Andrew Rawnsley, the author of the investigative bestseller about the Blair-Brown years, looks forward to the General Election with Standpoint's columnist Nick Cohen and the Editor, Daniel Johnson
Daniel Johnson: Just supposing that this isn’t the end of the party, and Labour contrives, somehow or another, to deprive the Tories of a working majority, will that vindicate Gordon Brown, or do you stand by the harsh judgment, Andrew, that you’ve passed in your book [The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour (Penguin, £25)]?
Andrew Rawnsley: I have to say there are positive judgments about Brown in the book as well. But no, I think it was always going to be very difficult in our system to win a fourth term. Only one party’s done that in modern times — the Tories in 1992 — and that wasn’t a great advertisement for what happens. I think one of the crucial moments in the New Labour project was when Blair was going and they had to decide how they were going to renew. Although there were all sorts of obvious reasons why Brown would be his successor — his heft, his experience, his organisation, the fact that most of his colleagues were completely terrified of him — I think at the very least they should have had a contest.
Looking back, not only do I think, but a lot of members of that Cabinet think, that if you were really going to renew New Labour, there’s a really strong argument that you needed to move on from both Blair and Brown, and they could be in a different position now had they seized that renewal moment.
DJ: Nick, there’s a very good line which Andrew quotes in the book by Frank Field where he talks about not letting Mrs Rochester out of the attic. This is at the point of the succession. Has Brown proved to be as bad as that? Is there something profoundly irrational about this?
Nick Cohen: I have to say I was quite shocked reading Andrew’s book. You think you know a bit — well, you think you know a lot as a journalist — but I was quite shocked about how dysfunctional British government has become and I was wondering whether anything you found out when you were researching this genuinely shocked you, and if so, what was it? Has anything made you shrink back and say, Good Lord, is this how this country is supposed to work?
AR: Yes, some of the stories of total paranoia. I uncovered a story which was both deeply heartbreaking and profoundly shocking: after the death of Brown’s baby daughter, Jennifer, Tony Blair goes to the funeral and he and Brown are quite warm together, and they, for a brief moment, recapture some of the old closeness they’d once had. Then the Browns come back to Downing Street after mourning their lost child and things get really much worse. One reason they get worse is because of the living arrangements in Downing Street, which meant little Leo’s pram would be visible to the Browns, parked outside the Prime Minister’s flat door on Downing Street. Gordon Brown became convinced, and I have this from enough sources to be sure that it is true, that the Blairs were doing this to him deliberately, to remind him that they had what he’d lost — which is extraordinary. It might very well have been insensitive of them, but I’ve found no evidence that they’d done this with malicious intent.
That level of paranoia is absolutely extraordinary, and I was told by someone I absolutely trust — a member of the Cabinet — that he was still going on about this, “the Blairs being so cruel to me”, as he put it, five years afterwards. So yes, that did shock me. Some people have said I do too much personality in this book, but I do a lot of policy analysis — at least I think I do — as well. Especially with this New Labour project, where the personalities have been so key, especially their relationships with each other — this extraordinary triangle between Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson and with other extraordinary and dysfunctional personalities like Alistair Campbell being added to the mix. Personality has mattered hugely. It has mattered more so because time and time again the cabinet has been a cipher, whether it’s been on the Iraq war, or decisions on the euro, and so that means the flaws, and the strengths, of the personalities at the very top matter even more because there is no restraint of Cabinet government.
NC: I’m not surprised filmmakers keep going for Blair, and I’m sure they’ll keep going back to this period for material. Looking at the Labour government from 1997 to 2010, you’d say that these personalities could not work together. You’ve got Brown undermining Blair, doing supposedly left-wing things, not because he believes in them but because he thinks it’s not what Blair wants him to do. Then you have Brown in power, and to me, more shocking than the bullying, is how nothing gets done. Brown just sits there, like this great spider at the centre of a web, wrapping all his ministers up like flies, and not letting them move or act until he’s gone through every detail. Over the whole period — and they have achieved great things — it does look like a very strange way to govern a country.
AR: At the beginning, neither Blair nor Brown would have achieved as much individually as they did together. There was a lot of synergy because they are quite different people: Blair, the master of communication, Brown better at detail, as long as he didn’t analyse himself into a paralysis. Brown probably better at rousing the believers and preaching to the choir, Blair better at reaching out to the unconverted. Some senior civil servants told me, that at their best they had complementary skills, and this was how they wiped the Tories, who had been a very hegemonic party, off the map; they were pretty much unstoppable. But as time goes on they just became consumed by this struggle, which has some but not a great deal of ideological content, and much more to do with personal ambition and, particularly, one man’s resentment that he is not Prime Minister and somebody else is. As time goes on they become less than the sum of their parts, and they could have achieved more but didn’t, because of this battle.
Brown had a very privileged position in many ways. He had ten years to think about what he’d like to do as Prime Minister, he had a year’s notice that there was going to be a vacancy — Blair announced he was off in the autumn before the following June — and he had a smoother transition than most Prime Ministers have. Really interestingly, some hardcore Brownites say that this book is the product of resentful Blairites letting off steam to me, but actually it’s not. The most revealing and often startling stuff you get is from talking to people who were very close to the person you’re talking about, namely Brown himself. I’ve talked to people who have been close to Brown for years and one of them said to me that one of the shocks for them was that when he finally got the premiership there didn’t appear to be any plan, as you say. As one source says to me in the book, “We had a plan for the transition but we didn’t have a plan for government.” I think that’s partly because Brown had spent so long trying to define himself and position himself within the Labour party as anti-Blair, that he hadn’t thought what it would be to be Brown. Then, he never made up his mind as to the extent that his premiership was going to be a rupture with Blair, or a sequel to it. He was torn.
The Brownites held Blair, I think, in unfair contempt and they always saw him as just totally lightweight, not much more than a breakfast TV presenter — they underestimated Blair. On the other hand, Brown was acutely conscious of Blair’s success and as somebody else said to me, all the time there was this voice nagging in Gordon’s ear — Tony’s voice — saying: “if you want to be successful you’ve got to be like me”. Brown never got his own head around how much he was a sequel to Blair or a change or a renewal, and he was basically crippled by that for the first year of his premiership. He was actually somewhat rescued when the financial crisis hit and he latched on to that to give himself a sense of purpose.
NC: It seems odd that he’s been rescued by that, and I agree to an extent that he has been. But I was stunned by your account of him going into the Treasury, when he doesn’t have what sensible Tories who know how finance works and all Social Democrats used to have — that is, some idea that high finance and the banks, if left to their own devices, can run riot and bring the roof down. It seems to me from your account — and I’m sure it’s true if we go back and think about what he did — that by 1997 he’d lost his wary instincts. As the boom goes on and on and on, as is the normal way in bubbles, he starts thinking it will be different this time, it will be OK. He was like that right from the start.
AR: I wouldn’t say quite from the start. In his first four or five years he wins the plaudits of the markets because he really clamps down on public spending, and in the period of 1999 spending as a proportion of GDP almost falls to a post-war low because they stick to Ken Clarke’s corset. Although he does that and wins some plaudits from the City it’s actually a very scratchy relationship with the City. One thing you have to say about Brown is that, unlike Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson who like money and the company of the monied, he’s not very interested in money. He recoiled in horror once, when someone asked him whether he’d try buying a national lottery ticket. I think Brown gets seduced by two things: He becomes seduced and to a certain extent buys into the City’s own propaganda about itself, so after that first five years of being rather scratchy he starts to want to be associated with the financial sector because he thinks it’s really successful. So he opens the new headquarters of Lehman’s and he opens the new headquarters of HBOS in Edinburgh, both banks which later went bust. He also, looking for economic legitimacy, associates himself very much with Alan Greenspan. In the book I quote Andrew Gowers, the then editor of the Financial Times, saying you couldn’t have a conversation with Gordon Brown without, within five minutes — and I’ve had the same experience myself — him going on about what a great man Alan Greenspan was. And Greenspan, of course, was the father of the bubble.
