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A penetrating insider’s view of the most important relationship in modern politics the one on which the recent reinvention of Britain is founded Tony Blair and Gordon Brown By the celebrated Radio 4 Today Programme presenter James NaughtieNo Prime Minister and Chancellor this century have been bound so closely together each depending on the other’s strengths to repair weaknesses that might otherwise be politically fatal; yet theirs is a bond that crackles with suspicion and misunderstanding lovers’ tiffs that send tremors through the government The story of the current era can only properly be told through the prism of this strange union and it has never been told before James Naughtie is a uniue insider A hugely respected political commentator he has eual access to both men to their key courtiers to the party malcontents and everyone who has ever sat in Cabinet with them Not since Alan Clark’s Diaries has there been such a vivid human portrait of the agonies and ecstasies of power in action Even the supporting players are wildly dramatic the saturnine plotting of Peter Mandelson the muscled protection of Alistair Campbell the Scots traditionalists facing down the Number 10 policy wonks But the real drama is compressed into the central relationship Here are Othello and Iago Caesar and Brutus This is a classic power play of our time brilliantly vividly and intimately staged by James Naughtie


10 thoughts on “The Rivals The Intimate Story of a Political Marriage

  1. says:

    We recently reviewed a book from the left of the trades union movement written twelve years ago to see what insights it might give us into the current 2015 UK General Election is a similar exercise but the review takes place after an 'unexpected' to the sort of pundit who writes these sorts of book Conservative victory and amidst a renewal of ideological infighting inside the Labour Party that lost power in 2010This is a lesser book than Andrew Murray's account of trades unionism but still useful Written in 2001 this edition is a 2002 'update' although the final part merely shows a rushed attempt to ensure decent paperback salesFortunately James Naughtie has contained his tendency to develop rhetorical 'cadences' after the introduction so you get broadly straight reporting of the political history of the relationship betwen Blair and Brown through to the beginning of their second termNaturally this book will tell you nothing about the central event of the second term the divisive Ira War nor the bulk of that term nor the third term and Brown's succession and brief rule in which his plans were thrown into the air by the damaging Crash of 2008The period of rule from 1997 to 2010 was remarkable by any standards Its 'true historie' has yet to be written but this book gives us insights into the political phenomenon of New Labour through observing the twin leadership just beyond the point of reaffirmed power in 2001 One does suspect that writing contemporaneously as a journalist relying on interviews rather than as a historian with access to papers Naughtie is giving us a convenient narrative to create meaning rather than giving us the absolute truth of the matterSometimes the story seems a little to pat too much like the morality tale much beloved of newspapermen that fails to take into account the messiness of life and the complexity of people I would not take the story over seriously and there are occasional errorsFor example no one expected the massive landside in 1997 I was there in the Labour Party system and the general expectation was of a majority of around or up to 50 This expectation is important because if you do not understand it you do not understand the politicsThe point was that in 1997 New Labour was not uite a done deal The majority made it a done deal for the moment Before 1997 Blair was anticipating have to draw in the 'soft' Left about 50 active MPs to counter the 'hard' Left about the sameNote the numbers which was why MPs like Fatchett and Hain were suddenly seen on platforms in the last days of the election and why Hain was fast tracked into the higher ranks of the Government where he was to stayIf you know this then the talks with the Liberals become less some ideological obsession of Blair's and a case of practical politics for him that a politics that would be intrinsically less attractive to Prescott whose power increased with the power of the soft Left or even BrownThe Liberals were simply no longer necessary as it became clear that New Labour had established itself within the Party and that though reduced decent majorities could be had from that point on and to the point by then the Hard Left was practically defunctThe real story of the national politics of this period is the systematic destruction of the old Left which wholly failed to take advantage of public concern at the warrior mentality of the Prime Minister and the eventual containment of the trades unionsBy 2003 after this book ends New Labour was paramount so that in 2010 when a new Leader had to be elected only the heirs of the two founders of it could realistically contest its leadership and they happened to be brothersWhere the book is far useful and well worth reading today is in the Scottish origins of the power struggles within the Party and what we begin to see is just how dependent and how related to Scottish politics was New LabourThink about this after another Celt Kinnock departed the next Leader was Scottish Smith his successor was educated in Scotland Blair the dominant economic figure Brown was Scottish and the leader of the Soft Left was Scottish CookNaughtie a Scot himself gives us a picture of a Party always looking sideways at its dominance of the sister nation to a complacent England and he tells us much about the debates over the Union and devolution that led to the victory of the proponents of the latterThese debates have proved central to the plight of the Party today Elsewhere we have argued that as a coalitional party the loss of Scotland is highly dangerous to itThat loss made manifest a few days ago was written into a script that Naughtie outlines for us but which perfectly reasonably he could not follow through to a predictive conclusionCook argued that Labour should stick by the Union Brown argued for devolution as a concession that would stop the SNP in its tracks and preserve Labour hegemony Brown won but ended up arguing for Union against a near run Independence Referendum over a decade later While the 2014 Brown won his battle within devolution his Party lost the war and in losing Scotland they lost the motor for the social justice modernisers that he representedWith Balls losing his seat Miliband having to resign as Leader and the 2008 Crash looming over Brown's prudential redistributive strategy the Brown vision of the Labour Party as responsible governors of the Union is all but deadMeanwhile the Blairites are still standing and ready to demand a return to the Radical Centrism of the Blair era perhaps not understanding that Cameron has already stolen that territory and is ready to expand on it with five years to do it inThe last fully English leader of the Labour Party before Milliband and the temporary incumbencies of Harriet Harman metropolitan intellectuals was Michael Foot and he also was a Hampstead intellectual We do not count the temporary incumbency of the capable Margaret BeckettIf you look at the history of the Party its leaders were almost entirely Scottish from 1908 to 1932 with one brief year under the forgotten Clynes From 1932 to 1983 they were exclusively EnglishScottish socialism ideologically drove the Labour Party disproportionate to the population but proportionate to its role as 'work shop' of the Empire but a national Party was strong when it was seen to be British meaning in reality able to appeal to the English working class The strategy of dumping the English worker in favour of identity groups of which the biggest is women who refuse to be corralled in this way but which also includes ethnic minorities and LGBT is not unconnected to this withdrawal from 'England'The recent return to Scottish dominance suggests that Labour was indeed losing its base in the south while simultaneously as New