Ambition and Greatness

Some days ago I was tempted to write a blog called ‘Et tu Boris’  but the comparison of Boris’s betrayal of David Cameron and Brutus’s betrayal of Julius Caesar doesn’t really hold. Brutus was a reluctant assassin, a late convert to the cause of preserving the Roman Republic from tyranny, and Boris, as far as I know, has never worn a toga. But betrayal it was, in Boris’s case, and I am one of the many who believe, as former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, argued today in the European Parliament, that Boris brought about Brexit, and thereby potentially brought down his country, and the European Union with it, largely to serve his own Prime Ministerial ambitions. How otherwise can one explain his ruthless dishonesty with the facts – the nonsense about 350 million pounds flowing weekly from Britain into the EU’s coffers, and the putative invasion of Britain by a million Turks? In my eyes he has lost all credibility as a decent man, though I don’t doubt that he is a clever one.


Boris Johnson has written about Churchill, and wags have suggested that he sees many of the great man’s qualities in himself – wit, independence of mind, brilliance, and oratorical originality – and for both Churchill and Johnson politics were and are but one facet of a wide-ranging career. Churchill, like Johnson, wasn’t always taken seriously, and had similarly clownish ways when it suited him.

But, consider May 1940, when Neville Chamberlain only narrowly won a vote of no confidence tabled in the House of Commons, when many MPs of his own party voted against him. Churchill spoke passionately in defence of Chamberlain. Deciding that a coalition government was needed Chamberlain sought the support of the opposition party, and when he met with the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party, as well as with Churchill and Halifax on the 9th May, he was informed that they would support a coalition only on condition that he would not continue as Prime Minister. Chamberlain was willing to resign but had to advise the King on whom he should ask to form a Coalition Government.

Chamberlain greatly preferred Halifax. As Foreign Secretary, Halifax was the obvious choice, and it was said (a relevant consideration in 1940) that he enjoyed the confidence of the King. He was a more predictable, more widely admired politician. So, Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax met to discuss whom Chamberlain should recommend to the King. Churchill gave Halifax the opportunity to put himself forward and would have been ready to support him. For reasons that are still not wholly understood, Halifax demurred, claiming that as a member of the House of Lords he would not be able to lead the country effectively (though historians point out that there were mechanisms that would have allowed him to speak in the House of Commons, if not to vote there). He also doubted that he had the bellicose qualities that the times demanded and that he would have the support of coalition partners. So, it remained to Churchill to offer himself, and in due course, according to Roy Jenkins (in his biography of Churchill), he became the greatest Prime Minister the country has ever known.

Nothing captures the British attitude to leadership more dramatically than the symbolic dragging of the elected Speaker to his chair in Parliament after his or her election. We do not like our leaders to show eagerness when they assume power.

Boris Johnson, as we have seen, clothed himself in the most convenient policies, told the most effective and appalling lies, and has now set about elbowing his way to the top job.

Greatness was thrust upon Winston Churchill, whilst Boris Johnson is thrusting his shabby mediocrity upon us.




95 Today!

My mother is 95 today, and undiminished. Of course, she’s incapable of a marathon, but with the aid of a walking frame, and the motorised buggy she drives around Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer, she’s perfectly capable of fending for herself, as well as providing for an ever-growing menagerie of stray cats – ‘the breakfast club’ as she calls it –  mostly strays on the make who’ve recognised a good deal when they’ve seen one.

Mentally she’s as acute as ever, and as provocative, mischievous and argumentative. She’s an avid reader, a critical viewer of the afternoon soaps, and still up to the demands of University Challenge and Mastermind. If she complains about anything, it is only of the boredom of old age, but there is clearly much to keep her entertained and exasperated.

Dressed for this year’s Easter Bonnet competition.


Though most of them have chosen intellectual retirement, my mother likes to discuss the political and cultural issues of the day with the other elderly residents of the community where she lives in Salisbury. She’s an outspoken atheist, socially liberal, politically Conservative, pro-EU, refugee-tolerant, and she’s quick, indeed eager, to see dishonesty, self-interest, pretension, arrogance and insincerity in almost everyone in public life. She loved Margaret Thatcher and loathes Tony Blair (at least she has loathed him consistently, whereas I only loathed him after he got started with Iraq). She can’t bear false piety, or affectation. She hates pomposity, and officiousness. She can’t bear whining.

There are also a few things that she likes. She likes animals. She likes poetry and music. Above all, she likes her own country. She has travelled widely, but late in a long life has formed the view that British is always best, whether it’s a matter of gastronomy, landscape, politics, justice, or kindness to animals. Garlic, above all, must be avoided. She likes a drink or two, and would drink a little more if it weren’t that a single glass topples her.

Her low opinion of human nature has led her to see innocence only in animals, and she’s quicker to write a cheque for ailing donkeys than for the conventionally underprivileged human. I differ with her on the question of human nature. She sees the world as a worse place than when she was born: I see it as a better place, and getting better all the time. Animals, as far as I’m concerned, aren’t moral beings capable of good or evil.

My mother was born Grace Evelyn Tizard in Portland, Dorset, on the south coast of England. Her father was a quarryman, her mother a domestic servant brought up in a harsh Workhouse School in north London. She inherited from her mother the conviction that good things only come from hard honest work, and that laziness and luxury sap the soul. I have, in turn, inherited those views. ‘I want never gets’ was the constant refrain of my childhood.

She won a scholarship to Grammar School in the mid-1930s, and joined the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service when war broke out in 1939. She’d long thought that war was inevitable, and had no time for Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. She spent the war years calibrating guns and assisting with the development of radar on the cliff tops of southern England and Wales.

In 1944, despite her admiration for Churchill, she voted Labour, for the first and, so far, the only time.  The war years were hard, but possibly the happiest years of her life. As for many women of her background the war was liberating, bringing new, wider possibilities in its train.



On demobilisation she studied at a teacher-training college in Cheltenham, and from then until the 1980s she taught at a number of state primary schools. She was a firm but fair teacher and had no problem with discipline.

She met my father, an Army Major, in 1954 and they enjoyed a happy marriage until his death in 2003. She was undoubtedly the more articulate, thoughtful and opinionated of the two, and he the more conventional. Since his death, my mother has expressed her opinions without restraint, and she cares little for others’ opinion of her. If there are those who disagree with her, they must make their case intelligently, and expect to see it demolished if it’s weak. I share her approach on such matters.

She is a woman of strong views. On a good day that can be invigorating. On a bad day…..well, it’s her birthday, so let’s put that aside for the moment.

If she can avoid physical dependency and retain her wits and wit, she’ll gladly live to a hundred. Fingers crossed.