Saturday, November 6, 2010

2,596: The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley

Apparently, everyone over the age of 50 or so can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  My parents certainly can.  They can also remember where they were when Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind.  If you are at all interested, my mother had got me up for a feed at 3 a.m. or so and was winding me at that precise moment.

I’m unfortunately not so good at remembering where I was when important world events were taking place.  Fall of the Berlin Wall? Not a clue.  Resignation of Margaret Thatcher?  Can’t help you there.  Release of Nelson Mandela?  Sorry.  Collapse of Lehman Brothers?  Nope (although, to be fair, I had only become a father two weeks earlier and wasn’t really firing on all cylinders.).  In fact, off the top of my head, I can remember where I was when I heard that the Princess of Wales had been killed, the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings and the Heysel Stadium tragedy but not much else readily springs to mind.

I do, however, vividly remember the morning of Friday 2 May 1997.  It was a bright sunny day in London, with a cloudless blue sky.  Walking to my bus stop on the King’s Road to go to work, the air smelled unusually fresh and even the buildings looked less grimy than normal.  The previous day’s General Election had seen the ousting of the Conservative government after 18 years of uninterrupted rule and the election of New Labour and, in particular, an energetic young Prime Minister called Tony Blair.  Overnight, it seemed that the sleaze, arrogance and general unpleasantness of John Major’s government had been washed away.  Tony and his friend and Chancellor, Gordon Brown, promised to govern honestly and openly, for all of us and not just a particular class or interest group.  There would be an end to political scandal.  There was hope in the air.

Fast forward 13 years, almost exactly.  That hope had long died, killed off by a succession of scandals, wars and failures.  Tony had gone off to make his fortune, pushed by Gordon and his friends.  Gordon was holed up in 10 Downing Street, refusing to concede defeat until Nick Clegg ruled out a deal with him.  The country was on its knees economically and the good times of the previous decade were revealed to have been an illusion, created by a debt-binge of unimaginable proportions.  So what the hell happened and where did it all go wrong?

Andrew Rawnsley, one of the UK’s leading political journalists, may not have all the answers but his retelling of the New Labour story certainly gives some pretty big hints.  The End of the Party is the follow-up to his first book on New Labour, Servants of the People, which tells the story of New Labour from its beginnings up to the end of its first term in power.

The End of the Party continues the story from the beginning of Blair’s second term right up to the point where Gordon Brown goes to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation to the Queen.  It is a fast-moving narrative which does not pause for analysis or deep thought but concentrates on telling the story.  At times, it reads like a thriller with dramatic prose and plenty of action.  Rawnsley conducted hundreds of interviews with both key players and less important figures in British politics during the past 15 years.  There are fruity quotes aplenty and some devastating character portraits, especially of Gordon Brown, here shown as a raging bully, driven mad by ambition.

The book is not perfect.  There are many references to anonymous sources, which weakens the book’s authority.  Rawnsley seems also to be incapable of refraining from inserting himself into the narrative, either by quoting himself or making references to his own articles as evidence of the truth of his later observations.  There is also the impression of imbalance, caused by the unequal treatment he gives to the dramatis personae.  For example, the extra marital shenanigans of Messrs Blunkett and Prescott are given a good old airing, while the nasty decision of Tessa Jowell to jettison her husband out of political expediency is skimmed over.  Finally, much of the story is told through the medium of recreating scenes, including quotes that the author could not have been party to.  Although making for a good read, many of these quotes can’t possibly be accurate and, even if they reflect what the subject actually said, they detract from the credibility of the book.  This is only highlighted by the fact that almost all of the actors appear to speak in exactly the same way.

The book weaves several main narrative threads together.  There is the story of the transformation of Tony Blair from a man obsessed by public opinion into a conviction politician, seemingly convinced that public opprobrium was the sign of being correct.  There is the story of the “psychologically flawed” Gordon Brown, tortured by his desire to be Prime Minister yet too timorous to drive Blair out of office.  Finally, there is the story of the ongoing battle for prestige and power between Blair, Brown and their respective teams, reminiscent of gang warfare or a political version of the Montagues and Capulets. 

When the End of the Party was first published, much was made of its characterisation of Gordon Brown as a crazed, megalomaniac bully, surrounded by piles of half-eaten bananas  but, in truth, the real revelation was the shadow of madness that lurked behind many of New Labour’s key courtiers.  From Alistair Campbell’s manic depression to Mandelson’s narcissism, from the deranged brutality of Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan to Cherie Blair’s seeming detachment from common sense, most of the key New Labour figures appear to have been at least slightly disturbed.  I don’t know if this is common to successful politicians (or maybe even a pre-requisite!) but it was faintly unsettling to read about the psycho-dramas and delusions at the top of British government.  Indeed, the most incredible thing of all is that the Labour government managed to do so much, whilst apparently spending most of their time engaged in power struggles, briefing the media against each other and just plain fighting and squabbling.

Although it is only 6 months since the fall of Labour, there is already a substantial body of literature on the period.  The End of the Party is, without a doubt, one of the best of these.  There will be more complex pieces of analysis in due course but when future historians come to consider this period in Great Britain’s history, they will be using this book as source material.  I would strongly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in British politics.

Incidentally, what are your “where were you when” events?

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