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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.

  1. Andy Price
    February 21, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Not a detailed analysis of your article – but some first perhaps slightly incoherent thoughts, – whilst I avoid doing the work I’m supposed to be doing!

    1. On Brown if ‘guilty’ not being the prime minister….
    Do you really believe this? I take many of your points about Rawnsley’s timing & purpose and about the notion of value free/standing by the sidelines – but he is a serious journalist. He has a fairly high degree of credibility – not a tabloid expose practiced in sensationalism.

    In his ‘’defence as to why & why now in today’s Observer column http://tiny.cc/nDArW Rawnsley wrote ”I set a rule that I would not publish anything about an episode involving abusive behaviour unless I had secured utterly reliable accounts. Some incidents which came to my attention, have been excluded even when I was convinced they were true because I was not quite satisfied with the evidence for them. Investigation of other incidents secured eyewitness accounts from impeccable sources of shocking episodes,.. Only once I was absolutely satisfied about the veracity of a story did it go in the book. The sources are 24 carat.’’
    Even allowing for journalistic licence, I’ll be surprised if most isn’t at least 18 carats!
    So presumably you think Brown should go on his character and personality alone?

    2. On trade unions and bullying….
    I’m not sure of your experience of trade unions – but in mine they (and I speak as a defender and supporter) are not always the exemplars of good working practice one might expect. In the battles for power internally locally, regionally and nationally TU politics and with it consequent treatment of staff, lay officials and members includes bullying and intimidation – certainly as bad/sometimes worse (and that isn’t to justify Brown’s alleged behaviour)- as any of that documented by Rawnsley.

    3. On a damming indictment of 13 years of new Labour…
    Sadly I agree – right from the outset it has been secretive, manipulative and allowed a culture of ‘we know what’s best’, and of greed .NL (certainly for those with the power) has not had the slightest interest in genuine meaningful democratic reform that brings the politics of power closer to the people who supposedly elect them.

    I cannot think of one single piece of policy/legislation/manifesto that NL has positively led on in this area? Whereas there have been numerous u turn, avoidances and downright lies – from voting reform, localising, house of lords reform, through to expenses – all have seen a government only interested cynically, when it has been put under public and/or media pressure.

    4. On a party system exchanging ‘deep roots for the mass media’
    Could not agree more. This is at the heart of the malaise & cynicism of the electorate in relation to parliamentary party politics. I.e. declining voting patterns over the past 20 + years nationally and locally, low membership of political parties general disillusionment & expectations in opinion polls.
    We are all consumers now! For all the rubbish spouted about participation, empowerment, choice – Both parties are only interested in the mass of the population remaining passive. They have demonstrated little interest in people becoming active, vocal & wanting to bring about change – that might mean change for them.

    The problem for politicians is that for most ordinary consumers (in a capitalist society), we are not encouraged to settle for anything… nor to develop any brand loyalty. The product is only as good as the last two for one offer…

    In addition to which both major parties have cut themselves off from encouraging active engagement – unless you tow the party line. Dissent is discouraged or ignored. Try engaging in sustained debate (in any media) with MP’s around an area of policy – a significant percentage in my experience don’t give a toss unless you are supporting ‘their tribe’ at the expense of the others.

    5. On not trusting the word of ‘witnesses’…. And answerability to Parliament and to the people…
    It may reflect badly on the ‘careerist system’ of parliamentary politics and the civil service in this country, but speaking up isn’t always that easy.
    Bullying in the work place is by its very nature the abuse of power by those who have it to weald. From experience of local government and local politics, sometimes speaking out (i) changes nothing and (ii) is a serious detriment to career progression.

    ‘These people’ may ‘ultimately’ answer to parliament and the people but this ultimate can be pretty theoretical when on a day to day, week to week, reality the only way this manifests itself is through the ‘peoples representatives’.. i.e. possibly in this ultimately the prime minister or his representatives.

    6. With regard to Rawnsley….
    In part I agree with you – no one is ‘impartial’ and despite his defence that actually before an election is precisely the time to spell out some of this stuff…I too am dubious of his motives being entirely altruistic in terms of giving the electorate a ‘balanced view’! He has a book to sell and a newspaper backing him that wants to sell papers.. Equally I share your resentment about commentary without getting your hands dirty. And Rawnsley may be guilty of that – he appears not to draw any conclusions which seems incredulous (but I reserve judgement without having read the book or indeed the whole of the serialised article.)

    However a few points of contention. (a) Rawnsley’s defence is not (piously or otherwise) ‘ to stand back and say he disapproves of all such behaviour’. He neither condemns nor applauds…. ‘’The Good Gordon and the Bad Brown co-exist in the clever, proud, sensitive, raging, tearful, tormented, complex man who has ruled Britain for nearly three years and now asks for his tenure to be extended for another five. Before they make their choice, the public deserves to be fully acquainted with both Browns.’’ Precisely why the criticism of not getting his hands dirty is valid.

    (b)However having said that I think it is legitimate criticism to challenge the idea that you can somehow stand outside of all of this… I’m no so sure that its legitimate to critique on the grounds that he hasn’t ‘left the situation better than when he found it’ or that it is ajournalist or indeed any commentators role necessarily to rectify the state of British politics. Sometimes it is enough to raise question… and to say which side you lie on…


    On political disinterest… When applied to Rawnsley I agree I’m sure he has an interest in the outcome of the next election. However your statement ‘’if someone said to me that they were personally disinterested in the outcome of the election, I’m afraid I would not believe them’’ – I could not disagree more! Disillusionment cynicism and a sense of inability to influence meaningful change has left far to many people entirely disinterested, except perhaps to say ‘’a curse on both your houses’’ I hope I am wrong but I think this will be demonstrated in the continuing the 20 trend in dclining turnout.

    • February 21, 2010 at 6:47 pm

      I’ll try and come back on the bits we disagree with Andy, as am in the middle of making dinner:

      1. Yes I do believe that if these are true, Brown should go. I’m not buying into the Tory blogosphere’s “Brown is unhinged” nonsense – but these sort of attitudes, of bullying, imply superiority rather than collegiality, a centralising tendency in a government pledged to do the opposite. Also, treating one’s underlings as doormats should be grounds for dismissal in any job.

      2. I have a fair experience of trades unions. I’m aware of the abuses – but think of my comment as a reference to the trade union ideal. There are many cases where victimization has been opposed by unions, rather than conducted by their bureaucracies, and opposed successfully. Hence my point, which was that if we buy in to the ideal, which I do and I guess you do, why should we tolerate such terrible behaviour from the nominal leader of the labour movement?

      5. In this instance, I think speaking up would have been easy. Rawnsley cites evidence suggesting several of the most senior civil servants (past and present) were involved with Brown’s alleged behaviour. They could have done so not to protect themselves, but to protect people who work for them, in the civil service, and other employees of the government.

      I also disagree that the accountability to Parliament is theoretical. Every one of the civil servants singled out by Rawnsley is directly accountable not just to a Minister but to a Commons’ committee. Had they wanted to speak a word of objection, that was their way to do so – in full view of the country and the people supposed to hold the government to account.

      6b. I don’t think it’s enough to raise a question whenever you are claiming to have such damning evidence on your hands. I don’t think it’s enough to raise a question when the likely result of raising it will be political point scoring and not actual change. Which is what seems to have been the result of the thrashing that Blair’s Labour gave Major’s Tories in 1997. Nothing is different.

      In this case, that is the fault of Mr. Rawnsley’s methodology, which is not sound or deep enough to confront the very point about the use (and abuse) of mass media in our society. I’m not saying the man could have changed things himself, but he should nail his colours to the mast and explain how he is trying, as many of us are trying, or he should get off the stage.

  2. February 21, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Just for the record, “Servants of the People” was a really good book.

    Though I likewise share your suspicions about the timing of Rawnsley’s latest offering.

  3. February 21, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Though then again, if one was serious about these allegations being used to actually get rid of Brown on the grounds that he’s “unsuitable”, then this is actually the ONLY time to bring them out.

    Any time but before an election would have been pointless; the legislature couldn’t remove a sitting PM on the grounds that he shouts and screams even if it wanted to. If you honestly think the PM is unsuitable because of his personality, the only way to make his personality decisive against him is to make the electorate aware of it just before election.

    In which case, of course, Rawnsley has to drop the “neutral” meme (as you say).

    But I don’t think you can be right to argue that this should have been brough out earlier, if the honest aim is to remove Brown from office. Electoral shaming is the only way to make his personality count against him.

