John Reid: Philosopher who ended up as official hard man to Labour

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Tony Blair might be fretting about his place in history, but there is one member of his Cabinet whose status in this regard is assured. John Reid, the Leader of the House of Commons, will surely go down as the first Labour politician in history to reverse the normal pattern of events and successfully smear the intelligence services.

In describing as "rogue elements" those in MI5 and MI6 who have expressed concerns about the use Downing Street made of their intelligence reports on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Reid did just what they least expected and went on the offensive. Reid was particularly ferocious on the Today programme where, armed with the full transcripts of the show's various reports on the intelligence services, he engaged in hand-to-hand combat with John Humphrys. It was startling stuff. Broadcasters are not normally asked to account for their actions by politicians.

Call it revenge for Zinoviev letter and the barmy plots to undermine Harold Wilson if you wish, but it has seemingly taken this long for the Labour movement to find someone with the required mixture of pugnacity and brains to take the spooks on. And Reid is proud of his unusual combination of qualities. Born in 1947 as the son of a postman in a Lanarkshire pit village, he is as authentically working class as can be. As an insurance clerk in Glasgow he witnessed grinding poverty in the east end of the city. Shortly after he saw a child lying in a box in a tenement flat coughing its lungs out while water ran down the walls, he joined the Labour Party. This, his hard-drinking past and his generally no-nonsense approach to politics have resulted in his being described routinely as a "bruiser". In Reid's world, however, you can be a bruiser and an intellectual.

He has some impressive credentials as a thinker, and they are readily displayed. Lunch with this minister and you will find your meal peppered with the sayings of Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci and Eduard Bernstein. Reid was, after all, once a dedicated Communist of a particularly fundamentalist stripe with no time for namby-pamby Trotskyists. Of that time Reid now remarks: "I used to be Communist. I used to believe in Santa Claus."

According to his former friend George Galloway, "I have known John Reid as a Communist, as a member of the Scottish Labour Party, and now as a general in the New Labour army. His march across the ideological battlefield has been seamless with not a hint of embarrassment. But John is an able person, one of the most able in New Labour's high command. They put him up to deliver the message. And they are right: he is a very capable, articulate figure." Henry McLeish, the former first minister of Scotland, is more succinct, calling Reid a "patronising bastard".

It is true that Reid does like to known as Doctor Reid rather than plain mister. It might have something to do with having left school at 16 only to return to education in his 20s, with the encouragement of his first wife, Cathie, and through the Open University. However, as The Sun once put it, don't go to Dr Reid if you've got a broken leg. The PhD he gained from Stirling University was entitled "Warrior Aristocrats in Crisis". It is an account of the transition from the slave trade to palm-oil commerce in the 19th-century kingdom of Dahomey, West Africa. It is also an examination of Marxist ideas about pre-industrial societies. He is understandably proud of his academic achievements.

Reid is far from flawless, however. He was criticised by Elizabeth Filkin, then the parliamentary commissioner for standards, over his role in a complicated case involving his son, Kevin. He was subsequently cleared by the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee. He has also had a difficult time living down the warm relationship he struck up with Radovan Karadzic and other Bosnian Serb leaders in the early 1990s. And, hardly a fault but certainly a complicating factor, he is known as a Blair rather than a Brown man. It is also rumoured that John Prescott thought Reid had been plotting against him while he was his junior at Transport.

After university and by the age of 30, Reid had got over his flirtation with Communism and rejoined the Labour Party, for which he worked as a researcher. Since then his loyalty to the party, its modernising tendency and, above all, its leadership has been complete. The key to Reid's rise has been his relationship with two men in particular, Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair.

Shortly after he became leader in 1983, Kinnock, it is said, decided to hire Reid when he heard that Reid had analysed the split in the party as not being between Marxists and non-Marxists but between Marxists and (Rosa) Luxembourgers, the latter group correctly aspiring to a pluralist coalition of the left. Reid helped to brief Kinnock for Prime Minister's Questions with Mrs Thatcher, and prepared his briefs for his media interviews. Reid left in 1985 to pursue a parliamentary seat, but is clearly a prominent member of the "Kinnocracy", those now at the top of New Labour who endured Labour's locust years. It is an impressive roll call that includes two more Cabinet ministers (Charles Clarke and Patricia Hewitt), the armed forces minister Adam Ingram, Peter Mandelson and, strictly unofficially, Alastair Campbell.

Reid was an early proponent of the modernising cause: "I always believed socialists, or indeed any rational person, should be revisionist on principle." Maybe he was inspired by Eduard Bernstein's idea of "permanent revisionism". In 1983, Reid was asked by Kinnock to put down on one piece of A4 paper the reasons for Labour's unelectability. He wrote that the party had seemed "leaderless, unpatriotic, dominated by demagogues, and policies 15 years out of late". Bernstein or not, Reid found himself on the winning side in the battle for the Labour Party.

Reid was, and is, trusted by Blair as readily as he was by Kinnock. True, some in Downing Street might take the view that Reid's attacks on the security services last week might have gone just a bit over the top. Some of the newspapers did give the "rogue elements" comments an unhelpful top spin, but it is hard to believe that the thrust of Reid's counter-attack hadn't been cleared. Whatever else happens to his government career, Reid's place as "minister for the Today programme" is secure.

Reid has been a good minister, too. He fitted in well to George Robertson's hard-right team at Defence in 1997, a group designed to dispel any vestigial doubts about Labour being "soft" on defence. He stood up to the rail unions when he was moved to Transport in 1998, making himself unpopular by condemning London Underground workers for a legal strike, and refusing to meet them for talks. He entered the Cabinet in 1999 to take over the rump of the post-devolution Scottish Office.

The demands of high office did nothing for his notorious nicotine habit. One mammoth negotiating session over the closure of a shipyard saw him consume 110 Embassy tipped cigarettes. He has, however, remained teetotal for the past nine years, after being given some firm advice to that effect from John Smith. Like Tony Blair, Reid can play the guitar and could be tempted to use it for therapeutic effect. The sudden death of his wife Cathie in 1998 was a grievous blow. In 1999 he married his second wife, Carine Adler, a Brazilian film-maker.

After Peter Mandelson's spectacular second resignation in 2001, Reid moved to Northern Ireland. Although a Roman Catholic, and the first such to hold the top job in Stormont, Reid used jokes about Glasgow Celtic to defuse tension. He reminded those interested that he also had grandparents of "staunch Presbyterian stock". Characteristically it was balanced with the statement that he was looking forward to his time with Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, David Trimble and the rest in these terms: "You have to be realistic. I often use the Gramsci phrase 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will'." Like you do.

In a marked contrast to the controversy he has provoked recently, Reid spent his time putting out bush fires rather than starting them and concentrating on getting the peace process back on track, even though he was forced to suspend the Belfast assembly. He also oversaw the first act of IRA decommissioning in October 2001. After the "naked ego", as one observer puts it, of Peter Mandelson, Reid was admired for having no side. He was fond, for example, when in London of taking his police bodyguards to the inexpensive Lahore curry house in the East End. Mo Mowlam says that she was pleased he got the job after Mandelson because he [Reid] was " a man of honesty and integrity".

In 2002 he raised his profile even further when he became chairman of the Labour Party, a position created by Tony Blair as a full-time spokesman for the Government. It was a challenge Reid relished, particularly enjoying his encounters with the media. He was, however, wary of one, saying privately of Jeremy Paxman and the Newsnight team that "one day they're going to catch me out".

The post that Reid is least suited to is the one he currently occupies. Drafted in after the resignation of Robin Cook over the Iraq war, there was never much chance that Reid would pick up Cook's agenda to strengthen the Commons, and so it has proved. By all accounts, Reid's natural taste for discipline has made him into a sort of auxiliary chief whip, but his heart is not really in it.

Ideally Reid would be moved to Defence Secretary in the imminent reshuffle, but his short tenure as Leader of the House probably means that he may have to wait a little longer for the role this clever, combative man, Scotland's answer to Donald Rumsfeld, was surely made for.

Life story

Born 8 May 1947 in Cardowan, Lanarkshire to Thomas Reid, postman, and Mary Reid, factory worker

Family Married Cathie McGowan 1969 (died 1998), with whom he had two sons; married Carine Adler 2002

Education St Patrick's Senior Secondary School, Coatbridge; Stirling University (MA history 1978, PhD economic history 1987)

Political career Scottish research officer, Labour Party 1979-83; Adviser to Neil Kinnock as leader of the Labour Party 1983-85; Scottish organiser, Trade Unionists for Labour 1985-87; MP for Motherwell North 1987-97, and for Hamilton North and Bellshill since 1 May 1997; Deputy Spokesperson on Children 1989-90; Spokesperson on Defence, Disarmament and Arms Control 1990-97; Shadow Deputy Secretary of State for Defence 1995-97; Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 1997-98; Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 1998-99; Secretary of State for Scotland 1999-2001; Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 2001-2002; Labour Party Chairman 2002-2003; Leader of the House of Commons 2003

Hobbies: Football, history, crosswords and playing the guitar. He was once in a group called The Graduates

He says: "There have been uncorroborated briefings by a potentially rogue element."

They say: "Clearly his doctorate was in paranoia." Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat shadow Leader of the House