In today’s blogpost, Martin Spychal of the Victorian Commons discusses his recent work on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Prime Ministers’ Props’ (the next episode is broadcast today at 9.30am). Here he discusses how these props were received within Parliament itself…
In addition to my usual post at the Victorian Commons, I’ve been working with Professor Sir David Cannadine (until recently a member of the History of Parliament’s editorial board) on his new BBC Radio 4 series about Prime Ministers and their props. Each episode examines how a Prime Minister became associated with a certain object or prop in the popular mind, and how that prop, inadvertently or otherwise, came to define the public image of the premier in question. The series considers Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella, Stanley Baldwin and his iron gates, Anthony Eden’s Homburg hat, Alec Douglas-Home and his matchsticks and Harold Wilson’s pipe and Gannex coat. Unsurprisingly, the occasionally peculiar public association of Prime Ministers with certain inanimate objects did not escape their contemporaries in parliament. Furthermore, parliamentarians have played a crucial role in disseminating the association of our political leaders with their props.
The subject of our first episode, Neville Chamberlain, became widely associated with his umbrella after signing the Munich agreement in September 1938, and returning to England, brolly aloft, to deliver his ill-fated ‘peace in our time’ speech. For a few brief months, the umbrella and Chamberlain became widely lauded icons of world peace. However, within a year, war had been declared, and Chamberlain and his umbrella were quickly transformed into symbols of weakness and misguided optimism over the threat posed by Nazi Germany. Although Westminster was quick to disassociate itself with Chamberlain and his umbrella, many MPs were taken aback by how a prop had transformed a previously unknown politician into a household name. Accordingly, when MPs were discussing propaganda strategies in October 1939, MP for Lancashire, Hamilton Kerr, saw the identification of a prop as a key media technique for familiarising the public with its war leaders. Props such as Chamberlain’s umbrella, he informed the Commons, had the power to transform politicians and military chiefs ‘from aloof and little-known personalities to human beings of flesh and blood’, who might help to keep ‘alive our faith in the dark days’ of war – a call to props that was answered by a certain Mr Churchill and his cigar.
Debate in parliament and during elections also provided one of the key means through which Prime Ministers became associated with props in the public mind. Alec Douglas-Home, who became known as the ‘matchsticks premier’, after he unwittingly informed a journalist in 1962 (a year before he became Conservative Prime Minister) that he required a ‘box of matches’ to ‘simplify and illustrate’ economic documents, is the subject of our fourth episode. His popular association with matchsticks was thanks in part to the efforts of the Labour Party, who under the leadership of Harold Wilson were intent on establishing themselves as the modernising force in British politics during the long election year of 1964. Key to this strategy was establishing that the Conservative party offered an out-dated approach to government, and Douglas-Home’s matchsticks provided the perfect rhetorical means of establishing Labour as the only party that was not just willing, but able to embrace the ‘white heat’ of technology. At various points during 1964, Labour MPs and peers castigated Conservative economic, education and housing policy as the outmoded and ill-judged products of the ‘monarch of the matchstick’, and during that year’s election, Harold Wilson informed electors that a vote for the Conservatives was a vote for ‘matchbox economics in a computer age’.
Harold Wilson’s Labour party won the ensuing election, but Wilson’s pipe and Gannex, the subject of our final episode, proved as damaging to his own reputation as matchsticks did for Douglas-Home. In fact, Wilson’s pipe provides an excellent example of how political opponents actively challenged the wider legitimacy of a Prime Minister by questioning the authenticity of his prop. On Wilson’s death in 1995, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton and current Father of the House, Gerald Kauffman, stood up in the Commons to take aim at Wilson’s critics, who throughout his life had suggested that in private Wilson actually preferred smoking cigars to pipes. The insinuation was that Wilson’s pipe smoking had been a disingenuous attempt at appearing at one with the common man, much in keeping with the wider charges that as a politician Wilson was all smoke and mirrors. While it is true that Wilson had quickly realised the utility of the pipe as both a media aide and as a means of shaking off his early image among cartoonists as the pyjama-clad baby of Atlee’s 1945 ministry, our work for the show has revealed that Wilson’s passion for, and addiction to, pipe smoking was indeed genuine. Indeed, as the series illustrates, decoding these five Prime Ministers and their props provides a fruitful strategy for unpicking their wider historical significance and re-assessing their popular legacy.
You can catch the remaining episodes of this series on BBC Radio 4 at 9:30am Wednesdays. All episodes will be available through BBC iPlayer after their initial broadcast.