  4. February 21, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Two things; one, it would not be the legislature which had the power to remove Brown from office and like you I doubt very much if a vote of No Confidence would have been passed to necessitate a general election.

    Yet there were times, such as the leadership contest in 2007, and several times since judging by the number of resignations, that people have wanted to contest things with Brown. A full-fledged election would not be the only way.

    Second, at the very least – and this was my prime concern – naming and shaming him even without a general election would have stopped this nonsense from going on. And reading the things Rawnsley has written, such as about people being afraid Brown was going to physically hurt them, that is without question priority one.

  5. Andy Price
    February 21, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Dave you are right – not much we disagree on really.

    Brown should go on the basis of ‘character’..if true of course. I think we’re in agreement. I was clarifying rather than disagreeing. Though your point about centralising above, for me reflects those ‘ideal’s rather than the reality of the NL experiement.

    Take your point entirely re unions. Agree too not something that should be stood for. I think the bit that really bugs is how far away from the ideal we often are. But you are right – entirely unacceptable example being set by ‘leadership’.

    With regard to ‘speaking up’ In one sense for senior civil servants, it can be seen to be easier. However from my albeit limited workings of Whitehall, life would have got pretty uncomfortable (at least in the short term.) This doesn’t excuse the lack of action in terms of supporting others, but I think its safe to say the upper echelons of the Civil Service aren’t exactly the last bastions of collective action. For those further down the ladder and for different reasons for political advisers – my stuff on bullying & power still applies. It would have serious repercussions career wise for the latter & some of the informal complaints re secretaries & ‘garden girls’! are the issues that appeared to have triggered any from of formal response from Gus O’Donnell. Again all this is an explanation not a justification.

    Re theoretical accountability to parliament. On this point I’m interested. I’m a long way from being a parlimentary constitutional expert but I don’t think this is right. My understanding is that whilst ‘complex’, civil servants are directly accountable to the government and to ministers not to parliament or any of it’s committees. Part of the Govt’s Constitutional Renewal stuff would have changed this – but I don’t think it has become legislation. If wrong I’d be happy to learn something new! See http://tiny.cc/XIi8k and http://tiny.cc/6tgoS

    Rawnsley’s himself is of course part of the mass media establishmen albeit the slightly more ‘respectable end’..so being the cynic I am, I have pretty limited belief he’s going to upset those inhis own backyard. he will already of burnt a lot of bridges with his contacts in the political world through this book. But on the issue of nailing his colours – bang on. This neutrality like it doesnt matter – is a typical journalistic cop out.

  6. February 22, 2010 at 12:55 pm


    Good points.

    I reckon you are probably right that Rawnsley could/should have made his revelations when there was a coup attempt in the offing…the problem being, I suspect, that he hadn’t finished his book then, and the advance co-ordination of the Obsrever release would have taken a while and unsuprisingly the plotters weren’t telling The Obs when they were going to strike. BUt that’s speculation about logistics, I agree.

    As for the fact that people were being threatened/abused by Brown, and that this needed to stop ASAP, you are right insofar as that probably put a “duty” on Rawnsley to make his allegations public asap…unless he thought that it wouldn’t actually stop the bullying at all, as the only way to stop the bullying would be for GB to be voted out. And that means doing it now.

    I guess an awful lot of our differences therefore turn on empirical facts and projected consequences and individual intentions about which we can only speculate.

  7. February 22, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    I am still mulling over the Rawnsley extracts (I kinda agree with Dave’s points) but what shocked me was the behaviour of the NBH. If a worker rings you up to ask for advice, help and someone to listen to you don’t then blab to the media about alleged No. 10 staff rining up with stress related issues. Not clever. For a helpline which states ‘all the calls will be treated in confidence’ and then blabs to the media is contradictory. Also, what is the political agenda (if they have one) of this helpline? The head of the helpline argues that she didn’t give out confidential info but the fact she said work-related stress re bullying and No. 10 staff will narrow things down and creates a further feeding frenzy based on innuendo and gossip.

    • February 22, 2010 at 9:40 pm

      I thought the approach of NBH was absolutely horrifying. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, exposing links between the person who made those remarks about people who called in and the Tories. Bullying is bad enough but now the media circus has actually forced some of the people involved into the open.

  1. February 22, 2010 at 12:09 am
  2. February 22, 2010 at 10:32 am
  3. February 24, 2010 at 11:34 am

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