The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A terrific, and detailed book, about the second and third terms of “New Labour” led by Tony Blair, and then by Gordon Brown. This book is a follow-up to the author’s “Servants of the People” look at the first term of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, and “New Labour.”
Like the first book the central theme remains the constant political warfare between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and how that impacted the governing of the Labor government. Of course the events they were dealing with in the second and third terms included Blair’s politically misguided Iraq war decisions, which the author covers in detail. That detail is not kind to Prime Minister Blair, nor should it be. Gordon Brown does not fare much better, and is shown in the worst light, both as a Chancellor constantly trying to push Blair towards the exit, and as the Prime Minister when he finally got Blair to go.
As British political history goes this book is invaluable. Tony Blair led Labour to three general election victories, and although Brown was often credited as the political mastermind of those victories it is quite apparent that Blair should have gotten a much larger share of the credit. When Blair exited the entire apparatus fell apart, although his Iraq decision played some role in the ultimate demise of “New Labour.” The constant battles between Blair and Brown were in many cases centered on policy, but the author shows us a conniving Brown using policy to try to try to undercut his own Prime Minister. Fairly or not the view has always been that Blair was more flash and spin than substance and detail, but I never bought that line entirely. Without a doubt Blair used media to hype, and yes, to spin, press coverage. But he knew his brief, and showed that knowledge during Prime Minister’s Questions, where he frequently made short work of the Tory Leader. The author sticks to that theme here, pointing to the Blair tendency to gloss over detail while embracing “vision.” It was observed by Sir Robin Butler that:
“the attitude of Tony Blair and New Labour was that it was their job to have the concept. They would define the New Jerusalem. It was the civil service’s job to get there. So if one failed to achieve everything that the Government wanted, this was somehow the fault of the technicians, the civil service. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Objectives require resources, organisations, discussions about capacity.”
Rawnsley, Andrew. The End of the Party (p. 288). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
“What Blair lacked was a sustained interest in the mechanics of delivery. ‘He latched on to issues,’ observes Sir Stephen Wall. ‘But he didn’t have a really determined follow-through.’49 Margaret Jay coined a phrase for the boredom in Blair’s eyes when he was forced to listen to the ‘nitty gritty’ of policy. She called it ‘the garden look’. His ‘gaze would shift’ and look longingly through the window and out into the back garden of Number 10.”
Rawnsley, Andrew. The End of the Party (p. 289). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
The author covers the Iraq debacle at some length, and shows what I have always believed to be Blair’s true motivation: his desire to maintain the “special relationship” with the U.S., at all costs, and to be the “bridge” between Europe and George W. Bush. Blair believed he could influence the Bush Administration Iraq policy by proximity to the President, but his hopes in that regard were dashed by Bush (and Cheney and Rumsfeld.) The power in that relationship was obviously disproportionately in Bush’s favor, but the author speculates that Bush, as always, was underestimated politically by the British.
“Bush was a politician of some skill. This was rarely noticed by most people in Europe and wholly forgotten later when Bush became such a discredited figure. Yet it was true. Blair was once asked by a colleague: ‘What do you see in Bush?’ Blair responded: ‘He’s got charm and peasant cunning.’ This was a potent combination when allied with the most powerful office in the world. ‘I think Bush genuinely liked Blair,’ says Meyer. ‘But he used Blair.’ ‘Bush was a very artful politician,’ agrees another senior official. ‘Blair thought he was running the relationship, but he was being run.’ At Crawford and subsequently, Bush out-Blaired Blair. The Prime Minister thought he could ride the tiger; he ended up inside its stomach.”
Rawnsley, Andrew. The End of the Party (pp. 95-96). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Blair’s decisions on Iraq have had an outsized influence on British politics since, impacting the Labor Party and the entire system in ways still felt to this very day. Blair’s record will always have that monumental error on it, but he had plenty of substantial achievements as P.M. as well, including the Good Friday Agreement, which is also still playing a major role in British politics as Brexit negotiations continually founder on the issue of the Irish “backstop.” Blair proved himself, over the longer term, to be a vastly superior politician than Brown, whose tenure as P.M. had some shining moments, but was in many respects a continual train wreck. Rawnsley covers the Brown premiership in sometimes excruciating detail. Brown’s inability to make decisions, and then to make bad decisions when he got around to execution, is covered very well. Brown’s decision making process was neatly summed up by political observer Sue Cameron, who said:
“When John Major was in Number 10 and there was a big decision to be taken, he would order papers and he would read through them, often quite late into the night. The next morning, he’d make a decision. When Blair was in Number 10, he’d tell his civil servants to read the papers and give him a shortlist of options and in the morning he’d make a decision. With Gordon, he sends for the papers, he reads them late into the night and then the next morning he sends for more papers.”
Rawnsley, Andrew. The End of the Party (p. 524). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Brown ended up losing to a Conservative Leader who seemed to emulate Tony Blair, David Cameron. He seemed, after the fact, and maybe a little before the fact, to become aware of some of his own shortcomings as P.M. Brown was, and is, a very smart man, but he spent a career trying to push Tony Blair out of the P.M. job. When he finally got the crown he found that the job was a little harder than he thought. Some real irony in the fact that Brown, as P.M., had trouble with a Chancellor who would not buy into his program. I am sure Tony Blair found that irony more than a little satisfying. Great book, highly recommended.