Show Hide image

Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

David Young
Show Hide image

The fall of Labour’s golden generation

Blair and Brown's young advisors were intelligent, metropolitan, and destined for power. What went wrong for the party's best and brightest?

In the summer of 2000 I was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar magazine to write about the young gilded special advisers who were working for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown or orbiting around them, or who were close to Peter Mandelson. Most of them wanted to be MPs. I did not know them personally but I knew a lot about them – about how they lived, worked and socialised. Some of them lived together – indeed, even slept together. They were intelligent: all had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge, and some had known each other from student days. They were well connected, competitive, football-loving metropolitans, liberal, good Europeans. They were fascinated by US politics (some of them had done graduate research at American universities or worked on campaigns for the Democrats). They’d studied closely how Bill Clinton and his advisers had remade the Democrats – through trian­gulation, message discipline, media mastery – as a centrist, optimistic, pro-capitalist, election-winning force.

Older Labour MPs naturally resented these “Young Turks”. More, they envied them. John Prescott called them “teeny boppers”; others called them “faceless wonders” and much worse. They were considered cliquey, superior in manner, even conspiratorial – a bit like the classics students in Donna Tartt’s Secret History, who are punished ultimately for believing in the myth of their own intellectual superiority. Blair and Brown worked them hard but believed in them, just as they believed in themselves.

It was obvious that the newcomers thought that one day they would be running not only the party but the country. They had a sense of purpose and mission as well as self-righteousness. They were the best and the brightest of their political generation and comparisons were made between them and the young policymakers who had worked for John F Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, and whose misjudgements took America into the Vietnam War. A path was being cleared for them – and they were heading in only one direction, to the summit.

Their names are now very familiar: David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, James Purnell, Andy Burnham. There were others among the group who are less familiar, such as Peter Hyman and Liz Lloyd, who both worked in the Downing Street Policy Unit. (Hyman later became a Newsnight pundit and set up a successful free school.)

Balls and David Miliband were considered the best of the group, and Balls, in particular, was admired at the Treasury for his intellectual powers.

“Ed was really exceptional,” a former politician who knew him back then told me. “In terms of managing the Treasury he was the most brilliant sort of aide-de-camp. That’s not a pejorative expression: I mean Gordon needed that sort of intellectual grip and energy and the thuggishness as well – you know, to turn the Treasury into an instrument for Gordon. Probably only Nigel Lawson in our lifetime had a similar mastery of that department. And Ed was absolutely fundamental to that in all kinds of ways. He’s not a great visionary and thinker, but he’s got huge intellectual grip.”

Back in 2000 I called this group Labour’s Golden Generation, and Harper’s, in the photoshopped illustration accompanying my piece, brought them all together in a mock football line-up. We dressed them in the shirts of the Demon Eyes football team, for which some of them played and which was named after the notorious Conservative 1997 election campaign poster. Conceived by M&C Saatchi, the poster depicted a demonic Tony Blair, his burning red eyes staring out from a black background, above the slogan “New Labour, New Danger”.

Although I did not write about them for Harper’s, because they were already MPs, Yvette Cooper and Douglas Alexander were part of the Golden Generation as well. Cooper was only 28 when she won the safe seat of Pontefract and Castleford at the 1997 general election. She married Balls the following year, having met him when they shared an office as young advisers.

Alexander became an MP in November 1997, at a by-election. He was 30. Together with Jim Murphy, Alexander (who before entering parliament had worked for Brown as a speechwriter) ran David Miliband’s leadership campaign in 2010. Neither would ever again be trusted by Ed Miliband, who won that contest, which pitted the Golden Generation against one another. Burnham was also a contender in 2010 and so was Balls.

There were others, in and around the core group, who burned brightly and burned out (Derek Draper), or who peeled off early to work in PR, consulting or television (Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, Tim Allan), or who never sought elected office (Liz Lloyd, Mark Leonard, Spencer Livermore, who was a long-time Brown favourite).

