United they stand

Servants of the People: the inside story on new Labour

Andrew Rawnsley <em>Hamish Hamilton, 448pp,

The advance billing for Andrew Rawnsley's lurid account of the feuding at the top of the Blair government was a literary agent's dream. The book itself, however, does not live up to the pre-publication hype. It purports to be the "inside story of new Labour", but is nothing of the sort. It is a card house of unverifiable gossip, some of it fascinating, some of it tedious, much of it inconsequential and almost all of it insubstantial. To some extent, this is inevitable. As Rawnsley himself points out, a book of this sort has to be based on unattributable interviews. Anony-mity is a precondition of frankness. But this means that, at virtually every significant point in the story, Rawnsley's account has to be taken on trust. We don't know how reliable his informants were; we don't know how thoroughly he checked what they told him; we don't know if his memories of what they said are accurate. The book's authority depends entirely on his.

Unfortunately, Rawnsley's authority is far from cast-iron. The book is scattered with trivial, fly-on-the-wall details, of the sort beloved of second-rate thriller writers trying to bludgeon their readers into suspending disbelief. In a curious reader, they have the opposite effect. For example, Rawnsley tells us that at a dinner at No 10 to discuss relations between the government and the Liberal Democrats, Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown and Roy Jenkins washed down chops in breadcrumbs with bottles of Macon-Villages. We are presumably meant to think that, if Rawnsley knows what they drank, he must also know what they said. Cantankerously, I found myself wondering how he can possibly be sure that it was Macon-Villages. Is he quite certain it wasn't claret? Or a better-class Macon? Or perhaps Cotes du Rhone? And if we can't be sure he is right about the wine, how can we be sure he is right about the conversation?

Curmudgeonly nit-picking, no doubt. But if an author insists on presenting you with irrelevant nits, the temptation to pick them is irresistible. Trivial details beget trivial questions, which in turn beget non-trivial thoughts. The net result is to undermine the reader's confidence instead of reinforcing it. In a rather different way, the same applies to Rawnsley's judgement of personal character. I know only one Cabinet minister well enough to check Rawnsley's judgement against my own. His character sketch of this particular minister seems to me callow, glib and profoundly misleading. Of course, this doesn't prove that his sketches of other ministers are equally misleading. But, to put it at its lowest, it doesn't give me much confidence in his capacity to empathise with other people.

This matters because Rawnsley focuses almost entirely on personal rivalries, resentments and ambitions. He depicts the Blair Cabinet as a snake-pit of oversized egos, consumed by mutual hatreds and ancient grudges, and preoccupied by self-destructive squabbles over territory and preferment. I am sure there is an element of truth in this; you have only to read Shakespeare to see that high politics has always been an ugly trade. Vaulting ambition and the egomania that drives ambition come with the territory. No one with a normal-sized ego becomes Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer - one of the many reasons why Blair's attempts to present himself as an ordinary bloke, more at home in the Dog and Duck than in Downing Street, are so ludicrous. It would be odd if Blair, Brown, Cook, Prescott and the rest were somewhat lacking in ego. But I find it hard to believe that they are as monstrously over-endowed as Rawnsley would have us believe. The bitchery, treachery and skulduggery of the Blair government are not a pretty sight. But the Wilson and Callaghan governments were not pretty, either. Despite its sanctified place in Labour mythology, nor was the Attlee administration.

What is new about the Blair government is the extraordinary banality of its squabbles. The Major government really was a snake-pit, but the snakes were at least fighting over something real. As always, the Cabinet's feuds were fuelled by personal ambitions, hatreds and resentments, but these were structured by a deep division of principle on the central issues in postwar British politics. The Wilson and Callaghan governments were less reptilian than Major's, but they too were bitterly divided - and not just over personalities, but over policy and philosophy. The reform of industrial relations law, exchange rates for the pound, the expenditure cuts that followed devaluation, the East of Suez policy, the social contract with the trade unions and the IMF loan of 1976 all mattered. A Cabinet of archangels could reasonably have differed over all of them, although it would presumably have left less blood on the carpet than the actual Cabinets did.

None of this is true of the Blair government. Attempts to discover deep rifts of policy or principle among its members have been uniformly unsuccessful. The notions that Brown is less committed to the European Union than Blair or Mandelson, that Cook is more of a Keynesian than Brown, and that Prescott is in some mysterious sense to the left of Brown and Blair do not stand up. Wisely, Brown has been careful not to endorse the vacuities of Blair's Third Way, but that is a matter of style and image, not substance. Prescott plays the role of Keeper of the Cloth Cap once played by Jim Callaghan and, before him, by George Brown, but although he looks and sounds like the authentic voice of traditional Labour, there is no evidence that he differs with Blair over anything important. The fact is that, on issues and philosophy, this is one of the least divided Cabinets of the century - perhaps the least.

The reason is that, ideologically speaking, this is a Cabinet of zombies. Blair's great achievement was to lobotomise the Labour Party. Old-style socialism was jettisoned under Neil Kinnock. The revisionist social democracy once championed by Tony Crosland and Roy Hattersley, and later, half-heartedly espoused by John Smith, was jettisoned as well. The new thinking developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by writers such as Will Hutton, John Gray and John Kay, and through Charter 88, among other organisations, was blocked off. New Labour became entirely self-referential. It existed in order to exist. Its purpose was to win, and to go on winning. Hence the pagers, the focus groups, the incessant briefing and the obsession with control. With all his faults, Rawnsley has now shown that new zombies are at least as capable of malicious deceit as old ideologues. Shakespeare would have expected that.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie