Candour of a never-to-be prime minister

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The Independent Online
CAN ANY of us imagine that Margaret Thatcher's forthcoming televised memoirs will match the pleasant surprises of Kinnock: The Inside Story. She may shed a tear. But we've seen that already. She may berate her betrayors. But we know that already. She will be worth watching not so much for the surprises as for the spectacle of the most audacious politician of her time.

Kinnock was not that. But ITV's series has none the less been compulsive viewing, not because its subject shopped his supporters or spilled his party's secrets, but because of Kinnock's candour about himself. We heard him declare himself a failure. And when we heard that, we also saw a man chastened, vulnerable, sad, but self-disciplined in his melancholy rather than self-pitying.

Such candour is without precedent in British politics. Unheard of in a man. Or rather unheard of in a man in public life. Public life doesn't give men permission to be so self-critical.

Perversely, it was the very quality that gave last Sunday's critique of the 1992 general election its dramatic tension that also did for Kinnock's reputation: his humanity - vain, sentimental, truculent, ambitious, effervescent, hesitant.

That quality was revealed in all clarity during the last general election when this Welsh dad shared not with colleagues but with his children his premonition that the party would lose. Here was a man mocked by the media for one of his strongest commitments to modernity - his wife. His grasp of feminism was as fragile, but in so far as it was felt - which is more than any other major politician today - it was learnt from a woman he loved. During those days it was his wife's face that wore the dread of doom.

His perceived problem was that his humanity did not give him gravitas. It gave him only the grace to inhabit his defeat with dignity, to compose himself and speak those impossible words: 'I was a personal and a political failure.'

The Labour Party now has gravitas, but it will not win the next general election all by itself. John Smith, the man the media wanted, is no more likely to take the party to triumph than was Neil Kinnock. For after John Major's triumph, we know that gravitas is not the trick.

Kinnock's leadership was haunted and taunted by the problem of his trustworthiness: was a Welsh working-class man who changed his mind, his party, his policies, his hair, trustworthy? No. But was an English middle-class woman who changed her mind, her party, her policies, her hair, her teeth, to be trusted? Yes.

So untrustworthiness, it seems, is not a bar to gaining power. What Thatcher was admired for was not gravitas, trustworthiness or any of these things. Kinnock, though, was never forgiven for lacking all of them.

On Kinnock: The Inside Story, the never-to-be prime minister spoke his own mea culpa. Yet the series was too modest about his era, which exemplified the volcanic character of British politics and culture. His own efforts to manage that turbulence, in an epochal time of transition, remain the vexing theme of his leadership.

He was revealed at his most insecure in a catastrophic interview about proportional representation - when his inability to speak his mind, to articulate the impact of the rise and rise of a third party to challenge a two- party system, said something about Kinnock himself but more about the poisonous political culture that stopped the man saying what he thought.

Less visible, but no less fatal to Neil Kinnock, was the process of modernisation within the Labour Party. As always, this was a question of power and control, but this time it was happening in a society that was in the middle of an argument with itself, whose values and manners, from sex to planning, were in the throes of a revolution.

Kinnock's tragedy was that as he set about modernising his party he was abandoned by the political left and feared them. He chose as a result to depend on two traditions: the mainstream, moderate right of the party, which was sustained by one of the most conservative cultures within Labourism - the lieutenants of the trade unions - and the moderate modernisers, whose culture was corporate rather than democratic.

It was these groups that took control of the policy review before the 1992 general election. With the priority to control an unruly party, by paranoia, traditionalism triumphed.

Labour emerged at the beginning of the Nineties no clearer about the raison d'etre of a political party. It became less a modern party than a managed party, bereft of activists, becalmed. Inside Story revealed some of the tension in that legacy. We discovered Kinnock's discomfort and ambiguity about the 1992 campaign. For a leader of the Labour Party in transition, that was a weakness. As a man, perhaps it was also his strength.