Recently, I promised a post about books that got rave reviews from everyone but me. And in the end, I haven’t done it. It turned out there weren’t so many after all.
So instead, I’m going to tell you about a book which I enjoyed, hugely, even though it’s about politics, which I don’t enjoy hugely (Does anybody, anywhere at the moment?). This is a thoroughly out-of-character read for me.
It’s Punch and Judy Politics, by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. And it’s about Prime Ministers’ Question time, that peculiarly British institution when once a week on Wednesdays, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition face one another across a crowded chamber, filled with heckling, shouting, cheering and far-from-silent MPs.
I was drawn in from the first sentences.‘ You’re the Leader of the Opposition. it’s your job to choose one of the week’s top political news stories and write six questions to the Prime Minister about it. Not exam questions, not questions you might ask an expert, but awkward, hostile questions that will put the Prime Minister on the back foot ….’.
I was immediately interested. This book describes how PMQs play a defining role in British politics. This once-a-week contest between Prime Minister and Opposite Number forces each of the pair not only to prepare well, backed by a team of advisers, but to examine their own policies, and understand where and why they might be weak. Preparing to spar with their opponent, undermining them with clever questions, a wounding joke, an unreturnable rejoinder is an important and time-consuming part of their routine. Some participants have performed well – even extremely well: William Hague, David Cameron and Tony Blair generally rose well to the occasion. Others did not. Ian Duncan Smith never shone, and the current sparring partners, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn bring no spark to the event.
Understanding more of this weekly show, and its purpose in building or destroying morale among the troops (the MPs), in providing fodder for the press, and in fine tuning policy has been illuminating.
It’s a thorough, informative and funny account of this peculiarly British institution. Of course I read it enthusiastically: one of the authors, Tom Hamilton, is my son.
On Saturday morning, we got up at 4.30 a.m. and didn’t get to bed again till 12.30 on Sunday morning. In between, we drove to York; forked out £60 for tickets and travelled in a coach to London where we spent the day marching, before reversing the procedure in the early evening. At our ages – we’re both long past retirement age – you don’t do things like that unless it’s for something really important.
It is. For us, and on behalf of our children and grandchildren, this Brexit Business matters more than almost anything else.
We are members of North Yorkshire for Europe, and joined for the day with York for Europe. We came to London to march and campaign for a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal.
Don’t talk to us about the Referendum being the last word on The Will of the People (a barely more than 50% of those who voted changing the course of a nation’s history?). Don’t tell us what The People voted for – nobody exactly knows. Don’t tell us that when companies like Airbus and Siemens warn they may have to leave the UK in the event of a no-deal, that they are simply part of an irresponsible Project Fear. Yes, we are fearful of Brexit: for us, for our families, for those in insecure employment, for those European citizens now resident here who had considered the UK their home.
On arrival in central London, we joined 100, 000 others on a slow two hour march down Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square and Whitehall and into Parliament Square, which completely failed to accommodate us all.
Despite our serious purpose, we had fun. Look at the banners, the flags, the posters, the facepaint and wigs; the young, the old: marching, hobbling, manoeuvring wheelchairs and buggies – you’ll even spot one fellow being carried by Donald Trump (as if …). We enjoyed Mexican cheers (the vocal version of a Mexican wave), bouts of chanting (‘What do we want?’ ‘A People’s Vote!’ ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now!’). We chatted with marchers from Wales, Devon, Germany, Reading, France, Lambeth, Scotland…..
Then speeches. Rousing, energising speeches from the likes of Caroline Lucas MP, Tony Robinson, Vince Cable MP, David Lammy MP. Passionate speeches from a hospital consultant, from the young people of OFOC (Our Future, Our Choice). Video contributions from a WWII veteran and from Chuka Umunna MP. We cheered them all, and at the end, especially the courageous Tory MP Anna Soubry.
OFOC speak …..
… and David Lammy MP ….
…. and finally Anna Soubry MP.
What we want is a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, because apart from a principled few, most MPs are obeying the Whips and toeing the party line, regardless of either their own beliefs, or those of their constituents. If you voted for Brexit, and the government comes up with a good deal for the British people, you have nothing to fear from a People’s Vote. The government will win the day, and we Remoaners will have to shut up.
If you think that, having learned the terms of the Final Deal, the people should have the Final Say, please sign the petition for The People’s Vote. It’s here.
PS. The Daily Express front page on the day of the march….. there are no words…. don’t they read the news?
We don’t do protest marches much. Well, we did when we lived in France, obviously, because protesting is a way of life there. Here? Not so much.
