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September 21, 2010

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Rawnsley’s End of the Party: New Labour under the spotlight

by quaesitor

There has been an unseemly rush amongst our former political masters to get their memoirs onto the shelves. But having read Rawnsley’s first book on New Labour some years ago (Servants of the People), I was very keen to get my hands on his follow-up – which continues the story until a few months before their loss of power in 2010.

You may have noticed that I’m now reading Blair’s effort, for a small reading group I’m in to discuss in a month or two. So as not to get the two confused, I feel the need to write up Rawnsley quickly. 100 pages in to Blair’s journey, I can definitely say which one I prefer. Rawnsley’s prose style is readable, concise and even gripping. He’s talked to everyone – or rather everyone seems to have talked to him over the years. So he knows much of what has been said by whom to whom, and why. He’s had the inside story on all the Brown-Blair tensions, the relations with Bush’s White House as well as many others. [A new extended edition is apparently just coming out in paperback bringing the story up to date with the 2010 General Election.]

Above all, he is incredibly lucid, often about very complex things. For example, I felt I began to grasp for the first time what was actually going on to cause the Credit Crunch and how different people  responded. (As an endorsement of that, a good friend who is a banker read the relevant chapters, and was very impressed despite his scepticism at a political journalist being able to pull that off). So this is an excellent read and rich in political nous as well as information that at times verges on the gossipy. As a rank amateur, I would have thought that this was the ideal primer for any seeking to understand British politics of the last decade. So it is worth an extended post, not least because I’m in Albania for the next few days.

Character Insights

There are many things to pick out. But inevitably, here are a few. Here’s a moment worthy of satire, from early on in the Brown-Blair feud:

One negotiation [in 1994 around Granita] took place on the evening of John Smith’s funeral in the Edinburgh home of Nick Ryden, a friend of Blair since their schooldays at Fettes. When they turned up, Ryden could see how bad things were between them. ‘Don’t kill each other. You;’ve both got a lot to offer the country’ was his parting advice before he took himself off to the pub. Their arguing was interrupted at one point when Brown disappeared to use the lavatory. When time passed and he didn’t come back, Blair assumed that the other man had stormed off in one of his rages. Then he heard the phone ringing and a familiar Scottish voice growling into Ryden’s answering machine. Brown was calling on his mobile from the lavatory. The door handle had come off, imprisoning him in the loo. Blair picked up the phone: ‘Ill let you out Gordon, but only if you give me certain assurances about the leadership. (p59)

So much ink has been spilt about this relationship. And the grim news is that, according to Rawnsley (who canvassed politicians, party members, and even top civil servants), it was far worse than we ever knew. It’s extraordinary that Blair despite seeming to know what Brown would be like in power, out of guilt or whatever, he felt he couldn’t stop a coronation by insisting on an election for his successor. But those close knew exactly what was be coming.

This is a revealing paragraph about the side of Blair that has only become more noticeable in his post-Downing St years. He always had a concern to grasp the centre ground of politics, and this seems to revolve around his instinctive realisation that in order to gain power, Labour needed to understand middle class aspiration. For he certainly did – and both Blairs knew first hand what it was like to grow up with genuine money worries. It was no wonder that this affected him in later years.

As Prime Minister, he felt impecunious when in the company of the billionocracy. I once asked one of his intimates what lay at the root of the Blairs’ blind spot over money. ‘They spend too much time in the company of very rich people,’ she replied bluntly…

His sojourns with the rich and sometimes infamous did not make Blair happier. He would return from breaks in wealthy men’s villas to moan to his intimates about how it made him feel poor. Here he was, someone with all the responsibilities of leading a G8 nation, and yet he had little money compared with these billionaire businessmen and rock stars. The aides who were exposed to this whinging had a declining tolerance for it, not least because they, like most people, had to pay in full for their holidays. Braver members of his staff like Sally Morgan would respond to these outbursts of self-pity by reminding the Prime Minister that he was better off than most Britons and had gone into politics for public service, not to get rich enough to buy Caribbean hideaways, Tuscan villas and super-yachts. (p127)

As for his successor, life in Downing St under his regime became increasingly strained. The rumours of flying items of office furniture appear to be based on reality…

