Allen Lane £30 (834pp) £27 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Hugo Young Papers, Edited by Ion Trewin

Over the table and off the record – politicians speak

"Just hear what Hugo has to say and say how very interesting, and don't reply." Tony Blair's advice to David Miliband on how to deal with the sage of The Guardian, as mischievously reported to Hugo Young by Miliband in 1998. To be fair, Miliband, who was then Blair's head of policy, was talking only about Labour's policy on electoral reform, then at a delicate phase. But it is a theme too fitting to resist.

Many of Young's dining companions are strikingly uninformative. Much of this book consists of the views expressed by Young, with his companion offering bland generalities that amount to saying "how very interesting" and implying that they, too, are desperately interested in, to take an example, when Blair might stage a referendum on Britain adopting the euro and how on earth he might win it.

Sometimes, with Gordon Brown, or Philip Gould, the New Labour focus-group guru, or Miliband, the inward groan as Young brings the discussion round to Europe is almost audible. Yet they humour him. "How very interesting," they say, and they discuss it thought-fully and with every appearance of caring as deeply about it as he does. But they don't really reply. They don't say: Forget it, Hugo; there isn't the remotest chance that the British people would vote to join the euro, so Blair won't have a referendum whatever happens; our time would be better employed discussing whether penalty shoot-outs are a sensible way of deciding the outcome of a football match.

The third of the three decades chronicled here, from the Maastricht Treaty of 1993 until Young's death in 2003, has as its linking theme, therefore, the story of a delusion. It was the delusion of a certain sort of British pro-European, formed in the crisis of Britain's failure to maintain its membership of the exchange rate mechanism in 1992, that a single European currency was right and Britain's membership essential. Historically, it is an important delusion, not least because it was shared initially by Blair. Reading these fascinating notes of private conversations with the clear eye of hindsight, we can see that Young's interlocutors were not only humouring him in discussing the abolition of the pound, but humouring Blair too.

Gould comes across as the most straightforward of the New Labour top table. He told Young that the British public would just not buy the euro unless the economy were a basket case. Brown was one of the least informative guests. Their first encounter was only in 1990, and 13 subsequent meetings are recorded. Young is usually complimentary about him – his intelligence, seriousness and so on – but rarely records anything interesting he said.

So we can see why the Prime Minister gave his permission for the publication of conversations that were "off the record" at the time but which had, unlike governmental records with their 30-year rule, no pre-arranged veil-lifting moment. Of course, Ion Trewin, the editor of this collection, was right to seek permission to publish from Young's subjects, and has performed a great service to contemporary historians. But selection by permission means that there is a systematic bias at which we can only guess.

The biggest bias is the absence of Blair, who refused to allow Young's accounts of off-the-record interviews to be published. Blair presumably wanted to preserve the interior account for his memoirs – and possibly to put his own retrospective gloss on it.

Miliband comes out well, allowing Trewin to include the account of a "de-luxe" lunch at Wilton's, which, as Young observes, "stretches to the limit the New Labour addiction to classlessness". Young also comments: "David is quite unabashed. He does try to remove his jacket, but the waiter restrains him."

Peter Mandelson, on the other hand, was caught out by the way the book was compiled. When he agreed to the publication of his view, expressed in 2000, that "Balls is a poisonous influence" on Brown, he can have had no idea that, by the time the book was published, he and Ed Balls would be members of the same Cabinet.

Despite its flaws, this is a priceless record of recent history. Young's egotism is of a gentle kind and his obsession with Europe provides a thread running through 30 years. He was a perceptive observer of the political drama, who wrote as well for his private record as in his columns. There are gems throughout, many unintended by Young himself, but available to us now only because of the clarity of his writing. Thus we discover that, contrary to the wisdom of Mark Twain, history does not only rhyme, sometimes it repeats itself. In the spring before the fall of Margaret Thatcher, Douglas Hurd tells Young that he "thought it very hard to imagine the scenario of great men waiting upon her and telling her to go. The only way she might go, he said, was simply deciding to herself. A lone, undiscussed decision."

The Hurds of today's Cabinet said the same thing in summer this year, as the speculation about Brown's survival swelled. History may repeat itself, but the ending is always different.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week