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Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour - Andrew Rawnsley

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Genre: Politics / Society / Philosophy / Author: Andrew Rawnsley / Paperback / 592 Pages / Book is published 2001-07-16 by Penguin Books Ltd

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      02.08.2001 04:17
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      "Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under." H.L. Mencken. It's a curious fact that although Christians are an increasingly small and unimportant minority among ordinary people, they still dominate a group who claim to represent and work tirelessly on behalf of ordinary people. The group is, of course, politicians, and given that politicians are reknowned for their mendacity, egotism, and deceitfulness, I suppose we can only be glad that this is so. After all, if they weren't Christians, they'd presumably be even worse. If you hadn't realized that the New Labour government, like all governments before it, was full of Christians at all levels, but particularly at the top, you've obviously never paid much attention to politics. I doubt, though, that there has been any prime minister for a long time quite so pious as Tony Blair: "His Christianity was an important driver. He often carried a Bible with him on trips, though he never read it in front of Campbell who [sic] derived a strange pleasure from privately mocking Blair about the Prime Minister's faith." ("On a Wing and Prayer", pg. 276) Blair's Christianity supplies him with some rather odd morals, though. You might suppose that a leader who ordered large numbers of bombs to be dropped on Yugoslavia would be worried about the certain fact that innocent people would be killed, rather than about the possibility he would get bad press for particularly bad examples of it: "'What if we cut the power off to a hospital?' he worried. 'We'll be accused of killing babies.'" ("On a Wing and Prayer", pg. 262) But again, if you hadn't realized what Blair was like by now, you obviously haven't been paying much attention to politics. I haven't been as disgusted by a politician myself since Margaret Thatcher left power, but that's not rea lly surprising, because Blair not only admires Thatcher, he models himself on her. To the extent that, in another context, you might suppose he was satirizing her: "The Prime Minister leaned so heavily in the direction of the employers that their representatives found him raising objections to the unions' case they hadn't been intending to press. Adair Turner, the Director-General of the CBI, expressed to colleagues his amazement that the government was 'so craven' towards business." Because, you see, Thatcher worshipped money and power, and so does Blair. She was surrounded by spivs and wide-boys; so is he. She had a thuggish, unprincipled press secretary; so has he. She ignored the Cabinet; so does he. She organized secret attacks on her enemies within the party; so does he. She loved America and did all she could to re-create the United Kingdom in its image; so does he. She allied herself with Rupert Murdoch; so has he. She wasn't very bright and was manipulated by cleverer people in the shadows; so is he. The parallels just go on, but many would say that there is one important difference between Thatcher and Blair. She had meant to do something with power beyond simply keeping it; he doesn't. For him, winning an election is important because it gives him the chance to win another one. Perhaps that is the one of the very few important differences between Thatcher and Blair -- though we should remember that she was using focus groups in the 1980s -- but even if Thatcher had wanted power only so she keep it, she would have found it difficult to surpass Blair. There was a recent cartoon in Private Eye that ran something like this: "'Our opinion polls say the public like politicians to have strong opinions.' "'Okay. WHAT strong opinions?'" Now turn to Andrew Rawnsley: "Only in the last gasps [of the election] did Blair speak with conviction about his passion to transform Britain. And then because commentators and focus groups alike were warning that the lingering doubt about New Labour was its absence of passion and conviction." ("Dawn", pg. 5) And although Blair's ideas aren't of any interest, because he doesn't have any, his psychology is fascinating. Does he know that he is lying when he lies, as he so often has? Or is he so well-practised in deceit that he can deceive even himself? This is a man, after all, who calls himself "centre-left" when he's speaking to his party and yet, according to Rawnsley, said the following to Paddy Ashdown: "'I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in. I have stripped them of their core beliefs,' Blair confided. 'What keeps it together is success and power.'" ("Operation Hoover", pg. 195) It's obvious, all the same, why Blair does call himself "centre-left". When you are in the centre, you don't threaten the further left or the moderate left. It doesn't matter what you actually are, but what you say you are, so long as you can persuade others to believe it. Truth, as Peter Mandelson puts it in this book, is to be "created". But that is the logical culmination of our political system, when a numerically and logically illiterate media report on politics not to inform and educate the electorate but to entertain it and feed their own self-importance. The Labour Party was once notorious for its fractiousness, because its members actually discussed things and disagreed with one another. That didn't make for a good press, so Blair put an end to it, or tried to, and one of the results was the Millennium Dome, which is discussed in one of this book's most entertaining and enlightening chapters. The Cabinet did not want to carry on with the Dome. Blair and Mandelson did, and the Dome was duly built and turned into the year-long farce that I could almost wish had destroyed the government. But only almost. Because there is one good thing about New Labour. They aren't the Tories: we're in the frying-pan still, not actually in the fire. It's not always very much comfort, though this book does offer a few examples of how we have been better off under Thatcher's imitators than we would have been under Thatcher's direct heirs. Labour did introduce a minimum wage, after all. Blair characteristically claimed the credit for it at a Labour conference, when he had in fact opposed it. And if that kind of deceit isn't enough to damn him - and it is - his way with the English language would be more than enough: "Without a powerful commitment to goals and values, governments are rudderless and ineffective, however large their majorities." ("Making Enemies", pg. 309) And what "goals and values" are these? Presumably the same as those he had been celebrating before the election in 1997: "It's a time for an end to divisions, an end to looking backwards, a desire to apply the basic, decent British values of commonsense and imagination to the problems we all know we face as a country today." ("Dawn", pg. 9) The clichés Blair peddles are so stale that even the flies have left them, but unfortunately that is one of the ways Andrew Rawnsley is well-equipped to write a book about Blair and his court, because his English is rebarbative too. If you want clichés, you've got 'em, but I doubt you'll keep wanting them for long: "The portrait this painted - an ignorant pupil Mandelson prostrate at the feet of the master professor Brown - provoked Mandelson to spit with rage. Their armistice lasted just thirty-six hours." ("Psychological Flaws", pg. 165) Bad as the prose of this book is, however, the story it tells is worse. B lair is Thatcher re-born, and like her he is now on the way to winning three elections in a row. Let's hope the parallels keep coming.

