As the millennium draws to a close, and journalists busy themselves with compiling lists, it won't come as a surprise to find Bring Home the Revolution included as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century. For the past month, it's been impossible to open a newspaper without reading about this masterful tome and its brilliant author, the 32-year-old Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland. According to the broadsheet press, this eloquent republican tract, the modern-day equivalent of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, is required reading for members of both the government and the opposition. Even the Sun has got in on the act, lauding it as "one of the most thought-provoking books in years" that is "at the heart of the new debate" about the future of Britain.
What makes all this rather surprising is that Bring Home the Revolution was originally published in July 1998, and that, for the first 15 months of its life, it received little or no attention. Why the sudden flurry of interest? Freedland's colleagues at the Guardian could shed little light on the matter.
"How he's graduated from elegantly stating the obvious to 20th-century guru status is beyond me," shrugged one of his fellow columnists.
"I think it's fair to say people here are quite puzzled by why it's suddenly taken fire," added a senior editor.
Among those who profess to be baffled by the success of Bring Home the Revolution - a group that includes almost everyone I spoke to while researching this article - is Freedland himself.
On 3 November he addressed the subject of his new-found celebrity in a typically self-deprecating column: "One media pundit was on the phone last night, asking how I had managed to turn what should have been a dusty tome for the wonk set into a cause celebre for the mass-circulation press. The answer is: I have no idea."
This was slightly disingenuous. In the same column, he acknowledged that the media's sudden fascination with the book stemmed from a story that ran in the Sunday Times on 24 October hailing it as "the political book of the moment" that had "taken the commanding heights of Westminster by storm". The Sunday Times piece went on to claim that Bring Home the Revolution had been "devoured by Tony Blair and William Hague" and that its author had been "presented with a photograph of Al Gore, America's vice-president, reading the 250-page volume on a plane".
What Freedland failed to disclose was that the main source for that story was none other than Jonathan Freedland.
The author of the Sunday Times article was Michael Prescott, who, in addition to being the paper's political editor, is an old friend of Freedland's. Prescott acknowledges that he first got the idea for the story when Freedland boasted to him that he'd seen a copy of Bring Home the Revolution lying open on a coffee table when he'd visited Chequers for a chat with Blair in August. Freedland also told Prescott that his book had been so favourably received in the upper echelons of the Labour Party that he'd been summoned to talk to Gordon Brown and had been invited to lecture a group of senior civil servants at Whitehall. Needless to say, both these facts found their way into Prescott's piece.
"I certainly wasn't the sole source for that story," Freedland objected when I asked him about this. But he didn't deny that he'd supplied Prescott with most of the salient details.
That Freedland was Prescott's main source for an article about the meteoric rise of Jonathan Freedland doesn't mean it wasn't a good story. If Blair and Hague, not to mention Gore, had all read Bring Home the Revolution, that was news - sort of. But had they?
Simon Walters, the political correspondent of the Mail on Sunday, took the opportunity, on the way back from the Commonwealth conference on 11 November, to ask the Prime Minister whether he had read it.
"I said, 'I gather you've been reading this book by Jonathan Freedland'," recalls Walters.
"He looked at me with this weird expression of complete shock and amazement. I said: 'You know, the Freedland book, the one you're supposedly very impressed by.' Blair said: 'Well, I can assure you it's not my bedtime reading,' and then Cherie, who was sitting a few seats away, said: 'No, I can vouch for that.' He gave the impression that he'd never even heard of Freedland, let alone read the book."
OK, Blair may not have "devoured" it, but what about Hague? Prescott quoted "a member of Hague's team" who, while he didn't actually say the Conservative leader had read it, pointed out that much of what Freedland says in Bring Home the Revolution "chimes very well with what David Willetts has argued in a number of pamphlets".
That sounded a bit vague, so I called up another member of Hague's team - a speech-writer - and asked him flat out whether his boss had read it.
"I shouldn't think so," he replied.
What about the photograph of Gore "reading the 250-page volume"? That, too, turns out to be suspect. Last January, when Gore flew to London to meet Blair, Freedland gave a copy of Bring Home the Revolution to Eli Attie, Gore's senior communications adviser. Freedland had befriended Attie during his four-year stint as a Guardian Washington correspondent.
