Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

Downton Upper

David_Lloyd_GeorgeHad Britain not produced a Winston Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher Americans might know a lot more about another British Prime Minister David Lloyd George pictured here in the prime of his long life.

A few million of us have been, sort of, introduced to Lloyd George thanks to the PBS import of Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece series that began its fourth season last Sunday. In an episode in the first season of Downton, Lloyd George’s name is mentioned in passing drawing, as usual, a stinging retort from the Dowager Countess played so well by Maggie Smith. “Please don’t speak that man’s name,” she huffs, “we are about to eat.”

At the time – we’re right before the outbreak of The Great War – Lloyd George, described appropriately by his great granddaughter the historian Margaret MacMillan “as one of the most interesting and controversial politicians in modern British politics,” was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Liberal government and he had proposed what would come to be called “The People’s Budget.”

That budget sparked a revolution in British society. Lloyd George promised to pay for both guns and butter in pre-war Britain by soaking the rich. He advocated social reforms, particularly old age pensions and a war against “poverty and squalidness,” as well as massive spending on the British Navy, including the huge dreadnoughts thought necessary to keep pace with the German Kaiser’s naval ambitions.

Lloyd George, MacMillan writes in her superb book The War That Ended Peace, loved a good fight and didn’t flinch from his People’s Budget that was constructed around increases in “death taxes” and new and steep taxes on the landed aristocracy. Little wonder they disliked “that man” in the plush rooms at Downton Abbey. He was paving the way for the ultimate demise of Lord Grantham and his like.

“The rich wanted the dreadnoughts,” MacMillan writes of her great grandfather, “and now they didn’t want to pay.” And, for that matter, just what was the value of the aristocracy? Lloyd George answered this way: “A fully equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts – and they are just as great a terror – and they last longer.”

On another occasion Lloyd George said, “death is the most convenient time to tax rich people.” In the U.S. conservative politicians would label that “class warfare” and we’d debate the fairness of “death taxes.” Such policy made Lloyd George prime minister.

Downton Abbey, for all its high-class soap opera touches – the nasty villains, crippling tragedy and clueless Lords – really offers a peephole into the rigid class structure that once, and to some degree still does, define British life. Downton is at the center of a society where ones life and possibilities were defined by ones birth. The imperious Mr. Carson, Downton’s butler, and his downstairs staff were born to “service” and lord – or My Lord – help them if they screw up. Those who manage to escape their class limitations – the upstairs maid who dreams of becoming a secretary and the Irish chauffeur Tom Branson who manages to escape for love – are the exceptions. Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and the rest seem destined to live and die in service.

Most Americans, of course, continue to buy the notion that with our long-ago revolution against the mother country we were able to create a “classless society.” Even as income inequality and a lack of mobility have become features of modern American society few politicians on this side of the pond would dare to advocate a “redistribution” of resources from the country’s economic lords to the little people. Rather than disparage the 1%, Americans seem to let the excesses of a Bernie Madoff or JP Morgan Chase float away like the smoke from one of Lord Grantham’s after dinner cigars. Perhaps some of our guilty pleasure in feasting on the glided soap opera that is Downton is that we are convinced our make believe “classless” society is superior even if the dinner time attire at Downton is much better than sitting on the sofa and eating a Domino’s.

Americans have never had a royal family unless you count the Kennedys and George Washington rejected John Adams’ suggestion that the president be addressed as “His Excellency.” Still we loved Lady Diana and can’t get enough of the future king and queen. We adore British imports – Scotch whiskey, The Beatles, James Bond and Manchester United. Since at least 1941 when Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt struck a partnership to defeat the Nazis, the United States and Britain have had their “special relationship.” In almost every case – the Suez Crisis in 1956 being a major exception – we’ve been joined at the hip, often for good and occasionally not, with the Brits on matters of foreign policy.

As much as I like the series, and I really do, Downton says as much about America in 2014 as it does about Britain in 1922. As the New York Times noted in marking the return of the fourth season the series and its characters are remarkable in their ability to soldier on when terrible things happen. “The series is optimistic, warmhearted, almost Reaganesque in its ability to find a rainbow. Mr. [Julian] Fellowes [the series creator] holds up a bowdlerized edition of British society, where beneath a thin veneer of stratification, servants and masters are friends and confidants, and even cataclysm doesn’t break the bond.”

We also like Downton so much, I think, because of what it doesn’t say. A television series devoted to how The Great War destroyed a generation of British manhood and how domestic politics brought a landed aristocracy to heel wouldn’t command much of a following. On Sunday evening we get the sunny version, which is good television, but not very good history.