Labour appealing to its prejudices But the appeal was always form and not substance It thus strikes this reader that 2015 was an accident waiting to happen and Naughtie's earlier chapters provide valuable background hereSo what of the main subjects of the book Blair and Brown and their rivalry? We have already intimated that the journalistic narrative demands that the rivalry be talked upI have to say that I find this over done this partnership lasted many decades and though no doubt it had its frustrations and serious suabbles the core of it was sustained albeit as rival and often childish courtsThe secret to New Labour power was compartmentalisation and containment Blair's political genius lay in containing centres of power such as trades unions or the political Left in Parliament in order to give himself total freedom where it interested him to be freeIt just so happened that he really was immensely bored by economics once he had laid down the general rules of 'aspiration and inclusion' in David Miliband's phraseology and happy to have Brown sort out boring interdepartmental suabbles over resourcingIn return when he decided to strut on the world stage or offer us 'aspiration and inclusion' homilies the alternative centres of power in Parliament and the Party had nothing to say because they were so busy protecting the feudal estates granted them by his MajestyThe secret to New Labour is that it moved from being a truly federal Party with competing centres of power creating policy through struggle but making itself increasingly unelectable to a feudal Party headed by a Sun King and his Court only interested in the sinews of warThe fact that the succession was disputed by two brothers only makes the feudal analogy appropriate The Kingdom is now accordingly riven by rebellions Scotland and no doubt 'assassinations' and 'plots and counter plots'The character of Brown is well drawn in this book possibly because Naughtie as a Scot has a better feel for his origins and culture than many others He comes across I think truthfully as a serious and moral if difficult man with a genuine concern for poverty and social justice He is also a pragmatist a curse word on the Left who sees rightly that poverty alleviation must depend on sustainable resourcesBlair is another kettle of fish and my attitude changed to him as I read the book He really is the cuckoo in the Labour nest and it is staggering that even the desperate post Kinnock Party allowed this man to rule it in a deal with the devilAt one level there is something of the likeable rogue about him with a refreshing lack of seriousness about politics as understood by most activists who wears his undoubted intelligence lightly and just wants to enjoy himself in officeWhere one starts to worry is where one should worry his stealthy introduction of communitarian religiosity into a party of the secular Left that always had plenty of room for Catholics and Methodists alike but which while respecting them did not let them dictate the terms of policyNaughtie does not cover the later stages of this proces domestically the earnest entry of faith based interests into higher councils the careful attempt to cover up faith in the Leader himself except when it suited the link with American religiosity multiculturalism as cover for excessive tolerance of illiberal communitarian practicesHe is also not good on the link between the messianic visionary stance of New Labour concerned with extending values globally Brown has a similar distracting focus on global debt when he should perhaps have been concentrating on his own people and warBoth men took the internationalism that was always part of the socialist message removed the core 'national' socialist element and turned it into two very different 'crusades' for values social justice in the case of Brown and liberal politics in the case of BlairBrown was justifiably socialist this is true but both became part of something bigger an expansion of values by an entirely different sort of hegemon the global hegemon in WashingtonAlthough fully backed domestically by considerable constituencies that Cameron has had to court the liberal internationalists in the NGOs and churches and authoritarian national militarists both men looked not to native but to Atlantic traditionsNaughtie brings this out but perhaps fails to inuire deeply into how this came about and what it meant in terms of the pre 2008 drive towards Western hegemony that seems to be collapsing around us as we writeBrown's politics seem to have been based on a life long love for the progressive Democrat tradition which of course was never a socialist tradition but one of moderated state managed capitalism forgetting that the UK and the US are entirely different societiesBlair's values of freedom extension as markets rights and democracy and to be fair to him he really does hold to the rights of people previously second class in Western politics like gay people minorities and women soon became identical with neo conservative ideologyThis Atlanticisation of the Labour Party which started in earnest under Kinnock in the general fascination with Clinton's victory in 1992 alongside the Europeanisation that started with Delors Speech to the TUC in 1988 re orientated the Party back from 'national' social democracy to 'international' social liberalismThis is not to say that the US State Department and NATO driven Atlanticism have not had a powerful influence over the Labour Right since the 1940s but only that this was the first time that the link was out in the open and dominant proud of its Presidential links whether Democrat or RepublicanUnder Blair it would be almost unthinkable that a British Labour Prime Minister would decline to support the US in an operation overseas as Harold Wilson did over VietnamThis is the importance of the Syrian vote in Parliament when the Labour Party and the nationalist Tory Right combined to call a halt to a similar adventure but only because a relatively weak leader actually bothered to listen to public opinion and his own PartyAs a 'sotto voce' aspect of the recent Labour failure alongside the growing resistance to metropolitan liberalism and multiculturalism we may add a growing sense that it is time for British politicians to attend to British perhaps English in some uarters interestsOtherwise the book is a useful reminder of the events of the first five years of New Labour rule As the years pass its lustre fades It appears to be show than substance but it leaves one big uestion unaddressed by Naughtie and his class a fundamental uestionHow is it that we still have a system and this could apply to much of the Western world in the Twenty First Century in which the destiny of some 64 million human beings are in the hands of what amount to coup mongers within one or two organisations political partiesThe Labour Party contains 190000 members the other parties less but these members have little say over policy Incredibly small groups of people conspire and collaborate to acuire power and hold on to it That two men in a restaurant can carve up a candidacy or two brothers be the only persons deemed fit to lead a 'great party of state' strikes me as a sign of decadence The decadence of New Labour is unspoken in this book because Naughtie is part of the elite group that loves the narrative loves the soap opera and is not paid to uestion deeply what is presented before himAs with all such books enjoy the story if you are of that type but try to go behind what is being said and start asking some uestions for yourself about whether this system is any longer fit to rule a country of such size and still world importanceStill we now have five years of a relatively strong Government good without a massive majority good based on 51% of the House of Commons 331 seats but 369% of the vote in which only two thirds of the eligible voting population participated Labour meanwhile got 36% of the seats on 304% of the vote so it might be in a tail spin but it has not crashed yet Yet in 1945 the national turnout was 724% and Labour got 393 seats and 477% of the vote The New Labour experiment clearly failed to sustain the triumph of 1997 and it might be interesting to ask why Simply blaming Ed Miliband is always going to be an evasion


