on 10 May 2010
As a distinguished journalist Andrew Rawnsley opens up Labour for us from the time they took office in 97. Writing for the Labour-sympathising Guardian group his account rings all the more true in revealing just how much parties become virtual dictatorships when big manipulative characters like Blair and Brown are able to use their cabinets as little more than supporting cast in enacting what they believe is "the right course". This is no more evident than in the farcical way in which we were committed to war effectively by unminuted conversations in private between President Bush and (would-be president) Blair so brilliantly exposed in Mr Rawnsley's book. A huge volume but thoroughly entertaining and informative throughout.
Andrew Rawnsley has toured the TV studios for weeks making numerous robust defences of his latest book not least of the thesis underpinning the "Gordon is a bully" scandal. He has in turn been subject to the full wrath of the current government spin meisters and elected politicians such as John Prescott(oh the irony) who could barely contain his anger on a recent Newsnight. But what of the book itself?
Tom Paine had a wonderful phrase addressed to Edmund Burke that "he pities the plumage and forgets the dying bird". The same could apply to the media's reaction to this since despite the heat and noise of the "bullygate" scandal no one at all disputes the mind boggling levels of dysfunction, the sheer levels of poisonous acrimony and full force backstabbing of the Blair/Brown relationship which dominated the "heart" of British politics for so long and in one sense is still being played out.
Of course politics is a Machiavellian business and not for the faint hearted but Rawnsley's chronicle is not so much a story of a new Labour permanent revolution as a permanent row. It is a world turned upside down where Peter Mandelson can go from stating that Gordon Brown "wants to kill me before I destroy him" to one where the Prime Ministers survival depends on his former arch enemy. Clearly Armando Iannucci's brilliant "The thick of it" is actually rather tame and I must admit I laughed out loud at Margaret Beckett's guttural reaction to being made foreign secretary.
This is a very long book but to be fair to Rawnsley it is also a story very well told with real pace. It does suffer a fair quota of political clichés and the Westminster "bubble" is portrayed as the totality of British politics bar nothing else. But I like Jeremy Vine's comment that "it reads like a thriller" and like it or not Rawnsley is a key insider in this world and if only 50% of the facts are right (and it appears in some instances they go both ways) then this is fascinating if damming indictment of the current state of our politics and government.
You suspect Rawnsley is more Blairite than Brownite and his analysis of the tragic march to war in Iraq is thorough but his judgement on Blair as "a sincere deceiver. He told the truth about what he believed; he lied about the strength of the evidence for that belief" is a cop out. The best chapter in the book however is on the election that never was and Brown's chronic indecision which could ironically turn out to be the right decision in the next few months. It is here we see Brown at his worse and the idea that the thuggish Damian McBride was a bit part player is decimated by Rawnsley who charts how this attack dog would rubbish anyone in defence of his master and with his full knowledge. Brown as the brooding, moody and tempestuous Scot is portrayed here in all his glory/weakness (it depends on your politics) but clearly during that period Number 10 was a truly awful place to be.
Like "Servants of the People" this insiders view has considerable strengths but also weaknesses. Rawnsley's ranges of sources inevitably are secretive and in some cases might even be fictional. Yet the key message of this book is that the last two decades have been one of "government by ordeal". This is about a style of politics which is brutal and thoroughly depressing. Recent events in the expenses scandal suggest a plague on all houses but at the end of the day someone has to govern. We should hope whichever party wins the forthcoming general election that some of the lessons in this excellent book are learned.
on 24 August 2010
This is a decent, enjoyable read. Rawnsley writes very well and as a politics student I actually got a fair amount out of his account of the New Labour years.
However my big criticism of this book is that it is incomplete. The story ends abruptly in the months leading up to the 2010 general election, and this is no place to finish. I can only assume that this is so the book could be released at that time in order to maximise revenue.
Sure enough, the paperback is due out on 30th September and contains exactly what this book is missing. It is updated with two new chapters to take the book to its logical conclusion - through the election and the coalition negotiations that followed to the moment when Gordon Brown resigned as Prime Minister.
Having purchased and read this book I feel ripped off as I feel it is now essential to purchase the paperback in order to read the ending. I therefore recommend that people avoid buying a book that is missing the final two chapters by waiting until the paperback is out.
on 3 October 2012
This superbly written and highly detailed tome has the capacity, like many books about the New Labour project, to leave you wringing your hands in rage and frustration. It's fundamentally depressing to see how little core belief there was at the centre. Whereas Clement Atlee (the first Labour Prime Minister to win a majority) came in and changed the entire social fabric of the country, Blair and Brown ran a government of headlines. It didn't matter what the consequences actually were, or whether the nitiative could really be delivered successfully, as long as it looked good in the next day's Daily Mail that's all that counted.
The day in 1997 when Tony Blair walked down Downing Street in the sunshine, was one of great optimism for the country - albeit followed by four years that even the Labour Party thought was wasted. This book opens in 2001, at the start of the second term, when the government thought they would finally make good on the promises they'd given to the public. But then "events dear boy, events" in the form of 9/11, and a whole different direction was taken.
One of the things most depressing about this book is how mad both Blair and Brown seem. This period catches Blair at his messianic worst, touring the world as a `great statesman', fully convinced he was the man who could influence George W. Bush - when it was clear to all around him that he was barely influencing the President an inch. That period included an amazing conference speech where Blair announced he was going to solve all the hunger, disease and war in the world, whilst conceding that he couldn't get the trains to run on time in his own country. He was the ultimate big picture man, and it's clear from reading this that he gave no more thought to what would happen in the aftermath to the invasion of Iraq than Cheney or Rumsfeld did.
Throughout it all he had Gordon Brown agitating next-door, waging running wars and media campaigns against the Prime Minister, as well as anyone else he considered a rival in the cabinet. If there's a man who really comes badly out of this book its Brown (though I doubt Ed Balls, or even current Labour leader Ed Milliband would appreciate it as a Christmas present). He is portrayed as a bullying control-freak with a volcanic temper, as well as the inability to admit any fault and a lack of real empathy with people. Brown's inherent flaws are so pronounced throughout the whole of this work, that it's truly amazing no one stepped in the way to stop him becoming Prime Minister. As when he got there, it was always going to unravel in the most calamitous fashion.
When the first edition of this book was published back in spring, the election was just getting under way and it was in the Labour Party's interests to deny it (it has since been updated to capture Brown's very last days). Since then there have been a number of memoirs (not least Blair's and Mandelson's) which show how accurate Rawnsley's version actually is. If you have any interest in British politics, if you want to read a factual book about the last government which has big characters and chapters which wouldn't disgrace a thriller, then this is definitely recommended.
on 31 August 2010
In conjunction with its predecessor, 'Servants of the People', this book provides a rich and carefully woven analysis of Labour's entire 13-year history in government. As such, it is a rather mammoth piece and those disinclined to occupy themselves with the minutiae of domestic politics would be well advised to steer clear of it.
Superbly written, it chronicles every twist and turn of the Blair-Brown administration, from the fuel crisis to the Iraq War, from foot and mouth to MPs' expenses. The reader is both reminded of events past and given an insight into the minds and workings of those at the hub of political power. What is most striking is Rawnsley's ability to synthesise an incredible amount of material into a coherent whole, on the basis of numerous interviews and articles, as well as information garnered from his own private conversations with those who monitored and influenced day-to-day politics closest at hand.
An exceptional work - my only criticism is that Rawnsley seems woefully unaware of the existence of the pluperfect tense, seemingly omitting it at every available juncture. A minor point indeed.
Other than this, the book certainly pays the effort of study from cover to cover, leaving the reader better informed about the ways in which key (and often not-so-key) decisions are taken at the heart of government. In short, it is eminently recommenable.
on 19 March 2011
This book excels in some respects. Rawnsley fully leverages from his access to all the key sources within the last Labour Government to provide a highly revealing account of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's respective premierships. However it is essentially a linear account and the book does not provide the same level of insightful analysis as for example Richard Vine's excellent Thatcher's Britain does. The book is also too long and repetitive. Rawnsley has included too many quotes even where they essentially repeat the same point. Increased footnoting could have reduced the actual text to a more managageable 500 pages. Finally it does read like a very long newspaper article which should not be a surpise given Rawnsley's day job. Worth reading though, as there are several 'scoops'.
on 17 July 2011
I have just finished this book and would thoroughly recommend it. This book grabs you from the first page and really does read like a novel. Love them or loathe them, you will not want to put down this tale of The Death of New Labour.
Just to be clear, this is not just the author's personal opinion of the events described in the book. Andrew Rawnsley is the Chief Political Commentator and Associate Editor for the Observer newspaper. Andrew spent years interviewing over 500 witnesses, including government ministers, British intelligence personnel, U.S. and European senior figures and civil servants with first hand accounts of what transpired over the years. I have never seen a book with so many references, painstakingly acknowledging the source of each story or interview with several footnotes per page.
