I’m a bit of a politics nerd, but being an historian by trade, I’ve always been interested in the long view.
Published: 14 June 2022
Often I find myself comparing contemporary politicians with those of the past, which is why I find myself so impatient with media short-termism and gotcha journalism.
I don’t know how often I’ve been dismissed as uncaring because I refused to jump to conclusions on insufficient evidence or because I correct misquotations people cherish.
I sit uneasily in a world where Meghan Markle tells what have later been proved to be a pack of lies and calls them “my truth”, and those questioning her are called bullies.
Closer to home, though much farther back in time, here are two examples of how truth gets distorted.
Prime Minister James Craig has been vilified in nationalist circles since the 1930s for saying that he boasted that Northern Ireland had “A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People”, which was taken to mean that Catholics had no political rights.
True, they didn’t have the clout they needed at the time, but that was largely because the Nationalist Party were sullen, disorganised, frequently abstentionist and until 1965 refused to be the official opposition.
What nationalist ever quotes a debate about minority rights in 1934 when Craig said that he had said on an Orange platform that he was “Prime Minister not of one section of the community but of all” and “as far as he possibly could would see that fair play was meted out to all classes and creeds without any favour whatever on my part”.
Challenged about his use of the phrase “Protestant Parliament”, Craig replied that in the south they boasted and still boasted of a Catholic State, and all he boasted of “is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State”.
Considering that the Roman Catholic Church had an effective veto over legislation in the south, I can’t see that statement as objectionable.
Yet even well-regarded historians like Professor Diarmuid Ferriter still allege that Craig said “A Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”.
It’s been the same with Arlene Foster since she said specifically about Sinn Fein demands, “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more” and saw the phrase fatally twisted by the brilliant Sinn Fein lying machine into an attack directed at Catholics.
Which takes me to Boris Johnson and Partygate, where misreporting has been rife.
Boris has many failings, but when it comes to Downing Street parties, I think he has been grossly misrepresented by the press as a champagne-swilling party animal, when the truth is that he’s a people pleaser who hates both parties and confrontation.
The so-called birthday party in June 2020 is a case in point.
Boris had not yet fully recovered from almost dying of Covid two months earlier.
Arriving at the Cabinet Room for a meeting, he found his wife had asked a few colleagues (people he worked with every day) to wish him a happy birthday and sing at him.
He hates annoying Carrie, so even if he knew the detail of the regulations, he lacked the nerve to tell the gathering to leave.
He stayed for ten minutes, ate a sandwich and no doubt cracked a few jokes.
There were also a few goodbye gatherings of people who all worked in No 10 into which he was dragged to say a farewell thank you, and I see why he saw that as part of his job.
I don’t think he lied, but the media have largely reported on this unfairly and often hysterically because it sells papers by getting distressed people angry.
Which doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty wrong with Boris, whose career I’ve followed since before he interviewed me — in a very slapdash way — in 1999 for the Daily Telegraph about the book I’d just published on Drumcree and all that.
When he became prime minister twenty years later, I compared him to William Brown, of Just William fame.
“Among the characteristics Boris shares with William are a resentment of authority, limitless self-belief, charisma, imagination, ingenuity, audacity and optimism, as well as untidiness, mendacity, impatience with routine and set tasks, a disdain for rules and bourgeois conventions along with carelessness about other people’s possessions — all of which together get him into scrapes and out of them again largely unharmed.”
So nothing he has done surprises me, and as a supporter of Brexit, I’ve been prepared to forgive many transgressions, and I nurture the hope he’ll find a way to unlock the protocol.
Coincidentally, I read yesterday an interview with that giant of political operators, Henry Kissinger, still listened to with reverence at the age of 99.
Asked what he thought of Boris, he said: “In terms of British history, he’s had an outstanding career — to alter the direction of Britain on Europe, which will certainly be listed as of the important transitions in history.
“But it often happens that people who complete one great task can’t apply their qualities to the execution of it, which is how to institutionalise it.”
I wish I could think of someone who does.