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Breaking the barricade

Philip Gould: an Unfinished Life - review.

Philip Gould: an Unfinished Life
Edited by Dennis Kavanagh
Palgrave Macmillan, 200pp, £18.99

Friends of the late Philip Gould from across and beyond the political spectrum celebrate his life in this collection of essays edited by Dennis Kavanagh. It is a starry cast, including Alastair Campbell, David Miliband, Peter Mandelson, James Purnell, James Harding and Peter Hyman, full of stories about New Labour and Philip’s larger-than-life personality.

Philip was an unusual compound. He was an ardent Labourite from Woking, who never lost touch with his suburban upbringing in what he called the “land that Labour forgot”; a guy who had failed the 11-plus yet had an intellectual approach to political strategy (“Strategy does not exist unless it is written down”); a committed Blairite who straddled the Blair/Brown divide at its most bitter and had good relations with Tories, too. In his contribution, Mandelson writes that “the one thing” that irked him about Philip “was his ability never to make enemies”. “Why couldn’t I manage that conjuring trick?” Mandelson adds ruefully.

As a political strategist, Philip had two special qualities. First, he was honest. In his introduction to the 2011 edition of Philip’s book The Unfinished Revolution, Tony Blair identified this as the most important lesson for Labour: “Start with an honest analysis of why you are in opposition, not in government.”

In my experience, honesty is the exception rather than the rule among political strategists. Too often, they tell the leader what he wants to hear, particularly about his popularity and indispensability. And too often, key policy changes are taboo because they are too internally difficult. When I was pioneering public service reform for Blair, Philip was constantly urging boldness, despite the controversy within the party. I remember him saying, “Out there, they think we are spending money like water and they want to see big – big – change. They particularly don’t like those ‘bog standard’ com prehensives. They want every school to be like Camden School for Girls [the outstanding state secondary school attended by his daughters].”

Honesty went hand in hand with a second trait: Philip’s belief that – indeed, his obsession with how – Labour could and should be a party of all communities and all classes. Labour needed to be as relevant and representative in Woking as in Wolverhampton. If it wasn’t, then, in Philip’s view, Labour would not only lose elections. It would be betraying its political and moral mission.

Mandelson recalls that when he and Philip started modernising the party’s presentation under Neil Kinnock – the prelude to modernising its policy systematically under Blair and Gordon Brown – they were roundly attacked for daring to appeal to the affluent and aspirational. Ron Todd, then leader of the
Transport and General Workers’ Union, accused them of selling out to “the trendy, upwardly mobile middle classes”. “Frankly,” writes Mandelson, “these were precisely the people Philip and I thought we should be reaching out to.”

To my mind, this was Philip’s most daring quality. His vision was for Labour to be a genuinely cross-community national movement, at a time when many in the party, at all levels, believed class conflict was fundamental to its raison d’être and that Labour could only be on one side of the social barricade. This gave rise to one of Blair’s best lines: that in place of its founding mission as “the political wing of the trade unions”, Labour’s modern mission was to be “the political wing of the British people”.

How much did Philip influence Blair? I don’t think he much affected his fundamental thinking. He used to say that he didn’t need focus groups to tell him what people thought, let alone what he should think. He was an instinctive, intuitive politician, whose background gave him a close rapport with the aspirant and the middle class. I recall him saying that his dad once told him he had “become a Tory” because he wanted to get on and wanted his children to get on, including by private education, “as if getting on and being middle class meant you had to be a Tory. I knew we had to change that mindset.”

However, Philip helped give Tony the courage of his convictions. He also helped develop another of New Labour’s key attributes: the concept of the “permanent campaign”.

Philip always behaved as if an election was about to happen and was about to be lost. Whatever alienated the people in his focus groups became a major issue and urgent action was needed “to get back on their side”. The imperative for “reconnection” was his most persistent theme after 1997.

During the Blair government, I was ambivalent – at times impatient – with the permanent campaign. I thought it made Tony (before the Iraq war, at any rate) too risk-averse, too unwilling to spend the vast political capital he had accumulated and too focused on shortterm tactics rather than long-term reform. It is certainly true that, in the early years of his premiership, Tony spent far more time discussing media and political management than policy – and the composition of his staff (dominated by communications and party advisers) reflected this.

By contrast, he had a mere handful of serious policy specialists and some of these were marginalized and did not stay long. Tellingly, there was no head of the No 10 policy unit in the early months of the Blair administration, until the appointment of David Miliband.

However, after two frustrating years in the wilderness of opposition, I have more sympathy with the permanent campaign. The solution is not to do more “government” by doing less “campaigning” but to do the two together in an integrated way. Prime ministers who lose their popularity aren’t somehow freer to govern. They are just weak and soon become extinct.

Margaret Thatcher might be thought an exception but this is more apparent than real until her final poll tax folly. Until that point, although often behind in the polls, she divided her opposition brilliantly, largely because so much of what she was doing – council house sales, cut-price shares in the privatised industries, her strong positions on defence and law and order – was popular in the political middle ground, although rejected by Labour, and was prioritised accordingly.

Some saw in Philip the rise of the political consultant in the American mould. He was interested in the US and followed the Clinton campaigns; a few US Democrat consultants worked alongside him in the Blair and Brown campaigns (including Stan Greenberg, who contributes an essay to this book). One fact, however, speaks to the difference. Philip never had a desk in No 10. And he never wanted one, either.

Andrew Adonis was a member of the last Labour cabinet. His book “Education, Education, Education” is published by Biteback (£12.99).

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis