April 20, 2002

Rawnsley: Servants of the People

I am sitting here, reading the second page of this book by Andrew Rawnsley, wondering whether I should go on with it or simply move it to the "do not read" pile. It's called _Servants of the People_: The Inside Story of New Labour_. It's about the rise to power of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and their political allies, and their subsequent exercise of power in the first British Labour government since the 1970s.

The problem is that on his second text page--page xiv--Rawnsley writes that New Labour's "... desire for hegemony... was chillingly suggestive to some of those tyrranical regimes which call themselves 'People's Democarcies' are are neither." Now in my view an author who writes such a sentence--who says that in the eyes of "some" Tony Blair = Josef Stalin--owes me another sentence immediately following. He can write that "such hysterical falsehoods serve as an index of how unbalanced the opposition to New Labour became." He can write that "there is some truth in the charge that New Labour's internal politics is profoundly undemocratic." He can write that "such charges are substantively true: Tony Blair is a tyrannical totalitarian thug." What--to my mind at least--he cannot do is raise the equivalence Tony Blair = Josef Stalin, attribute it to "some," and then back away, as if he could deny that he planted such a bomb by wiping his fingerprints off of it. When such a sentence goes off it must have an effect on the mind of the reader. The author has, I think, an obligation to diffuse this bomb or to set out the extent to which it is his view, rather than the view of "some."

Reading along, I discover that Tony Blair = Josef Stalin is Rawnsley's view, or at least is a view that Rawnsley wants to make sure is whispered into his readers ears, without, of course, leaving too many of his own fingerprints on it. I have found:

  • Rawnsley's description of Blair's operating style as "chillingly suggestive to some... of those tyrannical regimes... 'people's democracies'" (p. xiv).
  • Rawnsley's description of the New Labour core as "a junta who had executed a coup d'etat" (p. xiv).
  • Rawnsley's description of New Labour's leaders as a "power hungry group who seized the commanding heights" (p. xiv).
  • Rawnsley's describing their "seiz[ing] control of a party, and then tak[ing] power over the country" (p. xvi).

And we are only on the fourth text page of Rawnsley's book....

In the first four text pages of his book, Rawnsley repeatedly deploys the rhetorical tropes of dictatorship against Tony Blair and New Labour. The most polite thing that can be said about them is that they are gross overstatements. Tony Blair did not "take power over the country": he was *elected* by the voters of Britain. Tony Blair did not "seize control of [the Labour Party]": he was chosen its leader. Tony Blair did not shoot his way into the presidential palace at the head of a "junta who had executed a coup d'etat". Those who truly cannot distinguish between Stalin's Kremlin and Tony Blair's Number 10 Downing Street deserve only pity. Those who can distinguish and choose not to deserve only scorn.

Why the use of the grossly inappropriate rhetoric of dictatorship for the--popular--elected leader of one of the world's oldest democracies? There is only one explanation I can think of. Rawnsley wants to undermine Blair's claim to legitimate democratic authority. He can't do it head on. But he can whisper in his readers' ears by associating "Blair" and "dictator" as often as possible, and hoping that the connotations and rhetorical excess will leak across into denotations, and persuade people that Blair is somehow an illegitimate Prime Minister. Rawnsley has this goal, and resorting to the smarmy rhetoric of a partisan hack is the only weapon he can use.

Thus when Rawnsley comes to write a summary sentence about how it was that Tony Blair and his right-hand-man Gordon Brown were such an effective team in public, Rawnsley calls it a "tribute to the [(i)] discipline of both men and [(ii)] their mutual desire for power.." These are two somewhat discreditable reasons. Are there other reasons for their ability to become and remain a highly effective team? Yes. In addition to Rawnsley's (i) and (ii), I can think of:

  • (iii) belief that continued Conservative rule would be bad for Britain;
  • (iv) belief that a modernized, technocratic, pragmatic Labour party robbed of its attachment to outmoded shibboleths could make Britain a better, kinder, gentler place;
  • (v) extraordinary mutual respect for each other's talents and capacities;
  • (vi) a long history of shared pursuit of a common cause together while the leaders of the Opposition;
  • (vii) a deep albeit somewhat cracked friendship.

Why do only reasons (i) and (ii) make it into Rawnsley's list, when there is at least as much evidence for each of (iii) through (vii)? Why if not that Rawnsley is trying very hard to make New Labour look bad wherever he can? Thus it is very clear how to read the book. If Rawnsley says something creditable about New Labour, believe it. If Rawnsley says omething discreditable, be very, very wary of trusting that you have the full or even an unmendacious account.

Indeed, I believe that if you read closely you can see the seams and bad stitching in Rawnsley's mendacious argument. So farI have read only one chapter closely: chapter 3, "Bank of Brown," about Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's immediate post-election decision to shift responsibility for setting interest rates away from the (political) Treasury to the (technocratic) Bank of England. In thic chapter we learn that because of Gordon Brown's "pathological urge to be in control" he had long wanted to get rid of and had "in his [gun]sights" the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Howard Davies (p. 36). But the next time we hear of Davies, on page 41, Brown has offered Davies a promotion. He has asked him if he would become Chairman of a brand-new regulatory agency to oversee financial markets, the Securities and Investment Board, and thus be placed on a level equivalent to that of his current boss, Bank of England Governor Eddie George.

Thus the only possible human reaction is, "Huh?" If you are desperate to get rid of people, you do *not* immediately promote them to the headship of a powerful regulatory agency, the creation of which is going to be one of your flagship initiatives. Whatever the relationship between Brown and Davies, it is much more complicted than Rawnsley lets us know--and shame on him and on his editor for not thinking that we readers are too dumb to notice that what is said on page 36 is inconsistent with what s said on page 41.

Or consider another person whom Rawnsley says that Brown wanted to be rid of as part of his "pathological urge to be in control": Principal Secretary Terry Burns. By the end of chapter 3, we know two things about Burns: First, Burns's people had demanded "a month" to get ready for the handover of control over monetary policy to the Bank of England. Why? There is no conceivable substantive reason. At the U.S. Treasury in the early 1990s, John Auten's people--now Karen Hendershott's--could have gotten all the analytical and staffwork for such a decision done in two days if the Treasury Secretary had said that it was his highest priority (although they would probably have asked for a week). Either Burns was trying to demonstrate that he could keep things from happening quickly, and Brown had better get used to that, or Burns was hoping that delay would allow the assembly of a coalition that would block the shift of substantive power away from Burns's bailiwick and to Eddie George's--never mind that his boss the Chancellor wanted that shift of substantive power to happen.

Second, Burns had exceeded the limits of his authority and knowledge by promising Bank of England Governor Eddie George that "nothing was likely to happen about the Bank of England's [non-monetary and] other powers in the near future."

If I had a subordinate who had given false assurances about what I was going to do, and who had dragged his feet for no possible reason save bureaucratic cussiness with respect to my very first policy initiative, I would have wanted him gone too, and gone fast. No government department can afford to have a Humphrey Appleby (from the TV series, "Yes, Minister") at the head of its civil service, ever. Yet the only two things we learn about Terry Burns in chapter 3 seem to conclusively demonstrate that that was the role he was trying to play.

Moreover, there is one much more important criticism to be made about Rawnsley's book. One finishes reading chapter 3 without Rawnsley having provided any ******* information at all about the substantive issues at stake in Gordon Brown's policy decisions.

Had Rawnsley been interested enough to take notes and spent five minutes talking about the substance with Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, or any of a host of others, he could have easily written four concise and informative substantive paragraphs. Those four paragraphs would give a reader a good grasp of just why Gordon Brown thought turning over control over interest rates to the Bank of England was "the right thing to do". They would speak to the substance of government, rather than to the public relations. And they would be highly creditable to New Labour. Ten minutes with any of them, and Rawnsley would have been able to write as well just why Brown thought (and thinks) that a proper financial supervisory organization needs a certain independence from the banker-centered interest rate-setting Bank of England.

But does Rawnsley spend those ten minutes learning about the policy substance from Ed Balls? No. A reader finishes the chapter with his or her knowledge about monetary and regulatory policy completely unchanged. For those of us who think that the important thing about government is not that it is an amusing if badly-scripted soap opera, but that the government's policies shape real people's opportunities and lives, Rawnsley's astonishing ignorance of the substance of government is a high intellectual crime indeed.

Thus when Rawnsley complains--and he complains long and bitterly--about how so many in the Blair Administration are accomplished spin artists, masters of journalistic manipulation, my reaction is that he is the carnivore complaining that the antelope are speedy. The Blair Administration is filled to the brim with people who focus on the substance of policy, and of how policies can make Britain better. But Rawnsley does not care about them, does not talk to them, does not see them.

Posted by DeLong at April 20, 2002 03:40 PM | TrackBack

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