Saturday, 13 March 2010

the end of the party

is, as any fule kno, the title of the book by Andrew Rawnsley which has caused something of a stir among the UK political class, though not among many others. Those who are non-political and who have picked up the reports of, for example, Gordon Brown's dysfunctional behaviour, will not have felt they were being told anything they did not already know. However, I have just finished reading it. Unlike some journalists, who skimmed the juicy bits of it, I have read it all and looked at the index and the footnotes too. So there. And do you know, it is a cracking good read. Really exciting in parts. Even though we know what happens. I always admired Andrew Rawnsley as a journalist because, unlike Alastair Campbell for example, he can write and he can tell a story as well as knowing what goes on. And one of the things I liked about the book, apart from the story-telling, was that all of it (or nearly all) is based on what people who are and were there actually did and said, quite a lot of it to or in the hearing of Andrew Rawnsley himself. He does editorialise a bit, which I will come to.
Rawnsley is on the money from the introduction on: "the master consensualist of the first term became the driven lone warrior of the second" although he doesn't continue and say that Tony Blair was always both those things, that was rather the point. I didn't realise it myself until about 2000, if I had understood it earlier I would have voted for him (Tony Blair not Andrew Rawnsley) as leader in 1994 (I voted for John Prescott). Some of the best quotes are the anonymous ones, this on Peter Mandelson's career: "Even Jesus Christ was resurrected only once", though not all are anonymous, Tony Blair to Alan Milburn, "The job of being Labour leader is to save the Labour Party from itself". True, but Tony didn't manage it, when they saw him having a go they kicked him out, and now the death wish is back.

The book is riveting on 9/11 and Tony's certainty and purpose in the time that followed. Why did so few understand what Russia's position would be - "Vladimir Putin of Russia, believing that signing up for a 'war against terror' would legitimise his brutal campaign agains the rebels in Chechnya, was declaring his solidarity" (p.37).

Fast forward a bit to Conference 2001, and perhaps we hadn't noticed, or perhaps we didn't want to think, about how much the Guardianistas had influenced the party, Rawnsley quotes Tony's speech "the starving the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, they are our causes too". Too? Too? I can remember being told by a Reading East party member, John Oversby, that I was focusing too much on the disadvantaged and "people on council estates" and that the party expected more emphasis on "middle-class concerns". Ah I see. Stuff like university fees, otherwise known as the middle-class welfare state, benefits for the few and stuff the many. Silly old me. Where was I? Ah yes.

When Gordon and Sarah Brown lost their baby daughter Jennifer Jane in 2002 (I've still got a picture of her that Gordon sent me after I wrote to him in sympathy) Gordon afterwards thought and told people, according to Rawnsley, that little Leo's pram outside the door of the Blairs' flat at No. 11 was meant to be cruel (p. 72). Rawnsley does not extrapolate a scenario from this, but either Gordon had paranoia (possible) or he was right and the Blairs did it deliberately , instead of just needing somewhere to put the pushchair because they lived in a London flat. Both could be true of course, but fascinating,hein?

Sometimes Rawnsley slips a little bit. Westminster journalists usually seem to think that constituencies don't matter, but in the UK single-member first-past-the-post system they very much do. UK democracy depends on the MP representing their constituents, and only theirs. He says "Michael Wills, the Labour MP for Swindon" (p. 74). There are two constituencies in Swindon, both represented at the time of writing by Labour MPs. The other one is represented by former Berkshire county councillor Anne Snelgrove, who took the seat after Julia Drown stood down for South Swindon. But they are both just girls.

Rawnsley reminds us that in the 2002 budget huge sums were announced for the NHS, to be paid for by increased National Insurance contributions, and that not one Tory stood up to object. NI increases are against Tory philosophy, and were not sustainable for an economy whose boom was already over, though no-one seemed to have noticed, if they had objected they would have been proved right now.

In 1998, when we already had a Labour government in the UK and Bill Clinton was in the White House, Operation Desert Fox sent troops into Iraq, including British ones. Where were the Guardian readers then? I heard from them on a regular basis at the time about various matters, and not a word. Rawnsley does not note this, I do. Not long afterwards Tony Blair made his keynote speech in Chicago, on liberal interventionism, which was not much noticed at the time but set out a doctrine for the world in the twenty-first century which at the very least is clear and unambiguous.

