Even as a child, according to his older brother Miles, Peter Mandelson was a "great stylist". He was also "the opposite of a shrinking violet ... He never seemed to be fazed by anything and always seemed to predominate in a situation." He was like a "miniature adult", comfortable in the company of adults. At the age of 13 he was cast in the Hampstead Garden Suburb Dramatic Society production of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy as the eponymous hero, a cadet accused of stealing money. Despite having done nothing similar before, he showed no sign of stage fright. The Hendon Times was enthusiastic: "Considering his age ... Peter Mandelson gave an excellent performance ... Reduced to tears after being expelled, he switched convincingly into a sort of a nonchalant attitude as his case drags on." Whatever anxieties he may have had, according to Miles, they were overcome by "the lure of the limelight".
Family recollections are of a humorous, self-confident and sometimes rather mischievous little boy. If Peter was more extrovert than Miles, he could also be an "infernal nuisance", particularly as a comic stereotype of the annoying younger brother. Walking home with Miles one afternoon shortly after he started at Hendon County grammar school, he saw some girls from Henrietta Barnett on the other side of the road. To Miles's horror, Peter shouted across to the girls, "What do you think of my brother?" Peter thought it a great joke; to the adolescent Miles it was mortifying enough for him to complain vigorously to his mother about it. On a family holiday to Spain, Miles had only to pass the time of day with a "Spanish lass" for Peter to dance round him, chanting, "Milo's in love, Milo's in love".
But although Miles was shyer and less gregarious than his younger brother, he was also able to get the measure of him. On one occasion Miles, in a flight of teenage inspiration, conferred a new alias on his brother: "Osmold Smish, the Italian mind-your-own-businessman." It conveyed "the kind of character you could imagine my brother becoming," explained Miles: "someone with probably an overinflated sense of his own importance but also somebody who is a wheeler and a dealer or a fixer." The name was almost certainly suggested by one of Kenneth Horne's radio comedy shows. Peter, by all accounts, revelled in his new celebrity as Smish - the name by which he is still known to his family and to some of his closest friends outside politics.
Number 12 Bigwood Road was a lively, comfortable and entirely Labour household to grow up in. The family went on holidays abroad; Tony Mandelson chose his cars with care; the family owned a Sunbeam Talbot Convertible. Tony Mandelson's gregariousness and showmanship were inherited by his younger son. Photographs reveal Tony, the advertising director at the Jewish Chronicle, as exceptionally handsome.
Peter has since said that in other ways he is "so like my father I can feel it". But he was probably closer to his mother. By contrast the shyer and less extrovert Miles Mandelson was more like his mother but correspondingly closer to Tony Mandelson. Miles always considered Peter to be Mary Mandelson's "favourite son. Still is. I don't say this out of any feelings of jealousy. She's very even handed about these things, and I think she would hate to think she had a favourite. But they are more in tune with one another at an emotional level, as well as an intellectual level." He also tended to get his way: when Miles Mandelson left home, "the study" at Bigwood Road became "Peter's study", where he would prepare for his A-levels to the sound of Bach and Telemann records put on the gramophone by Mary Mandelson.
The young Mandelson's interest in politics, his mother Mary judged, began at the age of "about five". When her father, Herbert Morrison, on one of his rare visits to Bigwood Road, departed without waiting for Peter to get back from school, he burst into tears - as much, perhaps, because he was a politician as because he was his grandfather.
Mandelson appears to have been something of an instant success at Hendon County grammar school. By the end of the fourth year the formidable headmaster, Maynard Potts, was cautiously marking him out for higher things: "Can he gain the really high grades which would warrant an application to Oxford and Cambridge?" he asked. Peter was not exactly sporty, though at 14 he was in the school rugby team and, the following year, he was in the athletics team as a "very efficient" manager. One fourth-form report on the boy who would later become something of a fitness fanatic, working out and swimming regularly, put it laconically: "Lazy, but improves with the weather."
Steve Howell and Peter Mandelson grew up together politically. Howell, who also attended Hendon County, had had little to do with Mandelson until they found themselves in the same set for several O-level subjects. He was struck at the time by two aspects of Mandelson's standing in the school. One was that "He was much more mature than other people in the year. I remember he used to spend time chatting with the teachers on almost equal terms, which most people in the year wouldn't do."
Howell, who was to socialise regularly in Mandelson's company over the next four years, also remembers another Mandelson trait. "Peter's very funny when he's talking about other people. He likes a good gossip. He likes characterising other people." Mandelson apparently shunned big teenage parties, preferring to meet people "in smaller circles where he could be the kind of focus of the thing and entertain everyone ... and have a laugh". According to Howell, Mandelson was already "an incredible anorak" about the House of Commons, inviting friends, especially on long car journeys, to test him with the names of parliamentary constituencies so that he could answer with the name of the sitting MP. "He'd be laughing at himself while he was doing this, but actually he could name every single Labour MP." But the boys' common interest in party politics did not blossom into activism until one autumn afternoon in 1969, when they were talking to Howell's grandmother, Winnie, a local Labour stalwart, who suggested the boys re-form the then dormant branch of Young Socialists in the constituency. Which they enthusiastically set about doing.