… Brown was so power-hugging. Geoff Hoon summarises it well: ‘one of the great ironies of Tony and Gordon is that both of them didn’t have any time for ministers. The difference is that Tony broadly let you get on with it. He wasn’t much interested unless something went wrong. In contrast, Gordon wants to interfere with everything. He’s temperamentally incapable of delegating responsibility. So he drives himself demented.’ (p523)

Genuine Successes

Rawnsley is far too careful a journalist to lambast and rant. And he is quite prepared to give credit where it’s due. To Brown, there is praise for some of the key decisions he took early on during the credit crunch (although there is resounding criticism for some of the things he did later on in the crisis). If that was GB’s high point, Northern Ireland seems to have been TB’s. There are a few interesting comments along the way, but I was very struck by this one:

Richard Haas, a US envoy to Northern Ireland, found Blair ‘extraordinarily hands on when you think of all the things a Prime Minister has on his plate – at times, his own action officer: literally thinking of what he would say, writing the speeches, writing the memos.’ That dedication to a course that often seemed so hopeless was the best evidence against the charge that he was only a skilful opportunist. Northern Ireland was the seat of the longest political conflict in Europe and the longest war, on and off, in world history. That bloody tribal struggle had defied every previous attempt at resolution. There were no votes in it. There was only prestige to be lost from failure. (p410)

Building initially on the work of John Major, Tony Blair clearly invested hugely in making this work, and from Rawnsley’s account, it seems that all sides of the NI debates agree at least on this: hand of history or no hand of history, it would not have happened without Blair.

And then, of course, this is not to avoid the crucial and essential point that Blair one 3 successive full terms – unprecedented for Labour – with the first two of them being landslides – unprecedented for anyone in the modern era. There is no doubting Blair’s incredible skill as a politician. And it was fascinating reading Rawnsley’s first book on how they achieved this – and then seeing its continuation here.

But the flaws in the last 10 years are many. For a movement as complex as New Labour, these can’t all be placed at Tony Blair’s feet – many were involved. And lest you think I’m completely partisan on this, I can say that my humble vote contributed to those two landslides in 97 and 2001. But I did not vote for them in 2005 or 2010.

Fatal Flaws

There is much to draw on from Rawnsley’s analysis here – all the more powerful because it comes from someone politically left-of-centre and therefore perhaps instinctively sympathetic. Here were one or two shockers. On the legality of Iraq, and discussions with Lord Goldsmith, Attorney General:

The declaration that the war was legal was therefore depended on a tautology. The Attorney-General could tell the Cabinet that the war was legal because the Prime Minister had told the Attorney-General that the war was legal. (p165)

As regards all the issues related to the Iraq intelligence reports, with which Alistair Campbell had a strong involvement, Rawnsley is unequivocal.

Within a year of publication, it became apparent that the majority of the claims in the dossier, especially the most frightening ones, were distortions, exaggerations or downright false. (p120) … Blair’s culpability was in vastly exaggerating the accuracy and potency of unreliable and often bogus intelligence by calling it ‘extensive and detailed’ when that was the opposite of the truth. ‘More weight was put on it that the intelligence was strong enough to bear’ is the careful conclusion of Robin Butler, who, being a mandarin, is constitutionally incapable of directly calling Blair mendacious. ‘The interpretation was stretched to the limit.’ And beyond it. Blair was a sincere deceiver. He told the truth about what he believed; he lied about the strength of the evidence for that belief. (p121)

Wow.

Then this seemed to sum up so much of what has gone wrong in western culture: a wilful ignorance and dismissal of history:

For one briefing at Number 10, Jack Straw took with him Dr Michael Williams, a Foreign Office official with great expertise on the Middle East. Williams gave a detailed account of the ethnic and religious tensions within Iraq and why the allies might not be terribly popular as occupiers. Blair casually brushed him aside: ‘That’s all history, Mike. This is about the future.’ (p185)

In terms of how it went about government, this was very revealing about the soundbite and legislation culture:

Towards the end of the second term, two senior figures at Number 10 reflected thoughtfully on New Labour’s flaws as a project for government. Peter Hyman spent six years in Downing Street before leaving to teach in an inner-city school. He lamented that New Labour emphasized ‘momentum, conflict and novelty’ when ‘empowerment, partnership and consistency’ were required to get product on the ground. He now realised that ‘real delivery is about the grind, not the grand.’ (p295) … The failure was emblematic of one of the Government’s persistent flaws. It was mad for writing new laws, but bad at ensuring that existing legislation was applied effectively. (p366)