On the way back to America on Air Force Two, Attie handed the book to Gore, who was then photographed "holding" it by an official whose job it was to record every moment of the trip. It was Attie who then sent Freedland the picture - he didn't "present" him with it. Moreover, as Attie confirmed when I spoke to him, he has no idea whether Gore went on to actually read the book or not.
So who has read Bring Home the Revolution? In the course of working on this article I spoke to several newspaper editors, half-a-dozen political columnists and enough hacks to fill the saloon bar of the Eagle, the Guardian pub on Farringdon Road. Not one of them had read it.
Surely Gordon Brown must have read it. According to one of Freedland's Guardian colleagues, the boy wonder likes to boast that Brown calls him up "every ten minutes". In his Sunday Times article, Prescott quoted someone he described as "one of the Chancellor's confidants" explaining why Brown is so spellbound by Freedland's brilliant polemic: " 'Gordon is keen on creating a sense of Britishness, of creating a new national identity. It is urgent, because the government wants to contain some of the forces unleashed by devolution, and wants to ensure that the new sense of Britishness is not built on xenophobia.' "
Who, exactly, was this "confidant"? To my cynical ear - and I have read Bring Home the Revolution - it sounded suspiciously like Freedland.
"I talked to Prescott," Freedland grudgingly admitted. "I can't remember what I said exactly."
On the dust jacket of Bring Home the Revolution, Will Hutton hails Freedland as "the Orwell of our times", but judging from his gift for garnering publicity, a more accurate description would be "the Matthew Freud of the Guardian". It seems fairly clear that Freedland, sensing that the debate over the future of the monarchy was about to gather steam in the run-up to the Australian referendum, somehow managed to persuade Prescott to run a story saying his book was being "devoured" by "the commanding heights of Westminster". The rest, as they say, is hysteria.
In fairness to Johnny, as he's known at the Guardian, few of his colleagues begrudge him his 15 minutes in the spotlight. "Amiable" was the word that was used most frequently to describe him - though "smug" came in a close second. "I think a charmer is what he is," said Christopher Hitchens.
However, almost everyone I spoke to felt that, with the exception of his devout Judaism, he lacks any real guiding principles, particularly the political principles that would qualify him to be a really good radical journalist. (His ability to bounce from one position to another has earned him the nickname "rubber Johnny".)
Already, he's been tipped as a possible successor to the editor Alan Rusbridger. He certainly possesses all the right credentials. He went to Wadham College, Oxford, where he got a 2:1 in philosophy, politics and economics - a "self-publicist's degree", according to Evelyn Waugh. He worked for six months at the Sunday Correspondent, became a news trainee at the BBC and won a prestigious Lawrence Stern Fellowship, enabling him to spend three months at the Washington Post. After his four-year tour of duty in America, he returned to Farringdon Road in 1998 to take up the position of policy editor. In addition to his weekly columns, he's the Guardian's senior political leader writer.
As for Bring Home the Revolution, it's altogether unremarkable. It reads like a slapdash polemic, an 80,000-word op ed piece. Fairly pedestrian reportage is mixed in with a lot of familiar tunes from the republican play-book.
"I sometimes had the feeling of having read Freedland before," complained Hitchens, a reference to his own long-standing espousal of the republican cause.
As a piece of writing it fails Orwell's dictum, set out in "Politics and the English Language", that political arguments should be clearly and concisely expressed in good, plain English. Freedland's book contains a shocking number of what Orwell called "dying metaphors". America "works its magic on us"; Hollywood is "the Dream Factory"; and Las Vegas is "the Gomorrah of the desert". It also contains some howling mixed metaphors: "It is easy to condemn Thurmond, Byrd and their fellow pork barons," Freedland writes. "Few of us would hail a career spent stewarding the federal gravy train as the vocation of a statesman."
Still, I can't fault Freedland's gifts as a spinmeister. That Bring Home the Revolution is so flimsy makes his achievement in pushing it to the forefront of the media agenda that much more impressive. It must help that nobody's read it. I see a great future for Freedland, not as the next editor of the Guardian but as the next Alastair Campbell. Whether for Blair or Hague, I don't suppose it really matters.
(c) Toby Young 1999