Shaking Hands

14 06 2009

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As the dust finally settles on tumultuous few weeks at Westminster, as the cameras are packed away on College Green, the blogosphere for once takes a moment for reflection, there can be very few people truly satisfied with the situation. The few that are satisfied, though, are indeed extremely lucky.

obamahandshakeThey are mostly made up of the men and women of the press corps. Having enjoyed a treasure chest of material ranging from the MPs’ expenses scandal to the almost-resignation of the Prime Minister, one might think that they could start to relax. But no – thanks to the Parliamentary Labour Party, and their failure to carry out their threats of patricide, the Prime Minister remains in office. That means that in a few months time the world of political journalism will be another flurry of energy when Gordon Brown is forced almost to resign, giving these men and women something else to talk about.

And of course it is Gordon Brown who makes up the rest of that group satisfied by the outcome of last week’s nearly-coup. They used to say that Tony Blair hated the Labour Party and its traditions. Well, that accusation could never be levelled at Gordon Brown. In fact there is one tradition that he must be very happy with this week – the tradition that the Labour Party will never stab their leader in the back.

If I were feeling mischievous, I would comment that this is one of the few areas in which we can see a real difference between our political parties. The Conservatives are renowned for their ability to force out a leader, having done so on more occasions than I care to think of. And it seems that the Liberal Democrats are developing an appetite for such behaviour, assassinating as they have both of their previous two leaders. Indeed, my mind strays even further, to the cases of Robert Kilroy-Silk and George Galloway, both of whom set up their own political parties only to find a few months later that their parties had disowned them.

We should not, though, labour under the misconception that political assassinations are unique to the British, or even modern, political world. In fact, as any good fan of Shakespeare will tell you, even the Romans had a similar procedure – though they were operating long before Rupert of Winchester invented the Metaphor in c.400 AD. As a result, Roman leaders were often *literally* stabbed in the back, and consequently had to devise an elaborate ritual to ensure that every person they met was unarmed. This ritual has been passed down from generation to generation, and rests with us as the common handshake.

The idea is that by demonstrating our right hand to be empty, we are proving that we have no malicious intent and more importantly, no dagger.

Even today, we can see some remnants of this tradition when we shake hands. I happen to have spent the past week observing teaching methods in a local secondary school. For the most part I simply sat at the back of the classroom, silently watching, unnoticed and unmentioned. However, one particularly form were more observant than others and number of boys came over to say hello. With great energy they put out their hands for me to shake, which I would have been very happy to do were it not for one thing. They had all proffered their left hand. Either there was a blanket ignorance among the group of hand-shaking etiquette, or there was some practical joke. I suspected the latter, and not trusting their motives, declined the shake.

Even the industry of professional hand-shakers – politicians – are known to use similar techniques. A close friend of mine once happened to find himself on the London Underground, getting on at Westminster station on the Circle Line. As he found himself a pole from which to hang for the brief journey, my friend noticed the recognised the fellow standing next to him. It was none other than the Cabinet Minister, former Apartheid campaigner and some-time spokesman for the fake tanning industry, Peter Hain.

My friend was at that time Chairman of the University of York Labour Club, so introduced himself. In recollecting the story, he notes at great length the handshaking-technique of the minister. He took a firm grip of my friend’s hand and refused to let go until he had explained who he was, what he was doing and, most importantly, whether he could be trusted.

Of course, there are many other uses of handshakes for a politician. Most notably, world leaders tend to use them to stage photographs demonstrating the cordiality of the relationship between two countries. Just a quick digression here: I’m told that if you ever do find yourself shaking hands with a world leader, make every effort to put yourself to the left of the photograph. Apparently the combination of angles and limb movements means that the person on the left always appears to be more dominant.

Almost inevitably, Barack Obama is the master of the political handshake. An easy charm, relaxed grin and deprecating personal manner all combine into a potent combination. His handshake was at its most devastatingly seductive on his trip to London, for the G20 summit earlier this year. As the President reached the steps of Downing Street he sidled over to exchange a few words with the world-famous policeman stationed at the door. And there it was – something no other world leader, not even a British Prime Minister, has done before – the President of the United States shook that policeman’s hand. Perhaps not quite an iconic image, but a powerful one nonetheless.

I was fortunate enough to experience a celebrity handshake myself just the other week. An organisation with which I am involved was hosting an event on campus. Our guest was Katharine Kent – an extraordinary woman, with a very fine handshake.

She was born in 1933, to the Horsley family, who own the Hovingham estate just outside York. Throughout her life she has maintained a deep love of Yorkshire, and it has shown. In 1961, when she married His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, she could have had the ceremony in Westminster Abbey, at Windsor Castle, or possibly even St. Paul’s Cathedral. But no, she insisted that the ceremony would be held at York Minster.

As a member of the Royal Family, the duchess made her other love – of music – central to her work. Between presenting the cup at Wimbledon and opening care hospices, she developed a role patronising a number of organisations that promoted young people in the musical talent.

In 1994 the duchess famously converted to Roman Catholicism – a controversial thing for Royals to do for reasons that are best explained in another letter. A few years later, suffering from a debilitating case of M.E. the duchess had to scale down her Royal duties and has since led a very private life – known most of the time simple as Katharine Kent.

She had come to speak to us about her work for the past ten years, as a music teacher in a primary school in Hull. I won’t dive into a sycophantic dribble about the exquisiteness of Katharine’s handshake, but the story does provide a handy link to my next though.

The uncle of the Duke of Kent – Katharine’s husband – was Edward VIII. King Edward’s reputation in history has inevitably been dominated by the abdication crisis of 1936, when he was forced to give up the crown in order to marry a divorcee. Something that is often forgotten, though, is that Edward was absolutely adored by the British people. He was handsome, glamorous and in-touch with the popular feeling.

His popularity was so widespread, so intense and so demanding that in the course of his short reign, the King developed repetitive strain injury from shaking so many hands. This is why you may occasionally see photographs of him shaking hands with a line of people in a peculiar fashion – with his left hand slotted into their right, and with one arm in a sling.

Another public figure who is currently struggling with a sling is Margaret Thatcher. We are told she broke her arm in a fall at home. Apparently the Prime Minister would firmly shake the hand of every Cabinet Minister as they entered the Cabinet Room for a meeting, supposedly to look them in the eye and dissuade them from rebelling against her.

I wonder whether our own Prime Minister has taken her example?




One response

15 06 2009

Blair said in his last speech to conference, September 2006:

“They say I hate this party and its traditions. I don’t. I love this party. There is only one tradition I hated. Losing.”

They’d done enough of that for 18 years. They have now forgotten how awful it was, and stupidly thought they could manage without the visionary who won three historic victories for them. Back to the future time.

A political party is a big umbrella, a broad church, a grouping of more or less like minds around certain principles.

If it is not led to POWER it is no more than a talking shop. For instance the Liberal Demorats for aeons and the Tories since 1997. Thus the constant change in their leaders.

Problem for (New) Labour is without Blair they are leaderless.

Some of us always knew that.

And Old Labour is a busted flush. Pity the Old Labourites haven’t realised.

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