But Rawnsley goes back to the predictable before too long. "A big majority of the country were against war" (p. 107, citing an interview with pollster Stan Greenberg but citing no polling). I was knocking doors on a regular basis at the time, and my door knocks did not show that at all. About one in 10 people mentioned Iraq unprompted, in leafy Guardian-reading areas just as on council estates, and of those who did mention it about half were in favour and half against a war. On the actual parliamentary vote on Iraq (still the only time Parliament has been consulted about military action) Rawnsley lets the Big Lie, namely that 139 Labour MPs voted against the war, go unchallenged. There was a vote in 2003 on an amendment tabled by Chris Smith MP, followed by a vote on a government motion, which did not even say "War Now", it said this:

Resolved,


    That this House takes note of Command Paper Cm 5769 on Iraq; reaffirms its endorsement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, as expressed in its Resolution of 25th November 2002; supports the Government's continuing efforts in the United Nations to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction; and calls upon Iraq to recognise this as its final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.

(I voted for it since you ask). The result, as recorded in Hansard, was Ayes 434, Noes 124. There are Labour MPs walking around to this day who say they voted against the war when their names do not appear in the Noes column on this vote. The whips' line was "Save Tony by abstaining", and many complied, I think Rawnsley should have looked a bit closer.

Still on Iraq, Rawnsley is most interesting on his interviews with the military, from whom most of us did not hear much. He quotes Admiral Michael Boyce as saying "WMD was the whole rationale for the invasion" (p. 176). Boyce can't really have believed that, can he? Tony never said that. No-one so senior in the military could have been so out of touch. Could they?

Rawnsley suggests that Alastair Campbell's fury with the BBC over the Andrew Gilligan broadcast was a sign, not of government's usual tensions with the BBC, especially on this occasion, when the BBC had gone too far and allowed an unsubstantiated serious slur on air, but of Campbell's mental instability. He refers uncritically to "the cynical outing of David Kelly": Kelly outed himself by coming forward, even if he was too naive to realise that he was doing so. Kelly also lied to the Foreign Affairs Committee about being the source for the Susan Watts report, a lie which would, unsurprisingly, prey on his mind. Jonathan Oliver, then of the Mail on Sunday, thereby had the opportunity to ask Tony "Have you got blood on your hands?" Rawnsley thought the conclusion of the Hutton inquiry was wrong. I don't. It remains a fact that Kelly outed himself, for reasons we will never know, and later killed himself. If anyone is culpable it it is Andrew Gilligan, who retains a comfortable career in journalism, and his then bosses at the BBC.

Rawnsley does place events in useful contexts, and the book adds to the sum of historical knowledge for that reason alone, such as Tony going to the USA in the aftermath of the US Marines' assault on Fallujah in Iraq. Tony had always cited the "Israel/Palestine road map" as evidence of his influence over Bush. Ariel Sharon had been at the White House the previous day and had got Bush's support for what Rawnsley editorialises was a "unilateral and aggressive" plan (p. 253) to build a security fence which would "annexe a big chunk of Palestinian land on the West Bank" so that Tony "felt compelled" to support the Sharon plan. Worth being reminded of when these things happened (though given the lack of year references in the chapters it is sometimes hard to remember which year we are in) despite the loaded language - maybe Tony actually meant what he said on Israel? Just maybe?

One disgraceful piece of editorialising by Rawnsley was about the pictures of US troops abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib - the Daily Mirror published faked pictures of British troops doing the same and its then editor Piers Morgan had to resign as a result - but Rawnsley goes straight on from mentioning the Morgan resignation and the faked pictures to say "In any case, there was nothing fake about the terrible evidence of abuse at Abu Ghraib" (p. 260). So that's all right then. Michael Jay said, according to Rawnsley, "You have to conduct foreign policy in accordance with the values you espouse. If you don't do that, you lose an enormous amount of moral authority" (p. 261). But I wonder if moral authority is a basis for the conduct of foreign policy anyway. Rawnsley does not pursue this further.

He does say that Tony's politics was "bent out of shape" by Iraq (p. 271). I would agree, but for different reasons.

Moving on, he says "In August 2004, the Democrats nominated Senator John Kerry as their candidate to take on Bush in the November presidential elections. The Labour Party, in common with the vast majority of Britons, was rooting for Kerry" (p. 271). Where had Rawnsley been? The vast majority of Britons had never heard of John Kerry, and have not to this day, neither had most of the Labour Party. Maybe we know he has great hair. Not much more. US politicians blur into one for most Britons, including politicians - I once heard Labour MP Martin Salter refer, also in 2004, to an initiative by "the Clinton-Dean people". Eh?

