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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture