politicians in its ranks”.

In May 2010, many voters and MPs believed that the talks between the Conservative and Lib Dem leaderships and the coalition agreement was a triumph of real-time diplomacy and spontaneous statesmanship, but as D’Ancona shows clearly, it owed everything to the strategic preparations undertaken by Cameron and Clegg before the election. The Lib Dems had begun months before to think seriously about participating in a coalition if the electorate gave no one party an overall majority, and Cameron and Osborne had ruthlessly done a constituency audit and come to the conclusion that it was highly unlikely they could form a single-party government. Negotiating the coalition agreement was difficult but not impossible, and at its core was the belief of both leaderships that a coalition government was needed to deal with the dangerous economic crisis. Labour was not prepared for a coalition and Gordon Brown was an unmoveable obstacle.

There was one other element: Boris Johnson concluded that the coalition was, in fact, a triumph for the English public school system, a credit to its training of young men for office and for the skills of collaboration. This was to be a strength for the leadership of the coalition, especially the ‘Quad’ and its close advisers, but also a weakness in the eyes of those parliamentary colleagues who felt uneasy with a coalition and were politically excluded.

D’Ancona is very good at looking at the day-to-day relationships between Cameron and Clegg and the need continually to have a conversation. There is excellent analysis of the dynamics of the personalities in the Lib Dem Party and the disillusionment of Steve Hilton with the prime minister.

The coalition elite has seen a generational shift, with a culture that values newness, youth and vitality more than experience and wisdom. The bedrock of the political union has been the economic crisis and the ability of its leaders to work together. Success at the next election depends not only on the economy reviving but also on the electorate believing that, genuinely, “we are all in it together”. The spectre at the coalition feast is Ed Miliband, who many of his political opponents underestimate at their peril.

 

Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations

By Gyles Brandreth (ed)  

OUP, £20

Over the years there have been a number of dictionaries of political quotations. Even at the time of publication, many of the quotations were dull, and after a few years the context of the quotation became lost or was resonant of an earlier period when witticisms were the norm in public speaking.

This is the fifth edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations and is a fun read for everyone, but can be used by politicians who need to illustrate a point with a lightness of touch or an analogy. Who better, then, to be the current editor than Gyles Brandreth, writer, broadcaster, former MP, wit and raconteur?

As Brandreth writes in the introduction, forsaking all modesty, he has been collecting humorous quotations since he was a small child, and, with no sense of self-awareness, proceeds to list as personal acquaintances many of those quoted – “There is almost no one who was born over the past one hundred years and who is quoted in the Dictionary whom I have not met”.  But Brandreth is generous in acknowledging the debt he owes to previous editors, including Ned Sherrin, who is responsible for all the classic quotations.

How did Brandreth go about compiling his entries? He notes his father’s definition of quotability: Is it memorable? Do you want to share it with others? Does it stand on its own? Is it interesting in itself? And, if it’s intended to be a humorous quotation, is it funny? Brandreth explains that there is always the question of establishing provenance for any quotation. For years, your reviewer admired the witticism attributed to the French diplomat Charles de Talleyrand-Périgord, only to find that many of them he may never have said.

The editor shrewdly makes the point that some of the funniest comedians on the stage aren’t necessarily so droll when pinned down on the page. Furthermore, comedians like Bob Hope owed many of the best quotes to their scriptwriters.

This dictionary is well laid out, and it is possible to find a quotation by subject, keyword or author. Even then, sometimes Brandreth is unable to place a quotation in its relevant context. For example, the American comedian Jack Benny related how he was once held up in Central Park and asked, “Your money or your life?” to which he replied, “Hold on a minute, I’m thinking it over”. The omitted context is that Benny played on the fact he was known as the meanest man in show business.

Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and PPS to the foreign secretary

Tags: Issue 64

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