Nick's Blog

Personal posts on the things I see and do

Posts Tagged ‘Edinburgh International Book Festival

The end of an era?

with one comment

Political relationships are never far from the top of the agenda at the Book Festival. Whilst some bloggers may be quietly pondering the death of political memoirs, they were top of the minds of those politicians, journalists and other interested parties gracing Charlotte Square for the final weekend. By the looks of today’s papers, it was the spark that lit the fuse for the final few days of campaigning in the Labour leadership election.

Polly Toynbee spoke at the Book Festival on Saturday

I recently interview Alistair Darling and Polly Toynbee about their views on the 13 years of New Labour in office that came to end just three months ago. My colleague Neil Pooran blogged on Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s event on Saturday. But another two political heavyweights were vying for pole position in the battle to define the Brown-Blair years this weekend.

On Saturday, it was the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley, described by chair Iain Macwhirter as a man who knew Tony Blair “better than he did himself.” Rawnsley is a man of tremendous political pedigree, and his recent The End of the Party is seen as a key contribution to the memory of New Labour, not least because it was published in the midst of the election campaign.

Rawnsley, as the paper’s Chief Political Commentator, offers a fantastic insight into the relationships behind closed doors in Downing Street. He has often been seen as a staunch support of Tony Blair and an ardent critic of his successor- at one point Macwhirther offers the a description of his colleague as “Tony Blair’s bitch.” Yet he was content to go into detail of Brown’s achievements. Had a snap election been called in 2007, Brown likely have won after his reaction to floods which devastated the country. The banks, he said, would have collapsed had Brown and Darling not “saved us” by winning over international leaders- not least Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy- to their interventionist plan. This, he believes, was Brown’s best moment and impressed a number of top civil servants even if it was questioned by the electorate.

But he also described the “two sides” of Brown- a man with intense moral conviction but often treating his colleagues “atrociously.” As prime minister, Rawnsley said, he did not have the presentation or interpersonal skills that helped Blair succeed. Waiting for the top job entrenched Brown’s character flaws and made him increasingly anti-Blair, to a point where this was what defined him rather than any ideas for positive change. By the time Brown did get the top job, he “didn’t really know what to do.”

Arguing that it is impossible to fully understand the workings of government without appreciating the relationships of those within it, Rawnsley said the complimentary talents of Brown and Blair that had served the party well in its first term had became a problem from then on. However damaging the timing of the book’s release may have been for Labour, he maintains that he had the support of a number of cabinet ministers, many of whom helped him with their accounts of the tumultuous relationships in Labour’s old guard.

Little mention, however, of the so called third man, bar one reference to his book as a slippery account of “the truth.” His opportunity would come the following day.

Peter Mandelson’s eagerly anticipated session was intensely personal, with the former Business secretary admitting to being bruised and broken before his 2008 return to the cabinet. “Needing to be wanted”, he said, led to his reconciliation with Brown when he returned from political exile to eventually become the most influential member of his inner-circle.

The two had been separated by the diving lines of the Blair-Brown rows, the former being a staunch ally of the prime minister. Mandelson, in typically personal fashion, claimed that he had tried to nurse Brown through the pain of not being the party’s leader. It was, he said, “personal and brutal on his [Brown’s] part.”

Like Rawnsley, he was happy to talk about the intensely bitter relationship between the prime minister and chancellor after 1997. Brown had a physical need to row with his boss according to Mandelson, thinking that he would be better at the job, Mandelson said. He was egged one by supporters, notably Ed Milliband who Mandelson allegedly sees as a potentially disastrous leader, which made the situation worse. This was not a sole characteristic of the labour government- it had plagued Thatcher towards the end of her reign as prime minister, he said.

And again similarly to Rawnsley, he said that the two had complimentary talents. Blair was the great communicator who was intuitive and knew how to deal with the public, Brown was the ideas man who “got all the policies right.”

As is described in his book, The Third Man, Blair considered moving Brown to the Foreign Office as a result of this relationship breakdown, but feared doing so would cause a Brown led backbench revolt. Mandelson, however, says it would have been a “risk worth taking”- Brown would not have wanted to bring the government down and thus risk his chance of eventually becoming PM. With Brown remaining chancellor, Mandelson said, the country would ultimately have been better had he taken the reigns of power earlier, as was agreed with Blair.

The Third Man provides an insight into Mandelson's relationships with Blair and Brown

However insightful Mandelson’s accounts of government are it is hard to escape his personal tales, littered with his own sensitivities. He discussed his relationship with the Milliband’s (at one point quirking that Ed should have called his son Peter as a testimony to their closeness) and his regrets at not having more time to develop his policies at the department for trade and industry. He was hurt that his chances of becoming foreign secretary were effectively ended after he resigned from the cabinet in 2001 (despite rumours to the contrary in 2009) and admitted to being “ultimately unfulfilled” by his time in government. In an apt ending, in response to an audience question, he described the term Mandelsonian (does it exist?) as “subtle, strategic, hard-working and ultimately very loyal.”

However important these accounts of the past decade are, the contributions at the book festival seem to agree that the New Labour mentality is the only way for the party to succeed. These may be discussions of past issues, but they are likely to play a central role in the future politics of Britain.