Former North East MP Giles Radice talks about odd couples in politics

Former North East MP Giles Radice talks about his life in politics his latest book - and who might be the politics’ next Odd Couple after the general election

Ian Vogler Tony Blair with Gordon Brown
Tony Blair with Gordon Brown

Miliband and Salmond? Cameron and Farage? Nick Clegg and anyone who’d have him?

With neither of the main two parties looking likely to win a majority at next month’s General Election, much of the campaign has been concerned with what partnerships with the small parties might come together.

In that atmosphere, a new book by former North East MP Giles - now Lord - Radice could not be more timely.

Odd Couples; The Great Political Pairings of Modern Britain, starts off with the working partnership between Winston Churchill and Labour’s Clement Attlee and encompasses seven pairings through the generations up to the final present day one between David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

The obvious question is, if he were to write about an eighth ‘odd couple’ following the May 7 ballot: who does he expect it to be?

Lord Radice provides a less than obvious answer. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Cameron.

It is not, he hastens to add, an alliance that would be forged in some hard to imagine meeting between the pair who seem to honestly and openly abhor the policies of the other.

They don’t even seem to like each other, rather like another odd couple featured in Radice’s book - Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.

But, he feels, it might be one borne out of tactics.

He said: “It’s an unholy alliance but it would suit the Tories very well for the SNP to win a lot of seats in Scotland.”

Harold Wilson and Ted Heath
Harold Wilson and Ted Heath

While weakening Labour, the lack of Tory presence in Scotland would perhaps - in SNP eyes - hasten another referendum there.

It’s an interesting theory and comes in the wake of a ‘leaked memo’ in which Ms Sturgeon allegedly said she’d prefer Cameron to win against Ed Miliband, though that is something she has vehemently denied.

And it also flies in the face of Miliband being portrayed as Sturgeon’s potential puppet if there is a hung parliament resulting in a Labour/SNP coalition, formal or otherwise.

“We live in interesting times,” said Radice.

And he should know, having lived through interesting times in a half century spent in the House of Commons and Lords.

He was elected MP for what was then the Chester-le-Street constituency in 1973, now Durham North West.

London born and raised for a time in India, he came from a Conservative supporting family but his allegiance was switched to Labour during his time at Oxford University as a result of the Suez crisis in 1956.

This was the invasion of Egypt by Israel, followed by Britain under Tory Prime Minister Anthony Eden and France, to regain control of the Suez Canal and to remove Egyptian president Nasser from power.

“I was sympathetic to the Labour position of party leader Hugh Gaitskell and Shadow Foreign Secretary Nye Bevan who condemned it. It was the Iraq of the time.

“I was rejecting my background. My parents were all right about it. My grandfather, who was a Tory MP, said in difficult times it’s good to have family members on both sides of the house.”

Giles Radice
Giles Radice

Four years later he joined the party proper and, after two unsuccessful attempts to gain selection to contest Chippenham, he was chosen to fight the County Durham seat. His position as research officer for the GMB helped.

“In those days unions had an influence they don’t now,” he said.

He remembered his working class constituents being a bit surprised when they first met him. “But the people were very, very warm, as long as I didn’t pretend to be anything I wasn’t and so long as I worked hard.”

While his first few years saw him in a Labour party in office - Harold Wilson won the general election in 1974 and was succeeded as Labour Prime Minister by James Callaghan in 1976 - that came to an end in 1979. There followed the years in the wilderness.

On the right of the party, many of his political bedfellows like Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins quit the party in the early 1980s to form the SDP.

“It was horrible time,” said Radice. “I was never tempted to leave for the SDP although people did try to persuade me.”

Ironically, it wasn’t the exhortations of the SDP who almost succeeded in getting him out of the Labour party but the actions of the left wing activists within the Labour movement itself at that time.

“There were people turning up in the constituency I’d never seen before. The ‘bedsit brigade’. They wanted me out. I thought seriously of leaving politics. It was an unpleasant time but I just decided I must never give up.

“I have to say it was Neil Kinnock who basically stood up to them that made all the difference. I’ll always respect him for that. He didn’t get elected (as Prime Minister) but made it a decent party, a party to be proud of.”

Slowly the wheel turned until the coming of Tony Blair. Radice was described by some political commentators as a ‘Blairite before Blair’.

In his 1989 book Labour’s Path to Power: The New Revisionism, Radice set out his vision for a modernised Labour Party, which included abandoning Clause IV of the party constitution. Clause IV stipulated Labour’s aim of “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, and was widely interpreted as its commitment to socialism and the principle of nationalisation

PA/PA Wire Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London

Of hugely symbolic importance to traditional Labour supporters - it was one of the foundation stones of its constitution written in 1918 - it was seen as a millstone around its neck when it came to attracting southern middle class voters.

Then came his Southern Discomfort pamphlet in 1992 which also argued the case for reform. Using focus group evidence, Radice found that voters in the south believed that Labour was out of touch, extremist and against aspiration. Philip Stephens later wrote in the Financial Times, “At that time, Giles Radice, then an MP, wrote a brilliant essay on what he called Labour’s ‘southern discomfort’. The party would not win, he argued, unless and until it managed to connect its ambitions for social justice with the individualistic aspirations of the voters in southern England. Here was the template for Mr Blair.”

He said it was Blair who persuaded him to fight for New Labour in the House of Lords and he was made a Life Peer as Baron Radice, of Chester-le-Street in the County of Durham in July 2001.

As well as taking his place in the upper house, Radice also used his time to pen a series of books.

He wrote Friends and Rivals, an acclaimed triple biography of three modernisers from an earlier generation Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, and Anthony Crosland.

This was followed by The Tortoise and the Hares, a comparative biography of Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison. Then Trio: Inside the Blair, Brown, Mandelson Project was published in 2010.

Now there is Odd Couples which, as its name suggests, is about sometimes unlikely pairings in politics who seem to be divided into ‘initiators’ - those with the big ideas - and ‘facilitators’ those who carry these ideas through.

Others included in it are Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison; Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler; Margaret Thatcher and Willie Whitelaw; and Blair and Gordon Brown.

The only pairing who seem to fall outside the ‘facilitator’ ‘initiator’ categories are Clegg and Cameron, he admits, but as leaders of the two parties in the first official post war Coalition, they were included and their relationship analysed.

So how does he see current Labour leader Ed Miliband?

He admitted: “It was David Miliband I supported in the leadership election but I think Ed Miliband has hardly put a foot wrong since he became leader. Though he has been much criticised by the Tories as not being of Prime Minister material I think during successive debates he has shown himself well capable.”

Now 78 and living in Lincolnshire, he said he made a conscious decision after Kevan Jones won his seat for Labour to stay out of politics in that area, just returning to see Durham play cricket now and again. And as well as his writing he is still taking part in House of Lords debates.

“When I was younger I thought 78 was fantastically old. But now I’m here I - touch wood - feel relatively fit and I think nothing of it. It’s a new phenomenon that the aged aren’t as old as they once were.”

There is no official retirement age from the House of Lords and so it down to him when he leaves.

“I have no date in my mind yet but I prefer not to leave it in a coffin,” he said.

  • Odd Couples; The Great Political Pairings of Modern Britain’ is published by IB Tauris and costs £25.

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