Personality trumps politics

Published by Biteback

Glyn Ford on the first Blair term

Labour Takes Power – The Denis MacShane Diaries 1997-2001

MacShane takes his readers deep into Blair’s sausage machine and at times it’s a desperate journey. Personality trumps politics at the expense of the real material interests of the people Labour was supposed to represent. It makes one yearn for a return to the golden days of fraction and faction. The very lack of ideological difference – often shorthand for a lack of any ideology at all – made the venal quarrelling worse as court politics took centre stage around the binary Blair – Brown stars, set in a firmament peopled by in/competent pairs of hands standing for nothing. 

A parallel set of diaries that cover the same period are Chris Mullin’s A Walk-On Part (2011) and A View from the Foothills (2009). These differ as chalk and cheese. Mullin is a leftist, mildly Eurosceptic wrestling with his conscience and not always winning, while Labour Takes Power shows a mainstream social democrat desperately waiting to be bought. MacShane notes the difference between writer and notetaker. A little harsh on himself, but the point is not entirely fallacious. Here itis all jangle and clash. A mix of hymnal and soap opera. Blair as the Teflon politician with Houdini tendencies on the one side, while on the other are the doings and undoing’s of Peter Mandelson stuck through the diaries like Blackpool through rock. Keith Vaz has serial walk on appearances for his indiscretions and ignorance, alongside hints and innuendos serving as trailers for subsequent mischance and mischief.

What sets Labour Takes Power a distance apart is that from amongst this blood splatter broader deeper themes and political currents can be dissected. The most important is the exposure of the Blair span as the untaken last best opportunity to place Britain at the heart of Europe instead of reconfirming it on its trajectory to post-Imperial husk. That this is here is no surprise, McShane’s forte was Europe from nature and nurture. It was the sea in which he swam. Born Josef Denis Matyjaszek in Glasgow with a Polish father and Irish mother, he long knew all the institutions and key players amongst the EU’s Social Democratic families and beyond from his work both as a journalist and as a trade union official in Geneva for the International Metal Workers Federation. 

He was no early attendant in the New Labour retinue, but a late comer to the party winning his Rotherham seat in a 1994 by-election. The realities of Government came as a shock. It wasn’t that Labour’s Internationalism was spread thin, or that European policy was drafted by Brown on the back of metaphorical fag packets, but rather the morphing of soft xenophobia into euro-scepticism infecting the bulk of the PLP that stood out. Arthur Scargill’s opening sentence- when he addressed the Socialist Group in the European Parliament in Strasbourg during the miners’ strike – proclaiming his pleasure to be visiting Europe, was not reprised by any of Team Tony, but it could have been. 

Blair himself was innocent of euro-scepticism. He was guilty by omission, not commission. He could have taken it head on but didn’t. He ripped up John Major’s Social Chapter opt-out in 1997 but then let the political capital generated in Brussels dribble through his fingers. Tony and Gordon were both convicted Trans-Atlanticists. Gordon was just less self-assured. For him the best way to avoid any danger threatening his Harvard democratic leftism was to keep his distance desperately waving his five fanciful conditions for joining the euro like a cross before a vampire. Tony had the audacity, and the missionary spirit, to venture collusion with Germany to subvert and sabotage France’s efforts to construct an independent European polity set apart from Washington. America’s poodle was determined to leave Paris’s body on Washington’s mat. In doing so Blair spurned the bigger picture. He had the political heft to build and sell the EU to Britain’s left behind. Instead, he kept his powder dry for Bush’s expeditionary wars.

Reading between Labour Takes Power’s lines, the Brexit writing was on the wall, just for the moment over-written by contemporary messaging. McShane in May 2001, in the shadow of that year’s General Election, is concerned there are too many hostels for asylum seekers in Rotherham. His voters only marginally prefer Poles to Pakistanis, while Blair backs the widening of early enlargement to stifle EU deepening. Globalisation is not tamed by any insistence on the imposition of core labour standards. All compounded by Jack Straw’s idiosyncratic revision of Britain’s European constituencies that breathed life into the homunculus that was Nigel Farage gifting him and his ilk position and platform on Question Time, Any Questions and the rest. In the absence of any concerted case being made in favour of Britain in Europe Labour won its battles, lost the war and scuttled its future!


  1. Nice turn of phrase, “court politics”. I remember at the time realising that “who’s in and who’s out” seemed to be the main concern of the SpAds and other wannabes. Might as well have been Louis Quatorze’s entourage at Versaille. Not much interest in Government and bugger-all about societal change. Ministers moved every five minutes and certainly before they became effective.

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