Unsurprisingly, the most engaging accounts in the book are those relating to the Iraq War - the 'sexing up' of the WMD Dossier, the Blair/Bush relationship leading up to war and the David Kelly scandal. However, this book is so much more than that. You almost feel like you are getting a day by day account of the New Labour years, as each remarkable story unfolds. Of course, the acrimonious relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown throughout Blair's premiership really is something to behold. This pretty much stemmed from Gordon Brown constantly haranging Tony Blair from the second Labour won a second term in 2001, as to when he was going to hand over the keys to Number 10 to Brown, and Tony Blair constantly managing to bluff, placate and downright lie to Gordon Brown as to when he was going to leave Downing Street. The relationship breaks down further and further until the two are literally screaming at each other in front of other members of the government. You will not believe just how close Tony Blair came to sacking his Chancellor.
The last third of the book relates to Gordon Brown's premiership and while there isn't quite as much scandal as in the Tony Blair years, you do get even more of an insight into Brown's severe character flaws, insecurities and behaviour. There is also the 2007 financial crisis which is dealt with in great detail in this part of the book and that is also fascinating reading as to just how close the banks came to total meltdown and how Gordon Brown actually led the way in the global banking crisis. And of course, Andrew's account of the MP's expenses scandal will just leave you open mouthed in astonishment.
Andrew does also have a prequel to this book, Servants of the People, which describes the post 1997 euphoria following Labour's initial landslide victory. I haven't read that yet, but if Rawnsley's earlier book is half as good as this one, then it definitely deserves a read too.
I've just completed the book and couldn't put it down (always a good sign). I cannot remember being this captivated by the politics genre since the best of Tony Benn and Alan Clark. Rawnsley's Observer credentials surely lend weight to a high percentage of what we read about the triumph and tragedy of the New Labour project. The 'nitty-gritty' of workaday political life is exposed here in the raw. The bare naked truth is: our country is run by extremely flawed individuals. However, it would be wrong to suggest this is a biased tirade against New Labour. The macro theme of the book is certainly a critique of 'The Project' but there are several positives in the book-Blair's handling of Northern Ireland one case in point. The Northern Rock chapter was perhaps the heaviest going in terms of textual flow but overall Rawnsley's narrative is crisp, lively and punctuated with many comic gems. It's well worth the money for the perspective (sometimes alarming perspective) it throws upon modern political life.
on 6 October 2011
As the book quotes at the very beginning, a press review says this book has "the ring of truth", and that it certainly has. Nothing comes across as hyperbole, and Rawnsley is generally fair, trying to see the good in even the least competent character. Rawnsley's access to the key players is unmatched, but this would all be for nothing were it not for the fact that the book reads so well.
It is well paced (impressive for a book over 900 pages long) and never hard to follow. It perhaps covers some topics that are included only because Rawnsley felt they needed to be covered, rather than the particular incident bringing any new revelation or understanding to the book's broader themes. Nonetheless one is left with an excellent understanding of Blair, Brown, their relationship and many other figures, including key members of the US administration under George W Bush.
Above all it's a cracking read and worthy of the time of anyone who has an interest in politics and wants to see how, and how not, to run a country.
Andrew Rawnsley's great doorstep of a book is the inside story from the court of New Labour. Gossipy, exhaustive and, at times, exhausting, it unveils the mask of the last two Labour governments.
Much has been made about the revelations about Gordon Brown's temper, serialised in the Observer, but really these are just a footnote in its 680page narrative. Rawnsley is fair in his assessment of both Prime Ministers, praising where praise was deserved (for example, Brown's handling of the global economic crisis; Blair's success in Northern Ireland) but withering about their failures.
He is a good writer, and although the book is somewhat overlong it retains its momentum nicely.
Perhaps the central thesis of the book is how New Labour were brilliantly prepared to win power, but unable to utilise effectively. Chaos frequently reared its head, particularly at Downing Street under Brown, and endless initiatives and laws were issued without being properly thought through.
Of course, the central problem that undermined the New Labour project was the Blair-Brown rivalry, and Rawnsley expertly details the conflict.
`History,' Rawnsley writes, `might be kinder to Gordon Brown than the me contemporary media and electorate.' That might be true of his Prime Ministership, but his central failing, which crucially undermined Tony Blair, was a chancellorship which as much as anything seemed to be defined by unstinting antipathy towards his next door neighbour.
In short he put the kibosh on any number of Blair's initiatives, while Blair - never a man to thrive in confrontation - was unusually supine when faced by Brown's latest tantrum.
Theirs is the most compelling political partnership of our times, but there is a whole cast of New Labour heroes and villains - the apoplectic Alistair Campbell, the thuggish Damien McBride, the Machiavellian Peter Mandleson, and many others besides - who make this a gripping story. No matter what you might think of their politics this is a compelling read.