FOURTH ESTATE, 2010
This journal's style guide includes, among handy hints on font sizes and hyphenation, advice on whether it is permitted for reviewers to mention books other than the text to be reviewed. Such references are 'discouraged but not prohibited'. Thus admonished, I confess I find it impossible to approach Steve Richards's study of Gordon Brown without at least a nod to other works which also take the story of our last Prime Minister as their central theme.
The expanding universe of New Labour literature has seen books used to set out a manifesto, for catharsis and for revenge. Read Robert Peston's Brown's Britain, Tom Bower's Gordon Brown - Prime Minister, Paul Routledge's Gordon Brown or certain sections of Jonathan Powell's New Machiavelli and you are confronted by perspectives as reliable as witness statements in a Kurosawa film. Appropriately enough, we also have a TV drama, The Deal, whose own version of reality was a contested political weapon (Brown was allegedly delighted by The Deal's version of events). The bare facts are clear, but the interpretations, motivations, and consequences are entirely different. Whose account can we trust?
Steve Richards brings two important attributes to the task of defining Gordon Brown's role in our recent past. First, he is willing to listen sympathetically to anyone, and so extracts insights from the greyest of politicians and advisers. We find Stephen Byers dreaming of a shoot-out in a multi-story car park, David Miliband cavorting on a dance floor, and a Brown adviser slipping out of the campaign to re-elect a Labour government to brief that the defenestration of the Prime Minister will begin immediately the votes are counted. These insights illustrate an all too rare understanding of why politicians act the way they do, and of the forces they find themselves operating under.
Perhaps because of this natural empathy, the second tool Richards brings to the subject of high politics under New Labour (advice from the style guide: capitalise where the organisation capitalises itself - New Labour was nothing if not emphatic) is belief in the importance of sorting policy wheat from gossip chaff. Richards's contention is that although the personal dramas of Labour's leaders are significant, too often they are used to conceal the underlying political debate which drives the conflicts. So, while Whatever It Takes follows Andrew Rawnsley in being a treasure trove of anecdotes...