By 1922 Lloyd George, having sat across the table from Woodrow Wilson to craft the Treaty of Versailles and create the League of Nations, was out of power. Internal conflicts and scandal in the once dominate Liberal Party doomed the Liberals to minor party status from which the party has never recovered. Even Churchill jumped ship on his old mentor Lloyd George and returned to the Tories – the Dowager Countess certainly must have approved – as Britain sank into a period of deep reflection and sadness spawned by what Lloyd George called “the cruelest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind.”

David Lloyd George was born the son of a Welsh schoolmaster and as such would have had much more in common with Irish Tom Branson, the chauffeur turned Downton land manager, than with the dandy fellows who are sent into a twitter when black ties replace white at dinner. When Lloyd George was finally given his own title – Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor in 1945 – he is reported to have said in Welsh “Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd ” – The truth against the world.

As we tune in this week to see if the sensible American, Lady Cora, and her head strong daughters can continue to outwit – its not that difficult – the dense Lord of the Manor, recall that Lloyd George said his country’s job after The Great War – a war that claimed more than 700,000 British lives – was “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.” I doubt he had Lord Grantham in mind.

 

The Iron Lady

It was only during a trip to Argentina a few years ago that I came to fully realize the import, in both Argentina and Britain, of the 1982 mini-war over the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. The war is still a raw and recent sore for Argentina and a (mostly) proud moment of triumph for what is left of a empire that once never saw the sun set.

The Argentine invasion of the sparely populated, wind-blown and British controlled islands came at a low point of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s popularity. But, in the wake of the Argentine aggression, when Thatcher summoned her best Winston Churchill and vowed to retake one of the last remaining outposts of the British Empire her stock began to rise and she truly became the Iron Lady of late 20th Century history.

Lady Thatcher’s death at age 87 will set off a wave of analysis about her role in world affairs, her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who she once called the “second most important man in my life,” and her political legacy. The final chapter on Thatcher – “steely resolve” is the favorite description today – will not be written for another decade or more as Great Britain, under the current Tory government, sorts out its place in Europe and the world, but this much can be said – she was, in the spirit of that great British term, a “one-off,” a tough, demanding, outspoken conservative woman who played politics with sharp elbows and a biting sense of humor. And she often played her role better than the men around her.

One can only speculate that the military junta who ruled Argentina in 1982 never in its wildest dreams believed that an economically troubled Britain so far removed from the islands they call the Malvinas and led, of all things, by a woman would actually resort to force to retake a little patch of rocky soil. Channeling Churchill and vowing not to let aggression stand, Thatcher assembled a War Cabinet, which she dominated, and deployed the British fleet and the Royal Marines. Thatcher’s Royal Navy, for good measure, sunk an Argentine battle cruiser after it had been well established that the generals in Buenos Aires where simply no match for the Lady at 10 Downing Street. The same could later be said for the old men trying to hang on to power in Moscow. Thatcher’s legacy certainly must also include a chapter on her role in defending democratic aspirations in eastern Europe, particularly Poland.

One of the best and most even handed assessments of Thatcher came today from Richard Carr a British political scientist and historian of British Conservative politics: “To supporters, she changed Britain from a nation in long-term industrial decline to an energetic, dynamic economy. To opponents, she entrenched inequalities between the regions and classes and placed the free market above all other concerns. Our politics, and many of our politicians, have been forged in her legacy.” That last sentence may best describe her real importance. Every British politician today has to reckon with Thatcher, just as every American politician must reckon with FDR, JFK and Reagan.

Like her friend Ronnie, the “B” movie actor from humble origins who became a transformative president, Thatcher, the daughter of a grocery shopkeeper who fought her way to the very top of British politics, helped define an era. As the Washington Post pointed out Thatcher modernized British politics to such a degree that future Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair adopted many of her policies and approaches.

“While unapologetically advancing what she considered the Victorian values that made Britain great, Mrs. Thatcher thoroughly modernized British politics, deploying ad agencies and large sums of money to advance her party’s standing,” the Post wrote today.  “The Iron Lady, as she was dubbed, was credited with converting a spent Conservative Party from an old boys club into an electoral powerhouse identified with middle-class strivers, investors and entrepreneurs.” Thatcher’s was the kind of re-invention of the British Conservative Party in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that some American Republicans only dream about for their party today.

Thatcher once said she never expected to see a woman as British Prime Minister, but it is a testament to her and her political party – mostly her – that she seized the chance when she got it and played her hand skillfully for 11 powerful years on the world stage. At her death there will be the inevitable comparisons with “the iron lady” of American politics Hillary Clinton, but in many ways the comparisons really don’t work. Sure, both women are tough and in many respects were tried by fire, but after those similarities the comparison breaks down.