  2. says:

    This book demonstrates the difficulty of writing 'instant history' James Naughtie writes about the personal political relationship between Tony Blair Gordon Brown and whilst this is a very well trodden path this book even in its updated edition can only take the story up to 2002 early in Blair's 2nd term and when the impact of 911 was only just starting to play out Although the signs are there in the book the extent of how broken down the relationship was to become has only become clear with hindsight and whilst there is some interesting stuff here it's not the first book about New Labour I would turn to For a much successful analysis of the period I still think Andrew Rawnsley's two books Servants of the People and The End of the Party are the best contemporary histories of the BlairBrown years


  3. says:

    A fine insight into the debilitating Blair Brown relationship that bedevilled the New Labour project throughout Blair's premiership However Naughtie can be a little long winded at times Still an excellent description of the TB GBs


  4. says:

    I entered this book unsure about how much I enjoyed this book and came out relieved I had read it It is long winded at times however that is balanced out with the facts we are presented with Very interesting


  5. says:

    Disappointing largely repetitive lacking in any real revelations and delivered with a feeling that different chapters were written completely separately and therefore overlap the same material Naughtie is a great journalist but this isn't a great book


  6. says:

    Now that the end is nigh I thought I should read this as a retrospective piece Mr President EU oops sorry Mr Blair is of course on a piece of elastic ready to ping back into our lives again Hands up for a life peerage anyone?