UK Politics

Alan Watkins and why the Cameron Osborne era left barely a trace

BY Stefan Stern   /  9 September 2016

I’ll never forget… what was his name again? You know who I mean: nice manners, sunny disposition, good at a lectern… CAMERON! That’s it. David Cameron. Used to be prime minister. Ended badly. What he’s up to these days?

And that other one, the finance guy. Strategic genius, some said. “Long term economic plan…” OSBORNE! George Osborne. Where is he now?

There may be certain drawbacks in not having a written constitution, but you cannot say that government in this country doesn’t change quickly when it wants to. We are only a few weeks into a new administration but already the old one seems from another time; gone, and, perhaps to a surprising extent, forgotten.

This will not, genuinely, be a “kick them when they’re down” piece (although, as an apocryphal rugby coach is supposed to have said, the ideal time to kick people is precisely when they’re ‎down). It is the sudden and almost unnoticed disappearance of the former PM and chancellor which prompts other questions.

Why have figures who were said by many to demonstrate absolute mastery of the political scene slipped from the stage without leaving much of a mark (aside from, you know, Brexit)? Why did that vote for Brexit on June 23rd represent such a rejection of those who had been elected into office only a year earlier? If the famous “long term economic plan” had been working, why did the new prime minister describe, on the steps of No.10, an economy that clearly wasn’t working for all sorts of people?

The Cam/Osbo duumvirate, spoken of at times with hushed reverence, is no more. I am reminded of the words of Charley Partanna, a hit man played by Jack Nicholson in John Huston’s movie “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985). Referring to a dead rival, Partanna says: “If Marxie Heller’s so fuckin’ smart, how come he’s so fuckin’ dead?”

To some of the above questions I hope to provide an answer. But first, we must turn the clock back a little.

On holiday this summer I read Alan Watkins’ sort-of memoir “A Short Walk Down Fleet Street”. (For the 2% of Reaction readers who don’t know, Watkins was a distinguished political commentator, who wrote for, among others, The Spectator, The Observer and The Independent on Sunday. He died in 2010 aged 77.) The book is an elegantly written account of what you might call a golden age of journalism. It includes Watkins’ tales of meeting Beaverbrook and “Tiny” Rowland, and getting to know big political figures from a bygone era – Tony Crosland, Iain Macleod, Michael Foot, Reggie Maudling, and many more. A lot of drink is taken. Life expectancy was much shorter than it is today.

But something else runs through the pages of this book: an unspoken appreciation that here was a generation of serious people who had either served in World War Two or had known the pressures and deprivations that the post-war world was home to. Iain Macleod, Watkins’ editor at The Spectator, moved stiffly owing to arthritis and a war wound, we learn. As a boss he was brave and usually unflappable. “Oh dear, must you really say that about Ted [Heath]?”, Macleod would ask his young columnist. “Well, if you must, I suppose you must.” Macleod would later serve, all too briefly, as Heath’s chancellor. But there was no career-minded self-censorship here.

At The Observer, Watkins writes, his closest friend was Terence Kilmartin, the literary editor. “He had saved [editor] David Astor’s life in 1944 when they had been ambushed at a crossroads in France, Astor then a 32 year old major in the Royal Marines, Kilmartin a 22 year old member of the Special Operations Executive. Astor had already been hit in the shoulder. Kilmartin shouted at him to lie flat on his face, and afterwards tended him and others with bandages.” The Bullingdon Club this was not.

Later generations have not, of course, had to face the existential calamity of world war. It may have been irresistible to use the language of catastrophe during the global financial crisis, but by comparison (and thanks to decent crisis management) the worst was avoided. Our generation has not been tested in the same way that Watkins’ colleagues were.

Does this partly explain a certain lack of seriousness in politics today? The sense that much of this is just an amusing game, played for high stakes, of course, but with limited risk of lasting personal injury? Nick Clegg’s memoirs seem to reveal a young man slightly bemused by what he has been through and still struggling to understand what it all meant and how it happened. “The Time of my Life” by (Major) Denis Healey – beach master for the British assault bridge at Anzio in 1944 – reads differently.

What, I wondered, had Alan Watkins made of Cameron and Osborne as they approached the 2010 election (he died shortly before it)? A quick trawl revealed a few choice phrases. “There is a fly-by-night quality in many of the younger Tories, including Mr Cameron and Mr George Osborne,” Watkins wrote in August 2009 – although he did also predict that they would get into office. “As for Mr Cameron, he told the last conference that he was a ‘man with a plan’. What that plan was remained invisible to the naked eye, or even to a high-powered electronic microscope,” Watkins wrote in November 2008. “It may be that Mr Cameron is not as nice as he looks,” he wrote in July 2008. “Mr Cameron… is liable to make promises which later turn out to be awkward,” he said in December 2005, adding: “Mr Cameron’s defect may turn out to be that he looks a jolly sight too pleased with himself for his own good.”

Daily journalism inevitably involves making swift judgments. It is running commentary. And relationships with the powerful have to be maintained. Whatever you might think of those in office, it could be unwise to make sworn enemies of them if they are going to be around for a while.

And yet: not many Westminster watchers and commentators seem to have spotted what was pretty clear to Alan Watkins a decade ago. And, if they did spot it, they didn’t write it very often. Perhaps what’s really missing is editors like Iain Macleod, who, when told that a colleague is about to offer an “inconvenient” view which breaks from the conventional wisdom, says: “Oh dear, must you really say that? Well, if you must, I suppose you must.”

Watkins formed a view of the Conservative leadership in 2005 which he did not change. It is a shame, to say the least, that he was not around during the coalition years, and in the run-up to the EU referendum, to offer his thoughts on the latest dramas.

As for the rest of us: we must try harder.


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