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      • More +
        05.07.2001 09:37
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        "My mission is to destroy the Conservative Party" No, that's not what William Hague said when he became leader of the Tories, those were the words of Tony Blair. Sadly, as with many other promises he's made, we're still waiting... Andrew Rawnsley writes the weekly column called Inside Politics in The Observer. It's required reading for anyone with an interest in British politics, which is almost nobody judging by the turn-out at the general election. He is also the current newspaper Columnist of the Year. In Servants of the People, Rawnsley exposes the inside story of New Labour's first term in office. It is based on large amounts of "private information" from sources "close to" the government, including "someone who has an extremely good claim to know the mind of the PM". So that's not Tony Blair then... About Blair's apparent lack of confidence he says that: "his first instinct when confronted with most choices was to blur them." At times this book is quite funny, for example, when the Chancellor made a speech ruling out joining the Euro, Peter Mandelson rang Tony Blur to ask: "Did you authorise this?" To which the PM replied, a la Jim Hacker, "I don't know." There were moments when Blair found his mettle though. There is a lengthy, detailed account of the war in Kosovo, where, in contrast to Bill Clinton who vacillated over the thorny issue of deploying ground troops, Blair adopted an unwavering moral position, and grasped the nettle, declaring "this is shit or bust." The difficult negotiations leading to the Good Friday agreement are also chronicled. Enter Mo Mowlam, the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to tell Ian Paisley to f*** off. Not that she was taking sides you understand, she also told Gerry Adams to f*** off - in Gaelic. Now that's the so rt of even-handed negotiation I can respect! After being elected, Labour had set in motion an American style government machine - more West Wing than Whitehall, the trouble was they weren't all spinning in the same direction... New Labour had been very much the product of the triangular relationship between Blair, Brown and Mandelson. Rawnsley paints a picture of Brown still in a sulk about being gazumped by Blair for the leadership. Brown has his own clique of lackeys (don't they all) and so a battle of attrition quickly developed between two unholy trinities. In the blue corner is: Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell and in the slightly less blue corner: Gordon Brown, Charlie Whelan and Ed Balls - with the two camps bickering like a couple going through a divorce. The childish behaviour in the corridors of power is extraordinary. For example, Mr. & Mrs. Prescott moved into a grace-and-favour apartment previously occupied by the next leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Portillo... (No, I'm not predicting that he's going to win this time, or any time, but whoever wins he'll still be regarded as the next leader!) Anyway, the Prescotts found that a permanent secretary had removed every stick of furniture. So when the same Sir Humphrey (Sir Richard Mottram) subsequently became Two-Jag's permanent secretary, Prezza personally showed him into his new office - which was empty, save for one orange packing crate to sit on. Ah yes, jolly japes and expensive wallpaper, that's government! The Chancellor held the purse strings extremely tightly in the first couple of years of the government. But a politician is a politician is a politician. When the Ministry of Defence urgently required £201m to refit a nuclear submarine before penalty payments were incurred (the Tories had put it off until after the election - I think it's called creative ac countancy) Brown refused... ...until he was told that the refit would be done at Rosyth - which is in his own constituency, and he did a quick volte-face. But then to be successful politician you have to be pragmatic. (Let's hope no-one tells the Tories that, it would spoil all the fun!) "What matters is what works" Tony Blair said before the election. Wrong Tony - what matters is what DOESN'T work. D'Uh! Which brings me to the Millennium Dome fiasco... I can't even begin to tell you how funny the chapter on the Dome is - unbelievably Rawnsley has only allocated six pages to it. There's enough of a farce there for a Tom Sharpe novel. And who do you associate with the Dome? Yep, Peter Mandelson. Dubbed a starf***er by Rupert Murdoch because of the way he loved to socialize with the glitterati, his behaviour is bizarre. When he was accidentally outed by Matthew Parris on Newsnight he tried to barricade himself in the closet by leaning on the BBC. Even more stupidly he chose to keep the loan he obtained from Geoffrey Robinson secret from his friends Blair and Campbell, even though his enemies in the Brown camp knew all about it! Mandy's (first) resignation letter began with the words: "I can scarcely believe I am writing this letter..." Quite amusing when you know that it was actually written by Alistair Campbell! Campbell also composed Ron Davies's resignation letter, who then signed it, apparently without reading it, while he was being interviewed by the police! This book made headlines by revealing that during the brouhaha over Bernie Ecclestone's £1m donation to the Labour Party, Gordon Brown, caught unprepared on the Today programme, told a big fat porky - saying that he knew nothing about it. "They'll get me for this" he screamed at officials, "I lied. If this gets out I'll be destr oyed." It did. He wasn't. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra. The (updated?) paperback version of Servants of the People is due to hit the shops on July 11th.

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        Every new government promises to represent a new dawn, but for New Labour it was the Covenant that Tony Blair made with Britain. The party that won a landslide victory on May Day 1997 made the special claim that it represented a decisive break with the disappointments of the old left and the old right: its Third Way would transcend both. Having fashioned an extraordinarily wide coalition to secure power, New Labour would hold it as Servants of the People.