Deserted, betrayed, but always right

BOOK REVIEW: Goodbye To All That Bryan Gould Macmillan, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Online
Bryan Gould was a remarkably talented politician. From the day that he entered the House of Commons, with two successful careers already to his credit, he seemed destined for great things. Lucid, industrious and above all clever, he was the star of the 1987 general election campaign.

For at least a few months he became the most popular man in the Labour Party. Had Labour won in 1992, he would certainly have held high office. So in one sense he was a casualty of Labour's fourth election defeat. For it was in the months that followed Neil Kinnock's resignation as party leader that Gould's political career was damaged beyond repair. However, Goodbye To All That reveals that another problem blighted his prospects. He spent his 10 years in the House of Commons on edge.

In his Westminster days, it was always assumed that Gould was a man of enormous self-confidence. Perhaps that view was influenced by the fact that he had plenty to be self-confident about. But his autobiography raises doubts about the enviable certainty with which he seemed to behave. Would a man who really was so sure that he was usually right go to such trouble to prove that he was rarely wrong? It seems unlikely that a politician who was genuinely secure in his own esteem would think it necessary to explain that every setback was the work of unscrupulous colleagues and irresponsible commentators. Bryan, one of the smoothest men in politics, always complained when the going got rough.

Reviewers who figure in work on which they comment have a duty to explain if their opinions are influenced by the part they play in the story. In Goodbye To All That, I am first described as an "MP on the way up" who "seemed to take a particular liking" to Gould; and finally appear as one of his allies in the Shadow Cabinet - praise indeed. In between, I persuade Neil Kinnock that John Smith, rather than the author, should become Shadow Chancellor, and regard Gould's obsessive antagonism to the European Union as an obstacle to his leadership of the party. Guilty as charged. It is the other indictments that I find irksome.

Neil Kinnock "saddened" Bryan Gould by succumbing to pressure. Peter Mandelson was "working on his own agenda" to secure the leadership succession for Gordon Brown or Tony Blair. John Smith was "very rude" to a research assistant to demonstrate that "he was not going to be hustled out of his inheritance by an upstart like Gould". Dear me! All this trivia comes from one of the few Labour politicians of recent years to have a clear and comprehensive view of what the party ought to stand for. But his ideology clearly did not include fraternity. Bryan Gould's little book shows little concern for the reputation of old colleagues - particularly John Smith, about whom his comments are unforgivable. But he damages himself more than he harms others.

According to Goodbye To All That, Gould was treated badly even by the party that had idolised him. He believes he was deserted and betrayed because most politicians are incapable of taking the long view and think too much of personal advantage. And he has no doubt that from time to time his opponents cheated. After his dispute with the party leadership over European Monetary Union, he was replaced as Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary by Gordon Brown. Most people would accept that there were problems about an economic spokesman refusing to accept a central element of party policy. But Gould did not see it that way: "It seemed to me that those who could not win the argument had nevertheless contrived to have me removed from a position of power."

Bryan Gould is far too intelligent to ignore the moments of farce and failure which punctuated his (as they have punctuated every other) political life. But the fault was never his. When he said, or implied, that a Labour government would not pay dividends on privatised water shares (and was repudiated by Neil Kinnock) he "could not understand the furore". His various speeches on private share ownership - which changed party policy and his own opinions several times during one weekend in the autumn in 1987 - hit the headlines because they "united all those who had no doubt been secretly fuming at my rise to prominence and popularity".

Five years later, he came third in the ballot for deputy leader only because John Prescott's supporters planted a story in the Morning Star which fraudulently claimed that he had pulled out of the race. The explanation of his poor showing in the leadership election itself deserves quoting verbatim: "I was constantly being told that in this constituency or that, I had narrowly failed to win but secured 47 or 48 per cent of the vote. All the votes would be credited to John ... All in all, I therefore believe that the true extent of my support in the party was much nearer 35 per cent or even 40 per cent than 10."

Although that calculation probably exaggerates the extent of Gould's support, the basic contention is undeniably correct. He was the choice of more than one party member in 10. But what is the point of saying so now? The pursuit of truth? Respect for the historical record? Or a pointless desire for worthless vindication? Whatever Gould's motives, the result can only do him damage. The contribution that Goodbye To All That makes to the understanding of politics is built around its constant (and counter- productive) attempt to prove that the author, although misunderstood, was right. Intellect is a major political asset. But alone it is not enough. A politician needs judgement.

Bryan Gould lacked judgement throughout his whole political career. Had he possessed even a modicum of that quality he might well now be leader of the Labour Party and would certainly be waiting to occupy one of the great offices of state. Goodbye To All That is therefore a tragedy - a warning of the fate that awaits men who possess many virtues but notably lack others.

Fortunately, it is occasionally enlivened by a moment of unconscious humour. It was "the blood of the pioneers", flowing through Gould's veins, which made him "leave the old world, disenchanted with its unwillingness to change". It was not just Neil Kinnock, John Smith and I who failed him. It was the whole of the Western hemisphere.