Books: Friendly fire: the life of Bryan

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Bryan Gould, Macmillan pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
THE RECENT leak of the writings of the other Gould - Philip, the party's polling adviser, not Bryan, the New Zealand Vice-Chancellor - provoked one "veteran front-bencher" (so the Guardian informed me) to claim that Gould's memorandum confirmed his suspicion that Tony Blair was indeed trying to set up a "centralised command structure".

I am surprised that my unnamed colleague had not noticed. Many of us have been publicly arguing for this since we lost the election in 1992 partly for lack of one. Bryan Gould's narrative comparing our '87 and '92 election campaigns powerfully underscores this point. Those of us who were on the road during March and April '92, whistle-stopping from one regional media event to another, would readily have given a first edition of Clausewitz's On War and an arm and a leg for a clear, centralised command structure, especially after the debacle of Jennifer's Ear.

Gould's book explains one reason for the differences between these two campaigns. The '92 campaign committee, he writes, "had 17 or 18 people present, very different from the tight little ship which had run the '87 campaign so well".

My unnamed "veteran" colleague (why are they always unnamed?) will also remember when we tested the opposite approach - the decentralised command structure - in the 1983 election. What a triumph that was for the millions who had lost their jobs in the 1981 recession, and who were desperate for a Labour victory. So diffuse was power in that campaign, that in the middle of it, as the enemy's guns were pounding our defences to dust, 30 of the party's most senior people, the National Executive Committee, met in full session to declare its confidence in our then leader, Michael Foot. To invert the famous phrase by Clausewitz, politics is war by another means. The history of politics, like that of warfare, is replete with the consequences of uncoordinated command and control systems, not the least of which is fatal "friendly" fire.

Bryan Gould was at his best in the 1987 campaign. He is one of the most fluent people I have ever met. Throughout that campaign he never once deviated in the exposition of Labour's case. He is also a man of genuine and thoughtful conviction. On our relationship with Europe, he was never the "little Englander" which some tried to claim. He began his public life in the northern hemisphere as a British diplomat in Brussels. It was from this perspective that he first developed concerns about the direction of what is now the European Union, and anxiety about the fact that, in his view, the "Franco-German axis", as he describes it, would work against Britain's interests. Many people with similar anxieties have come to an opposite conclusion about the nature of Britain's relationship with Europe. But Gould's arguments here, as on economic policy, are always stimulating, and not to be ignored.

Indeed, if Gould had stuck to argument and analysis this could have been a very good book. Instead, the argument appears only as an occasional, though very welcome, interlude to what is otherwise a slightly plodding narrative of his 57 years, and a lengthy, overdone explanation of why he came to leave politics in Britain.

We are treated, at the beginning and the end of the book, to the serious complaint that everyone was out of step but him. "Britain and the Labour Party seem content with a future which I am unwilling to accept ... I had higher hopes than I could persuade others to share" is how he opens. And, at the end: "I discovered I was in essence a New World person ... my pioneer forbears ... had decided to leave the old world, disenchanted with its unwillingness to change ... I was proud to follow in their footsteps."

But this book inadvertently explains why Bryan found it so frustratingly difficult to get people to accept the change he wanted. First, he found working with others uncongenial. He writes with reference to a 1988 Party statement on industrial policy that it "was not a complete statement of my views, since I was obliged to take account of what others said". Just so. How on earth does he think any political party or whelk stall could be run, except by taking account of the collective view?

But Bryan's second problem as a politician was more profound. Though he did, and does, possess presentational skills of the kind that his namesake Philip no doubt dreams about, he did not have political judgement in equal measure. It was because of this that he managed, in the end, to isolate himself, and from being right in the inside in 1987, took himself to the outside and beyond just seven years later.

He began seriously to falter in the eyes of many colleagues when he prepared, as an alternative to the poll tax, a complex system combining rates and a local income tax administered by the Inland Revenue which single-handedly would have lost seats in the 1992 election. But Gould still seems unaware of his error, and resorts instead (despite praising him elsewhere) to the now standard and incredible excuse of blaming Peter Mandelson for the poor press he received.

Politics is a rough trade. For every bouquet there is a skip full of brickbats. We are all aware of Enoch Powell's dismal view, at the end of his biography of Joseph Chamberlain, that all political lives end in failure. But most of us try to withstand the heat in the kitchen because it is the most absorbing of occupations, and because, unlike Bryan, we are eternal optimists both for this country, and, in our case, for the Labour Party too.

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