2 May 2013
'New Labour's story is all of our stories' declares Rawnsley in the introduction to his authoritative work on the mid-life struggles and eventual downfall of the longest-lasting non Conservative government since 1762.
In many ways, that description is enough to know why this book is important. If the transformation of a party from desperation in the 1980s, one manifesto being written off as 'the longest suicide note in history', to triumph in 1997 under the 'new dawn' of the Blairite Middle Way, itself subject of a previous work by the author in 'Servants of the People', was a remarkable achievement in British Politics, it's the latter years of 'New Labour', where its key personalities attempted to shape the political landscape and imprint their vision onto the country, that truly give an insight into the nature of the New Labour phenomenon.
This era stands out. We all know Iraq, Afghanistan, Banking regulation (or not), and record levels of public spending are the products of those years and cast a long, and sometimes unhelpful shadow, into the current debate for Britain's future. However 2001-2010 also saw the Treasury grow into a tight-fisted, controlling behemoth, the beginnings a new way of provision in public services focusing on user choice and quality that continues today under the coalition, a micro-managing presentational style of politics develop under the auspices of No. 10's communications department, and ultimately an evolution in the political stances of the opposition parties which eventually brought the New Labour colossus, once invincible, crashing to its knees in May 2010. These too are the result of Labour's period in office.
This account is a bravura exposition of the personalities involved in the key decisions of those years. Rawnsley puts his experience and impressive contacts to excellent use, as we are given an incredibly detailed picture of the chaotic whirlwind behind the varnished doors of power. We learn from Special advisors, MPs of all political persuasion, diplomats, journalists, friends, wives how it was that a movement that promised so much to so many, was eventually believed in by so few. The interlinking of different voices into the narrative adds a level of detail that few could match, and it is not for nothing the story reads as a thriller sometimes. The curious friendship between Blair and Bush is explored in detail, perhaps the highlight of the book in terms of a lucid journalistic account behind a partnership that many will consider the biggest stain on Blair's premiership. Rawnsley's voice for the most part doesn't intrude, he's perfectly content to let others do the bulk of the commentary, it's his hefty file of evidence that should convince the reader to be sympathetic to the analysis.
However every chapter in this mighty 761 pg book holds insight, particularly showing up the importance of character and emotion. Sometimes it is argued too much is made of the personal qualities of politicians, rather than the nitty-gritty detail of policy our legislators are paid to produce. Reading 'The End of the Party' will quickly disabuse anyone of the idea that emotional intelligence is anything less than critical to successfully managing a government. Blair is revealed as a charismatic political genius, a'natural thespian' with a flair for language and how to get at 'the erogenous zones of the British people'. Yet we also gain a keen sense of Blair as a flawed genius, 'an impetuous decision maker' and consistently weak negotiator, guilty of at times authoritarian disregard for Cabinet and an unhealthy desire to be liked by everyone.
The other side of the new Labour coin, Gordon Brown is revealed as a highly intelligent and powerful Chancellor crippled by an unsavoury mix of controlling, manipulative tendencies, inability to respond to debate in any other way than 'steamrollering persistence', 'volcanic temper' and cursed with 'psychological flaws'. Rawnsley's book illustrates through evidence, both anecdotal and official, how the TB-GB tempestuous marriage and bloody divorce hi-jacked the potential of New Labour, sometimes bringing out the best (through argument), but often the worst in politicians and their coterie. Damien McBride, Brown's attack dog of spin is by no means the only villain of this piece. Everyone involved is shamed by the cruelty and the pettiness on show, from Brown refusing to reveal his Budget to Blair in 2004, to Blair's litany of cryptic and broken promises to a desperate Brown on when he would hand over the sceptre of power. We can only wonder about what New Labour could have been, could have accomplished, if this festering cancer were removed earlier. Rawnsley shows how it poisoned everything, to the point of near splitting the Labour Party and turning colleagues against one another in a bloody war of deception and intrigue. Indeed, Rawnsley quips, 'The Real Leader of the Opposition was Blair's next door neighbour'.
Brown as PM gets a rough, but fair appraisal. His leadership during the Autumn of 2008 is appropriately lauded, indeed he is shown to find purpose in trying to coalesce a 'new world order' for international finance ('born for this moment'). This vision is noticeably absent from Brown within No. 10. The summer of crises in 2007, portray a man unsure on whether to stick or twist from the Blairite model, in the end evolving into 'the control freak's control freak', scarily addicted to chasing headlines and imbued with 'false confidence' that his 'very weak team' could do better than Blair. We all know how that vain ambition worked its way out- it is clear that the gotterdammerung of New Labour was a crushing place to be in politics. Gordon Brown simply was not, by character definition, capable of being the Prime Minister he, and those many who put faith in him.
We are always fascinated by the allure of the behind the scenes accounts, the secret and sordid dealings of the famous and news worthy, so it was never in any doubt whether this book would sell. Yet above the revelations about Brown's eyesight and messiness, Blair's penchant for extravagant holidays, the swearing, shouting and frantic fire fighting is a clear message. Rawnsley's pen, with deftness and an uncommon talent for the pithy epithet, illustrates how honesty, emotional intelligence, integrity and empathy should form the core of any decision-maker's arsenal. New Labour aspired to be a broad tent coalition of lofty (if protean)ideals, built around Blair's presentation, continuous prosperity, the unattractiveness of their political opponents, sustained investment in public services, and, crucially, a notion of representing change, modernisation, and the future. It was the personalities devoid of such an arsenal that means the New Labour legacy is one coated with mud, and the derision of a jilted public.
The party goers believed in their own greatness too much. The fire in the party of 1997 has now guttered and gone out. Who will reclaim the torch? Those that aspire to do so should be warned, 'sometimes the greatest lies politicians tell are the ones they tell themselves'.