Andrew Rawnsley: Servants of the
People - The Inside Story of New Labour
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, September 2000, 434 p. - December 26, 2002: now
available from Penguin Books:Amazon.co.uk,
Andrew Rawnsley is associate editor and chief political columnist for the
Obeserver. He has made a series television programs and presents Radio 4's
Westminster Hour. In his book Servants of the People - that is how New
Labour praised itself before the 1997 election - , Rawnsley offers a
critical look behind the scenery of New Labour. This insider report is based
on "private information" provided by political actors and largely relies on
confidential information. Rawnsley announced that he will reveal his sources
at a later stage. Therefore, it is impossible to verify the accuracy of
Rawnsley's sources. The author makes the point that it is important to write
the book today, because in their memoirs, politicians have the tendency to
rewrite history. Rawnsley takes the doubtful liberty of describing emotions
and thoughts of politicians, based only on the testimony of his sources.
According to Rawnsley, Tony Blair wanted to reinvent Great Britain. At
the same time, he did not trust his people and, therefore, constantly
monitored British public opinion. After New Labour's electoral victory in
1997, the desire for hegemony and the "control-freakism" even increased.
Besides such general comments, Rawnsley also digs deeper. He describes the
relation between the four key figures, who, "in essence [are] New Labour":
Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.
Mandelson is a former Young Communist, trade union researcher and TV
producer who worked as Neil Kinnock's director of communication. Once, he
was much closer to Brown than to Blair, but he favored the career of both
politicians. Then, the protégé-patron relationship between Mandelson was
reversed and the admiration for Brown turned into hatred. Brown, in return,
could not forgive Mandelson to have chosen the camp of Blair in the Labour-internal
fight for power. This triangular relationship became even more complicated
with the rise in influence of Campbell who was already connected to the
modernisers within the party before he left his career as a tabloid Labour
propagandist to become Blair's press secretary.
Rawnsley describes the politician of power Tony Blair who, before the
1997 election let Paddy Ashdown believe that, after winning the election, he
would form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats and Ashdown
would become his Foreign secretary - regarding this information, as in many
other cases, it is of course easy to understand who Rawnsley's source was.
The author describes Blair as an ideology-free pragmatist who knows how
to fight hard, even with unfair means if necessary. For instance, Blair
hindered a man from the left wing of the party from being elected despite
the fact that the local party in Wales was behind him. This was a step back
to the undemocratic Labour politics of the time before he rose to power. In
the same category, one can count Blair's unsuccessful attempt to hinder Ken
Livingstone from becoming the mayor of London at any cost. As a last example
of Blair's dark side, one can mention his "Faustian bargain with the Sun".
In the unwritten British constitution, the Prime minister is a
primus inter pares, but with the help of a loyal parliamentary majority
and a devoted cabinet, the Prime minister is one of the most powerful men of
the Western world. Blair did not accept anyone else in his cabinet as being
an equal to him. According to Rawnsley, this was no expression of vanity
because he is immune to flattering remarks, but an expression of his
political strategy which consisted in preventing earlier errors by
undisciplined Labour governments as well as a lesson taught by the failure
of John Major.
Among Blair's political mistakes was his support for the Millenium Dome.
Initially, the project had only enemies in the cabinet, except for "the
lonely but influential proselytiser for the Dome", Mandelson. It was in fact
one of the very rare - abortive - cabinet revolts. But as Prescott joined
Mandelson after initial doubts, Blair and Mandelson wanted the Dome to
become a symbol of "the rebirth of a creative and dynamic Britain under New
Labour." Instead, it become a costly failure.
Even more damaging was New Labour's acceptance of a party donation of
one million pounds by Bernie Ecclestone. Before, the party had supported the
EU ban on tobacco advertising in Formula 1 races, but reversed after the
donation. Rawnsley points out the fact that, in November 1997, Brown lied in
the affair as he pretended not to have known about it. He tried to cover it
up and Blair was afraid that he could fall due to this scandal. New Labour
"resolved" the affair by returning the million to the donator. Last
September's publication of Rawnsley's book created some media attention in
this regard, but it remained without consequences for the government.
New Labour's social reform was held up by animosities between cabinet
members. On the public relations level, there were several embarrassing
disasters. The National Health Service became a bottomless abyss, as Gordon
Brown told Blair. John Prescott's highflying projects of the Summer of 1998
in order to reduce the chaos on the streets as well as the pollution
resulting from it ended with no results. According to Rawnsley, this was
because of New Labour's shortsighted strategy which often does not go beyond
the next headline. Ralf Dahrendorf "identified the Third Way as politics
that speak of the need for hard choices but avoids them by trying to please
Rawnsley counts the idea of giving independence to the Bank of England among
the successes of Blair's governments. The idea came from Gordon Brown who
convinced Blair. The two put their project through, without any cabinet
decision. Blair only asked Brown to inform John Prescott and Robin Cook -
inform them, not consult them! The New Labour government also managed to
give Scotland and Wales their own parliaments. In May 1998, Blair was able
to have the Northern Ireland Agreement accepted by the local population.
Regarding Serbia, Blair was, according to Rawnsley, the first politician to
recognize that it was an error not to send ground troops. But in 1999, he
was alone against the decisions by Clinton and Schröder not to send them.
Still, the author sees in Blair's position an important element that forced
Milosevic to give up Kosovo. Regarding UK's entrance into the monetary
union, Rawnsley stresses that, in 1997, the Liberal Democrat Ashdown's as
well Blair's aide Mandelson pushed for a referendum on the Euro quickly
after the elections, whereas Blair himself and Brown were sceptical about
its chances of success and, after a longer period of doubt about the
governments intentions, there was no referendum.
"Servants of the People" contains a lot of useful information, a
substantial dose of political gossip and here and there harsh but justified
comments on New Labour. The cover of the book speaks for itself. It shows a
1997 caricature by Chris Riddell published in the Observer
which shows Tony Blair who towers behind a pulpit on which one can read:
"Trust Me." Despite all this criticism, Rawnsley comes to the conclusion
that Tony Blair and his government are above average. Compared with New
Labour's rhetoric, the government's successes seem less impressive. The
author writes that "in many respects, this was not a bad government. What
was yet unproven was whether Tony Blair had the courage, capacity and
self-confidence to become one of the exceptional Prime Ministers who lead
Rawnsley's book is worthwhile reading although his language is sometimes
tiring. It is not, as New Labour's "spin doctors" tried to imply after the
book's publication in September 2000, an imbalanced account. One would just
have wished more information on the economic record of the government.