Philip Hensher: Stop me if you've heard this one before

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's a hundred years since the great Liberal landslide of 1906, and pundits have been queuing up to offer their insight into what lessons may be learnt by politicians of today. Within a decade, the party which had seemed set to dominate the political landscape for the rest of the century had torn itself apart under the rivalry between Lloyd George and Asquith.

This dramatic episode might, in order to be played out again properly, seem to need the intervention of the Great War rather than, say, some noisy but contained skirmish in Iraq. Nevertheless, history cannot be allowed to remain as just that, history, and valuable on its own terms; nor can it be permitted to be something with consequences which, as Chiang Kai- Shek intimated when talking about the French revolution, are still going on.

Instead, we have the parlour game of running through the dramatic decline of the Liberal Party between 1906 and 1922 and trying to see who will fit in the central roles. Is 1906 1997, and Asquith Blair and Lloyd George Brown? Or is 1906 - a less popular comparison than it was a year ago - actually 1979, and the Tories' eclipse not temporary but a long decline? Or (you are free to stop caring at this point) are the Liberals actually the Liberal Democrats?

The search for historical parallels with contemporary political situations is an almost irresistible one. More usually, of course, we tend to reach back for our comparisons to events within living memory, and Suez, in practice, is the most remote event which is habitually cited.

The idea of an occasion, however, when an apparently all-triumphant party is reduced to a rump within half a generation is so tantalising to players of the game that it is going to be used for serious and mischievous purposes for some time to come. Anyone who, for their own contemporary reasons, likes the idea that there will be no Conservative revival or, on the other hand, that the Labour landslides of 1997 and 2002 could perfectly easily collapse within a cycle of five elections to almost nothing, will hang on to the Liberal years after 1906 with great pleasure.

I don't want to pour cold water on the ingenious judgements of so accomplished and learned a player of this game as Mr Andrew Roberts, who was at it on the Today programme yesterday, but circumstances have changed so utterly since 1906 as to make it almost impossible to draw meaningful parallels. In the first instance, a political landscape with a powerful, functioning House of Lords and, to a much greater extent, the monarchy, is not going to produce comparable events or results. Nothing resembling the Great War could possibly intervene in our domestic affairs. The only real repetitions, I suspect, are going to be the personalities of politicians, which are unchanging.

For me, the politician who offers an unmistakable parallel to Gordon Brown is Philip Snowden, that sour Chancellor with the face of Prudence itself, of whom Churchill bitchily said that when he went to the Treasury, the occasion was like the ecstatic meeting of two long-separated kindred lizards, and afterwards, the reign of joy began. And of course, if you want an instance of a long-waiting Dauphin at Number 11 who never in the end reached the commanding heights with any of the anticipated éclat, history will supply you with numerous examples. But 1906 - or Suez - or any specific event: it's safe to say it won't happen in just the same way twice.

So Ruth's a good egg after all

Unexpectedly, a little fragment of admiration for a Government minister has to be brought to light. I hadn't really expected, either, that it would be for Ms Ruth Kelly, right, whose well-scrubbed features and practical mother-of-four haircut had always made me think, with depressive effect, of Christian summer schools.

Good for her, however: when a protester threw an egg at her the other day, landing fair and square in that sensible haircut, she shrugged her shoulders and said that egg-throwing "went with the job" of being a politician. And so it does. The long and noble English history of throwing eggs at politicians seems to have gone into abeyance in recent years. It seems to me as good a test of character as any; and we can henceforth think of Ms Kelly as a good egg for taking one with good grace. I wouldn't actively recommend the form of protest, in case you get locked up indefinitely as a terrorist, but we'd soon discover which politicians were worth voting for if it came back as a regular feature on the election trail.

* Mr Anthony Worrall Thompson is in trouble for publishing a recipe, supposedly for children, which involves chopping up half a dozen Snickers bars, mixing them with mascarpone and turning them into a pie. Not since the last days of Elvis has such culinary excess been witnessed. Any small child foolhardy or lucky enough to eat a single portion of this invention will be ingesting over a thousand calories in three spoonfuls.

Honestly, though, who cares? I mean, it's clearly party food, not the basis for anyone's daily diet. Personally, I think it sounds perfectly disgusting, and Escoffier's crown is safe for the moment, but any child who really ate this would leap up, run round the garden a hundred times before being sick in the shrubbery, and would then fall harmlessly asleep. I don't think the humourless food tsars who are tutting about it have considered, either, the instant social popularity any under-10 host would acquire from serving this obscenity.