Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publications, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
So, only 13 days until Scotland decides its future. This referendum may have a far wider impact than just north of Hadrian’s Wall. Goldman Sachs are warning that the pound may go into freefall, but the other impact could be on David Cameron and as a consequence the date of the next election.
You may think I am mad, but it is entirely possible that we have just entered the last two weeks of Cameron’s period of office as Prime Minister. If Scotland votes Yes, could a prime minister who had lost Scotland really remain in office? As they say north of the border: ‘I have my doots’. If Cameron didn’t fall on his sword of his own free will, I suspect there are enough Conservative MPs to call a leadership election.
An alternative would be to conduct what the Germans call a ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’ in which he would instruct his own MPs to vote against their own Government. That’s the only way an early general election could come about. I’m surprised that so few political commentators are speculating in this manner because make no mistake, this will, if there is a Yes vote, be the biggest constitutional crisis since the 1936 Abdication crisis, or maybe the House of Lords crisis of 1910. Of course, it may be just as bad if Scotland votes No, but by the narrowest of margins. Then we get the worst of all worlds.
I’ve been on holiday for the last two weeks. Well, sort of. It’s a holiday that has been somewhat eclipsed by having to put the finishing touches to the Politicos Guide to the General Election. We want it to come out in time for the party conferences, but it’s been a real labour of love putting it all together, along with my three co-editors. We also have the problem of the fact that we don’t know how the Scottish referendum will go or the result of the Clacton by-election.
Books like this will always be slightly out of date on the day they are published, mainly because of what Harold Macmillan would call ‘events dear boy, events’. But for a political geek like me, who loves lists and tables about politics, it’s like being in political heaven putting it together. The challenge is also to make it accessible for the normal punter. But if you want to know which constituency has the most Muslim voters, or what the top Plaid Cymru target seats are, this is the book for you!
Next week I’ll be chairing three panels to decide on the Top 100 Most Influential People on the Right, the Left and the Top 50 Most Influential Liberal Democrats. The latter one may provide somewhat of a challenge. This year the lists will be published by The Times throughout the party conferences. Do subscribe to their new Red Box email, compiled each morning by Phil Webster.
Twenty years ago I took my father on a trip to the Normandy beaches, along with several other family and friends. It was a couple of weeks before the 50th anniversary of D-Day was commemorated. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the most memorable and enjoyable weeks of my life. You see, my father was born in 1929 and his formative early teenage years were spent during the war. Even now, he is at his happiest when he’s recounting stories from it. He rebuilds wartime jeeps and military vehicles. He loves going to air shows. He’s not interested in Channel 4. His channel of choice is the History Channel. He would drive my mother to distraction by watching a war film with the volume turned right up. Back in 2010 I took him on a Battlefields Tour to Arnhem. Again, it was a really memorable trip, and it was he who made all the friends, while I looked on and just felt contented that I had given something back to the Dad who has given me so much.
A few weeks ago I decided to research a member of my family who was killed in the First World War. He was my grandmother’s brother, so therefore my great uncle, and my father’s uncle. His name was Clifford Norden. And that’s all I knew. The internet is a wonderful thing, and within minutes I had found out that he was killed in action in Belgium on October 31 1918, only 11 days before the end of the war. He was only 19 years old. Before too long, I had found out where he was buried and had even found a picture of his grave. I then went onto the National Archives website. It’s amazing the detail you can find if you look hard enough. I was hooked. I couldn’t understand why none of us had done this before. I spoke to my Dad about him, and then one of my sisters told me we actually had his First World War medals at home. OK, I said, let’s take Dad and go and pay our respects to him – something we frankly should have done decades ago.
As soon as we arrived in Belgium we headed off to Harlebeke to find the British cemetery. And there it was – the grave we had travelled many hours to find. Like all graves in cemeteries run by the Comonwealth War Graves Commission, it was beautifully kept. However, I was strangely unmoved. I’m usually quite emotional on these occasions, but this failed to move me at all. We signed the visitors book and left, all feeling slightly underwhelmed. We decided to come back the next morning with some flowers and that Tracey would do a reading.
Our next stop was Ypres, where we wanted to see the Last Post performed at the Menin Gate. For those who don’t know is a memorial to the thousands of troops who had marched past the spot on their way to the front. Each evening at 8pm the Last Post is played.
There were hundreds of people there and at 8pm everyone went silent as the ceremony begun. I was a bit annoyed we hadn’t got there earlier as my Dad couldn’t see a lot. My niece Issy became very emotional when the trumpeters started playing the Last Post. When it had all finished my sister Sheena, never one to hold back, asked the four old boys carrying the flags if they would have their picture taken with my Dad. They formed a guard of honour around him and we all clicked away. My Dad isn’t one to get very emotional, but I could see that he was quite overwhelmed. Sheena then asked the trumpeters to do the same and he had a good old chat with them too. Totally in his element. I said afterwards to Tracey that if we never did anything for the rest of the trip, it was worth it just to experience that. As we got in the car Dad clasped my hand and said “I don’t know how much this whole thing has cost, but that was fantastic.”
The next morning proved to be very disappointing weatherwise. Lots of drizzle. So we went back to Harlebeke where Sheena placed a flower on Clifford Norden’s grave and Tracey read Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier.
We then went to Paschendaele where one of the most bloody battles of the war was fought. Looking at the countryside it was almost impossible to imagine what had happened there. We stopped at the Canadian war memorial, when I spotted some Belgian soldiers approaching. Sheena being Sheena went up to them and asked if they would have their photo taken with my Dad. One of them asked what we were doing there. My Dad explained about his Uncle Clifford and the soldier replied “Great respect, sir”. More moist eyes. My nieces were revelling in trying the soldiers helmets on!
From there we headed to Tyne Cot, which is the largest British cemetery anywhere in the world. Again, it was beautifully kept. However, I have to say it was a disgrace that there were few facilities for the disabled. My Dad couldn’t get to part of the memorial where all the names were written on the wall because there were steps and no ramp. Indeed the entrance was a very long walk and when you get to it, again there was no ramp, merely a series of steps. Bearing in mind the majority of visitors are likely to be relatively elderly, it does seem something the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ought to look at.
It may have been a very short hop over the channel but it was worth every minute, just to see the look on our father’s face. I think another trip to Normandy might be in order before too long.