Nothing to declare

Mandelson: The Biography

Donald Macintyre <em>HarperCollins, 467pp, £19.99</em>

I have always been suspicious of the Mandelson myth. It may suit whingeing journalists to cast him as "the prince of darkness", a man whose gaze can freeze at 100 paces, but surely this position is self-serving. How else would they explain their tendency to bow to his every whim? Of all the embarrassing instances of media servility recounted in Donald Macintyre's book, Jeremy Paxman's letter of apology for his part in the least exciting outing of modern times must be the most cringe-worthy. "I'm sorry that Matthew Parris mentioned your name on Newsnight last night. In the heat of the moment, he rather caught me out, and I tried to brush over things as soon as possible afterwards," he wrote. Although the unfortunate episode was not his fault, Paxman elected to take the blame rather than allow a situation to develop that could have resulted in . . . what? Peter not inviting him to dinner at Carla Powell's? Peter refusing to tell him his views on European tax integration? The threats, in themselves, are not substantial, and yet journalists such as Paxman want us to believe that the "Mandelson effect" is something mystical. If it wasn't - if Mandelson were merely a preeny queen whose "power" was a matter of perception - they would then be culpable for failing to get the story, or changing a headline to suit him, or crying in the corridor because he had "gone ballistic".

When my friend Derek Draper worked for Mandelson, he was forever being asked to tell "the truth" about his employer. People would approach him at parties and refuse to be appeased until he told him his boss's "secret". As far as I could tell, watching the proceedings from a distance, there wasn't any "secret". Mandelson worked very hard. He excelled at politics and sometimes he shouted at people. These are the plain facts, yet somehow they've been jettisoned in favour of the much less plausible line that Mandelson is an "enigma". Yet what is enigmatic about him? Here is a man whose right-wing views are consistent, if not always palatable to his enemies. His taste for high living could hardly be called eccentric, and his obvious enjoyment of power is explicable to anyone who has ever read a history book. Only those with a continuing investment in maintaining all that "dark arts" baloney could fail to see that the truth about Peter Mandelson is rather more prosaic.

In this sense, Macintyre is to be congratulated for writing the most tedious political biography of recent times. It doesn't so much deflate the Mandelson myth as disown it. Partly, this is the consequence of the accumulation of detail. You feel, after listening in on the 65th phone conversation about how to make A do B while C is still feeling as he does on the sensitive subject of D, that Mandelson's political reality is both familiar and unremarkable. Given that plotting and fixing occurs in every political milieu, from the smallest district Labour Party to a cabinet sub- committee, Mandelson emerges from this account as no more or less Machiavellian than the chair of a student Labour club. The joy of this book is that it makes no distinction between haute politics and the other kind. Its characters may be major players but Macintyre treats them like amateurs. We don't have any sense that we are dealing with something important - perhaps because of Macintyre's tendency to give the same weight to everything. So Mandelson's tiff with Gordon Brown seems no more or less significant than a meeting to discuss the wording on a poster. If this is frustrating for the reader, who doesn't share the author's blindness to the distinction between the great and the trivial, it is at least true to life. At its most basic level, politics is about dealing with things. Even grand strategies, when they emerge, are transformed into trivia the minute they leave the starting blocks. The danger, for politicians, comes when they start to mistake the minutiae for the plot.

The most interesting aspect of Mandelson is the insight it offers into the way pragmatic politics sacrifices meaning for expediency. One thing Macintyre is clear about is that the modernisers' "project" was never a project at all. There wasn't any masterplan. Instead, it was a Jenga tower of decisions - decisions resting on decisions that only relied on each other for support. Nobody ever asked themselves what all these decisions looked like put together or, indeed, what any of them meant. This is because they were always expressed in a micro-climate of "shall we or shan't we?" rather than "should we or should we not?". Unsurprisingly, the architects of new Labour quickly lost sight of the bigger picture. Things that appeared to the outside world as momentous political statements were, to them, just tiny shifts of emphasis. One day, they would decide not to renationalise British Telecom, the next to embrace Thatcherism. And then, one day, Mandelson deletes the word "equality" from a draft of the new Clause Four.

Charlotte Raven is a "Guardian" columnist

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning