Magazine article The Spectator

Hidden Turmoil of a Teetering Acrobat

Magazine article The Spectator

Hidden Turmoil of a Teetering Acrobat

Article excerpt

Hidden turmoil of a teetering acrobat Matthew Parris PRETTY STRAIGHT GUYS: THE STRANGE DEATH OF LABOUR ENGLAND by Nick Cohen Faber, L14.99,pp. 311, ISBN 0571220037

For this reviewer, Nick Cohen has achieved the near-impossible. He arouses in me a sneaking sympathy for Mr Tony Blair. It may not have been the Observer and New Statesman columnist's intention to remind readers how much the Left hate and how utterly they disown this prime minister, but for columnists like me - inclined to let Blairbashing go a little to our heads - the lesson is sobering: infuriating though Mr Blair may be to us, an argument can be made that his government has been the continuation of Conservatism by other means. When you see how the Left hate him you have to ask whether he could be all bad.

I would recommend Pretty Straight Guys as an antidote to any Tory tempted to interpret New Labour as a subtle relaunch of the British Left under voter-friendly colours. Cohen is a notably unslovenly journalist. A hallmark of his writing is a respect for facts, for direct quotation, and for the complexities behind events others oversimplify. He shows stamina in the unpicking of complicated stories. Examining the Hindujah brothers scandal, Labour's approach to criminal justice, the evolution of asylum policy, the Millennium Dome, Enron, the Mittal affair and a good deal more, he builds relentlessly towards his conclusions. Anyone with a disposition to see Blairism as a right-wing, Murdoch-fuelled conspiracy against liberty and justice, and Blair himself as a cunning and careful strategist in a predetermined cause, will find Cohen's case irresistible.

I am impressed but not persuaded. I regard the Prime Minister as all at sea ideologically, philosophically and morally - but, in his butterfly way, the pretty straight guy he claims to be. I see in him a well-meaning and in some ways rather reactionary man who surely wants to make the world a better place but has proved incapable of marshalling his thoughts when it comes to deciding how. His natural talent for self-advertisement keeps rescuing him from the inconsistencies of his own position, the failures in his past record, and the holes in his future plans. He has accepted support and applause where he can find it and, having anyway an instinctive respect for the rich and famous, has been pleased to be their friend. In my analysis, desperation and internal panic are the keynotes: the hidden turmoil of the acrobat who knows he has climbed onto one too many chairs and grins now to the roaring crowd below as the band plays on.

To those who share my inclination to see Mr Blair as a story of human weakness, I commend Pretty Straight Guys as the best available opposing case: Blair as an example of strong and purposive - if devious - leadership. …

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