But with Brexit only a year away, and with the intolerable consequences to our economy, our services, our multi-cultural and inclusive way of life becoming daily more apparent, we wanted to join the Leeds March for Europe, arranged in solidarity with events being held in Edinburgh, in Ipswich, in Exeter, in Pontypridd, in Maidenhead, in Ipswich and on the Isle of Wight.
We arrived. We were initially disappointed. There was a van, topped off with May, Johnson, Gove and Farage and a netball pitch sized banner waiting to lead things off, but were there really only enough people present to fill the Headrow in front of the Town Hall?
Well, no as it turned out. We set off with new-found friends from York, but soon dropped back to see the real size of the procession. It went on …. and on. We met people from every political party and none. We met OAPs against Brexit. We met Grannies against Brexit. We met teenagers against Brexit. We joined in chants orchestrated from different parts of the route. We met anti-Brexit groups from Hull, from Kent, from Sheffield, from….all over the place. We were peaceful and good humoured and met surprisingly little heckling.
Back outside the town Hall, it was time for speeches. We heard from politicians from every main party (well, not UKIP….) and cheered them all. We heard from the impassioned and articulate young founders of OFOC! (Our Future, Our Choice) some of whom hadn’t been able to vote in the referendum, but will have to live with its consequences. We heard from Joan Pons Laplana, a Spanish nurse who has worked in Britain for 17 years, who has a family here, and who no longer feels welcome. We heard from Elena Remigi, founder of Our Brexit Testimonies, from a young British research scientist who also feels her future threatened, and from Sue Wilson, leader of Bremain in Spain. And we heard from The Big Names. Prof. AC Grayling courteously and respectfully demolished the arguments on the placard held aloft by the sole courageous Brexiteer who had joined the rally. Our own MEP Richard Corbett was as incisive and to the point as ever. And Lord Adonis brought the whole affair to an energising conclusion, working the crowd so that we all agreed, as we began to make our way home, that we each have a responsibility to work towards making sure that the disaster which is Brexit never actually takes place.
Strasbourg, focus of Franco-German emnity since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, changed hands four times between then and the end of WWII. It seems fitting that this city, the focus of so much strife and discord, should now be a seat of the European Union, a body which for all its differences seeks to foster cooperation and work towards mutually agreed policies.
After a too-brief visit to Strasbourg itself (and we’ll be back – what a city), there we were, at the vast complex of the EU Parliament. It offers employment to armies of staff who support the 751 MEPs from the now 28 member states. You need someone who can offer simultaneous translation from Polish to Greek, or Hungarian to Portuguese? Best look here.
This is a truly vast community, with meeting rooms, TV studios, offices, coffee shops, technical support, IT suites: all staffed by the most cosmopolitan bunch of people you could ever hope to meet.
We had a background lecture, and a rather exciting 360 degree film. We had a meeting with our own hard-working and committed Europhile MEPs Linda MacAvan and Richard Corbett.
And then we went into the Parliamentary Chamber. The debate was about immigration, the contributors from every corner of the EU, and almost every language (those simultaneous translators in their glass-walled studios were kept busy). Views expressed ranged from the near-fascist, to the liberal, moderate and inclusive. Nigel Farage wasn’t there. Funny, that.
And I left feeling more wretched than I have since the dreadful morning when we woke up to hear that the UK – by the smallest of margins – had voted to leave the EU.
It’s by no means perfect, but here in the EU we have a body fostering almost Europe-wide cooperation rather than conflict, working towards common progressive employment, economic, environmental and human rights practices. And we plan to leave? What for?
What image comes into your head when you think of Jarrow? If, like me, you’ve only really heard of it in the context of the Jarrow March, it may be a depressing one. Grimy desolate streets, a down-trodden and abandoned population, with little hope of change for the better maybe.
Well, Robert Colls, who walked with us on our Jarrow March Mark 2 for ‘Ramblings’ won’t entertain such images He’s irritated by those commentators, often from the south, who see nothing but the negative. He could do without the likes of George Orwell painting such depressing, hopeless images about the Industrial North. He was raised in nearby South Shields. His memories of the town are of a place that was gritty, maybe dingy, but where there was a rich cultural life, and a warm and supportive community where it was good to grow up.
Jarrow, in the North East of England, had been dependant on shipbuilding since the 1850s, but demand for ships fell throughout the 1920s and became worse during the 1930s. The main shipyard, Palmers, once the source of Jarrow’s prosperity, closed in 1934 after years of steady decline . By 1936, there was 70% unemployment in the town.
