Politics: You shall be haunted by the ghost of Old Labour Past...

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The Independent Culture

In theory, the British political system suffers from an excess of secrecy compared with most of Europe and the US. Yet lack of information is not the problem. With 24-hour news, hundreds of political correspondents filing every day of the year and never- ending political interview programmes, we probably know more than enough. The problem is that the torrent of information comes without context. The best political writers make sense of the seemingly senseless and give shape to the shapelessness.

The senseless and shapeless build-up to the war against Iraq is the subject of three books written with astonishing speed in the immediate aftermath. In Blair's Wars (Simon & Schuster £17.99), John Kampfner argues that Tony Blair acted out of naivety, an evangelistic desire to do good and a misguided faith in his own powers of persuasion. These were the more positive characteristics. According to Kampfner, Blair acted mendaciously once he had committed Britain to military action a year before the war took place.

Robin Cook in his entertaining and illuminating Point of Departure (Simon & Schuster £20) suggests that Blair deceived himself as much as anyone else. He does not accuse Blair of deliberate deception. Cook's restraint makes an even more damning case. He guides the reader towards a devastating guilty verdict on the Prime Minister without making too many sweeping judgements himself. While narrating a tragic and humiliating failure in foreign policy, Cook also manages to be very funny.

For an explanation of Blair's behaviour, the reader must turn to Hug Them Close (Politico's £9.99), Peter Riddell's account of the so- called special relationship between Britain and America. In an impeccably sourced and revelatory book, Riddell argues that Blair's overwhelming priority was to preserve the relationship. Blair resolved from the beginning that he would stick with President Bush. Riddell is surprisingly critical, wondering about the benefits for Britain of the Prime Minister's crusading loyalty. These complementary accounts have few exclusives. We all know what happened. Together they explain why.

Blair will never fully recover from the war against Iraq, an event that exposed the inexperience of a Prime Minister who had never served in any cabinet post apart from the one at the very top. Partly because of the failures of war, Gordon Brown waits more expectantly than ever for the moment when he can make the final ascent. William Keegan's The Prudence of Mr Gordon Brown (Wiley £18.99) is the best account of the Chancellor's record. Keegan is an admirer of the man who is most likely to be Britain's next prime minister, although rightly he gives a co-starring role to Brown's special adviser, Ed Balls. His judgements are acute, including his criticism of the neurotically cautious decision to stick to the Conservatives' spending plans for the first two years, delaying the revival of the public services.

On a more positive note, Keegan highlights the degree to which Brown and Balls planned with meticulous care from as far back as the early 1990s their attempt to mix US-style enterprise with a range of generously funded and carefully targeted anti-poverty measures. Several years before he became Chancellor, Brown had decided on a strategy of redistribution without the middle classes noticing.

Blair and Brown continue to function in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher. In particular, Blair can never quite step free from the 1980s when the Iron Lady won elections and Labour seemed to be doomed to eternal opposition. His silly declaration at this year's party conference that he had "no reverse gear" was one of many attempts to emulate her style of politics. In his second volume of Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady (Cape £25), John Campbell argues that she could be more pragmatic than her image suggested. Campbell is impressed with her resolve at some pivotal moments in her premiership, but has his doubts about the consequences for Britain.

In one of the most elegantly written memoirs from the Conservatives' years in power, Douglas Hurd confirms this view. In Memoirs (Little, Brown £20) Hurd suggests she could be awkward, intolerant, unforgiving and yet cautiously aware of how far she could push the political boundaries.

The ghosts of old Labour also hover over Blair, in particular the Labour government that ruled, or tried to rule, in the 1970s. In The Heat of the Kitchen (Politico's £25), Bernard Donoughue, who advised both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, evokes that dark period. According to Donoughue, the final Wilson years were fuelled by paranoia and fantasy that bordered on the insane. I found him more convincing on the scale of the economic problems confronting the government, a factor that Blair tends to play down when reviving memories of "old Labour".

In a rosier economic climate, the progress of "new Labour" has been halting too. In Hard Work (Bloomsbury £6.99), Polly Toynbee shows that poverty is stubbornly resistant to the current plethora of anti-poverty initiatives. Unlike most columnists, Ms Toynbee is interested in policies as well as the political soap opera. Even more unusually, she occasionally leaves the comforts of Westminster to seek out the impact of policies on the ground. Her book is a vivid account of low pay and poverty, which are at least as great now as they were in the 1970s.

Michael Foot, one of the most ardent defenders of the Labour government from the 1970s, published a book of essays to coincide with his 90th birthday. In The Uncollected Michael Foot: Essays Old and New (Politico's £20) Foot ranges from the threat posed by nuclear weapons to his admiration for Peggy Ashcroft. His unpredictable passions and sizzling zest for life are an inspiring reminder that politics is about much more than the senseless and the shapeless.

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