The writing out of the Radical tradition

May 14, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Regular readers are aware of my view of Winston Churchill. On the five pound note, he will replace Elizabeth Fry, whom Michael Gove also wants to remove from the National Curriculum along with Robert Owen. Thus is at least the non-Marxist Left routinely written out of British and wider history.

In which vein, there are a staggering 25 vacancies, out of 65 available places, in the Order of Companions of Honour. Moreover of the current members of that Order which has always been heavy with politicians, precisely two have ever been Labour. One of those has not been so since 1981, and he advocated a vote for the Conservatives in 1992.

The other, severely compromised from the Chagos Islands to the IMF, will be 96 this year, like the Order itself. By contrast, no fewer than 11 are in receipt of the Conservative Whip in the House of Lords. A twelfth is that party’s serving Chief Whip in the House of Commons. A thirteenth is John Major.

Yet of the original 17 Companions of Honour, five were trade union leaders, Labour politicians, or both. A sixth was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement which had not at that time attained its objective. A seventh was soon afterwards to expand her social reforming work into Independent Liberal political activity. Two more were Liberal Unionists. If the industrialist Viscount Chetwynd took the Conservative Whip, then he was the only person on the list who was in any sense politically involved with that party, and even then barely so.

The pattern was set for many decades thereafter: relatively right-wing Labour politicians by pre-Blair standards, a few downright left-wing figures, trade union leaders, upper and upper-middle-class Boadiceas of social reform, luminaries of the Australian Labor and New Zealand Labour Parties, an extremely long-serving editor of the Manchester Guardian, a prominent campaigner on behalf of the rural working class.

Peace activists were notably numerous. The first Prime Minister of independent Papua New Guinea remains, while the first Prime Minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago was also a member. There was even an Indian nationalist politician. The one who had been Prime Minister of Northern Ireland had been a founder-member of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association, and had gone on to chair it.

There was a distinct preponderance of Nonconformist ministers, as well as towards Scotland and, strikingly in view of its relative smallness within the population, towards Wales. There were brilliantly maverick clergymen, generally influenced by Tractarianism, such as the Church of England used to produce: Wilson Carlile, Dick Shepherd, Tubby Clayton, Chad Varah. Varah did not die until 2007, yet he is already an unimaginable figure.

There were plenty of other people, too, including lots of Tories. But the old Radical tradition was very much in evidence. Alas, no more. Despite there being quite enough room for its current grandees in an Order not even two-thirds full.

For example, three people were Cabinet Ministers continuously from 1997 to 2010. Respectively, they ended their time as Prime Minister, as Lord Chancellor, and as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Two of the three living former Deputy Prime Ministers are Companions of Honour, but not the third. A former European Commissioner who used to chair the Conservative Party is so honoured, but not the Briton who was Vice-President of the European Commission during exactly the same period. And so on.

Oh, well, appointments are made on Prime Ministerial recommendation. Those are five recommendations to be made on Ed Miliband’s first day. It is hardly as if they would fail to leave plenty of room for anyone else.


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This post was written by David Lindsay

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