Cold front on the edge of Blairism; BOOK REVIEW

ANATOMY OF DECLINE The Political Journalism of Peter Jenkins Edited by Brian Brivati and Richard Crockett Cassell, pounds 20
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The Independent Online
Towards the end of this collection, the editors remark: "Peter Jenkins would have embraced the politics of Tony Blair with gusto." Would he? I think the editors, oddly, have underestimated their own man.

Peter was not a great embracer of other people's politics, even though he did join the SDP and offer, famously, to canvass for it "weather permitting". He was very thick with some politicians, but would never have made one himself because of his inability to forget about history and context."Weather permitting"! Jenkins's mind constantly wandered away from tomorrow's forecast to what Germans call the Grosswetterlage - the invisible depression still far off in the Atlantic. He would have liked many things about Blairism, for sure. But the gusto would have gone into warning against overconfidence, against assuming that opposition to Blair within the movement was moribund, against confusing modernised social democracy with diluted Thatcherism.

To project what Jenkins would be writing now, as the editors have done and as I have now done, too, is pathetic twice over. It is vain, and it also shows how badly he is still missed. This collection, running from 1967 up to his sudden death in 1992, shows him as a political columnist at his best and getting better.

At the beginning, there seemed a danger that he would become one of those English journalists whose world was the south of England plus the "civilised" bits of the United States, with the rest of the globe a comical affair gibbering beyond the garden fence. But Europe rescued him, especially Germany. He grew fascinated with the Social Democrats, seeing their renunciation of Marxism at Bad Godesberg in 1959 as a model which Labour should follow. At home, the melodrama of Mrs Thatcher's decline and fall brought new literary talents out of him. His account of her "No, No, No!" scene in the House is immortal: "The Foreign Secretary [Douglas Hurd], beside her, tried not to look like a toad choking. Even her mutant teenage Chancellor [John Major] paled ..."

The failure of the British left was his central concern. All through these articles runs his particular sense of Britain's decline: not a nationalist analysis about influence in the world, but fear that social-economic problems which had been growing worse for 100 years would overwhelm everything. "There is only one threat to liberty in Britain. It is that persistent and worsening economic failure will eventually undermine our free institutions."

Jenkins never thought that the Tories had an answer to this. It was up to the left. And yet the Labour Party wasted much of this period fighting itself and the unions over a traditional socialist agenda which he thought dead, harmful and impossible. He remained a mixed-economy man, for whom "building socialism" was as silly a programme as the unfettered free market.

For many readers, Jenkins was the apostle of a centrist "realignment" of politics. He wrote: "Labour can survive only by finding ways to reoccupy the centre ground." But these columns show that, in spite of his SDP adventure, he was wary of alliances, coalitions and "the no man's land of third-party politics".

Under his "revisionist" views, Jenkins was in some ways an old-fashioned Labour stalwart convinced that management of the economy was the only reliable tool of change. He wrote in a piece reprinted here that the idea that the centre-left could be regrouped around a platform of constitutional reform was "a misleading haze". I think he was wrong. But that remark, like many in this book, is a warning that Jenkins's vision of new Labour was not a prophecy of Tony Blair's.