The Hugo Young Papers, Edited by Ion Trewin

Over the table and off the record – politicians speak
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The Independent Culture

"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.