Alan Watkins: If Mr Brown is to prosper, he may have to take the old Stalinist outside to be shot

The Chancellor is formidable. But so is Dr Reid in his own way

Related Topics

Long ago, when there was a flourishing coal industry, there was a small contest in the anthracite area of Carmarthenshire, involving two trade unionists. I remember discussing their chances with an old miner, who were likewise old lags.

One of them had been active in the St John's Ambulance and in the local rugby team and had contributed to the life of the neighbourhood. The other - let us call him Dai Thomas - was of more reclusive, even scholarly habits, and had studied J W F Hegel and Karl Marx, though for lighter reading he preferred Jack London and Prince Kropotkin. Clearly, he was the man for the job.

"You see," my friend explained, 'Dai has got the dialectic.'"

It was, I suppose, another way of saying he had the gift of the gab. Dr John Reid has it too. It was one of the first things I noticed about him. It was in the Silver Age of Annie's Bar, after the exuberant years when Jim Callaghan had nightly danced on a wraith-like majority, and before the long, slow descent into universal dullness.

It was in the intermediate stage, when Margaret Thatcher had possessed a huge majority and Dr Reid had just entered the House as MP for Motherwell. I have also some recollection of him lurking on the premises as Neil Kinnock's man-of-business in Parliament, but I cannot be absolutely sure of that.

He was certainly in position by the bar in 1987. I got on well with him and quite looked forward to our encounters, for "encounter" suggests an element of combativeness which has been present throughout his life. By this stage he had exchanged - or, at any rate, supplemented - Hegel and Marx with Gramsci, who were clearly so distinguished that they did not need a christian name.

Somebody else who could be so referred to was Stalin. Dr Reid stayed loyal to Stalin for longer than most of his contemporaries. On one occasion a member of the dictator's admiring audience faltered in his applause and actually stopped clapping, whereupon the unfortunate chap was taken out and promptly shot. Those officials at the Home Office could learn a thing or two from Dr Reid.

Many is the companionable glass that I have shared with him, but we have gone our separate ways. In particular, he has signed the pledge. As the old Band of Hope song goes:

My drink is water bright

From the crystal stream.

Or, perhaps more movingly still:

Lips that touch liquor

Shall never touch mine.

Dr Reid's background in the Party has served him in good stead. Thus the party line will change, often quite suddenly. Instead of the line changing, the Central Committee will, however, require re-education: rather as the Home Office will require it, or, for that matter, the entire Government up to and including Mr Tony Blair, for even the great leader himself is in need for re-education.

We can take a homelier analogy. I owe it to Mr Nick Robinson in the Daily Politics programme on Wednesday. I like to pay tribute to my fellow practitioners in the field whenever possible. Dr Reid, as Mr Robinson described it, was in Sybil Fawlty Mode. "Oh I know," she would say, "I know". There was nothing to be done. The Russian Front is partly to blame, with Stalin and his Scorched Earth policy.

But what is Mr Blair to do? Or, which is slightly different, what is to be done with Mr Blair? Only a year has elapsed since the general election. Mr Blair said as much at Prime Minister's Questions last week. It was about the only amusing - or it was the only self-confident - remark he had made during the entire session. He said that Mr David Cameron, or Mr Cameron's party, had lost the election, and Labour had won it. The Labour backbenchers scarcely bothered to raise their heads from the enshrouding gloom.

Mr Cameron's backing line-up had, by contrast, a whole chorus of cheeky lads and even lasses. They were not - and are not - a pretty sight. Mr Speaker Martin had to call the boys and girls to order. The Prime Minister had to call for the protection of the Chair. It was, of course, the Speaker who was to do the calling rather than Mr Blair.

He was perfectly competent to look after his own interests, few more so. Indeed, Mr Speaker seemed to me to be emphasising Mr Blair's weakness than to be allowing Mr Blair to resolve matters in his own way, as he would have been wholly capable of doing.

But then, that mysterious commodity, authority, has a habit of slipping through the fork like ice-cream that has been left too long out in the sun. John Major had to endure five years of talking behind hands, even though he was not a wholly bad Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher was effectively off her head for her last year or two; while Harold Macmillan used the pretext of an operation to resign as he wanted to do in any event. It was written of Bishop Joseph Butler, the great moral philosopher of the early 18th century: "The late Dr Butler['s] ... custom was, when at Bristol, to walk for hours in his garden, in the darkest night which the time of the year could afford, and I had frequently the honour to attend him. After walking some time he would stop suddenly and ask the question: 'What security is there against the insanity of individuals?'"

The loss of authority can take several forms. If once lost, it can rarely if ever be recovered. The misfortune - if it is a misfortune - which has overtaken the Government is that two of its pre-ponderant politicians have gone on to the downward slope.

Mr Blair has been at it too long. But Mr Gordon Brown has had to wait for too long, as Anthony Eden had to wait for too long before being allowed the succession by Winston Churchill in 1955. In the same year, C R Attlee waited for too long for Herbert Morrison (almost certainly, deliberately so). It was Hugh Gaitskell rather than Morrison who was ready to succeed him.

Mr Brown is even more formidable than Morrison. But Dr Reid is formidable too in his own way. He has made himself invaluable. The old Stalinist has also made himself enemies: perhaps this time it will be Dr Reid to be shot. For such is this rough old world of politics.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Why it won’t be the i wot won it – our promise to you

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor