Excellent inside sources illuminate a fascinating story of electoral triumph, illegal war, and internal chaos.
For Labour Party supporters, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. On May 1, 1997, the British electorate all but crushed the ruling Conservative Party, which had held office for 18 years and had become what one major newspaper called the most venal and mendacious British government of the preceding century. Seven Tory Cabinet Ministers lost their seats, no Tory won in Scotland or Wales, and large parts of the southern English Tory heartlands fell to Labour.
This Labour victory, unlike the Party's sweeping win in 1945, was not based on the promise of a country genuinely for ordinary people, with hugely expanded public institutions and a first-class public health service. Instead, it resulted from voters' bitter resentment towards a Tory party which stood for finance capital, greed, and little else, and which had gone deeply against the grain of a modern social democracy by privatising major public bodies, selling them off cheaply in a process which was openly called theft. At the next election, in 2001, Labour won another huge majority, despite serious problems. These included the leaders' obsession with tabloid headlines, with spin amounting to mendacity, and a contempt for institutions which included traducing the parliamentary oversight function by bullying Labour MPs to reveal select committees' questions in advance. Other problems occurred over the leaders' cravenness to big business, which caused several episodes of sleaze or near-sleaze, such as the flirtations with the Hinduja brothers, who may have been trying to evade prosecution in India. On the credit side, major constitutional promises had been honoured. Labour had created the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, had incorporated most of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, and had had an unexpected triumph with the U.S.-brokered peace agreement in Northern Ireland. For ordinary voters, there was a prospect of substantial attempts to redeem two decades of Tory underfunding in the public services. Labour were set to continue winning elections, an unaccustomed position for them.
In a fast-paced book, Andrew Rawnsley, the chief political correspondent of The Observer, covers the next nine years of government by Labour, or, as it called itself until even its leaders realised that the emperor's clothes had fallen off, New Labour (Andrew Rawnsley, The End of the Party; the rise and fall of New Labour, London: Viking Penguin, 2010). The defining issue is the Iraq invasion. Using excellent inside sources, Rawnsley shows how Prime Minister Tony Blair committed the United Kingdom to aiding the U.S. in war. Mr. Blair did not provide the Cabinet with all the documents he himself used, rejected a last-minute chance offered by George W. Bush to withdraw, and then lied to the electorate, to Parliament, and to his Cabinet that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was an immediate threat to the United Kingdom if not the whole world.
Mr. Rawnsley also shows how Mr. Blair was used by Mr. Bush, who was even more cunning than Mr. Blair. Mr. Blair thought that he was the only leader who could restrain Mr. Bush and his messianic neocons, and that he could build a bridge between the U.S. and Europe; but that was soon “sawn away at both ends of the Atlantic,” and Mr. Blair had no influence on the U.S., which also drove a very hard bargain with the U.K. over steel tariffs. Mr. Blair, however, has not changed; he recently told the Iraq Inquiry in London that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, and that Iran is now posing the same kind of threat as Iraq had allegedly done.
The failure of institutions of the British state — the Cabinet and civil service, and above all Parliament — to stop the Iraq war crime is only tangentially indicated by Mr. Rawnsley. In 1997, the Labour Party had been demoralised by four successive election defeats and was terrified of an overwhelmingly right-wing written press. The simple-majority electoral system had divided the consistent 60 per cent opposition to the Tories, thereby delivering Tory governments for about 70 years in the preceding century, and the Labour MP Bernie Grant reputedly said, “We've had the stuffing knocked out of us.” Mr. Blair and the cabal around him had set their sights on winning above all, but once in government continued to behave like an opposition. Furthermore, to the dismay of supporters at every level, they intensified one Tory policy after another.
As the Labour Party's membership and highly-federalised structure withered and as the trade unions — which had founded the Party and are still its main funders — distanced themselves from the main policies, the leaders' personalities became decisive factors. Mr. Rawnsley shows how their inevitable flaws made for a series of débâcles. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was progressively more embittered over Mr. Blair's repeated reneging on promises to stand down so that Mr. Brown could take over. Even in New Labour's first term, Mr. Brown controlled the domestic landscape by controlling the budget, and thereafter the relation between Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown reminded insiders of a marriage in serious trouble. Mr. Blair, never good at personal confrontations or detail, knew he needed Mr. Brown; Mr. Brown, never as good with people as Mr. Blair and far better on major economic issues than at making the rapid and varied decisions which confront a Prime Minister, knew he needed Mr. Blair. Yet he destroyed Mr. Blair's plan to take the U.K. into the European Single Currency and possibly ended any foreseeable prospect of an informed British debate on the European Union. Paranoid manoeuvrings, spinnings and counter-spinnings, and raging rows occurred all the time, but both protagonists always retreated before the government disintegrated.
Another person to dominate much of Mr. Blair's time in office was the former tabloid journalist Alastair Campbell, whose past included a “drink-fuelled psychotic breakdown.” Mr. Campbell's world was constituted by tabloid headlines, and his loyalty to Mr. Blair was absolute. He had enormous power in Mr. Blair's entourage, and insiders wondered whether Mr. Blair or Mr. Campbell was the boss. Mr. Campbell finally left some months after Mr. Blair chaired the inner-circle meeting where the decision was made to leak the name of the former U.N. weapons inspector David Kelly, who had told a BBC journalist that the infamous Iraq dossier had been “sexed up”; the leak resulted in Dr. Kelly's apparent suicide after ferocious publicity and a parliamentary committee grilling.
More recently, the Blair-Brown transition and Mr. Brown's domestic struggles — which contrast with his authority and decisiveness on the international stage when the world financial crisis started in 2007 and 2008 — reveal a government in near-chaos, without a single coherent idea, and unaware of how the voters feel about the destruction of their jobs, their pensions, and their children's futures, not to mention how they feel about unregulated bankers who have been saved by nearly a trillion pounds of taxpayers' money. Yet Mr. Rawnsley says little about substantive policy, about Labour's unseen achievements in doing a great deal, quietly so as not to wake the tabloids, for the substantial numbers of children in poverty after 18 Tory years. He says nothing about the money put into the public services routinely used by all but a tiny fraction of the public — an important omission, because vast amounts of the money went only into creating a target-obsessed managerialist régime in which former bus-company bosses run major hospitals, in which finance officers tell surgeons which operations to perform, and in which dozens of inspectorates intimidate dedicated front-line staff. Mr. Rawnsley also omits the unrestrained use of the Private Finance Initiative for capital projects, whereby the state indemnifies private corporations against all manner of documented waste, incompetence, and failure, and he says nothing about New Labour's introduction of reams of repressive legislation, some of which has been badly abused by central and local government.
Mr. Rawnsley is nevertheless always absorbing, and he closes with (New) Labour in tatters over the MPs' expenses scandal but before Tory troubles started over the tax status of their own deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft. The public-service cuts Tories love are also yet to bite; British universities alone face cuts of £600 million in the next two years. At the time of writing, opinion polls point to a hung Parliament, and even a possible Labour win. The most venal, mendacious, and repressive British government in over a century could be rescued by an electorate they have treated with contempt. Seldom can the Labour Party have deserved it less. Labour Party? What Labour Party?