As Mandelson publishes his take on Labour’s election loss, what effect are these snap memoirs having on the political system?by Anne McElvoy / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Is it that time already? The Labour government has been out of office for less than three months and Peter Mandelson has already published a memoir about his time as the third man alongside Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
Through Mandy we hear from the Berlin bunker of new Labour after the defeat. Somehow it ended up with the dear old prince of darkness doing what he did to Gordon back in 1994: ensuring he stood aside, while formally acting on his behalf: “I was increasingly concerned about the price Gordon might pay if he were seen to be hanging on too long.”
Undoubtedly, one of the fastest changes in the government is the enthusiasm or sheer desperation of those who served at or close to the top to get their memories published as quickly as possible. One of Mandelson’s old foes from the era of Blair-Brown civil war, the former Brownite spin doctor Charlie Whelan, observed to me: “They should be forced to wear T-shirts saying, ‘I’m writing a memoir—avoid me.’” The question I was most asked by departing ministers was whether I knew a good literary agent.
The working assumption now has to be that anyone in possession of a home computer and day job in government must be penning a doorstop for the rest of us to read on holiday.
A senior member of the coalition, describing its speed-dating style instant conception of a new government, jokes that you could “practically hear the Dictaphones whirring in the background of the talks between the parties.” Nick Clegg’s account, The Second Man, is a dead cert to appear one day—though I would predict stiff competition from Michael Gove’s The Insider. And what varifocal memories the coalition will provide. Vince Cable’s account already looks like being titled I Told Them So.
Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer who assisted Brown’s attempts to forge his Lib-Labbery, is spending the summer chronicling those five days that changed the British political landscape—the period of the formation of the Lib-Con pact, from the perspective of someone who wanted a Lib-Lab one.
How much does this churn of recent information matter? Quite a lot when the controversies are still alive and the arguments unconcluded. The books chronicling the US’s failure to plan for the aftermath of the Iraq war, Thomas E Ricks’s Fiasco among them, were written while troops were still engaged in conflict and added considerably to the pressure on George W Bush.
Christopher Meyer dished the dirt from the Olympian heights of the foreign and commonwealth office on Blair’s “sofa government” and its toadying to Washington. But much as I relish the art of the insider memoir, I still think Meyer was pushing it a bit.
Politicians are regularly accused of failing to listen to advice that doesn’t suit them. Yet how can they frankly exchange views with an ambassador or seek open advice if the conversations are to be relayed publicly a short period afterwards? In the tell-all era, we need to consider how much having an eye on paper posterity affects decision-making—especially when the calls in question are delicate or risky.
The rise of the freedom of information (FOI) request invites another level of subterfuge. FOI has many strengths. Without it we would not have details of MPs’ expenses, proof of the link between fealty to government pet projects and peerages, or some delicious details about the more extravagant spending habits of the various departments. It has lifted the thick curtain that lay across much of public life in Britain.
But there is a cost, too. Ministers are learning not to commit sensitive conversations to email or have note-takers present at conversations when they can avoid it. “The running record is not a friend to good government,” says one former home secretary. “It just makes ministers more cautious. The safest thing when an FOI comes along is to have done or said nothing.”
The former attorney general Peter Goldsmith was placed in the invidious position of having private advice he received on the legality of war made public. Indeed, the Iraq inquiry set an intriguing precedent. Details of Goldsmith’s last-minute uncertainties were released because of the “special nature” of the evidence, when the same status could surely apply to any other contentious decision. The point of advice is that it is needed in borderline cases and judgments that will later be found questionable.
Making everything accessible to the public means more is done on back channels. A US lawyer advising the Obama administration on Afghanistan recently told me he thought the British system “unbelievably transparent because you name the legal adviser—poor guy.” Future British AGs are sure to be more careful than Goldsmith.
So cherish, by all means, the revelations of these memoirs and our new open society. But discretion still has its place—a dying art but not a useless one.