Odd Couples

Giles Radice’s personal experience of British politics stretches back over 40 years, and he brings his knowledge to bear again in his latest work of comparative biography. Odd Couples follows on from his earlier works Friends and Rivals, which focused on Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey, The Tortoise and the Hares, focused on Clement Attlee and his senior ministers Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps and Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison, and Trio, his analysis of New Labour through the prism of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. Yet again the format works well in providing an engaging, well-paced summary, this time of the key developments in British politics since 1940.

Radice examines these developments through seven political relationships, some inter-party – Winston Churchill and Attlee, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath and David Cameron and Nick Clegg; and some intra-party – Bevin and Morrison, Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler, Margaret Thatcher and Willie Whitelaw and Blair and Brown. In these partnerships he identifies what he terms ‘initiators’ – strong leaders such as Churchill, Thatcher and Blair – and their complementary ‘facilitators’, such as Attlee and Butler.

The case of Bevin and Morrison is perhaps the odd one out in that it is the only one in which neither became prime minister – although not for want of trying, especially on Morrison’s part – where both were arguably ‘initiators’, and neither really ever liked each other.

Yet Radice argues that the relationship, and the way that Attlee managed it by divide and rule, giving Morrison the ‘home front’ and Bevin overseas, was crucial to the success of that government. An incredible amount of activity and change – certainly in the first three-to-four years of the government – resulted. But he equally notes the physical toll suffered by many of the senior members of the government which contributed to its exhaustion by 1951, at which point men like Attlee, Bevin and Morrison had served in government for over 10 years.

Radice is perhaps most admiring about the effectiveness of Butler and Macmillan, two men on bitterly opposing prewar sides over appeasement who worked together to revive the Conservatives and deliver a sustained period of that party’s rule; and about Blair and Brown, whose partnership at its height he describes as ‘an incredibly powerful combination of initiator and facilitator’.

In something of a postscript, Radice looks at Cameron and Clegg, accepting a final historical judgement cannot yet be made, but looking at how his analysis might be applied to the only peacetime coalition of the period studied.

Radice makes two implicit conclusions in his selection of individuals. First, the four prime ministers not included in the book – Anthony Eden, Alexander Douglas-Home, James Callaghan and John Major – are not generally regarded as successful premiers, or suffered notable electoral defeats. His unstated implication is, therefore, that a strong political pairing is an important element in a successful occupancy of No 10. While there are some examples of interesting partnerships amongst those missing prime ministers, for example Callaghan and Michael Foot, and Major and Michael Heseltine, Radice suggests they did not result in achievements comparable to those he profiles.

Second, a personal friendship is not a prerequisite for an effective political relationship. Some of those profiled hated each other, and it is perhaps surprising to note that the one couple who could accurately be described as having been personal friends at least at some point are actually Blair and Brown.

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Odd Couples: The Great Political Pairings of Modern Britain

Giles Radice

IB Tauris | 304pp | £25

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