Tough on the causes of Tony

29th October 2004 at 01:00
THE BLAIRS AND THEIR COURT. By Francis Beckett and David Hencke. Aurum Press pound;18.99

An avowedly one-sided biography that attacks the motives and personal beliefs of the Prime Minister misses the point for Tim Brighouse

Reading this book reinforced a personal prejudice regarding the limitations of biographies written during people's lifetimes. There is an inevitable bias in the authors to like the subject and be overly sympathetic - authorised biographies are notoriously fawning - or to dislike the subject and to be obsessively hostile. This is very much an unauthorised biography.

I find it difficult to think ill of people, especially those I don't instinctively like. I always give even those who have inadvertently done me some disservice the benefit of the doubt. So I didn't enjoy this book. Its unremitting attack on the Blairs - their behaviour, their motives and their beliefs - in the end makes me feel grubby.

But despite its lack of balance, cheerfully acknowledged by the authors, it is a fascinating read. Francis Beckett and David Hencke's sources come from two directions, their own meticulous and thorough research and the mostly unattributed remarks of disappointed ex-ministers or former friends (now distant acquaintances) of the Blairs. As the authors remark, ever pessimistic about human nature, the unwillingness of some to be named may indicate a lingering hope of preferment.

The book tells the mostly unedifying story of national politicians on the make and in the process "caballing" and being all things to all people. One chapter is called "The making of Teflon Tony"; another, "Rising through the snakepit". We read of schoolboy Blair, who sucked up to the matron and won the favour of the prettiest sixth-former, was not even a prefect and seemed very unbiddable: not heinous crimes. It also touches on his entry to and life in Oxford. But once he's into politics we hear about skulduggery including a doubtful-sounding nomination process in Sedgefield. But again, sadly, what's unusual about that?

More surprising is that once he was an MP, Tony Blair was unaware of the existence of trades councils. As leader of the Opposition he apparently had never heard of Michael Young (there was I, wondering if he'd taken on board the ironic warning of Lord Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy - that a new elite is likely to be just as oppressive as an old elite - when he'd not even read it).

The authors refer sneeringly to his shallow intellectual preferences, his liking for the works of management gurus and, in particular, the books of Charles Handy, whose contributions to Radio 4's Thought for the Day they perceive, by association, as an indictment of the Blairs' piety and habits of worship. I have no religious faith, but I quite like Handy's books. In short, if there's an unflattering interpretation to be fixed on the Blairs' behaviour, the authors invariably construct it. Real issues tend to get drowned out by the din of axes grinding.

One of these real issues is implied by the phrase "and their court" in the book's title. My brief encounter with the upper reaches of the corridors of power left me fascinated, if outraged, by the striking resemblance of a modern top-level government meeting to the workings of a medieval court.

Everyone plans for the meeting; presentations are rehearsed. Reactions are sought, not just from other ministers, but from those strange unaccountable beasts the political advisers, as well as, of course, the civil servants whom the advisers have partially displaced. The reputations of minor courtiers are made or destroyed by the contributions - even the body language - during the interchanges of the meetings and by the extensive post mortems among the courtiers. Loose cannons tend not to be invited to future meetings. This gets little analytical attention from the authors.

A related issue - the relationship between the media and government - is similarly under-examined. The occupations of politician and political journalist have become blurred, as so many have switched from one to the other role or filled both simultaneously. Dispassionate, disinterested comment and objectivity have been the victims in this process. Indeed, a very unhealthy condition of the modern body politic is the way in which an essentially backward-looking institution such as our parliamentary government interacts with the media. So-called "spin" originates in a bottom-line desire to look good. So it's essential to assert you are right, providing explanations and then reasons for why it has to be as you've presented it. If all else fails -think of Tony Blair and Iraq - everything becomes a question of opinion.

The political media - BBC, ITV, Sky and newspaper political correspondents - play a complicated and dangerous game with the Government, the final aim of which is to sling a hospital pass called blame. The unfortunate victim is either the media or the Government. Think of Hutton. Most people find this process unedifying. It is certainly deeply damaging to democracy. No wonder journalists and politicians are among the least trusted professions, nor that voting turn-out is dropping. Oh for a government with the courage to tackle rather than encourage this tendency. The authors, though, are too caught up in the fever of the hunt - for the Blairs, for Alastair Campbell, for Fiona Millar, for Peter Mandelson - to find time to analyse such issues.

In 50 years' time, biographies of Blair, relying on material at present unseen, will be written by historians considerably less biased than contemporary journalists. In education, they'll give credit for the unparalleled investment in under-fives and in urban education that has validated the efforts of teachers who want to crack the cycle of disadvantage. Plus marks, too, for choosing to provide education maintenance allowances for 16 to 19-year-olds, for increasing access to higher education and for making the rich pay more for it by a combination of deferred top-up fees - in effect a graduate tax - and grants for post-undergraduates.

On the debit side, there's the defining bad example Blair set over school choice for his own children, and his clinging for too long to faith in market forces in education and in the independent autonomous competing state school. In this he seems to have listened to one of the more dubious characters in his court (although as the authors, in fairness, point out, Alastair Campbell and Fiona Millar are implacably opposed to it).

The obsession with privatisation of LEAs and other institutions has merely shifted personnel from the public to the private sector, leading to no obvious improvement other than increased profits for the private sector shareholder. This and other measures have undermined and weakened local democracy, perhaps fatally, in England at least. Democratic historians will not forgive that either.

This book doesn't attempt that sort of analysis either in education, to which it devotes no more than a dozen or so pages, or in other areas of domestic policy where a balanced scorecard could also be struck. In foreign policy Blair will be judged more harshly: for miscalculating the outcome, especially on terrorism, of the Iraq adventure and for coming so late to the environmental issues.

If H G Wells was right in saying history is a race between education and catastrophe, Blair's clarion call for "education, education and education" deserves some credit. I, for one, can forgive him much for that.

And there is much to forgive.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for London schools

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