This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Clegg is Cripps not Churchill shock

"Nick Clegg will have to show that he is more than that if he really is going to rival Churchill...."

The Sunday Times quotes a YouGov poll that says Nick Clegg is nearly as popular as Winston Churchill.

Wonderful stuff for those responsible for the story, the justification for which is that in 1945 Churchill had an approval rating of 83% while Clegg’s is currently 72%. The only sting in this particular tale – for Clegg anyway - is that Churchill went on to lose the general election - rather badly I seem to recall - a few months later.

Actually the best historical figure with whom to compare Clegg is not Churchill but Sir Stafford Cripps. Stafford Who you may ask? Those with some history behind them might know that he was Clement Attlee’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, a man of severe moral rectitude, a teetotaller and vegetarian.

That however did not stop his Conservative opponents referring to this paragon as ‘Sir Stifford Crapps’ after a BBC radio announcer committed one of the funniest political spoonerisms, ever.

Crapps – sorry, Cripps – is less well known for something else. In 1942 he was nearly as popular as Churchill. I wrote about this a while ago but it is worth retelling the tale.

At the start of 1942 Britain was in trouble militarily and Churchill had his back against the wall. There was a popular mood that castigated all parties as to blame for the country’s troubles. Along comes Sir Stafford. Having been expelled from the Labour party before the war he was not attached to either of the two main ‘old’ (as Clegg might put it) parties.

Returning home in January after ending his stint as Ambassador to Moscow he gave a BBC radio speech. This struck a loud, clanging chord with a disenchanted British public – half of whom heard the speech and 93% of those approved of its message, which when boiled down was just an appeal for greater individual effort to win the war.

Almost as vacuous as Clegg’s contribution to the leadership debates, you might think. Even so, this one speech catapulted Cripps to the front rank of politics: at the peak of his popularity 34% of people wanted him to replace Churchill at Number 10.

So, what happened? I don’t recall Cripps becoming Prime Minister. Reality happened. Churchill brought him into government where he promptly got lost in administration while El Alamein helped restore faith in his government.

History teaches no lessons but it does show in this case that radio (and television) might create political stars who shoot across the firmament but they need more than that if they are to stay there. Cripps was merely a temporary repository for a public narked off with all politicians: Nick Clegg will have to show that he is more than that if he really is going to rival Churchill.

Professor Steven Fielding

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