Brown’s intellectual mistake, and he wasn’t the only one, to be fair, was to buy into this new paradigm that somehow we had the nirvana of low inflation, low unemployment and permanent growth, which was actually built on this huge leverage of debt. There were a select minority of people, like Warren Buffett and Vince Cable, who were warning of the risk, but nobody, once the party was going, wanted to take away the punch bowl. Gordon Brown didn’t, because it was producing revenues which you could spend on nice Labour things like health and education, so nobody wanted to ask the question either.
DJ: How is it that this man who was the ultimate control freak ended up being so beholden to everyone around him? He’s actually become quite a weak Prime Minister who relies heavily on Mandelson and various other allies. I wondered whether it was the economic crisis that did that to him.
AR: I think it’s a really good point. Why was he such a strong Chancellor, so strong that he could defy at will the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair? Constantly sabotaging him and getting to the point where he would point-blank refuse to tell the Prime Minister what was in the Budgets, which when you look back seems extraordinary. I spoke to a chief executive of a company the other day and he said that if his finance director refused to share the quarterly results with him and the rest of the board they simply wouldn’t put up with it. But Blair did put up with it. He put up with it to the point where he was so desperate he got John Prescott to come into a room with him and Brown, and Prescott sat there and said: “For Christ’s sake Gordon, he’s the f***ing Prime Minister, you’ve got to tell him what’s in the f***ing budget.” — and Gordon still wouldn’t. His own civil servants were saying “it’s ridiculous, you can’t treat the Prime Minister like that”.
One reason for this is that our political system gives an enormous amount of power to the Chancellor, especially if he is a strong personality like Brown. You have the power over a lot of information, you have a lot of power over money, and Brown used the Chancellorship not only to control the budgets of other departments, but also to second-guess them on policy development. I can remember sitting in the Treasury, towards the end of his time, waiting to see a minister for a chat, and one of the nice reception ladies beetled over and said, “Are you here, Mr Rawnsley, for the youth crime summit?” We’re in the Treasury and you’d think, hold on, youth crime? Shouldn’t that be at the Justice Department or the Home Office? But sure enough, shortly afterwards a great gaggle of people — about 25 of them — arrive for a youth crime summit at the Treasury. It was a government within a government.
At the time, the Prime Minister — contrary to one of the myths of the Blair years — and Number 10 were quite weak. Blair got frustrated by this, but never really cracked it. He would have one adviser on, say, Trade and Industry. Well, Gordon Brown, if he wanted to, could put 20 civil servants into a unit on Trade and Industry. Oddly enough, I think when he then moved from all that power in the Treasury to the Prime Minister’s Office, partly also because he was overwhelmed by the very different demands on the Prime Minister, he suddenly found that he wasn’t in control of all the money, that Darling now had control of the money. That was much more difficult for him.
NC: Is it fair to say that one reason why we’re in such a mess now is precisely because, as you were saying, the Treasury wasn’t doing its job? It wasn’t doing its job in controlling public spending, or in regulating the markets, because Brown was off trying to do the work of the Home Office or International Development Department. Also, if you look at how public spending got out of control, is that because Brown didn’t want to be too tough on public spending in the boom years because it might lessen his appeal as a future Labour leader and increase the likelihood of a contender arising?
AR: Yes, I think both are true. I talked to Sir Steve Robson, who was a very senior civil servant at the Treasury under Gordon, and generally a great admirer of his, but he said to me that he didn’t think Brown was interested in financial regulation. Once he’d set up his new system after 1997, because he was so powerful, his priorities shaped those of the civil servants around him. The things he was interested in — global poverty, child poverty, welfare reform — civil servants became interested in, because that’s what the master was interested in. Gordon wasn’t interested in financial regulation so they didn’t take much interest either. Meanwhile, the Bank of England was taking less interest, especially once Mervyn King turned up, because Mervyn’s forte was the control of inflation, not financial regulation — he’s an academic, not a markets’ man — and they’d been weakened anyway because their powers had been deliberately diluted. So everybody started to ignore systemic risk and not scrutinise it properly.
One of the extraordinary things is how few war games they ever did on this, and when they did, nobody acted on any of the dangers that came out of them. Everybody bought into this Greenspan consensus and of course the longer the bubble went on, the more Gordon could say no more boom and bust and everybody bought into it, including the Tories — remember their first economic policy was predicated on endless growth, to share the proceeds of growth. So although they ridiculed it when it all went bust, the Tories bought it as well.