“The emergence of these bright young things is largely down to Tony Blair,” Derek Draper, a former adviser to Mandelson who became a lobbyist and then a psychotherapist, once told me. “He was the first Labour leader to pluck young Oxbridge graduates out of nowhere and put them in charge of his office. This put people’s backs up. It even put my back up, and I was one of the young insiders myself. ‘Where have they been in the party?’ I kept asking.”

Naturally, some in the group were in the orbit of Brown at the Treasury (Balls, Ed Miliband) and some were in Blair’s (David Miliband, Purnell). Blair and Brown both became MPs in 1983 and, in the aftermath of the Labour split two years earlier, they experienced the party’s devastating loss to Margaret Thatcher under the leadership of Michael Foot. So Blair and Brown were formed by these desperate times and they felt that there was no option but to combine tactical ruthlessness with strategic vision as they set about remaking the party, dragging it across the hardest ground to where they believed it had to be. The death of John Smith in May 1994 accelerated the process but it would have happened anyway.

Blair and Brown had different protégés but they shared a sense of mission. “We did it,” they must have thought many times as things did indeed begin to get better: “we created New Labour.”

They picked out people – clever, presentable, driven young people – who they believed would carry on their legacy when the time came. Along the way, older, gifted politicians – such as Alan Milburn, who was a difficult man but had an interesting personal story, or Estelle Morris, who was a good minister but suffered a loss of confidence – were squeezed out or gave up altogether.

We were witnessing the beginnings of a party being hollowed out and of a deepening disconnection between Labour MPs and their core supporters, which, in time, would empower the SNP in Scotland and create an opportunity for Ukip in England.

“I can give you a whole cadre of these people who weren’t the Oxbridge elite, the special advisers and all of the rest of it,” one former MP told me, “but they were politicians and they did have a sense of what voters wanted and they had a way of communicating with voters that these guys [the young MPs and special advisers] never did. Just never did. And as a result, it was a profound misunderstanding of what democratic politics was about. It’s not a seminar.”

Call it vanity, call it hubris, but whatever you call it, the foundations of the mansion built by Blair and Brown were neither deep nor strong. When pressure came, it began to crumble and then, after the 2015 election defeat, it collapsed, and now Jeremy Corbyn and his followers are roaming through the ruins, creating a new party of anti-capitalist renegades.

***

I’m not sure quite what divided the Blairites and Brownites politically, in retrospect. Perhaps the Brownites were more Eurosceptic, more numerate and economically literate, and were always resolute in their opposition to the euro. The Blairites were more internationalist, perhaps (though Brown was a convinced Atlanticist), liberal cosmopolitans who were idealists in matters of foreign policy. Blair’s April 1999 Chicago speech remains one of the defining texts of liberal interventionism. Justifying the Nato intervention against Serbian aggression in Kosovo, he defended Western “values” and made the “moral” case for getting “actively involved in other people’s conflicts”, which meant intervening militarily against despotism where necessary. (When David Miliband ran for the leadership of the party in 2010, he defended the Iraq War. His brother, who was not an MP at the time of the invasion and was at Harvard, claimed to have been against it from the beginning.)

But, in essence, though there was much personal rivalry between the two camps, they were united in believing in the New Labour project. “Fundamentally there wasn’t a big ideological gulf between Blair and Brown,” Ed Balls says now. “There wasn’t even, really, a big policy divide – in 1997, Tony was the Eurosceptic rather than Gordon. Things changed in terms of how he saw himself as a leader, but I don’t think he ever really wanted to join the single currency. He just really wanted to look like he wanted to join the single currency because he thought that that was important for Britain, and [for] his standing as PM at that time.”

When the main opposition party is so weak, as Labour still is today, Balls says, “the prism of politics becomes the succession within the governing party”, hence the obsession with the rivalry between Blairites and Brownites.

Balls and I spoke last Saturday as he made his way to watch Norwich City, where he is chairman of the club.