Then in Brown’s Credit Crunch years, the bankers he was quick to blame had in fact been the very people he encouraged to give him more money to spend…

Brown congratulated himself for presiding over a light-touch system of regulation and asked the to applaud him for ‘resisting pressure’ for a crackdown. Moving to his peroration, he smothered them with more unction. ‘Britain needs more of the vigour, ingenuity and aspiration that you already demonstrate.’ He extolled the City for inventing ‘the most modern instruments of finance’ – the very instruments that would soon afterwards bring the entire Western banking system to the edge of destruction. Because of their ‘remarkable achievements’ the nation had the privilege to live in an ‘era that history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age.’ They reciprocated by giving him a standing ovation.
As he spoke, the air was already beginning to rush out of the financial bubble celebrated by Brown. The financiers ‘ingenuity’ had created a perilously unstable edifice and their avaricious ‘aspiration’ ultimately wrecked swathes of their own industry and the rest of the economy. Events were in train that would lead to the first run on a British bank for more than a century, then the Great Crash of the following year, culminating in the severest economic crisis since the 1930s. Brown would soon re-christen the bubble as the ‘Age of Irresponsibility’ and hope that no-one remembered that he once lauded it as a ‘Golden Age’. (p476)

As Rawnsley picks up later, “He who had bragged of ending boom and bust had instead presided over the biggest bust since the 1930s.” (p678)

Faith Features

Finally, it’s worth touching on the whole God question, especially since Blair has made such a big deal of his Faith Foundation. Interestingly, Alistair Campbell picked up just this week on the ‘we don’t do God’ moment on his blog. But it comes up at a number of key moments in the book. One very telling scene concerned Blair’s speech to the country about the invasion of Iraq.

‘How should I start?’ asked Blair. Alistair Campbell was in a mocking mood. ‘What about “My fellow Americans…”? He suggested.
Blair didn’t find that funny. ‘What about the end?’ he asked impatiently. ‘I want to end with ‘God bless you.’
A cacophony of voices protested that this was not a good idea. ‘Don’t be absurd’, said Sally Morgan. ‘That’s awfully American, Prime Minister,’ sniffed one of the civil servants. ‘We don’t want any God stuff,’ said someone else. Blair looked around the room: ‘You are the most godless lot I have ever known.’ Peter Hyman, who was Jewish, interjected: ‘Count me out. I’m not godless’.
‘That’s a different God,’ said someone.
‘Oh no,’ responded Blair. ‘It’s the same God.’
… He ended with a non-religious ‘Thank you.’ The ‘godless lot’ had got their way. (p173)

As far as the infamous remark itself is concerned, it seems that even with the immediate context in which it was made, Blair agreed with it:

He later admitted that he avoided talking about his religious views because he feared voters would think of him as ‘a nutter’ who made decisions after a ‘commune with the man upstairs’. … Thanks to laws passed by his Government, his period in office saw an unholy boom in lap-dancing clubs, an explosion in internet gambling and twenty-four hour licensing of pars and pubs. His most senior aides were virtually all non-believers. The atheist Campbell famously stopped an interviewer from asking Blair about religion by interrupting: ‘We don’t do God.’ According to Tim Allan: ‘That was as much Tony’s view. He did not want to make religion a big part of his public persona.’ (p447)

Which, all in all, would appear to speak volumes for the state of ‘faith’ in modern Britain – namely that it is only permissible if privatised – quite apart the implications it has for how integrated it is in Blair’s persona and politics, let alone the extent of his integrity. For if it truly is such an important part of his makeup, why did it have to be hidden? If he truly was a game-changer, couldn’t he have changed the game for belief?

But therein lies the constant politician’s dilemma. You have to gain power in order to bring about change. But you have to reflect the society you want to lead in order to gain power. Still, as Rawnsley observes, once in power, Blair did change, especially when on his mission to liberate Iraq. “The pop star premier of the first term became the conviction-driven lone warrior of the second term.” (p148)

1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Rebekah Dickinson
    Sep 22 2010

    Thanks for this. Think I have found a christmas present for my Dad or brother or both.

    Reply

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