Thatcher was old school. She beat the boys at their own game. She may have been carrying a handbag, but when she swung that bag she aimed for someone’s head. She was also unabashedly full of convictions and understood power. “Being powerful is like being a lady,” she once said. “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”‘

Is hard to envision The Iron Lady – she once famously told a Tory Party conference “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning” – making a YouTube video to announce a change in her position on same sex marriage. Thatcher was a true conviction politician, while Clinton seems to be falling into the same trap that ultimately doomed her presidential candidacy in 2008. She allows her handlers – Thatcher, by contrast, did the handling – to consistently portray her not as a leader of deep and important conviction, but as a woman of destiny, the first female American president who will get there as an inevitable fact of history.

Clinton may eventually find, as Maureen Dowd wrote recently in the New York Times, that she can learn new tricks and not merely be inevitable, but also necessary. “Even top Democrats who plan to support Hillary worry about her two sides,” Dowd wrote. “One side is the idealistic public servant who wants to make the world a better place. The other side is darker, stemming from old insecurities; this is the side that causes her to make decisions from a place of fear and to second-guess herself. It dulls her sense of ethics and leads to ends-justify-the-means wayward ways. This is the side that compels her to do anything to win, like hiring the scummy strategists Dick Morris and Mark Penn, and greedily grab for what she feels she deserves.”‘

There is, of course, nothing inevitable in history and acting on fear is never a winning strategy. Political leaders respond to events, as Thatcher did in the Falklands and to the Cold War in Europe, and either make their mark or are swept along by events they cannot figure out how to control. Thatcher left marks.

As Michael Hirsh points out in a piece at The Atlantic website, no one ever wondered – for good or bad – where Thatcher was coming down on an issue and, as a result, “she became the first female leader of her country, and she did it in such a determined way that her sex was almost an afterthought.” Put another way, Thatcher was a genuine transformational world figure by strength of conviction and by raw political skill. Nothing inevitable about that.

If Clinton does something similar she may some day have a chance to join the real Iron Lady in the history books. Today, however, there is only one female political leader – at least in the western political world – whose place in those history books is secure.

 

Romney in London

Today Mitt Romney got a nasty taste of what political life is like under a foreign media microscope. He must be wondering why he didn’t stay home.

By the measure of world-wide Twitter trending (#Romneyshambles), not to mention the Brit papers, Romney’s visit to London has gone over there about as well as the Norman conquest.

By one account Romney insulted all of England by wondering if the Brits are ready for prime time when it comes to hosting the Olympics; couldn’t seem to remember the name of the Ed Miliband the leader of Labour Party; disclosed (simply not done apparently) that he had met with the head of MI6, the super secret British intelligence service that prides itself on having almost no public profile, and misused some common English words that have considerably different meaning in the mother country.

Oh, yes, a Romney aide also told a London paper that the GOP candidate’s   “Anglo-Saxon heritage” made him a more dependable ally than President Obama. That discounts, of course, that Great Britain has been our most dependable ally since, oh, 1941. It must have also reminded some people of Obama’s “Kenyan roots” and undoubtedly reminded the British that Kenya was once theirs. The whole British Empire thing, don’t you know. In fairness to Romney he walked back the comment, but the fun was just beginning.

One tweet from Britain said it was clear Romney was “the American Borat.” Another said Romney had “retroactively cancelled” his European trip.

State the obvious: everyone can have a tough day. Obama will have his share between now and November. Still, when you are attempting to portray yourself as a person with a command presence, able to hold your own with world leaders, and you end up being publicly dissed by the Mayor of London, you’ve laid a large egg.

Perhaps the front pages of tomorrow’s London (and U.S.) papers will help put a stake into the nutty idea that a few days of visits to Europe or Israel by an aspiring American president – Obama did the same thing in 2008 – is in any way a demonstration of any kind of foreign policy knowledge or preparation. Romney would have done better to stay home and read about England.

His shambled visit may or may not signal something about Romney’s readiness for prime time. It certainly signals that there is no substitute for good judgment about one’s own limits. Safer, cheaper and more effective photo opportunities are available at American factories. The Romney photo op at 10 Downing Street just cost the GOP nominee a couple more days of completely negative press and plays to type that the guy is out of touch.

Of course, in the whole scheme of things, its just a lot of distraction and noise, but I can’t wait to see Jon Stewart’s take.

