Magazine article The Spectator

When Did Blair Know?

Magazine article The Spectator

When Did Blair Know?

Article excerpt

SERVANTS OF THE PEOPLE

by Andrew Rawnsley

Hamish Hamilton, (L)17.99, pp. 394

When historians come to write the true story of New Labour, the idealism-turned-- tawdriness phenomenon of the late 20th century, they will be astonished at the huge number of books it spawned, each one claiming to be more `inside' than the one before. In excess of 30 have already appeared, and more are on the way.

Andrew Rawnsley's account is subtitled `the' inside story, as though there is only one. It is a useful conceit, for it encapsulates the purpose of his account, which is to present a Blairite interpretation of history as it is being made. With a characteristic show of immodesty, he offers to make his source material available when the current prime minister is no longer in power. On present trends, he may not have to wait so long.

To ensure that he got his version of events correct enough, Rawnsley was given access to Downing Street aides, advisers and civil servants and even (according to Westminster gossip) Tony Blair himself. And there is unquestionably a wealth of detail here, even if much of it is difficult to believe. Can these po-faced people really spend so much time effing and blinding each other in private while smiling sweetly for the cameras?

Rawnsley offers a highly readable account of the first three years of New Labour in power. It is not his fault that the latest opinion polls have negated his - I'm sorry, his master's - verdict that `the only thing that can defeat us is ourselves'. What is his fault, however, is the enormous reliance on unsourced quotations and `facts'. On no fewer than 140 occasions he hides demurely behind the source `private information'. Private interviews with civil servants are sourced nine times, ditto private interviews with cabinet ministers. There are private interviews with ministers and understrappers, and Private Rawnsley even quotes a private interview with a Liberal Democrat, surely a contradiction in terms. Only one out of nearly 200 such sourcings is `private interview with a Brown aide', which tell us from which side of the argument he is coming.

Such dependence is ultimately self-- defeating. Servants of the People reads like a racy film script rather than credible contemporary history. Everybody is trying to do everybody else down, and often succeeding. It is not so much the chronicle of a reforming government as a black and white melodrama, and, that being so, we are not compelled to suspend disbelief. …

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