NC: The second point is, it does strike me that the Conservatives have a very strong point when they insist that at the end of the longest boom in capitalist history the budgets at least ought to balance, for God’s sake. But I was wondering, do you think Brown by the end was just so desperate to be leader and fight an uncontested election that he didn’t want to start restraining spending, or raising interest rates in his final years as Chancellor, because that might weaken his position to be uncontested leader?
AR: Yes, there are two legs to it. We hit that low of 36 per cent of GDP in 1999 and then spending starts going up, they open the taps a bit, particularly at the beginning of the second term, for things like the NHS. The first phase of public spending takes it from the near post-war low of 36.3 per cent to a higher 41.3 per cent in 2005/6 and it is basically level to 2007/8. I think that’s fair enough, because that’s basically what Labour had been elected to do: spend more on social justice and public services. The big mistake, which meant we weren’t very well placed to cope with the crunch when it came was after that, which you’re right, he times to coincide with his premiership — it was done to get his premiership off to a great start. That is what proved to be the big mistake and why we’re stuck with a big problem. He hated anybody who ever pointed it out. There was an embarrassing scene when some FT journalists had been questioning his policies and Gordon goes absolutely bonkers with them at a private breakfast.
DJ: Can we also talk about the war and foreign policy because this was not, famously, what Brown wanted New Labour to be about, it was very much Blair’s thing. Yet, in a sense Brown, too, as you suggested over Greenspan, always looked to America for his models, was intellectually rather dependent on them. You’re very critical of the way Blair became dependent on Bush in the book, but the fact that both these men have found themselves in the same position suggests there wasn’t really a very obvious alternative. Would a Conservative Prime Minister have done any different?
AR: Well, I am critical of Blair, but no, I don’t think the Conservatives would have handled things differently. Like Nick, I was a supporter of the war at the time but even if you were and can still muster arguments for it you cannot avoid recognising the terrible mistakes that we made. One thing people consistently got wrong about Blair, especially on the Left, was that he was a poodle to Bush — he was the opposite of this. If anything, Blair was too ready to join the project, although he had to mask this to an extent: as he was manoeuvring his party and his country towards backing the invasion he didn’t lay out proper conditions for British participation. Now you can say Bush might have turned round and said “we don’t need the British anyway”, and this was what frightened Blair. He thought that if he had shown a scintilla of hesitation, Bush would have dumped him and gone off and done it on his own. But do remember, Colin Powell was saying to Bush that the US needed allies and if they didn’t have the British as allies they wouldn’t get anybody else. There are loads of other people, William Cohen, Condoleezza Rice, saying that Blair giving such instinctive support after 9/11 had put a lot of credit in the bank with the American people — he’s one of those rare British Prime Ministers, Thatcher and Churchill are others, who have name recognition almost as instant as their own president’s. So he had a lot of credit with them, a lot of credit with both Democrats and Republicans and one of my criticisms of him is that he never parlayed that into anything.
He failed to be absolutely sure, for instance, that Bush had a proper post-war plan, before he signed up. As a result, his own senior foreign policy adviser and his own ambassador in Washington basically concluded that the Americans took the British for granted. Post-war, I’m afraid, when it was clearly all going wrong, he was never really prepared to eyeball Bush and say, “George, it’s time to face up to the consequences of our actions.” Iraq was spiralling into this awful, bloody mess and we weren’t adjusting policy quickly enough to do anything about it. I’m afraid it’s a temperament thing. One thing Tony hated doing, whether it was with foreign leaders, Gordon Brown or reshuffles, was personal confrontation. He didn’t work that way, he believed in charming engagement to get underneath other people’s defences. Now that can often work but when it came to Bush it was no good. He could never read the Riot Act to Bush, and he should have done, especially when things were clearly going horribly wrong after the war.
