Andrew Rawnsley, Bully Brown and the Commentariat
Since I read in Private Eye that Andrew Rawnsley had a new gossip column book coming out, I’ve been looking forward to it. The examination of politics on a personal level is a fundamental part of English political discourse.
Whether pen portraits in the manner of John Maynard Keynes on the world leaders at Versailles, or anecdotes like Ernest Millington (Commonwealth Party MP 1945-1950) sticking it to some stuffy Tory MP and RAF officer, they illuminate a human drama.
One of my favourites is George Dangerfield’s record of behaviour in the Commons between 1908 and 1914, in his Strange Death of Liberal England. He records fisticuffs on the floor, a book being flung by an honourable member and a PM in tears over a strike.
Whatever one’s political views, these sketches connect us in a very personal way to history, to people and to an atmosphere created by the manner in which the players in this drama comport themselves, with which we can identify or be repulsed by. As befits a drama there are heroes and villains, hubris and nemesis. With the revelations of Rawnsley’s new book, one might be forgiven for thinking that Nemesis is stalking Gordon Brown.
Based on ‘eye witness accounts’, the allegations include Brown’s use of physical intimidation and yelling, throwing things when upset and the occasional paranoid outburst. I have a few things to say about Mr. Rawnsley himself in a moment, but it cannot be stressed enough: If Brown is guilty of any of these things, he should not be Prime Minister. His personal conduct in a working environment is political, and this type of thing is unconscionable.
How many feminists would be prepared to stand for such threatening, masculinist behaviour? How many trades unionists would be willing to stand for it in any other work environment? I don’t want to idealize the past or overstate Rawnsley’s case, but these allegations suggest to me that Blair and Brown have done nothing to challenge the political culture of bullying that is well documented from John Major’s government.
As I say, I don’t wish to idealize the past; perhaps prior to that it was just as bad or worse in some ways – but all one needs to add to the account, to complement the paranoia, the explosive rages, the attempted bullying for political ends by people holding high office, are the marital affairs and the perjury and we’ll be right back to Toryland of the 1990s. That is a damning indictment of 13 years of Labour government, which arrived amidst a celebration of renewed ethics and morality in government.
One would think that a Party whose cornerstone is supposedly the idea of human rights and individual dignity should have the capacity to put itself beyond reproach. Whatever one thinks of the specific allegations made by Rawnsley, on the back of witnesses only some of whom are identified and each of whom may have their own political agenda, Labour has clearly failed to do this, even if, as the New Statesman maintains, the allegations are simply wrong.
Meanwhile, Labour’s politics have done little but make suspicions all the easier to harbour, with blunder after blunder, seeming to be against the working class, whether the poor or middling components, against our liberties and so on.
A note on Andrew Rawnsley and political journalism
All that said, my unease about all this goes beyond smacking the Labour Party, or the electoral connotations.
First, I don’t trust anyone who claims to be ‘unpartisan’, as Rawnsley has. Rawnsley, presumably, is clever enough to admit that no one is unbiased and that we all approach every situation with certain assumptions. Yet if someone said to me that they were personally disinterested in the outcome of the election, I’m afraid I would not believe them.
At one level, this denial of partisanship clouds more than it reveals about Rawnsley’s political prejudices. At another level, I resent people who comment on the process without getting their hands dirty. The British Isles can boast a fine tradition of pamphleteers and writers, from Tories like Defoe and Swift to William Morris and the socialists – but they all had a personal interest in what they were doing.
If what Rawnsley has described is accurate then it needs to be brought forth, but publishing a book and waiting for the controversy to arrive is the equivalent of a boyish ‘ring-and-run’ prank. Rawnsley can piously stand back and say he disapproves of all such behaviour – and assure us that his documentary on Cameron is on the way – but he hasn’t changed anything. He hasn’t left the situation better than when he found it.
Tories might say that it will be better, if it results in the election of a Tory government, but – despite my political convictions making this an obvious thing to say – I don’t think that’s true. I suspect there are much deeper issues at work than simply one man’s temper, even if that man is the Prime Minister. These issues won’t be addressed by see-sawing first to one party and then the other and vice-versa, though that’s about the only option left in a party system which has exchanged deep roots for the mass media.
Andrew Rawnsley is not to blame for the state of British politics, but he is profiting from it, rather than being engaged to rectify it and I find that objectionable.
Secondly and relatedly, the proper time for these allegations to come out into the open should have been some time in the last thirteen years. Rawnsley’s last book on the subject was in 2000, when he wrote Servants of the People, dealing with similar themes. Brown took over in mid 2007. There’s been almost three years of this type of thing, not including Blair’s final years, or the leadership contest in the Labour Party.
So I don’t trust the word of ‘witnesses’ who have prepared to hold their tongue until it is politically convenient to smear Brown / reveal the truth. If true, these allegations reflect just as badly on the witnesses as they have been content to lay low while other people continued to be subject to the types of behaviour Rawnsley outlines. They are answerable ultimately not to the Prime Minister, but to Parliament and to the people.
On the innumerable occasions these senior civil servants sat in the comfy chairs of the Commons’ committee rooms and drank their tea, they should have raised these issues – put them on record, forced the Labour Party and the media to deal with them. I can’t speak to the truth of the allegations themselves, but if true, the men who have withheld such revelations are black hearted indeed.
Rawnsley shouldn’t have reduced himself and his trade to be the mouthpiece for such people. If they are as damning as Rawnsley makes out, the accusations should have been made publicly. They should have challenged Parliament to hold the Executive to account. Instead they’ve been reduced to a pantomime of “Yes you did ” / “No I didn’t”, with the added obscene melodrama of Gordon Brown citing his dead father and his upbringing as a defence against the accusations.
This is not what political journalism came through hanging, pillorying and censorship to do and Rawnsley has a share of the blame.