I bought this tome shortly after its publication; however, I didn’t get around to reading it until I had to contend with less than optimal circumstances. On March 17, my paternal grandmother died; a day later, I was on my way to America for the funeral. There was little time to think: I just threw my clothes and supplies into my bag. As I am taller than a circus midget, I knew there was almost no prospect of my getting any sleep on the flight. Furthermore, the headphones the airline uses are precisely the type which are the right size to pop out of my ears without warning. Without rest or entertainment, I needed a fairly meaty volume in order to pass the time. As I was taking an evening flight, it also had to be interesting enough to keep me from succumbing to boredom in the darkness. I cast a glance at my nighttable, which at the best of times is overloaded with books: “The End of the Party” immediately fit the bill.
This is not my first encounter with Mr. Rawnsley’s coverage of New Labour; I read with relish his first book about the subject, “The Servants of the People”. At the time, his precision in describing the personalities driving New Labour seemed uncanny; in “The End of the Party” it is positively eerie. As a result, in some ways, it reads like a novel: Rawnsley is able to describe the inner thoughts of his dramatis personae and yet, this doesn’t jar.
If Rawnsley is right, the people of Britain should be very worried; behind the carefully crafted facade of hyperbole and spin, New Labour is a menagerie of disturbed personalities. We are first presented with Tony Blair, who excels at public presentation, but is shown to have a problem standing up to anyone with a stronger will than his own. For example, President Bush is portrayed as being more stubborn than his British counterpart; Blair’s personal attributes and his desire to cling to America meant that he was willing to go along with whatever the Americans wanted, even if he knew that the consequences could be disastrous. Indeed he was so focused on maintaining the alliance that he somehow was able to compartmentalise the data he received: for example, information regarding Iraq’s military capabilities was finessed and massaged until possibilities became certainties. There is no doubt this agenda of purposeful embellishment was driven by the Prime Minister and his acolytes; it is beyond refutation that Britain went to war in Iraq merely because it was what President Bush wanted to do.
Blair’s quirks were just as problematic in the domestic sphere: if Rawnsley is correct, Britain has essentially had two Prime Ministers for the bulk of New Labour’s time in office. Gordon Brown has maintained tight control over domestic policy, which has had the consequence of stifling public service reform. Brown’s personality is described in excruciating detail: he is portrayed as jealous and obsessed, easily offended, and extremely territorial. Indeed, his temperament was so problematic that the MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field, described Brown as “Mrs. Rochester” and begged Blair not to let him “out of the attic”. Rawnsley, however, is resolutely fair: he leaves the reader with the unmistakable impression that Brown has the will to be Prime Minister and appears to work well when he is facing one big issue at a time (such as the credit crunch). Yet, his managerial skills are poor: his most glaring problem is his total inability to delegate. He ends up micromanaging issues, and in the process tends to miss the bigger picture. Furthermore, Brown’s dearth of communication skills only serve to highlight rather than mask his flaws. In many ways, it’s a pity that the best qualities of Blair and Brown could not combine into one person, as that individual would be a formidable leader.
New Labour to this day remains a coalition of competing and hostile factions based upon their admiration for either Blair or Brown. The return of Peter Mandelson to government has soothed some of these tempers, but nevertheless, there is a pathology at the heart of government: the Cabinet appears to be largely comprised of scheming, unhappy and driven people like Brown’s long-time comrade in arms Ed Balls, who are constantly grasping for control, not just of government, not just the public, but also the nation’s narrative. Behaviour that would not be tolerated in a more typical context, e.g., Brown screaming at Blair that the latter had ruined his life, becomes expected at these rarified elevations. Power in this case is a projection of personal sickness, and it has the unfortunate consequence of affecting the lives of millions. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is getting some of Britain’s best and brightest killed.
“The End of the Party” is useful in exposing this truth; Rawnsley does not state it explicitly himself. It would be entirely unnecessary for him to do so. However, one wonders given the recent tightening in opinion polls if his choice of title is indicative of a wish as well as the likely outcome of the next general election. While there are individual Labour party members who are genuinely motivated by a spirit of public service and whose sincerity is beyond doubt, their efforts support an apparatus which seems to have run its course. Decline and fall is the overall sensation one gets as the book draws to a close, though the end of the Labour administration is yet to be written. It is difficult to conclude anything other than that this Government’s termination is justified.
I found that I was on the ground by the time I got to the last pages; I read quickly, however my rapid progress was mostly due to the fact the book was so absorbing that time’s passage had escaped my perception. Intriguing, entertaining, appalling and yet compulsive – “The End of the Party” fulfilled its function as a travel companion; it should also be on the nighttable of every potential voter who wants to understand what they’re voting for or against.