“When it came to the crunch, Tony so often backed Gordon that it used to drive him mad,” he told me. “There was a not ideological divide on the private sector in the health service, or markets and the health service. But what happened was ‘Gordon is anti-reform’ became a rallying cry for those who were trying to prevent him defeating Tony. So I think it was much more of a political thing, rather than about policy and ideology. And I think, if you go back to those debates in that period, it was the generation before us. So when you pick that ‘Golden Generation’, as you call them – me, Andy, Ed, David – none of us were really having that fight in the early 2000s, and none of us were having that fight between ourselves, certainly. The struggle was [between] the slightly older generation: some combination of Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Charles Clarke, who thought they had an opportunity to succeed Tony rather than Gordon. The Blair-Brown divide was never really a divide among our generation at all.”

Marginal differences, then. Certainly none of the Golden Generation doubted that the left had been vanquished. The parliamentary Bennites in the Socialist Campaign Group – Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Michael Meacher, Dennis Skinner and the rest – were considered cranks. They offered no threat.

Moreover, the Conservatives were in retreat, decisively beaten in 1997, as they would be again under the leadership of William Hague in 2001. Blair and Brown were contemptuous of the Tories, even when David Cameron and George Osborne took control of the party. They simply didn’t take them seriously, because they considered them beneath taking seriously.

The Golden Generation, along with Blair and Brown, believed, too, that devolution would settle the Scottish national question. Devolution would “kill Scottish nationalism stone dead”, boasted the future Labour defence secretary George Robertson in 1995. In the 1997 general election Labour won 56 of the 72 seats in Scotland; the Tories won none. Scotland belonged to Labour. (Today both parties have only one MP each in Scotland; the SNP has 54 of 59.)

Even as late as 2011, on the eve of the Holyrood election that the SNP won in a landslide, Ed Miliband was blithely complacent about what was happening in Scotland. As a quasi-Marxist, he never really understood nationalism or culture; he understood only political economy. By the time of the 2014 independence referendum, he was like a fugitive being hurried in and out of Scotland, never daring to stay for long. Yet it was on his watch that the party finally lost Scotland, even if the death of Labour Scotland was decades in the making.

***

So, in 2000, everything seemed set fair for the Golden Generation. Nothing could stop them from dominating public life for decades to come. Apart from one another, as it turned out.

As we know, they never quite made it, not in the way they would have wished, even if some of them had ministerial careers. The painful truth was that before any one of them reached the age of 50, it was too late, already too late: the best of their political careers was in the past.

Consider where they are today.

 

Ed Balls, who longed to be chancellor and ran for the leadership in 2010, has left politics after losing his seat at the 2015 election and is now cavorting on Strictly Come Dancing. The book he has just published, Speaking Out, is an unexpectedly engaging read, accessible, warm and candid. He writes nostalgically about his early years in the Treasury working closely with Brown. That was his time – and he was not yet 30.

James Purnell is expected to become the next head of BBC Radio, having quit politics in despair in June 2009. On abruptly resigning as work and pensions secretary, he called for Brown “to stand aside to give Labour a fighting chance of winning the next election”. He hoped, perhaps believed, his resignation would lead to a rebellion against Brown and that David Miliband would become prime minister. But no one followed Purnell over the top and he was shot down in no-man’s-land. When I met him in Soho for coffee not long after his resignation, he seemed liberated. “The way we do politics in this country is infantile,” he said.

David Miliband, who resigned from parliament in 2013, is based in New York doing important work as the head of the International Rescue Committee, having had his political career destroyed by his brother. There is some hope on the Labour benches that he might one day return to the Commons. “Had Ed not stood against him, none of this would have happened,” a senior Labour figure said to me, referring to the 2015 defeat, the capture of the party by the radical left and Brexit. It is difficult to see a way back for David, in the present circumstances, should he even wish to return.

Andy Burnham, having twice stood to be leader of the party, is preparing to leave Westminster as he seeks to become the first mayor of Greater Manchester. This is surely recognition that he feels Labour has no chance of returning to government any time soon. Burnham’s second run for the leadership in 2015, when, despite being the early front-runner and favourite, he was defeated by the 100-1 outsider Jeremy Corbyn, was a sad failure. He posed as the anti-Westminster candidate, the People’s Andy, the boy who lived outside the “Westminster bubble”, but he did not seem to know his own mind or what he wanted for the country. By the end of the campaign his pledges and promises were received with derision.

