Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour Paperback – 16 Jul 2001
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If revenge is a dish best eaten cold, there will be some hastily scalded--and scolded--mouths around Westminster. Heavily serialised already in two national newspapers, political commentator Andrew Rawnsley's account of the honeymoon period of Tony Blair's Labour government is the story of four men who wanted something so much they could not believe it when it arrived. It proved, to a degree, a Faustian pact. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell formed an inner circle without the Cabinet, but within earshot of their mutual blade-sharpening, while remaining glutinously bound by fierce personal desire. Rawnsley himself displays little of his subjects' "psychological flaws". Indeed, he would make a fine spin-doctor. His truffling turns up a barrowload of anonymous quotations, some whispered, some brayed, to support a punchy, racily confident narrative that begs between-the-lines reading to guess who has said what and why. He considers with clarity and wit episodes such as the now notorious Ecclestone affair, Geoffrey Robinson's home loan to Peter Mandelson, European monetary union, the Good Friday negotiations, Kosovo, the Pinochet affair, Scottish devolution and the trumpeted marriage of convenience between Blair and Brown. According to Rawnsley, while the antagonist Brown skulks around, grim of manner and unsung, Blair proves a more slippery customer. Unexpectedly gutsy over Kosovo and Northern Ireland, like Margaret Thatcher he remains at heart a conviction politician, and when his instinct deserts him, the exposed lack of ideological foundation can see him flounder, such as over the Mayor of London election. Rawnsley's final chapter, dealing with Blair's disastrous courting of the Women's Institute, inadvertently sets the stage for the fuel crisis, when the mask finally started to eat into the face. New Labour got itself into a spin, inevitably given its accelerating centrifugal force, but the Government still approaches the prospect of a second term-Blair's cherished dream--with cash in the coffers, and real achievements on the board. Andrew Rawnsley demands similar plaudits, for as vivid and plausible an account of the machinations of contemporary politics as there has been. And the burns will quickly heal. --David Vincent
NB: the latest edition includes a new preface and five new chapters which include information about the 2001 General Election
"* 'The most readable contemporary history to be written since New Labour was elected' Roy Hattersley, Observer * 'Riveting... the Government's dirty washing has been well and truly hung out in public' Rachel Sylvester, Daily Telegraph"See all Product description
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I don't usually read British political tracts but this was un-put-downable. If you like it you MUST read the sequel "The End of the Party".
Rawnsley does his homework. For obvious reasons he can't name most of his sources or they would not remain sources for long, but I see no reason not to believe his claim that he found them at the top, in the middle and at the bottom of the parliamentary pile. His main text starts with Labour's election victory in 1997, but his short preface is in some ways the most interesting thing in the book, recapitulating the history of the `New Labour Project' that restored Labour to government after many had given up on it as being unelectable. Blair obviously occupies centre-stage, but the book is about his party and his government in general, not about him solely or even mainly. Blair had snatched the crown from under the nose of the longtime leader in waiting Gordon Brown, whom he had to placate with unprecedented power and influence as Chancellor and whose turn is now at last about to come. Never far from the spotlight except when he chose to be is also the machiavellian figure of Peter Mandelson, and manipulating the spotlights is of course Tony's loyal and brutal press supremo Alastair Campbell.
Labour had been out of office for 18 years. Neither Blair nor Brown nor any minister other than one fairly minor officeholder had any experience of government whatsoever. In addition the swarm of political analysts, pundits and commentators that had done much to wreck Blair's hapless predecessor John Major now buzzed incessantly round their heads, and the new government was unsurprisingly fixated on presentation. They were put through their presentational paces from the outset and after claiming to wash whiter than white they soon found they had plenty of whitewashing to do. The foreign secretary was forced into an abrupt and vicious parting from his wife: a highly questionable loan to the party was first accepted then denied then disowned; and a farcical folly called the Millennium Dome was devouring money in an inaccessible location on the Thames. However the public mood of trust in honest-faced Tony continued. Purely from that point of view Blair acquitted himself brilliantly over the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana, and a genuine masterstroke of real substance was achieved by Brown in giving independence in monetary policy to the Bank of England.
As it started, so it has gone on. New Labour had puffed themselves as inaugurating a new era, but behind the scenes they were just human beings - prima donnas, ego-trippers, inexperienced and sometimes incompetent, quarrelsome and jealous, but still perceived behind their dashing young leader as an improvement on what we had been used to, and astonishingly surefooted in putting themselves across. Rawnsley comments as well as reporting, but it is always clear what the basis is for his opinions, and that is the least and the most he should do. If I were to criticise anything in the book it might be that I would have welcomed some more of his own point of view, because it is always reasonable in never in support of any rigid standpoint. The narrative is slightly jerky, reflecting I suppose its origins in separate pieces for the BBC or the press. The writing is mainly good too, although I grimaced at the lordly metaphor `on such accidents...does the river of events turn.' Rivers bend surely, but I never heard of a river turning before and I hope I never do again; and who was the proofreader who let him away with the noun `perplexion'?
There is a real air of authenticity about this book, a sense of genuine endeavour to get to the bottom of things through the maelstrom of what we now call `spin'. It recaptures for me the real feel of the time and although I and the whole long-suffering British public are inundated with comment to the point of boredom and disgust Rawnsley's freshness of attitude, simple clarity and patent honesty keep my attention. I would say that I hope he will let us have some more of it all, but I sense that that is not so much a hope as a stone-cold certainty.
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