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Harold, row the boat aground

Paul Foot, 20 November 1986

Memoirs 1916-1964: The Making of a Prime Minister 
by Harold Wilson.
Weidenfeld/Joseph, 214 pp., £14.95, October 1986, 0 7181 2775 7
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... Since this is such a sad book, let us start with something cheerful. One evening in March 1966, on an assignment to cover the general election campaign in the West Midlands, I found myself at the back of the Birmingham Rag Market, surrounded by what seemed like millions of people. The thousand seats in the front had been taken up long before the start of the meeting ...

Whitehall Farce

Paul Foot, 12 October 1989

The Intelligence Game: Illusions and Delusions of International Espionage 
by James Rusbridger.
Bodley Head, 320 pp., £12.95, August 1989, 0 370 31242 2
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The Truth about Hollis 
by W.J. West.
Duckworth, 230 pp., £14.95, September 1989, 0 7156 2286 2
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... Hardly a week goes by without the enemies of official secrecy having good cause to sing the praises of James Rusbridger. From his Cornish retreat he sprays the correspondence columns of newspapers with volleys of good sense and good humour. This bluff, meticulous man spent much of his youth as a British businessman in Europe, where he worked in a dilatory sort of way for MI6 ...

Almighty Godwin

Paul Foot, 28 September 1989

The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family 
by William St Clair.
Faber, 572 pp., £20, June 1989, 0 571 15422 0
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... Don’t be deceived by title or subtitle. This is not the biography of a family and it is not about the Godwins and the Shelleys. Perhaps the publishers persuaded William St Clair against his better judgment to downgrade his hero in the title and to include the Shelleys, who are more famous. This rich, glorious book is, however, a biography of William Godwin – no more, no less ...
Under Fire: An American Story 
by Oliver North and William Novak.
HarperCollins, 446 pp., £17.99, October 1991, 0 06 018334 9
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Terry Waite: Why was he kidnapped? 
by Gavin Hewitt.
Bloomsbury, 230 pp., £15.99, November 1991, 0 7475 0375 3
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... When did the Irangate scandal start? The official answer is late 1985. The Tower Commission report, a slovenly document which does not even boast an index, starts its story in that year. Col Oliver North, the man who, according to the received version, thought up the idea of selling arms to secure the release of American hostages in Beirut, tells us: ‘My own operational involvement began ...

‘No view on it’

Paul Foot, 22 October 1992

Nuclear Ambiguity: The Vanunu Affair 
by Yoel Cohen.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 297 pp., £10.99, July 1992, 1 85619 150 8
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... Mordecai Vanunu is starting his seventh year in solitary confinement in an Israeli jail. He is convicted of treason and espionage and his sentence is 18 years. The few members of his family who are allowed to see him have doubts about whether his mind will last that long. Already there are signs that the remarkable coherence and determination which he showed during the first years of his ordeal are on the wane ...

Diary

Paul Foot: The Impotence of Alan Clark, 5 August 1993

... In office, but not in power’. It seemed unlikely that anything ever said by Norman Lamont would make history, but this phrase from his resignation speech struck a chord. A common charge against Labour governments throughout the century has been that they have been at the mercy of other people’s power; that the combined influence of hostile bankers, businessmen, judges and media moguls ‘blew them off course’, as Harold Wilson put it ...

‘Bye Bye Baghdad’

Paul Foot, 7 February 1991

... The Sun (15 January) announces on its front page: THE SUN SPEAKS FOR EVERY MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD IN BRITAIN. This would normally be a joke, a fantastic flight of fancy to prove that editor Kelvin Mackenzie had at last gone mad. But when, the next morning, the Sun devotes its entire front page to the Union Jack with a good old British Tommy in its centre, and the rubric up above SUPPORT OUR BOYS AND PUT THIS FLAG IN YOUR WINDOW, thousands of people do so! The Sun has its best morning for years ...