NC: Where do you think the combination of Blair and Brown leaves the Labour Party? Let’s start with foreign policy, because it’s hugely unfashionable to say this at the moment but Blair was probably the most idealistic, and in some ways the most left-wing Labour leader there has ever been. He wanted to stop oppression, he wanted to overthrow tyrants, whether it was Milosevic or Saddam Hussein or the Taliban…
AR:…Or the Burmese junta. I admired that in him. I shared his frustration because I’m a liberal interventionist — not that you can do it everywhere but if you can’t do it everywhere that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it somewhere. Milosevic probably would have got away with it had it not been for Blair. In Sierra Leone, he’s a hero because his liberal interventionism worked there.
NC: What I’m asking is, because of Iraq, where does that leave, if you like, a liberal foreign policy?
AR: That is the terrible legacy of Iraq, and it made Tony Blair into both the best advocate of liberal interventionism and the worst. I believe in liberal interventionism and if you can get rid of dictators who are menacing their neighbours or perpetrating the worst horrors against their own populations, I’m quite in favour of taking the opportunity. The problem is that Iraq was so badly done, was such a catastrophe, that it is going to be very hard for the next generation of political leaders to make the case for intervention.
DJ: But it wasn’t a total catastrophe. They have just had another election now.
AR: That many people did not need to die, and wouldn’t have done, had the post-war planning been done properly.
DJ: I’m sure that’s true. But didn’t everyone, including Blair’s critics — and that includes Brown — underestimate what we were up against there? The Islamist uprising and the support they were getting from across the Muslim world was much greater than we reckoned.
AR: But I think we should have reckoned, mea culpa. I’ll take my responsibility as a journalist, I think journalism collectively was poor in asking enough questions about that and making too many assumptions — that the Americans and the British alongside them could do something as big as change the regime in a country with a population of 20 million people, that we would have thought properly about what we were going to do in the aftermath. Actually, it shouldn’t have been underestimated. Jack Straw took an expert from the Foreign Office, Dr Michael Williams, along with him to one briefing with Tony Blair, and Dr Williams gave him a pretty detailed briefing on the sectarian tensions, the ethnic and religious tensions within Iraq, and why, given our history in that part of the world, America and Britain might not be terribly popular as occupiers. Blair just waved him off, “Well that’s all history Mike, we’re talking about the future.” I think he and Bush were both far too blasé about that.
General Mike Jackson, who was head of the army at the time, had a very useful doctrine: the doctrine of 100 days. If you’re going to do this, you have about 100 days, not to establish a democracy, but to establish the rule of law, to make people feel safe and secure and to deliver basic services such as water and electricity. A lot of that post-war confidence was lost in that 100 days, because Rumsfeld and Franks disastrously tried to do it with too few troops and nobody had any plan. Blair has to accept some — not all — but some of the responsibility for that.
DJ: Do you not think that, from the longer perspective of history, bringing democracy to Iraq and at least preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan — and we still don’t know the outcome of that conflict — will nonetheless be judged more kindly than they are right now?
AR: Iraq’s a better place now than it would have been in the continuation of dictatorship of Saddam and his sons, absolutely. I never thought the anti-war people had all the moral arguments because they didn’t.
NC: I’m very interested in where the British Left goes. Now, in foreign policy, it strikes me as a huge change not that people opposed the second Iraq war, but that, not just on the far-Left but even in the liberal mainstream, there is no feeling that you have to give support to those people in Iraq who’ve had 35 years of fascism. Al-Qaeda, a force that is from liberal nightmares, which is killing academics, which is killing trade unionists-you get no recognition of that anywhere now. That’s why I’m quite worried about where liberal foreign policy goes after Labour gets out. It strikes me that liberalism is becoming if not little-England conservatism then little-Europe conservatism: we will build our Fortress Europe and we will keep our welfare states, and we won’t intervene to help other people around the world.
DJ: So you think the Left is drawing the wrong conclusions?
NC: Yes, a lot of people on the Left and liberals sound like paleo-conservatives in America or Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, and Simon Jenkins-type conservatives in Britain. There’s very little difference between them.
AR: People who would have let the slaughter go on in the Balkans or Rwanda, or as we have in the Congo. At least five million people have died in the civil war in the Congo, and you hardly ever read about it, you hardly ever see it on the television screens and we’re doing nothing.