Poor David Blunkett. I think he is missed in government. He always impressed me, despite calling me "love". When he got into difficulties with his girlfriend's nanny's visa "the Cabinet Secretary thought that what Blunkett should have done was send the nanny to her constituency MP for help with the visa" (p. 286). What interests me about that statement, which I am fascinated to know was made, is why no politician thought of doing that, quite obviously the right thing to do, several times I had sensitive cases referred to me by cabinet ministers who had some personal connection but could refer it to me because the person lived in my constituency, but it was the civil servant who thought of it this time. Strange.

A phrase I had not heard until I read this book, perhaps because I campaigned only for the last three days of the 2005 election campaign" "The person Blair was running against was himself". Hmmm. Discuss.

The UK won the Olympic bid for 2012 because of Tony, and a quote I missed at the time came from Bertrand Delanoe, mayor of Paris and sometime contender for leader of the Parti Socialiste in France (he lost to Martine Aubry I am glad to say), according to Duncan Campbell (remember him?) in the Observer "We should have gone to war like the British did". I do not know if Delanoe can speak English, and I can find no reference to this quote anywhere on his website or archive. However.

Now you're getting it, Andrew Rawnsley: (on the 7/7 attacks) "the truth was that al-Qaeda had been committing atrocities long before the toppling of the Taliban and the invasion of Iraq, but emotion was more powerful than chronology for many of Blair's critics" (p. 336).

There is unthinking misogyny which it seems almost unfair to point out:

"Brown waved Thatcher's blood-stained, tear-smeared shroud: (p. 369). Think about it.

There is some sneering at brown-skin Arabs doing it for themselves too: Iraq's "optimistically named National Unity Government" (p. 375).

Frank Field MP, nice bloke, not usually a friend to the Labour or any other government, told Tony "You can't let Mrs Rochester out of the attic" re handing over to Gordon. Hilarious.

"Public trust and party support for him bled away with every returning bodybag from Iraq and Afghanistan." (p. 407). Rubbish. No evidence.

But Rawnsley is excellent on the Brown takeover, noting that first his staff, and then the political class, understand that he is at least as much a spinner as Tony, and he gets away with it at first (p. 477). "The era was epitomised by the diamond-encrusted skull manufactured by Damien Hirst. This grotesque was a classic sign of a bubble about to burst." (p. 482). Oh yeah? How can a "classic sign" be identified? This is lazy stuff, and nasty sometimes, as "when Tony Blair stood down as an MP to spend more time with his money" (p. 497).

I was interested to see that the Henley byelection, when Boris Johnson stood down to become Mayor of London, made the cut too, one of the rare ventures outside Westminster, though without naming the Labour candidate (Richard McKenzie of Reading East, since you ask) and just saying Labour came "an awful fifth".

Prepositions are never easy in English, but "Brown did not take offence to this intervention? (p. 554)

Nice descriptive language too, Angela Merkel is "solid, shrewd and unshowy" while Nicolas Sarkozy is "mercurial and flamboyant" (p. 626). Rawnsley gives good anecdote too: at the G20 the Czech Prime Minister, Miroslav Topolanek, attacked America, pissing off Sarkozy, who thought attacking America was his job, and later Topolanek said that he had only done it because he had been listening to "Bat Out Of Hell" by Meatloaf the previous night (p. 630).

Rawnsley does not go anywhere near the constituency party issue, usually a nightmare for MPs, or hardly does: Barry Sheerman MP said that when he called for a leadership ballot the party centrally started mixing it in his constituency. At the PLP, according to Rawnsley, Geraldine Smith MP said she "found herself falling in love with Peter Mandelson", upon which Mandy, now back in government and joined at the hip with Gordon as they had been long ago, in the dear dead days BT (Before Tony) and standing at the back of the room behind Gordon (who can hardly see anyway) blew her a kiss. Yuck. But probably true. I could picture the scene anyway.

There are moments where I just do not know what Rawnsley is on about: "A central characteristic of New Labour had been its absolute appetite for power, the burning conviction that there was nothing to be said for the impotence of Opposition" (p. 678). But party members, and many supporters, had long cherished Opposition for ideological purity reasons. Rawnsley should have known that. So what indeed was he on?

He ends the book in characteristically over-the-top fashion: the last party conference before the election, ie the 2009 event, closed with "The Red Flag" and "Jerusalem" to the accompaniment of a violin, but why on earth should it not, and he concludes with the words "the feeling that the light was failing on a project that once had the world at its feet". What bollocks. Though you could see what he was trying to do. The fading of the zeitgeist and all that.

But I carp, and I nitpick. Well, it is such fun to do so. It is an excellent read if you were there or interested in the time, and of course, as we must remind ourselves, Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister at the time of writing. So it ain't over yet.

Read the book. History as it was made.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Quote: "That this House takes note of Command Paper Cm 5769 on Iraq; reaffirms its endorsement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, as expressed in its Resolution of 25th November 2002; supports the Government's continuing efforts in the United Nations to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction; and calls upon Iraq to recognise this as its final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations." This is not a resolution to go to war. Was there any resolution to go to war?

jane said...

Precisely my point. The resolution threatens Iraq with action if it does not comply with the UN resolutions. It does not say "Go to war." I do think what is actually said, rather than what the Guardian thinks was meant, matters rather a lot.

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight. Did we go to war with Iraq without it being authorised by the House of Commons?

Anonymous said...

Many of us voted for Prescott because he seemed the best candidate at the time, and Blair was unknown to us at the time. Many of us voted for Foot because he was sincere and nice (although loony) rather than the right wing thug Healey, when the latter's qualities might have been better for a party leader.
Most Israelis who do not wish to annex the territories have always supported the secuirty fence as a defensive act.
Before Mandy "came out" there were quite a few mothers who thought he would make an ideal husband for their daughters.

Anonymous said...

Hm - I'm not really a fan of the pantomime dame, Rawnsley, Incidentally (and quite frivolously), whatever is he doing to his hair and can someone tell him that the ever burgeoning bouffant doesn't suit him?

Frank Field - not such a nice bloke on a dark night. Ask Harriet Harman.
But he knows how to turn on the tears, as those in his party in Liverpool in the eighties will remember. They wanted to de-select him (not that I support de-selection)and he literally cried all over Kinnock and Kinnock saved him. So that is how you deal with nasty CLPs, Frank?!
Next time, pass the tips on.
Yes, I am quite sure that the pram on the doorstep was deliberate. It is what people do when they are being really nasty and there are a lot of nasty people in the Labour Party at all levels.
As for Gerladine Smith falling in love with Mandy - well, she is definitely in love with someone and has been for some time, but the Business Secretary is a new one on me.
Don't tell her regular date.

jane said...

anonymous 1227: no. the House when it voted by a large majority for that motion knew exactly what it was voting for. those who voted against it (mostly) did so because they had promised their constituents, mosques, whatever, to vote against military action at every opportunity. those who abstained did so largely at hte behest of the whips. the action on Iraq remains the only military action on which there has been a prior vote in the House. Troops went into battle four times during Tony Blair's premiership, the other three were not voted on. But you are right to look at the wording of the motion (which more should have done at the time) and to note that it does not actually say "let's go to war".

Anonymous said...

Jane, I am still confused. You say "the House when it voted by a large majority for that motion knew exactly what it was voting for". What did they know? Did they know they were voting to give Iraq a last chance or had they been given a nod and a wink that the motion actually meant "let's go to war"?

jane said...

No nod, no wink. We voted to give Iraq a last chance and we knew that it would mean military action if it did not. I would rather have voted to go to war, but that was not before us. The Guardianista fans of genocide knew it too, and that is why they were so pissed off with us. But Hansard is important as a document of public record, which is why I thought it worth placing it before readers of this blog. I hope this clears up any confusion Anon.

Anonymous said...

Jane, this gets more and more confusing. I usually read the Daily Express but I seem to be a "Guardianista fan of genocide". The House voted to give Iraq a last chance to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 and Iraq did comply with that resolution, i.e. it got rid of its weapons of mass destruction. The decision to go to war was not, then, based on failure to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, but on something else. You seem to be quite happy about this but I am not. I think it is dishonest to go to war on one pretext and pretend that you did it on another.

jane said...

there's no "pretext" of any sort, the resolution before the Commons is as worded and there is nothing hidden. It is not clear at all that Iraq "got rid" of its WMD, but if it did, the most informed assessment is that it did so as long ago as 1991. So the weapons were not the point. If they had been the resolution before the House would have said so. What is below on Resolution 1441 might help:

