The top ten: political myths
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 19 May 2013
Suddenly we were transported to fantasy land this month; to a country where Nigel Farage won a quarter of the vote in protest elections and it was said that David Cameron should ditch gay marriage and pull out of the EU without bothering with a referendum because, "as everyone knows", the Conservatives failed to win last time because "they weren't right-wing enough". How people believe as they want to…
1. There was a "sea change" in 1979. So said James Callaghan: "And it is for Mrs Thatcher." But that was just an excuse. If he had gone to the polls in 1978, Labour could have held on.
2. "They're all the same." It's the most tedious reflex of conventional wisdom, as my friend Tom Doran pointed out. It is not true, and if you really think it is, vote Respect (or whatever).
3. Tony Blair claimed to have seen Jackie Milburn play at Newcastle, when the player had retired. What Blair said was that he "came just after Jackie Milburn". Thanks to Richard T Kelly.
4. "It was treachery with a smile on its face." Margaret Thatcher blamed her fall on a disloyal Cabinet. Not so: backbench Tories did her in because the Poll Tax would cost them their seats.
5. Ostriches bury their heads in the sand. It counts as a political myth because it is a standard parliamentary metaphor. But they don't.
6. Memory of a goldfish. Another metaphor often used in politics that's wrong. Goldfish can be trained to push levers to obtain food, says David Bradley in his book, Deceived Wisdom.
7. The post-war Liberal-Conservative coalition was brought down by the Tory backbench 1922 Committee. No, the Committee was formed in 1923 by Tory MPs elected after the coalition's fall.
8. British rail fares are expensive by European standards. No, they aren't, says Mark Smith, "The Man In Seat 61", who compared routes.
9. "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." It was true in the 1980s, but the degree of inequality stayed roughly the same until the last few years, when it fell slightly (thank Gordon Brown).
10. The impact of the French Revolution: "too early to say". Chinese premier Zhou Enlai misunderstood: he thought he was being asked about the student riots three years before.
Next week: The Top 10 American footballers' names. Send your suggestions, and ideas for future Top 10s, to email@example.com
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