NC: Strangely enough, in America, there was a huge movement about Darfur — on the Left and Right. George Clooney was involved, black churches were involved. But in Britain and Europe we heard very little about Darfur. Mainly you get endless pieces in the liberal press saying it’s not really genocide.
AR: Blair was right when he talked about a million people dying in Rwanda and we sat around in the West and did nothing about it. We are going to have to have a re-examination of this because, Nick’s right, although Iraq’s been terrible for the cause, does that mean you get a Tory isolationism plus a Left that doesn’t want to do anything about it? We just wash our hands of the most appalling acts being perpetrated around the world?
DJ: That’s the poisonous combination we had in the 1930s.
NC: It’s going to be more than that. With the rise of radicalism certainly, with Russia possibly, it’s not just that we sit here and decide whether we intervene or not as if we are all-powerful Westerners. There might be people coming for us, what then do we do about it? It strikes me that if you don’t have liberal reasons to help Muslims who are being oppressed by radical Islamists, then we are in trouble. What I wanted to ask was what happens if Labour and Brown form the next government? What would that government be like?
AR: It still looks unlikely, I’d say, but it’s no longer completely outlandish, which means I might just have to adjust the title of this book.
NC: You could just say it’s got a long shelf-life, keep it on the bookshelves until 2015.
AR: There are two scenarios. Scenario number one: Labour is the biggest party, but hasn’t got a majority. Can it do a deal with the LibDems? Very difficult for the Liberal Democrats. It might be sellable to the party by their leadership if they could say, “OK, but Labour’s going to have a new leader, this one’s being rejected.” Although that could work as a neat Westminster deal, the logistics are fantastically hard to pull off, not least the problem of Gordon saying, “Well, I’m not going actually because I’m the leader of the largest party.” The Liberals have not been in power since Lloyd George, and their first taste of power would be doing swingeing public spending cuts. That would be terribly, terribly difficult for them.
Scenario number two: let’s just say there’s this most remarkable recovery since Lazarus and Brown’s back in Number 10, we assume with a very small majority. It’s going to be amazingly tough for a government with that small a majority to deliver big-time public spending cuts — tough for whoever gets in. None of the parties is being honest yet about what that’s going to feel like. We’ve not had cuts like these since 1945, they’re going to be more severe than anything Margaret Thatcher did and they lie to you — all of them — when they say they can do it from efficiency savings — they cannot, it’s going to hurt frontline services. Some people on the Left, certainly a lot of Tories might think, a bit of schadenfreude, how wonderful it would be to watch Gordon Brown having to clean up his own mess, I can see people arguing that.
NC: I quite like that one.
AR: I think secretly, although it’s very hard for them to say so — politicians never want to go out of power, they could be in power six terms and would still argue that they should be in power for a seventh — but some of them secretly think that, maybe the best result for Labour would be for a Tory government with a smallish majority to do the really nasty stuff. We’ve had what I call long-wave politics recently: three terms of Labour preceded by four terms of the Tories, but it doesn’t always have to be like that. You look back to the Sixties and Seventies, it’s more pendulum politics. Labour could be out for only one term, and given what’s going to have to be done, the Tories could get unpopular very, very quickly, especially because they’re not fully worked out themselves. Labour, remaining in a sensible place and under attractive leadership, would not necessarily be out for more than a term. Some of them must secretly think that is really the most attractive result but they’d never want to admit it.
NC: Let’s move to domestic policy. If the Tories win and only get a small majority, if Labour elects an attractive leader, if the Left doesn’t go mad, Labour’s back in power in 2014. It struck me, reading your accounts of how the financial crisis builds up, that Labour is trying to be two things at once. One reason why it lets the City run riot is because it wants the taxes to fund social democracy. All these things that left-wingers like, tax credits, new schools, new hospitals everywhere, are funded on this paradigm that’s now broken down. Do you see any sign of them rethinking that?