On December 7, 2002, Iraq filed its 12,000-page weapons declaration with the UN in order to meet requirements for this resolution. The five permanent members of the Security Council received unedited versions of the report, while an edited version was made available for other UN Member States. On December 19, Hans Blix reported before the United Nations and stated in regards to Iraq's December 7 report (unedited version): "During the period 1991-1998, Iraq submitted many declarations called full, final and complete. Regrettably, much in these declarations proved inaccurate or incomplete or was unsupported or contradicted by evidence. In such cases, no confidence can arise that proscribed programmes or items have been eliminated." On January 27, 2003 Chief UN Weapons Inspector Blix addressed the UN Security Council and stated "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance -- not even today -- of the disarmament, which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace."[5] Blix went on to state that the Iraqi regime had allegedly misplaced "1,000 tonnes" of VX nerve agent—one of the most toxic ever developed.[6]

By mid-February the issues of anthrax, the nerve agent VX and long-range missiles remained unresolved. Blix's March 7 report stated "Iraq, with a highly developed administrative system, should be able to provide more documentary evidence about its proscribed weapons programmes. Only a few new such documents have come to light so far and been handed over since we began inspections."

Blix's report also stated: "What are we to make of these activities? One can hardly avoid the impression that, after a period of somewhat reluctant cooperation, there has been an acceleration of initiatives from the Iraqi side since the end of January. This is welcome, but the value of these measures must be soberly judged by how many question marks they actually succeed in straightening out. This is not yet clear. Against this background, the question is now asked whether Iraq has cooperated “immediately, unconditionally and actively” with UNMOVIC, as required under paragraph 9 of resolution 1441 (2002). The answers can be seen from the factual descriptions I have provided.

Anonymous said...

If the weapons were not the point, what was Resolution 1441 about?

David Akroyd said...

So WMDs were not a crucial part of Tony Blair's case for going to war?
Not what he said at the time.

"Saddam has plans for chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes." (September 24th 2002)

"We are asked to accept that Saddam decided to destroy these weapons. That is palpably absurd." (March 18th 2003)

"I have absolutely no doubt about the existence of weapons of mass destruction." (April 28th 2003)

Opposition to the Iraq invasion went well beyond Guardian readers & Jihadists. It included former Tory Cabinet Ministers Kenneth Clarke & Malcolm Rifkind as well as Military top brass such as General Sir Michael Rose (Former Commnander of British troops in Bosnia) & Field Marshal Lord Carver.

With regard to Commons motions, the earlier threads don't take on board that there were two key votes on Government motions, "Iraq - Support for the Government" (26th February 2003), "Iraq- Declaration of war" (18th March 2003). The wording of the second certainly left no doubt about what was being approved.

jane said...

There never was any doubt about what was being approved in both those votes. And Tony never said there was anything "crucial" about the WMD, though he did say the things you have quoted. If you read Resolution 1441 you will see what it was about. Namely Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with UN resolutions, including to disarm. Er, that's it.

Anonymous said...

You are being very slippery Jane. Saddam Hussein did disarm so what was the war about? If you are claiming that he didn't disarm then where are the weapons of mass destruction?

jane said...

on the contrary, do not believe me, believe the UN weapons inspectors' reports, which say consistently that there was no evidence of disarmament on Saddam Hussein's part.

Now - human rights and democracy in Iraq - you for or against?

girls going to school - what do you reckon?

Anonymous said...

Jane, if Tony Blair ever comes before a war crimes tribunal then your blog could be an important part of the evidence for the prosecution. You say 'There never was any doubt about what was being approved in both those votes. And Tony never said there was anything "crucial" about the WMD'. The spin I heard from the British government at the time was that the war was a defensive war against the possibility of Britain being attacked by Iraq's WMD and that was why it was legal. You have not answered my question "Where are the WMD now?". According to iraqbodycount.org about 100,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since 2003 and it seems a bit inadequate to say "Sorry, we made a mistake, there weren't any WMD after all". I will answer your other two points separately.

Anonymous said...

Quote: "Now - human rights and democracy in Iraq - you for or against?" Answer: I am for human rights and democracy in Iraq in principle but I don't think it was worth wrecking the country for them. Quote: "Girls going to school - what do you reckon?" Answer: This is not relevant. Before we wrecked it, Iraq was one of the most technologically advanced countries in the Middle East and girls did go to school.