Douglas Alexander, who was shadow foreign secretary under Ed Miliband and Labour’s 2015 election co-ordinator, was perhaps the most obsessive US politics watcher of all that generation. He was credited with bringing David Axelrod, the American political strategist, to work on Labour’s 2015 campaign. Articulate and personable, he humiliatingly lost his Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat to a 20-year-old student, Mhairi Black of the Scottish National Party, who has since become something of a social media star. Alexander has said very little about Labour’s defeat and its collapse in Scotland, and now advises Bono of U2.

Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper, who ran for the leadership in 2015, are still MPs, of course, but each in a different way is struggling to recover from defeat and to find purposeful self-definition. Miliband is now deeply resented in the party. Not only did he lead Labour to an abject election defeat in propitious circumstances, he introduced the new rules by which the party elects its leader, opening the way for the Corbyn insurgency. Many of those who served in the Blair and Brown cabinets resent Miliband’s reluctance to defend the record of those governments. “I thought there had been enough of an opening up of debate under Ed [Miliband] that if Jeremy was on the ballot paper we would do quite well,” Jon Lansman, a close adviser of the Labour leader and chair of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group, told the New Statesman recently. The left has mocked Miliband’s recent demand that Corbyn resign.

***

I put it to Ed Balls that his generation failed. How else to account for the rise of Corbyn and the collapse in support for moderate social democracy among Labour members and activists?

“It might be that every generation has their time, and as it happened for our generation, it has happened to Cameron and Osborne,” he said by way of a reply. “And it may be that politics has become more – well, your shelf life goes down. It’s harder to regenerate politically, when you think of how long people like [Harold] Wilson or Denis Healey managed to be around. Maybe that’s harder these days. It may be that we made a mistake, and we should talk about that. It may be that, because we were people who succeeded early, and therefore became identified with the mainstream, we became casualties – on both sides of politics – when the centre ground gets rejected for the extremes . . . I don’t think we ever got complacent. I think once we lost in 2010 there was no sense of complacency.”

He found the 2010 defeat especially difficult: after all, he had known only success. “We’d been in government for 13 years . . . But when you go out of government in those circumstances, it feels like something that’s not going to be short-lived or temporary. There are some people who wait all their lives to get to a senior position in the civil service, or in government, or get into the cabinet, and they get it in their sixties. But because it happened for me on my 30th birthday, and the cabinet in my early forties, maybe you have a sense that your time may have been at an earlier stage. I definitely felt that in 2010.”

One recent morning I had coffee with Eddie Morgan, who has worked for the BBC and ITV as an editor and producer. He was close to Cooper and Purnell in the late 1980s when he read philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford (where they overlapped with Boris Johnson) and he worked alongside the Golden Generation in the early 2000s when he was Labour assistant general secretary. “How foolish that now all looks,” he said, reflecting on the Blair-Brown conflict – the so-called TBGBs. “Talk about the narcissism of small differences! They really were a golden generation, weren’t they? Yet even back then I was struck by how uncollegiate it was. Everyone had their baronial fiefdoms. There was not a lot of glue between them.”

This might explain why no one emerged as the leader of the pack, as David Cameron did among the Tory modernisers, and four of them – Balls, Burnham and the two Milibands – took each other on in the 2010 leadership contest.

For Morgan and his friends, working for the Labour Party offered thrilling possibilities. “After the ERM debacle [Britain was humiliatingly forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992], the Tories were on the way out. They’d been in power too long. The feeling was that they were weak and wicked. The future was ours. If you’d become an MP, like Blair and Brown, in 1983, you wouldn’t have felt you’d be in government any time soon. It was different for my generation. It was much easier. They became spads. They were given safe seats. I remember when Yvette got the safe seat of Pontefract, thinking, ‘Wow, she’s all set now.’ It felt like a great career choice. Now who would think becoming a Labour MP was a great career choice?”

He pauses to order a second coffee. Morgan has a Lancashire accent – he is from Preston – and speaks quickly, and his eyes shine. He is troubled by how unreflective the Golden Generation seemed to him. “They had complete self-belief. They believed that they would be the leadership of the Labour Party. They didn’t hope it. They totally believed it. I wished they’d been more modest, more questioning, more curious.”