AR: Not enough. We may, over time, get our money back as taxpayers when these banks eventually recover. But that’s way off. I quote the study by Cresc at Manchester University. They calculated that our exposure to the banks is far in excess of all the tax paid by the entire City in the five years leading up to the crunch, it’s much, much more money. We ended up with these disproportionally large banks — RBS alone had assets and liabilities on its balance sheet bigger than the entire economic output of the country that has to underwrite it. There was some fiddling around with regulation and bonuses but nobody — the Tories haven’t either — addressed the macro strategic decision facing the country: do we want one sector, namely banking, to be such a large bit of our economy? It’s very hard for politicians to turn around and, as a deliberate act of policy, shrink this sector down to a more manageable size. They certainly should have been putting the old firewalls back in, to separate retail and casino. I never believed what they always say in the City, that it is too complicated, that in the modern world you can’t do it. These are the people who turned dodgy mortgages into such complicated instruments that none of them could understand them, then they say that you can’t legislate to separate casino and retail. That’s one thing Tony and Gordon, all that time, never fought over — partly because Tony wasn’t economically literate. Money was gushing in so the Prime Minister did not bother asking any awkward questions about where the money was coming from.
NC: It’s an extraordinary thing looking back, isn’t it? If there was a small shopkeeper listening to this conversation or a teacher burdened with targets or a foxhunter or someone who likes his cigarette and a pint in the pub, you’d think: these people regulate everything, everything except the one thing they ought to regulate.
AR: Yes, absolutely. I quote Blair towards the end of his premiership when he said to some investment bankers, “I’ve always been saying throughout my premiership that you guys should just be left to get on with making money for yourselves…” And then, an afterthought, “…and for the country.”
NC: It is very interesting how little the Tory party features in your book. I mean, really not until the last page.
AR: They knock themselves out of contention for New Labour’s first two parliaments. During the Iain Duncan Smith period they made Sicilians look like amateurs at feuding. Although Michael Howard somewhat stabilised them, it really struck me that by then they were on their fourth leader who was a protégé of Margaret Thatcher, which was just one sign that they hadn’t broken out of the box. Talking to Tories, most of them would, I think, now accept their failing as an opposition. I don’t think they were ever going to win 2001 because the country had made up its mind to give Labour eight years in 1997. But by 2005, especially when Blair became very unpopular over Iraq, they should have made more progress towards a more modernised position. But what’s interesting about Cameron, and what is a more positive point about New Labour, is that the basic New Labour prospectus — which was to have economic efficiency with decent public services and social justice — is still an attractive one. The public finds it attractive and it is one reason why the Tories are still struggling now because Cameron and Osborne signed up to that. They were going to be Blairites but were just going to deliver it better than New Labour. Nobody has moved on from this position. That’s why the Conservatives are nervous at the moment. I think the country might be very disillusioned and disaffected with Labour, and Gordon is a very unpopular leader, but actually the country really quite likes that as a prospectus. It is an attractive one.
DJ: I was very struck by the email I got from Cameron — along with millions of other people so not a very personal one — which manages to use in a very short paragraph the words “radical” and “modern” about eight times. Culturally, New Labour has left a massive legacy and Tories have very little actually to put in the balance against it. Just as Blair was hugely influenced by Thatcher so Cameron, inevitably I think, is to some extent the heir to Blair.
AR: That certainly is true. But it is a question, to what extent did Blair, and other people, create that legacy or did they just move with the time? But it is certainly true. Mid-1997, extraordinary as it may seem, the police were not subject to race-relations legislation. They are now. We’ve had — not enough — but we’ve had black faces in cabinet for the first time, we had more women in the cabinet than before and big advances for gay rights. And that has been, I think, one of the attractive things about the New Labour era. Cameron has adjusted to that. He got the Tory conference to applaud gay marriage. So Cameron has moved things along a bit. There is a danger though, that you make a category error that just because a party has more female candidates or more non-white candidates or more gay candidates in other respects it makes it more socially progressive. Because it doesn’t — you can be gay Labour or you can be gay Tory. Just because somebody is gay this does not make them left-wing, sometimes far from it. So yes, I think he has made his party look a bit more like the country. But you can’t read on too much more from that.
In terms of the social history of this country, one of the great ironies is that Gordon Brown, the self-proclaimed owner of the moral compass, personally quite austere, will have to face up to himself at some point or account for it: he presides over this age of amazing avarice, of which one of the cultural icons is the ghastly jewelled Damien Hirst skull.