Town councillors planned a march to London to present a petition to Parliament highlighting the desperate conditions in Jarrow and towns like it. They secured cross-party support. They involved local churches and the business community. They fund-raised. Socialist medical students volunteered to work as medical attendants along the route. Nobody in town wanted yet another communist-inspired ‘hunger march’. No, Jarrow people planned a respectable event, one that would win widespread support.
It rained on and off the day we walked last week. I suggested to Robert that those marchers, with shabby, worn-out clothes would have had a thin time of it. I was wrong. The organisers insisted the men who were chosen to march – and yes, they were chosen – should wear their ‘Sunday best’, look smart and conduct themselves well. They had medicals, and only the 200 fittest men were chosen to march, accompanied by a second-hand bus carrying cooking equipment and ground sheets. A successful fund-raising campaign ensured the march was well-prepared and equipped, and that the men had a little pocket-money.
They started marching at 8.30 each morning of their 25-day journey (with Sundays as rest days). Many marched army style – 50 minutes to the hour with 10 minutes’ rest. A mouth organ band was a great success, ‘keeping the men swinging along all the time’, according to a report in the Shields Gazette, and there was singing – led sometimes by Ellen Wilkinson. Local papers apart, the only national paper to give the Jarrow Crusade wide coverage was The Manchester Guardian. Copy was supplied by the journalist Peter Richie-Calder, who walked much of the way with them.
Ellen Wilkinson was one of only four women MPs at the time, and she represented Jarrow. Though from a poor background, she was well-educated – she won a scholarship to Manchester University – and built up an impressive career both in the unions and in parliament. By the age of 24 she was already National Women’s Organiser for the Cooperative Employees union, and only nine years later, an MP – one of only four women in parliament. She was a terrific orator, she was passionate, and she believed in the Jarrow marchers and their cause. She walked with them whenever she could, distinctive with her fiery red hair. Towards the end of the march, Ellen broke away in order to address the Labour party conference and, with tears streaming down her face, exhorted delegates to ‘…tell the government our people shall not starve!’ She failed, however, to win special attention for her cause.
The lack of political affiliation helped those marchers. They were fed and watered and given places to sleep all along their route. Harrogate, for instance, just south of Ripley, then as now is a true blue and prosperous sort of place. But the civic authorities greeted them warmly, the Rotary Club fed them, and they were given sleeping quarters by the Territorial Army.
I depend on good boots when I’m walking and wondered about how the marchers were shod. They had decent shoes, Robert said. And what’s more, when they arrived in Leicester, the Cooperative Society’s bootmakers stayed up all night to repair all their by now thin-soled shoes, and did so without pay. The story of the Jarrow march is peppered with such examples of support and kindness.
They arrived in London. They presented their petition in Parliament, the petition that had 11,00 signatures. It prompted only the briefest and most complacent of discussions. And that was that. The disillusioned marchers returned to Jarrow by train, their fares paid by benefactors.
Astonishingly, many men finished the march healthier than when they had started. Boosted by regular exercise – and the decent food and accommodation they had received along the route – many put on weight. This was just as well. For the duration of the march, their unemployment benefit had been suspended as they were ‘unavailable for work’.
A few modest attempts to bring work to the town resulted in jobs for a few hundred people, but only with the start of World War II did work once more surge back into the shipyards and factories of Jarrow. For the duration only.
Ellen Wilkinson continue to be a thorn in the side of the Labour party, though she worked tirelessly at home and abroad against fascism. Perhaps her greatest achievement was in 1945, when as Minister for Education in the Labour Government, she was instrumental in having the school-leaving age raised to 15. No wonder Helen is an enthusiast for this most dynamic, charismatic and troublesome woman.
So there we are. One – no two – history lessons, all parcelled up in an agreeable package of a long country walk, following, if not exactly by the same route, in the footsteps of those Jarrow Marchers.
I came in the other day to find a message on the answer phone. The BBC. Clare Balding wanted to talk to me. Well, not Clare actually. She’s one of Britain’s favourite broadcasters and a bit busy I dare say. Her research assistant Lucy finally got hold of me, and asked me if I’d be able to lead Clare and team on a walk from Ripon to Ripley for ‘Ramblings’, a popular programme on BBC R4 about walking.
Why me? Because I’m Hon. Sec. of Ripon Ramblers, our local walking group, and our details are out there, if you care to look. Yes, but why ME? Lucy thought, after our chat, that I’d be OK on the radio.
