“Mad, bad and dangerous”, these are the epithets apparently attached to Gordon Brown, our previous Prime Minister by Tony Blair our previous Prime Minister but one. They form the centre piece of some very serious muck raking by the man who tried to play both of them off against each other throughout Labour’s thirteen years in Government, Peter Mandelson.
Americans may be forgiven for not sharing the hype generated by Mandelson’s new book ‘The Third Man’ here in Westminster circles. It is unlikely to make the transfer across the pond, and while part of me is anxious not to give ‘The Third Man’ the oxygen of publicity, it is significant in that it reveals the sheer vindictiveness of raw power. In short, Blair, Brown and Mandelson were architects of something called ‘New Labour’, a neo liberal edifice created around an existent Labour Party, which had broadly been a social democratic party rooted in the trade unions and strongest in the urban and industrial areas of Britain. Blair was the communicator, the PR man par excellence, the ‘actor manager’ if you like. Brown was the brooding revisionist, the man who essentially believed in achieving the same goals, but by different means. Mandelson was the Svengali, the spin doctor, who dripped and oozed his way around the Third Estate, and who inculcated fear and loathing in equal measure. He saw himself very much as the puppet master.
The trouble was that he gave both Blair and Brown the impression that he was supporting them both simultaneously, a lie that even he could not pretend for long. And so the scene became set for the next thirteen fractious years, years in which Tony made promises to Gordon about stepping down in his favour (twice), Gordon became increasingly disenchanted with the fey, superficiality of Blair in Government, and years in which Mandelson’s Ministerial career peaked and troughed twice in quick succession. Throughout, Mandelson was main conduit for media briefings, making the careers of some journalists and trashing the careers of others.
One of the major reasons that I decided to give up on Labour politics – for some years I was an elected member of the party’s ruling Executive and Editor of Tribune – was that I could no longer stand the crushing of democracy, the party’s seismic shift to the right, the Iraq War and the fact that British politics had truly become a pathetic, myopic, circus. ‘New Labour’ was created, we were told, to draw a line under the divisions of the past. All that went before was either traduced or to be forgotten. Blair’s election as leader, aided in secret by Mandelson, with the codename ‘Bobby’ because he was so unpopular amongst Labour MP, marked our very own ‘Year Zero’. Each time I reported from inside North Korea, I became more and more convinced that the model for this new party, which soon morphed into a weird Blair fan club, was the North Korean Workers Party. This party, as with all of its former sister parties in the Eastern Bloc was run by ‘command and control’ a system of democratic centralism. Mandelson was absolutely key to developing this trajectory.
This all had the desired effect. MPs increasingly became ‘speak your weight automatons’ or Stepford Wives. Dissent was banished, dissenters barred from any position of influence. This was all done to avoid ‘disunity’. Meanwhile, at the top, the unhappy triumvirate that was Blair, Brown and Mandelson fought likes cats in a sack. But since none of them dared press the thermo nuclear button, this anger, frustration and bile became ever more corrosive, because it had become the hate that dared not reveal its name.
What Mandelson’s book reveals is his own vanity and egotism, along with a capacity to self destruct. Gordon Brown bizarrely bought his former great enemy back into Government, presumably because it was safer to have him in the tent rather than outside. Mandelson has repaid Brown for his act of rehabilitation by truly putting the boot into the former Prime Minister.
Shortly, we can expect the Blair take on the ‘New Labour’ years. We have already had the published diaries of his eponymous press spokesman, Alastair Campbell, which was sadly another exercise in blood-letting. I almost hope that Gordon Brown doesn’t respond by descending to their level, but feel that he must if only to put a seal on thirteen largely wasted years, where the leaders of the country were more concerned by petty infighting than many of the great issues and events of the day.