Blair’s Hundred Days by Derek Draper (Faber, £7.99)
Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99)
To publish in September a book which deals with August’s events is an achievement in itself. But in the case of Derek Draper’s Blair’s Hundred Days, it is more a tribute to the technical efficiency of the printers than to the author’s ability to write about contemporary events in a way which is distinguishable from overnight journalism.
The later chapters combine the repetition of newspaper reports (‘Today, McMaster’s suicide note is published. It is addressed to Tony Blair and Chief Whip Nick Brown . . . ‘) and banal comments (‘It is difficult to maintain high standards of conduct in every local fiefdom’). The narrative passages are invariably written in the present tense. No doubt Draper hoped to create the impression of urgency. All the strange technique achieves is confirmation that the book has been put together with more concern for speed than quality.
The early chapters were clearly written with the conscious intention of combining enough ‘insider information’ to make the book saleable with a public relations gloss on everything that New Labour did during its first three months in office. The result is an account of events on which future historians will not be able to rely. Tony Blair’s popularity – probably unique in modern democratic history – is too great to need a hagiographer’s gloss. In Blair’s Hundred Days, the lily is not so much gilded, but made to appear covered in tinsel.
The book does contain the occasional revelation. John Prescott proved himself a ‘moderniser’ by making suggestions about how the general election war room should be laid out and thus ‘exhibiting impressive techno-credentials’. I suspect that Prescott, like me, thought that politicians were classified according to their ideas, not their keyboard skills. And since it is there on the printed page, we must believe that Tony Blair really did say that, in choosing a candidate to fight the Uxbridge by-election, ‘what matters is that we have someone who is thoroughly New Labour and a supporter of mine’. The attitude is not unique: Franz-Joseph, considering the promotion of an Austrian army officer, said ‘I know he is a patriot, but is he a patriot for me?’
Safety First: The Making of New Labour does the government the courtesy of examining its origins and ideas seriously. That inevitably involves criticism. But grown-ups’ respect for Blair and Blairism is much more likely to be encouraged by real analysis than by facile praise. Do not assume from that modest encomium that Safety First‘s authors endorse Old Labour. Far from it. They pronounce its intellectual death. ‘There is no magazine, web site, think tank or discussion group network that yet looks set to become influential in pushing a credible all-embracing left alternative’ to New Labour.
That undoubted fact is made all the more inexplicable by what Safety First has to say about the defining policies. ‘The idea that education is about more than providing Britain with a highly skilled workforce and socially responsible citizenry – that it is a way of helping people to discover and enjoy the infinite riches of human culture, develop their intellectual capacities and their creativity, and find personal fulfilment – has been all but forgotten in Labour’s enthusiasm for ‘investing in human capital in the age of knowledge’, as Blunkett put it.’ One of the strengths of Safety First is its understanding that New Labour’s popularity is not the product of brilliant party management and charismatic leadership, but of the way in which Tony Blair has chosen to go with the mood of his time – particularly the mood of the key suburban middle classes who, these days, make and break governments.
Paradoxically, where inside information really counts, Safety First kicks Blair’s Hundred Days out of sight. Its account of John Prescott’s emergence as a major political figure – and the parallel development of his super-ministry – is an important analysis of the most interesting metamorphosis in the modern history of parliamentary government. The Chancellor’s cautious adoption of ‘Euro- keynesianism’ – the idea that the European Union can stimulate demand and growth – is charted in fascinating detail. Safety First is not the last word on the making of New Labour, but it is the best so far.