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)
Fifty Years On: A Prejudiced History of Britain Since the War by Roy Hattersley (Little, Brown, £20)
A Class Act: The Myth of Britain’s Classless Society by Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99)
Tony Blair’s new centrist Labour Party won power in Britain a year after Felipe Gonzalez’s old centrist Socialist Party lost it in Spain. We look at the most interesting books on the whys and wherefores, first in Britain, then in Spain
The guests at the launch party for Derek Draper’s Blair’s Hundred Days were in no doubt that they were at the right party, at the right time. “I suppose we’re the new establishment,” gushed one young woman to another, as Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s fixer (and Mr Draper’s employer until the writer switched jobs) drifted by.
The Labour Party’s excitement at being at the centre of things after 18 years in the wilderness is entirely understandable. But new establishments have a disconcerting habit of taking on the trappings of the supplanted one. The venue for the launch, Quo Vadis restaurant, in Soho, was a little more raffish than Tory clubland. The hair-cuts were perhaps a little more fashionable than at a gathering of young Tories. Nonetheless, the sharply-dressed, champagne swilling, affluent young things at Mr Draper’s party could quite easily be mistaken for the young Tories of the mid-1980s.
That raises an obvious question: how far is the Labour government different from the Tory government it has replaced? In different ways all four of these books provide partial answers. As a former aide to Mr Mandelson, Mr Draper cashed in his chips with startling rapidity in the aftermath of Labour’s victory on May 1st. By staying in government just long enough to keep a diary of Mr Blair’s 100 days, he was able to rush out and publish the first “insider” account of the new government.
Few “instant” books have a long shelf-life and Mr Draper’s is unlikely to prove an exception. Still, it is enjoyable in a gossipy sort of way and does provide the occasional insight. The casual brutality demanded by modern news management is underlined by his account of how Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, was bounced into leaving his wife. The newspapers had discovered that Mr Cook was having an affair. Determined not to let this revelation burgeon into one of the long-running “sleaze” scandals that had so bedevilled the Tories, Tony Blair’s aide, Alastair Campbell, contacted the foreign secretary to demand that he kill the story by making an instant and public choice between his wife and his mistress. As it happens Mr Cook was at Heathrow airport with his wife – they were about to leave on holiday, in an effort to patch up their marriage. But within hours he had made the required statement. He was leaving his wife. Presumably, the holiday was abandoned.
Despite being spiced by occasional anecdotes of this sort, Mr Draper’s book does not deliver what “insider” accounts are meant to provide: a feeling that you have discovered more about what the protagonists are “really like”. The Tony Blair who emerges from the pages of “Blair’s 100 Days” does not differ much from the one presented by the media: a good manager, a family man, tough but tender.
A much more substantial account of the emergence of “New Labour” than that provided by Mr Draper is offered by Safety First. Indeed anybody looking for a primer on Blairism would do well to start here. It is supposed to have been written from a “critical libertarian left” position. But, whatever this means, it fortunately does little to get in the way of a solidly researched account of how Mr Blair and his key political allies have revamped Labour policy.
Indeed, the fact that the authors are on the left, but are fairly sceptical of the Blairite project, gives them certain distinct advantages in comparing old Labour with the new sort. It means that they are steeped in the internal debates that the party experienced throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when non-enthusiasts could have been forgiven for switching off. But it also means that, although they understand what Mr Blair is about, they are immune from the tendency to gush in awe, which has marked much early comment on Britain’s new prime minister.
As a result they are able to give an engaging account of the ideological contortions that attended the birth of Blairism, as well as entertaining pen-portraits of the main protagonists. A long memory also yields the occasional amusing vignette. Buried in a footnote is a jewel of a comment made in 1993 by Alastair Campbell, who is now Mr Blair’s fiercely loyal press secretary. “There are few if any circumstances I could envisage that would lead me not to vote Labour, but if I thought Labour wouldn’t spend more on health and schools, or that they wouldn’t adopt a more interventionist approach to the economy, or that they wouldn’t raise my taxes, I would have to think a bit. This is not an ‘irresponsible shopping list’. It is the absolute minimum surely that the public will accept of Labour.”
The contrast between the expectations of long-time Labourites like Mr Blair’s own press secretary and the actual actions of a Blair government remains striking – and raises again the question of how exactly Mr Blair differs from his Tory predecessors. A joke doing the rounds in London at the moment captures the point. “Did you know that Tony Blair MP is an anagram of ‘I’m Tory Plan B’ ?”
In fact, it is easy to point to things that Mr Blair has done that would have been difficult to imagine coming from the Tories: start devolving power to Scotland and Wales, speak out against racism in the armed forces, push through a total ban on hand-guns. His large majority has also allowed him to take greater risks in the search for a peace settlement in Northern Ireland. But none of these actions – laudable as they may be – goes to the heart of the traditional Labour concerns raised by Mr Campbell: the desire for greater equality, for a “fairer” distribution of income, for more spending on public services. Yet, as is demonstrated both by A Class Act and the “prejudiced” history of post-war Britain by Roy Hattersley, the deputy leader of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, these issues have not lost their force.
Old right, new left
The emergence of Mr Hattersley as a strong critic of Mr Blair has its ironies. Through much of 1970s and the 1980s he was regarded as a standard-bearer of the right in the Labour Party, fighting to prevent his party being captured by the hard left. Yet now that the “right”, in the person of Mr Blair, has emerged triumphant, Mr Hattersley is a disappointed man.
Specifically, he believes that Mr Blair’s New Labour has stopped fighting for a less unequal society and has abandoned the poor in the search for the votes of the “suburban middle class”. As Mr Hattersley’s history makes clear, he regards the search for a less unequal society as the thing that makes sense of post-war British history. He is evidently bewildered to find his own party giving up the chase.
Readers will be less bewildered by this turn of events – and less sympathetic to Mr Hattersley – if they turn to A Class Act. Its authors, Andrew Adonis, a political columnist for the Observer, and Stephen Pollard, head of research at the Social Market Foundation, concede that Britain has, in many ways, become a less equal society but argue that this is, in large part, a consequence of the misguided social engineering of the old Labour governments whose values Mr Hattersley trumpets.
In particular, A Class Act contends that the educational reforms of the 1960s and 1970s –reforms which Mr Hattersley regards as Labour’s crowning achievements – increased social inequalities by destroying the selective grammar schools, the main educational ladder for talented but poor children. This denied the poor an opportunity to improve themselves and served to increase the demand for private education, exacerbating divisions of class and wealth. It is a contentious message but it is amply demonstrated by the figures that Mr Adonis and Mr Pollard have so carefully marshalled. They show, for instance, how 50% of the places at Oxford University now go to public-school (ie, privately) educated children compared with 38% in the more meritocratic Britain of 1969.
Yet A Class Act is frustrating, even if fascinating. Tracing the way inequality of opportunity pervades most aspects of British society, from health to education to housing, it does little to suggest how things might be improved. There is no rousing last ahead for Mr Blair and his advisers.
The closest Mr Adonis and Mr Pollard come to pointing a moral is when they observe in an early chapter that: “There are no quick fixes, no blueprints; and if there are plenty of radical ideological experiments waiting to be tried, the experience of the 20th century may, perhaps, teach the 21st to be a little cautious and sceptical.” For the Blair government, whose campaign anthem was “Things can only get better”, and which rep take “radical” action to tackle Britain’s problems, this is a discomforting message.