Melvyn Bragg: Political misadventures of a peer and polymath

It was to plug one of his many books that Melvyn Bragg was in the ITV building this week when he encountered an old chum who asked him to go on air to do a political interview while he was there. "You should do more political interviews," said his mate. "You are a working peer." Knowing the insatiable appetite of cable TV, the polymath agreed. It was a big mistake.

It was to plug one of his many books that Melvyn Bragg was in the ITV building this week when he encountered an old chum who asked him to go on air to do a political interview while he was there. "You should do more political interviews," said his mate. "You are a working peer." Knowing the insatiable appetite of cable TV, the polymath agreed. It was a big mistake.

Next morning, his comments were splashed all over the front pages with the revelation that his friend Tony Blair very nearly quit this year over a family crisis which had put him under "colossal strain".

People have been looking at Melvyn Bragg in two ways since. To some he is a New Labour schemer involved in a Machiavellian plan to boost sympathy for Tony Blair among any backbenchers still toying with the notion that Gordon Brown might make a better party leader.

Others see him as a cautionary example of how anyone - even someone as intellectually capable (he was named recently as one of Britain's top 100 public intellectuals) and culturally sophisticated as the broadcaster, arts executive, novelist, champion of science and TV star - can turn into a blundering naive when they venture outside their area of competence, however broad, as in Bragg's case, that may be.

But is conspiracy or cock-up the explanation behind his comments?

Tony Blair's opponents seized on the former. There was much talk of "the new-found ruthlessness being displayed by the Blair machine" and dark remarks about how this was not the first time that the labyrinthine saga of the Prime Minister's grip on the Labour leadership had been given "a helpful shove in the right direction by someone from the Blair inner circle".

Certain newspapers, frustrated at having to restrain themselves in the spring when rumours about the Blairs' domestic crisis swept media circles, fuelled this view. Pressure from Number 10 ensured that nothing about it was published at a time when Tony Blair was under considerable political pressure. His popularity in the polls was plummeting. The scandal over the sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib jail was at its height. And the news broke of talks between Gordon Brown and Mr Blair's loyal deputy, John Prescott, over a possible handover of power.

Now, here was a member of the Blairs' inner circle dropping veiled references to a "pressing" family problem. It all seemed too well-timed, just when the Prime Minister's position could do with a bit of strengthening from a wave of sympathy and admiration at his political steadfastness despite a family crisis.

So much for conspiracy; the cock-up theory is a good deal simpler. It dismisses suggestions of an orchestrated campaign, and insists that Lord Bragg just blurted something out without realising the political consequences of his words. It was "classic Melvyn", according to another Labour peer and old friend David Puttnam. "He was asked a question and he answered it purely in human terms. That is what real human beings do in real life."

But not in politics. Lord Bragg's unscripted - and misjudged - attempt to be helpful provoked consternation in Downing Street. Number 10 officials were furious that it gave the media an excuse to dredge up the Prime Minister's wobble and the Blair-Brown split all over again.

So which is true, conspiracy or cock-up?

There is certainly no doubt that Melvyn Bragg is on the Blair inner track. The two men, and their wives, have been friends for 20 years, since the days when the Blairs lived in their first house in Hackney, North London. Their next door neighbour was the television producer Barry Cox, who worked at London Weekend Television with a number of key New Labour figures including Peter Mandelson, Greg Dyke and Trevor Phillips. Melvyn Bragg, another central LWT figure, was a member of the same circle.

Nor is there doubt of his political allegiance. In 1997 he gave £25,000 to the Labour Party to help Tony Blair win his first general election. The following year the broadcaster was made a Labour peer, a post which forced him to step down from presenting the BBC's Start the Week, in which role he was now considered too partisan. In 1999, he gave Labour another £7,500.

But for all that few see him as a key political figure in Labour. He is thought to have had some influence on Labour arts policy when Neil Kinnock, to whom he was also close, was leader.

And he has been diligent as a Labour peer, with a good voting and attendance record, though he voted against the Government once - on hunting, where he opposes a ban. "We work harder than the Commons, even though we're unpaid," he said in an interview earlier this year. "With the Communications Bill, about a dozen of us amended 133 clauses, changing the Bill radically and in great detail. It would have been a far, far worse Bill otherwise. This happens again and again."

But most of Melvyn Bragg's enormous diligence remains directed into areas other than politics.

Born in 1939 in Wigton, Cumbria and brought up there - his parents ran a pub - Bragg won a scholarship to Oxford, where he read modern history. His broadcasting career began at the age of 22 when he won a BBC traineeship. In 1978, he began editing, writing and presenting the South Bank Show, having joined London Weekend Television from the BBC three years earlier.

Now, after more than four decades of broadcasting, he is an institution in British cultural life; a tireless champion of all branches of the arts on his LWT South Bank Show and all branches of pretty much everything else on Radio 4. He is a novelist (in the broad literary tradition of Thomas Hardy) so prolific that he produces a book every 18 months. He has written a play, two musicals and several screenplays, including Jesus Christ Superstar, Isadora, and Clouds of Glory with Ken Russell.

He is a TV executive who has done pioneering work at the crossroads between high culture and popular entertainment. Yet from that platform he has been trenchant in his criticisms of the direction of modern television, warning that it was being turned into a two-tier system, "telly for nobs and telly for slobs". He has invested huge amounts of intellectual energy in bridging the "two cultures" divide, making the work of a host of modern scientists accessible to the general arts-educated listener - chairing the BBC's Darwin Debate, which examined the significance of evolution theory for human society, and presenting an innovative Radio 4 series on the history of science.

In all this, Melvyn Bragg's breadth is impressive, covering everything from a thousand years of spoken English to quantum physics to the history of the ideas which have shaped the modern age. And he has been unafraid to do his learning in public. "I go in like a lamb to the slaughter," he has explained of his technique for handling subjects about which he knows little. "Good minds are generous and I've got an absolute belief that if you yourself are genuine, and you really want to learn, then the best people will tell you what they can."

And all without overstraining his infamous adenoids, dishevelling his dapper dress sense or taming his unnaturally bouffant hairstyle.

In recent years Melvyn Bragg and his wife Cate Haste have been seeing quite a lot more of Tony Blair and Cherie Booth. The two women have been working together on a book on Downing Street spouses, The Goldfish Bowl, which was published this week. Despite his critics' view of Lord Bragg as self-important and self-aggrandising, it is not a friendship he has publicly sought to boast of or make capital from.

The Blairs have stayed at the Braggs' country home in Wigton. The two women held meetings about the book project there. The Braggs were among just 80 guests at Mrs Blair's 50th birthday party at Chequers at the weekend, unlike Alastair Campbell and Fiona Millar, the previous confidants to Tony and Cherie.

Lord Bragg, for all his media experience, however, lacked the political savvy of Alastair Campbell, as was clear from this week's foray. His own familiarity after all is with the non-confrontational, unthreatening style of interview, where the approach is to allow the subject to "be themselves" and let the audience come to their own judgements.

He may also have thought he was on safe ground. After all. he had ventured on to this territory in June this year in a piece for The Independent, in which he he talked of the "abusive torment" to which the Blairs were subjected by their opponents. "The effect of this on their immediate family has been ignored," he wrote. But next time he went too far.

Melvyn Bragg was said to be distraught when he read the newspapers the day after his ITV interview with Alastair Stewart. He realised that he had unwittingly betrayed his friend in Downing Street. His blunder stung particularly because he himself has deeply private areas of his life which he has tried to keep out of the media spotlight - most particularly the death of his first wife, Lisa Roche, who killed herself in 1971 by jumping from a window, leaving her husband to bring up their daughter, Marie-Elsa, alone.

So distressed is the hapless novelist that Cherie Blair, who spoke to Bragg by telephone after the gaffe, felt the need to offer him comfort in public. Giving her first live TV interview on Channel 4's Richard and Judy show, she insisted that resigning had never been an issue for Mr Blair for either political or family reasons. And she added: "So I do not know where Melvyn got it from, and to be honest I think he is mortified that he said it." Asked whether Lord Bragg's unhappy intervention would damage their friendship, she replied: "I am not the sort of person that goes off and takes a huff, frankly."

His wife was a little more direct. Cate Haste yesterday went on Woman's Hour to do a little damage limitation. "I had no idea what he was going to say," she said. "I have no idea what he was talking about and I think he should probably stick to arts programmes really ..." It is a sentiment with which her husband will now, no doubt, heartily concur.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born

6 October 1939 to Stanley and Ethel Bragg, at Wigton, Cumberland

Family

Married French vicomtesse Marie-Elisabeth Roche, 1961 (died 1971), one daughter; and Catherine Mary Haste in 1973, one daughter and one son.

Education

Wigton Primary School and Nelson Thomlinson grammar school, Wigton; Wadham College, Oxford (modern history)

Career

BBC: general traineeship 1961; producer on Monitor 1963, editor BBC 2 1964; presenter and editor, Read All About It (BBC) 1976-77; South Bank Show (ITV) 1978- ;Start the Week (BBC) 1988-1998; Routes of English (BBC) 1999; In Our Time (BBC) 1998- . Head of arts, LWT 1982-1990; deputy chairman, Border Television 1985-90; chairman 1990-96; Novels include For Want of Nail, 1965; The Maid of Buttermere, 1987; Credo, 1996; The Soldier's Return, 1999; A Son of War, 2001.

He says...

"I call myself a friend, and I'm certainly a supporter of the Labour Party, but I'm no expert on the private life of Tony Blair."

They say...

"I think he may well feel that it was an inadvisable thing to have said and I really do not think that he knew what he was talking about frankly." - Cate Haste (Lady Bragg)

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