 

Keep Calm

And Carry On…

I just bought a nifty coffee mug emblazoned with the five words – Keep Calm and Carry On. (It seemed like the right kind of mantra at home and the office!)

After the second cup from the handsome mug, I got to wondering about the origins of that phrase. Turns out the British government during some of the toughest days of the Second World War commissioned a limited series of posters aimed at keeping the British upper lip adequately stiff.

The “Keep Calm” poster was the third of the trio and would have been rolled out only under the most dire circumstances, like the Nazis invading across the English Channel. While the other posters – Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory and Freedom is in Peril, Defend it With All Your Might – were widely used to buck up the hard pressed population of the Empire, the Keep Calm slogan was never used publicly.

The third poster disappeared for years until discovered, wouldn’t you know, by a used bookstore owner in a box of old books in his shop in the north of England.

Bookstore owner Stuart Manley told the Guardian that he originally thought the poster was, “a big piece of paper folded up at the bottom [of a box]. I opened it out, and I thought, wow. That’s quite something. I showed it to Mary, and she agreed. So we framed it and put it up on the bookshop wall. And that’s where it all started.”

The British version of the public television series Antiques Roadshow recently featured a woman who had been given 15 of the original posters by her father. It was estimated the posters – maybe the largest stash of originals – are worth several thousand pounds.

Now the slogan – approp in almost any circumstance and really great simple, positive messaging – has a whole new lease on life. In many ways, its the perfect melding of message, design, simplicity and elegance and you see the wording everywhere, on coffee mugs, tee shirts, wallpaper, posters, even in parody.

My favorite parody, complete with an image right out of the old Hitchcock film North by Northwest, is “Keep Calm and Cary Grant.”

Here is a link to a neat little video history of the posters. Keep Calm, an iconic image from the darkest days of the 20th Century and a testament to how something classic never goes out of style.

 

A Job for DCI Tennison

Tabloid Scandal Gets Closer to the Top

I’m thinking as I read about each new revelation in the widening Rupert Murdoch/tabloid/police/political scandal in Britain that we really need Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison to unravel this mess.

Think of the Helen Mirren character from the long-running PBS series, Prime Suspect, putting the screws to Murdoch’s henchmen. Mirren’s character was herself deeply flawed; a failure at love, she drank way too much and smoked like a campfire, but at her core she was an honest cop determined to see the right thing done. This British scandal needs a Jane Tennison.

Already the Murdoch mess has claimed his lucrative tabloid, The New of the World, that paper’s top editor, Rebecca Brooks, who was arrested over the weekend, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, the top two cops at Scotland Yard and other assorted bit players in Murdoch’s world and that of Prime Minister David Cameron. The scandal is getting dangerously close to the top. Murdoch hardly has anyone else to fire. Well, his son, perhaps, or himself.

Count on this story continuing to unfold for a long time to come. As Carl Bernstein, who should know, suggested in a Newsweek piece, all of this could become Britain’s Watergate.

Bernstein quoted one observer as saying of Murdoch and his leadership in the steady dumbing down of what passes for journalism in his empire on both sides of the Atlantic, “In the end, what you sow is what you reap. Now Murdoch is a victim of the culture that he created. It is a logical conclusion, and it is his people at the top who encouraged lawbreaking and hacking phones and condoned it.”

As to the Watergate analogy, Bernstein says: “The circumstances of the alleged lawbreaking within News Corp. suggest more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon presiding over a criminal conspiracy in which he insulated himself from specific knowledge of numerous individual criminal acts while being himself responsible for and authorizing general policies that routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct. Not to mention his role in the cover-up.”

It’s always the cover-up.

Murdoch’s jettisoning of the last two people to preside over the newspaper that hacked the mobile phones of some 4,000 people and potentially blackmailed and bribed police to cover it up can be seen one of two ways. The media mogul is finally taking charge or, Nixon like, Murdoch has fired his Haldeman and Erlichman in an effort to keep his distance from the details of the scandal.

This much is true: Rupert Murdoch didn’t amass a vast, global communications empire by not paying attention to the details – and the troubles – that perplex any CEO and his organization. He’s played his game ruthlessly, with enormous political and economic resources at his disposal and now the fruits of that approach are becoming all-to-evident.

Soon British Members of Parliament will be asking, as the great Sen. Howard Baker once did of Watergate witnesses, “what did Rupert know and when did he know it?’ The prime minister will be answering the same question.

Someday, down the road, the BBC will make a drama series out of all of this that will be a big hit on both sides of the pond. It will literally be “ripped from the headlines” and too fantastic to be believed, but it will be true. I hope they find a role for DCI Tennison.