The stencilled YS magazine regularly carried Mandelson editorials. One issue, in March 1970, was already sternly warning against participation for the wrong reasons. The branch was not a "Friday night little social club"; it was not enough for members to turn up "because they had nothing better to do or because they are particularly interested in Atomic Energy or because they wouldn't mind having a look at Danny Abse or Will Howle [two recent guest speakers]." YS members urgently needed to examine big questions like: "Are we getting the right people along to our branch meetings? Are we really doing anything worthwhile at all?"
At the end of his first term in the sixth form EW Maynard Potts MA MSC. Hon. FRIBA, as he imposingly styled himself, commented: "Eventually he will wish to undertake some great task on behalf of humanity." The report was written a matter of weeks before Mandelson joined the Young Communist League.
In joining the YCL, Mandelson may have been influenced by his close friendship with Howell. At different times Maynard Potts apparently accused each of leading the other astray. In interviews Mandelson has tended to play down his YCL membership - for example, telling the Independent on Sunday in 1996: "I went to the meetings. I really can't remember what led me to the YCL. It was short lived. I felt no identification. I spent far more time setting up a tremendous youth club at the Winchester Arms at Swiss Cottage, tearing it apart with my bare hands, then rebuilding it to make it structurally sound."
This is not the whole story. He was active in the YCL from February 1971 to September 1972, regularly selling the Morning Star and Challenge, the YCL newspaper, and attending a YCL Congress in Scarborough as a steward.
What did Mandelson get from his time as a Young Communist?
Looking back, his other close Hendon County friend and comrade Keren Abse, who is now a teacher, reflected that Mandelson was as discontented a communist as she was but that it may nevertheless have subconsciously influenced his later political style: "The thing about the YCL is that it is incredibly disciplined, with its committee structure ... you learn how to manipulate and be Machiavellian ... I used to do a lot of union negotiations and I always used to think `God almighty, people are bloody naive in this room.' So I think that discipline ... was also attractive."
Mandelson was energetic in arranging his post-school year. Having been accepted at St Catherine's College, Oxford, to do Philosophy, Politics and Economics, he wrote to the anti-apartheid priest Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney, whom he had heard on the radio talking about Tanzania. His mother suggested he go to see "how [Julius] Nyerere is doing" - Huddleston arranged for him to work on a rural diocesan mission in Tanzania - then regarded as a model of uncorrupt African socialism. What Mandelson did not discover until nearly a year later, when rifling through his own file while working briefly in the diocesan office in Mwanza, was that Huddleston had secretly promised his fellow bishop that he would pay Peter's board and lodging for the year out of his own pocket.
"I'm happy when I think of all the things around me ... to learn and discuss [he reported in a letter to Steve Howell days after his arrival]. I just wish there was someone other than egocentric, sports-fanatical, Canadian engineers and apolitical VSO agromechanics to share it all with. I'm dying for a good bloody argument, a laugh and a glass of whisky. And I wish they wouldn't keep saying `grace' before they eat. All this religion is positively unhealthy ..."
Mandelson's long, fluent letters to family and friends mixed sharp, detailed and sometimes funny observation with - at times dauntingly comprehensive - meditations on the theory and practice of Nyererean socialism.
They also gave a rather surprising picture of an introspective young man trying earnestly to work through the big questions in politics - and even in religion. The work at Buhemba planting gum trees was not too hard: he spent an enjoyable Christmas with the missionary, Merry, and his wife Beatrice. Hart at Musoma. Beatrice taught him to make date gingerbread and cakes: "An inward feeling swept through my body ... of the humorous informality, not to say eccentricity, and the refreshing flow of mangoes, avocados and wholewheat that are the Hart household..."
During the Harts' "lavish" Christmas dinner, "I sat next to Mr Method, Merry's appropriately named Swahili teacher, who having been told my full name persistently rather disconcertingly addressed me as `Mandelson'. Mr Method's English was quite funny on occasions. On being
asked if he wanted a cup of tea, he boldly replied `obviously'."
By the spring of 1973 he was at the remote Murgwanza Hospital in Ngara. He worked from time to time in the operating theatre. According to Mandelson, there was a large cylinder of ether which, on occasion, he was asked to oversee, pumping every 15 seconds or so to keep the anaesthetic topped up. But he also had other things on his mind. In a four-page, single-spaced typewritten letter to Steve Howell he wrote that: "sometimes... I feel that I... am retaining the force and commitment of my YCL-bred attitudes and beliefs but am just not having the opportunity to expound on them. And other times I feel that my revolutionary ardour is fading because I am a bourgeois at heart."
After a long disquisition on the rival claims of revolutionary socialism and Christianity he admitted that "being a sinful old non-conformist, it's more than a little hard to think of oneself as a Christian... at times I have felt that I am losing a socialist grip of myself... and then I wonder whether in fact I am just trying to close my eyes to a too-harsh and apparently insoluble reality and merely fall back into my cosy, bourgeois existence and assured future... Don't let this frankness go beyond your eyes."
Even allowing for the pretensions of youth, and the fact that Mandelson was probably trying to announce and justify his disengagement from the YCL to Howell, his letters home from Tanzania call into question assumptions that his political drive was exclusively careerist in origin. His letters from Tanzania convey a sense of a young man wrestling with the choice between social democracy and its left-wing alternatives. And by confronting the dilemma earlier than many of those who are now his fellow-ministers, he may also have been helped to resolve it earlier, so that by the time he first became embroiled in party politics five years later he was in no doubt that he stood on the social democratic right of the party.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies