There are few people alive today who can truthfully claim to have “been there” at one of the great moments in British history. There are the remarkable gentlemen who are veterans of the First World War of course, and those who took part in the General Strike. But apart from them, none. Except brave veterans of the second world war, those who lived through the Blitz, those involved with Suez or the drive for independence of the Commonwealth Countries, but other than these select, well tens of thousands, none, Unless you count those who remember the death of Diana maybe, or the fall of Saddam Hussein, the resignation of Tony Blair, or, well OK, everyone living and breathing can claim to have “been there” at one of the great moments in British history. Try again.
It is no big deal to claim to have “been there” at the great moments in history, everyone can, or even to have “been there” at the birth of an idea. Lots of people were with Tony Blair when he sat with Gordon Brown in Granita and new Labour was born, or at least so it appears from the amount of stuff written about it, but what about the moment of conception? Who can claim to have been with Karl Marx when his brain first flashed up “workers of the world unite” as a slogan instead of his first choice of “let’s give everything to the rich”? Who was watching Oliver Cromwell when he was reading the “Puritan Post” and first thought “I could murder that Charlie!” before he cancelled his membership of the Royal Family Supporters Club? No one. But when the foundation of Britain’s present leisure policy was first thought of, I was there!
It was a number of years ago when as (very young) press officer for the Ilford Labour Party I was introduced to a new (very young) candidate to take over our marginal Labour seat from the sadly departed Millie Miller MP. Her name was Tessa Jowell. This was at an unpopular time for a Labour Government, and whilst it is strange to think of a Labour Government being unpopular there you are, and Tessa was chosen to defend this seat in a bye-election.
In those days we used to “canvass”, a strange notion to most of you now but this was pre texts, mobile phones and emails, so we had to walk up to houses, knock on the door and ask people how they were going to vote. Having said you were from the Labour Party, if you managed to get away with just the abuse and without having things chucked at you, they were undecided. The throwing classified them as doubtful. I set out with Tessa to canvass, each of us beginning on one side of a 160 house road.
I had gone up one side and was half way down the other before I realised that I had lost the Candidate on the way. My thoughts were split. Whilst I could see that the Labour Party might not be happy about having their candidate kidnapped, there were great press opportunities to be gained from the story and I was just deciding whether I should ring the police or the Daily Mirror first, when she appeared from the third house. Tessa had been meeting people, finding out their problems, and trying to work out ways to help them. A potential MP who liked to listen to people and help them. What a joke! We would soon change that.
Anyway the campaign rolled on, and we ran a suberb, innovative, in fact brilliant campaign. When we started no one gave us a chance of holding on to this marginal Labour seat. They all thought the Tories would scrape past us, but they could not have been more wrong. In fact the Tories walloped us! We turned Ilford into a rock solid safe Tory stronghold, against all the odds! And it was not a fluke, because we successfully repeated this achievement the following year in the General Election.
However it is said victory teaches us nothing, all our education comes from defeat. That is why England’s Rugby Union squad is presumably brilliant and our one-day cricketers are probably PhDs. Indeed Tessa learnt so much from her experience in Ilford that she went on to become Member of Parliament for Dulwich, a Minister and now a Secretary of State. By complete coincidence she never asked me to help her again. However, that does not matter, because it was at the very moment of the second of these hammerings that this conception of a philosophy occurred.
We left the election count, escaping what I have always thought was the over hysterical giggling of our opponents, and Tessa turned to her loyal team of helpers, well me actually as everyone else had mysteriously vanished, and spoke the moving and eternal lines “where can a girl get a drink round here at 3 in the morning?”. I took her to Ilford’s best known exclusive private membership club that was then on the site of what is now the borough’s refuse tip. Actually it was then on the site of the borough’s refuse tip. We arrived at the door and I gave the secret membership password where, after giving the special knock, you say “I have got cash” and they let you in.
This was a joint for which the word seedy was invented if inadequate, but Tessa relaxed and enjoyed herself on the gaming tables as the drink flowed freely. It is only now that I see that the glint that appeared in Tessa’s eye as she clutched a half of lager shandy in one hand whilst desparately hoping that the next card would be Mrs Bunn the Baker’s Wife was the start of the philosophy that eventually led to 24 hour drinking and the super casino. I also know now that the 50p I lent her to get the all night bus home was the reason I have never been elevated to the House of Lords. That had been puzzling me.
But from that time on we went our separate ways in life. Tessa went on to become a member of the Cabinet, the wonam who won the Olympics for London, completed the superb Wembley Stadium, took our licensing laws from those introduced in the First World War up to date, and gained record funding for the Arts and Culture, while I didn’t. Still every time we meet she humorously says, in an affectionate and ironically threatening way “Who are you exactly?”
But if any of you reading this piece do not believe this tale, there is more truth in this than in the vast majority of political newspaper articles you will read! What has Tessa Jowell ever done for Culture, Media and Sport? Well, apart from the Olympics, Wembley Stadium, increased funding for arts, increased funding for sports, the sports development programme, the sporting excellence programme, modern licensing laws, an adult approach to gambling, public access to entertainment licence decisions, absolutely nothing. After all, the media is still rubbish! Now Tessa has responsibility for the Olympics and we wish her well. London’s games could not be in better hands! If she wants a press officer, she knows my number, but I won’t wait up for the call.