So what if he was

Paul Foot, 25 October 1990

No Other Choice 
by George Blake.
Cape, 288 pp., £12.99, September 1990, 0 224 03067 1
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Inside Intelligence 
by Anthony Cavendish.
Collins, 181 pp., £12.95, October 1990, 9780002157421
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... Here are two more spy books from authors who worked long ago for British Intelligence. George Blake was very left-wing, and is now slightly less so. Anthony Cavendish has always been very right-wing. Both authors write of their profound respect for one of their former bosses, George K. Young. Young, who died recently, was deputy head of MI6 until he joined the merchant bankers Kleinwort Benson in 1961 ...

Diary

Paul Foot: Awaiting the Truth about Hanratty, 11 December 1997

... Hanratty! The name which has haunted the British criminal justice system for a generation is about to hit the headlines again. Some time in the next few weeks Baden Henry Skitt, former Scotland Yard Commander and Chief Constable of Hertfordshire, now a chief investigator for the Criminal Cases Review Commission, will draft a public statement on the A6 murder, for which James Hanratty was hanged in 1962 ...

The Common Touch

Paul Foot, 10 November 1994

Hanson: A Biography 
by Alex Brummer and Roger Cowe.
Fourth Estate, 336 pp., £20, September 1994, 1 85702 189 4
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... This is a story of a hero. The Times described him as the ‘first and the finest’ of all the heroes of the Golden Age of Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher had a penchant for ‘swashbuckling’ entrepreneurs, especially ones with Northern accents. When she first met James Hanson, his gentle Yorkshire lilt fascinated her almost as much as his millions ...

Blood Boiling

Paul Foot: Corporate takeover, 22 February 2001

Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain 
by George Monbiot.
Macmillan, 430 pp., £12.99, September 2000, 0 333 90164 9
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No Logo 
by Naomi Klein.
Flamingo, 501 pp., £8.99, January 2001, 0 00 653040 0
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... For an old Red like me, bowed down by years of Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton and Blair, these two books are full of exhilaration and hope. George Monbiot writes mainly about Britain in a terse investigative style that I had feared was out of date. Naomi Klein, based in Canada, ranges all over the world and writes infectiously with verve and passion. Again and again their themes converge ...

Smoking for England

Paul Foot, 5 July 1984

Smoke Ring: The Politics of Tobacco 
by Peter Taylor.
Bodley Head, 384 pp., £9.95, March 1984, 0 370 30513 2
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... Some time in the late 1960s the then prime minister Harold Wilson started using a new phrase to describe the world we live in: ‘pluralist democracy’. The word ‘pluralist’, which had been hanging around for a long time without doing any harm to anyone, meant, I think, ‘accepting many interests and ideas, rather than one’. In pluralist democracy, government plays the role of wise and benevolent chairman, holding the ring for the great interests which ‘jockey’ for power, rather than controlling them ...

Travels on the left

Paul Foot, 2 December 1993

John Strachey: An Intellectual Biography 
by Noel Thompson.
Macmillan, 288 pp., £27.50, May 1993, 0 333 51154 9
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John Strachey 
by Michael Newman.
Manchester, 208 pp., £12.99, September 1989, 9780719021749
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... In the 1929 General Election campaign, the Labour candidate for Aston, Birmingham issued the following leaflet: £5 Reward! DESPERATE TORIES WILD LIE. Mr John Strachey writes: ‘It has come to my notice that Tory canvassers are making the outrageous statement that I am a foreigner. This is a most serious allegation which the Aston Tory Party, utterly beaten in political argument, has fallen back upon as a last desperate throw ...

Diary

Paul Foot: The Labour Party’s vacillation over rail privatisation, 28 October 1999

... I had managed only one speech against the war in Kosovo when I was carted off to hospital in the middle of the night with what I later discovered was an aortic aneurism. Hardly had the surgeons opened me up than my aorta, an artery which runs from heart to head, ruptured. Almost all such ruptures end in death, and for many weeks I lay in a coma. When I came round, expertly patched up but still without much prospect of recovery, I was plagued by hallucinations ...

Diary

Paul Foot: The Buttocks Problem, 5 September 1996

... It’s rare to be able to test a book against one’s own direct experience of its subject-matter. I therefore make full use of mine, as a pupil at Shrewsbury School in the Fifties. In his Foreword to a new biography of Anthony Chenevix-Trench,* one-time headmaster of Eton, Sir William Gladstone writes that Trench’s ‘interest was in drawing out the best from boys as individuals ...

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