OK then, why Ripon? Because, it turns out that in October 1936 the Jarrow Marchers walked from Jarrow, through Ripon to Ripley and beyond, all 280 miles to London. In October, ‘Ramblings’ plans to broadcast a programme to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Perhaps you don’t know much about the Jarrow March. Neither did I. Not till I met Clare and Lucy, cultural historian Robert Colls, and Helen Antrobus, who’s a real Ellen Wilkinson enthusiast from the People’s Museum in Manchester. The five us walked and talked our way along our eight mile route from Ripon to Ripley, and we barely noticed the rain which threatened constantly, but only delivered occasional short sharp showers.
This is a blog in two parts. The first is our country walk, the second about the Jarrow March. But Friday wasn’t in two parts. Every step we took, we remembered those marchers. Robert and Helen told us the story. Together, we drew comparisons between their march and our own hike.
I’d already dutifully planned and walked a route. The marchers went entirely on main roads, but if you’ve ever driven on the A61, you’ll know this is no longer a good idea. Country paths were the way to go.
As we set out together from Ripon, we got our instructions. Lucy had her furry-muff-on-a-stick. You’ll have seen those, as reporters rove round town centres talking to likely passers-by about some event that’s happened locally. When recording, Clare’s always on the right of the person she’s talking to, and Lucy’s there on the left with her recording gear. It was slightly odd to walk alongside Clare as she formally introduced to the programme, telling listeners where she was, why she was there, and who we all were. But soon we forgot about that muff. We all chatted together easily, about that March, about walking, about each other. Sometimes we had to repeat what we’d said, in a spontaneous ‘I’ve just thought of this’ kind of way, because some passing noise – RAF jets overhead for instance – had ruined the recording.
In many ways our walk was a scam. The A61 passes through rolling hillsides, productive farmland, cows in the pasture, and pretty villages. It’s all bucolic England at its best. Our route presented a more hidden countryside. Isolated farmhouses with dilapidated barn roofs, ancient pastures, secret dark, damp woodlands, and tiny rather remote hamlets.
At first though, we were on a road. Badly maintained, rather narrow and with tall hedges it’s a bridle path these days, but it is still tarmacced, and perhaps the kind of highway those marchers would have recognised. Later, on grass-trodden pathways, we passed Markenfield Hall, a 14th century moated country house.
Those marchers didn’t. We went through the village of Markington. Apparently the marchers were welcomed here too, though we couldn’t imagine why. It’s more than a mile or so from the main road and history doesn’t record why exactly they made a detour. We strode along the edges of barley fields, on woodland paths and across gorsey heath, all without meeting a soul. Not what the marchers experienced.
And we talked. That’s what I’ll remember most. The sheer pleasure of walking and talking with a group of people thrust together for the day who quickly found themselves to be friends – just for a day. Thanks you Clare, Lucy, Robert and Helen for a very special occasion. It was a real privilege.
And the Jarrow March? More about that in my next post.
During the British General Election we were in France, and kept up to date with the campaign via the French media, with particular thanks to British pundits and MPs with a command of the French language.
During this French Presidential campaign, we’ve been in England. After the first round of voting last Sunday, a French friend helpfully sent me the results, as she feared statistics of this kind wouldn’t be considered newsworthy in dear old Blighty.
Actually, she needn’t have worried. I’ve been surprised at how thoroughly the French elections have so far been covered. The broadsheets, and both radio and television could be relied on to have some slant on the campaign every day. Much of the discussion has revolved round how the Franco-German alliance would fare if Angela Merkel has to forge a relationship with Hollande rather than Sarkozy. Other articled focussed on how, for many voters, it was perhaps more a question of who to vote against, rather than who to vote for.
Since Sunday’s first-round vote, after which it became clear that the Front National under the leadership of Marine le Pen had mopped up getting on for a fifth of the vote, the spotlight has changed to the rise of the far right throughout Europe. Le Pen herself has been the subject of examinations of her career to date, and Sunday’s Observer also carried a double-page spread on François Hollande, as he’s so far a pretty much unknown quantity here.
I’ve appreciated this coverage, as it’s been a little hard to get to grips with all the issues in France itself, as the media assumes a basic understanding of the major parties and alliances which we don’t necessarily have. But we’ll be back there by the time of the second round of voting, and will have a first-hand view of France as it wakes up on May 7th either to a new Socialist president, or, as seems less likely, another dose of Sarkozy. So far, in our left-leaning corner of France, we haven’t met anyone who’ll admit to ever having voted for him. In fact the two main candidates of the left, socialist Hollande and far-left Mélenchon knocked Sarkozy into 3rd place in our own commune of Laroque d’Olmes