Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 November 2010
“If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter,” Pascal famously remarked, “the whole face of the world would have been changed.”
His point was that the Egyptian queen was so extraordinarily attractive that she was able easily to seduce first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony, the two most powerful Romans of her era – and that these liaisons had earth-shattering results.
Which seems fair enough … until you do a little thinking. For a start, there’s no evidence that it was Cleopatra’s nose that turned the lads’ heads, rather than, say, her delightful smile, her powerful thighs, her ready repartee or her fabulous wealth. And though their heads were undoubtedly turned, it’s not at all clear how that changed the course of events. Maybe Caesar would have pissed off fewer key people if he hadn’t been carrying on with Cleopatra, and so would have avoided assassination – but it’s just as plausible that he would he have been a less successful general without regular leg-overs. Perhaps Mark Antony would have done rather better against Octavian in the battle of Actium if he’d been able to stop day-dreaming about Cleopatra. Then again, it’s more than possible that he’d have met a sticky end if he’d spurned the come-on when they first met.
In other words, there is no way of telling what would have happened differently had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter. All we know is that it wasn’t, and what happened, er, happened. It might be fun to speculate about the broader impact of apparently trivial historical phenomena, but, as Bertrand Russell pointed out years ago, it is not serious history.
As with Cleopatra’s nose, so with Harriet’s goose. Thanks to the efforts of various assiduous journalists and contemporary historians, we can now be pretty sure that Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, hosted a dinner party last New Year’s Eve at which, over roast goose, she, Patricia Hewitt and a couple of other senior Labour MPs concocted a plot to force Gordon Brown’s replacement as Labour leader ahead of the spring general election.
That meeting was followed, of course, by the farcical attempted coup against Brown of January 6 this year, when Hewitt and Geoff Hoon circulated a letter demanding a ballot of the Parliamentary Labour Party to “resolve” what they described as “the question of the leadership” – an initiative that fizzled out when not a single member of the Cabinet came out publicly in their support.
It was obvious at the time that Hewitt and Hoon had expected more, and easy enough to guess which Cabinet members most wanted Brown out. Now, 11 months on, the full extent of the plot has emerged. Cue an orgy of speculation by Blairite nostalgics to the effect that if only Jack Straw had brought matters to a head with Gordon on January 4, if only Harriet hadn’t wavered, if only Alan Johnson and Peter Mandelson and David Miliband had been properly brought on board, Gordon would have gone, David would have stepped up, Labour would have soared in the polls and won the election …
A credible scenario? Well, up to a point – but no more so than any number of others with less happy endings for Labour. What if Straw and Harman had told Brown he should go and he had refused, then fired them? What if the goose plot had succeeded and the Brownites had resigned en masse from the government?
I know, it doesn’t matter in one sense, because of what actually transpired. But in another it does. The Blairites’ insistence that the party lost in 2010 only because of Brown’s unfriendly public persona and his hostility to the nostrums of New Labour is symptomatic of their failure to grasp either how uninspiring so much of the New Labour package had become even in the latter stages of Tony Blair’s premiership or the substantial political continuities between Brown and Blair.
Yes, there were good things about New Labour both in opposition between 1994 and 1997 and in government thereafter. Blair appealed to voters previous Labour leaders could not reach, and his government delivered ten years of prosperity, a swathe of constitutional reforms (albeit cut short), the minimum wage, hundreds of new schools and hospitals, Sure Start and a lot more besides. But the party’s electoral touch was on the wane by 2005 – and the list of its failures in office is long: Iraq, the culture of spin, MPs’ expenses, housing, financial regulation, civil liberties, prisons, energy, transport. If Labour is to win in 2015, it has to get to grips with where it went wrong between 1997 and 2010. And although Brown deserves to take his fair share of the blame, it is frivolous to think that everything would have turned out fine if only another hand had been on the tiller for the general election campaign. Ed Miliband is right: Labour needs a fresh start.