In the early 1960s JFK’s young policymakers played squash to keep fit, a departure from their predecessors under Dwight D Eisenhower, who preferred golf. The Golden Generation were similarly obsessed with vigour and competition. Their favoured sport was football, which they played with competence and aggression.

“I remember our team from ITV played Demon Eyes at football,” Morgan said. “We thought they might be this effete bunch. But they were brilliant. They were fitter, faster, stronger. We were out-thought and out-fought. David Miliband, Jamie Purnell –
they were really good footballers. Yes, they were arrogant – but, in a way, they had a right to be.”

***

 

In his great book The Best and the Brightest, which is about the causes of the Vietnam War and the failures of the young, brilliant and idealistic but flawed policymakers who gathered around Kennedy and Johnson, David Halberstam made a distinction between intelligence and wisdom. That is, between “the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience. Wisdom for a few of them came after [his italics] Vietnam.”

The basic question that prompted the book, Halberstam wrote, “was why men who were said to be the ablest to serve in government in this century had been the architects of what struck me as likely to be the worst tragedy since the Civil War”.

For some of those who once worked with them, Blair and Brown – so able, so determined, so clearly the best and brightest – are culpable not only for policy disasters such as Iraq and for allowing the Labour Party to be hollowed out, but for the failures of the Golden Generation, whom they nurtured and wanted to succeed them. If political parties are machines for capturing power, it was said to me, they allowed the machine to malfunction.

Blair, unlike Brown, never suffered a general election defeat, and, to the last, he will defend his decision to invade Iraq – the single greatest foreign policy catastrophe since Suez – even if he now concedes mistakes were made in the post-invasion planning. For his part, Brown feels profoundly wronged and misunderstood, and still cannot understand how he lost to Cameron and Osborne, of whom he remains scornful.

“Both Gordon and Tony in their separate ways must shoulder a huge amount of the blame for what has happened to the Labour Party because it was obvious to me ten years ago that we were hollowing out,” a former MP told me. “It was absolutely clear . . . [but] no one was interested. I can’t tell you the degree of apathy, indifference, because every single one of them thought it was going to go on for ever.”

And into these hollow spaces flowed the radical left, activists and members who were disgusted by Blair and by the Iraq War. These activists had never stopped believing their opportunity would one day come again. They continued to organise diligently or cluster in fringe groups or other parties: the Greens, Respect. They wanted change, they believed that moderate social democracy had failed, social media offered them new ways to communicate and connect, and then, presented with it, they seized their chance when events forced Miliband to revise the rules by which the party elects its leader. The party is theirs now. Jeremy Corbyn is their leader.

***

Ed Miliband and I have not spoken since he lost the 2015 election, but it’s clear to me that defeat has changed and humbled David Miliband and Ed Balls. In the process, they seem to have acquired not just greater humility, but wisdom. The Golden Generation were intelligent enough but were they wise enough? Did they really understand the burden and responsibility of elected office, or the struggles and aspirations of the people they wanted to represent? They wanted to lead and they wanted power, but, unlike Blair and Brown, did they know what to do with it? As it turned out, early success was no preparation for winning and holding on to power.

Gordon Brown once told me how his generation had to fight, and fight again, to win the right to control the party. They had to debate and take on the left in smoke-filled meeting rooms, in crowded conference halls, in the public prints, and at rallies. The Golden Generation never had to fight. “They were bright, decent, public-spirited – but they weren’t street fighters,” said Eddie Morgan of his former colleagues. “They were not venal or corrupt but, yes, they lacked fight. But maybe they’re acquiring the fight now – Burnham is going off to Manchester, Yvette and the refugees [she intervened on behalf of Syrian refugees during last year’s leadership contest], Jamie Purnell at the BBC.”

Another former friend who knew the group well said: “Parties in the end are machines for capturing power and there is a sort of life cycle, and you’ve got to be absolutely vigilant about renewing it. Blair and Brown thought they could renew the machine with very clever people, but with one or two exceptions they were – what is the word I’m searching for? – they were servants, they weren’t masters, they didn’t really have a vision of where they wanted to go.” 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation