Bryan Gould shows flashes of frustration. Admitting a sneaking regard for Mrs Thatcher, he says: 'I could have done better than I did'

the Giles Smith interview

Giles Smith
Sunday 10 September 1995 23:02

Perhaps the most startling revelation in the recently published memoir of the former Labour politician Bryan Gould concerns not Peter Mandelson, or Tony Blair, or certainly this summer's notorious "fax up" incident, which happened way too late to get included in the book. What comes as a real shock is the daring disclosure that the one-time member for Dagenham, the man hotly tipped in the early Nineties to inherit the Labour leadership, used to play, armed only with an acoustic guitar, a mean version of "Great Balls of Fire".

"I only really knew three chords," Gould says. "But in those days [the 1950s], three chords meant you could play almost the entire Hit Parade."

The world may not have had Bryan Gould marked down as a rocker. As a camera-friendly party moderniser, perhaps. As an embittered, or at least saddened exile, maybe.

We are sitting in a restaurant on the Fulham Road in London. Mr Gould has ordered sausage and mash and gone exclusively for the English mustard rather than either the grainy or the pasty European versions that were offered to him. Converted into a political agenda, this was part of what got him into trouble with his party and assisted in scuppering his plans to become the first Labour prime minister in more than a decade.

Mr Gould, though in many respects the epitome of a "new Labour" kind of guy, was noisily anti-European in a manner that his party felt might trouble the electorate. For this reason, among others, it was John Smith who replaced Neil Kinnock in the leadership election of 1992, and not Bryan Gould. Gould hung around for a while, and then, with his wife, Gill, packed everything he owned into crates and went to live in New Zealand.

Since then, he has been chancellor of Waikato University. He has been arriving at work around 8.30am and clocking off at five. He has frequently made it home for lunch with Gill on the verandah, overlooking a river and some native bush. (The phrase "a politician in the wilderness" has a more than common relevance in Gould's case.) He has attempted to learn again how not to be a politician, which must be tricky given the degree to which acting and talking like a politician occupies politicians.

"It's a drug," he says. "The limelight is seductive. It's nice to have people interviewing you, to see yourself on telly. That's good. It's hard to give up."

The sole time in our conversation when Gould moves into party political broadcast mode - beginning with the words "I do strongly believe that it is wrong ..." - he is talking about Europe and the broadcast lasts for approximately two minutes.

But chiefly, Gould now enjoys the luxuries never afforded to practising politicians during interviews: for instance, the opportunity to allow pauses for thought before speaking. Also, the chance to ask questions back (Gould asks a lot of questions). And then there's the more relaxed conversational agenda, which includes Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley (in his early twenties, Gould worked briefly on a New Zealand radio station) and the confession of "a sneaking regard" for Baroness Thatcher, whose memoirs Gould recently reviewed.

That said, there are in Gould flashes of something frustrated and unforgiving. Reading the Thatcher book drew him to think the following: "I'm not sure she had much more going for her than I did for me. I could have done better than I did."

Mr Gould's memoir, which begins in New Zealand in 1939 and ends up back there in 1994, is called Goodbye To All That. This might seem at once a bit rich and a bit poor, given the rather famous autobiography of the same name by Robert Graves. Then again, no copyright attaches to titles, a fact of which Mr Gould, a law graduate, would certainly be aware. He has shown himself quite capable of suing over infringements of his own rights, most recently at the expense of the London Evening Standard.

The fax business - a mix-up in which the Evening Standard ascribed to Gould a Labour-critical essay written by the 19-year-old son of the Home Secretary - was one of the silly season's more pithy moments. I ask Mr Gould if he has yet seen the funny side. He says he has and that he has "laughed a lot" - and even before the award of damages in his favour - but he still sounds quite serious about it.

"There's a funny side to lots of libels as far as the ordinary punter is concerned," he says. "But if you're the victim, it's quite painful. At least, it was for a time. For a little while, all I was reading was hurtful comments made by friends. It was very upsetting."

These would have included the remarks of David Blunkett, who supported Gould in his campaign for the Labour leadership in 1992, but now accused him of "the politics of resentment". Frank Dobson stated baldly, "He's yesterday's man." Joe Haines, meanwhile, ranked Mr Gould among "the abominable no-men ... thrashed for the Labour leadership before sulking off to New Zealand".

The terms of Mr Gould's settlement prohibit him from talking about its details, but he is able, it seems, to laugh out loud at the suggestion, carried in at least one newspaper, that he received pounds 100,000 to soothe this intense personal trauma. More conservative estimates put the damage at pounds 12,000, including a pounds 2,000 fee for the piece (the one Gould actually wrote).

Somewhat unhappy interactions with the media recur through Mr Gould's career. Shortly after he complained about the sexism he detected in a television advertisement for British Caledonian Airways (lots of air hostesses in kilts obligingly servicing men in suits), he was invited to appear on Wogan. He did not learn until he turned up that the producer had in mind a part in a pageant in which a squadron of kilted hostesses would march on to an adaptation of the Beach Boys hit, "I wish they all could be Caledonian girls". With a minute remaining before the show went out live, Gould abandoned the studio.

This wasn't the kind of thing Gould was expecting when he came to politics. He had never seen Britain until he won a scholarship to Oxford. It was there, he says, he saw the British class system in relief. He says he really thinks he became a politician for altruistic reasons, "to make a difference ... but then you realise how difficult that is. Labour was a disappointment to me because I had assumed that by joining, I'd be introduced to this wonderful body of knowledge and principle. In fact, mainly it was other people like me, just feeling their way."

He won seats in Southampton and Dagenham. He ascended into the Shadow Cabinet. But as Labour struggled to make itself electable, Gould tended to find himself speaking on behalf of what was being left behind. He clashed with Kinnock over privatisation and nuclear weapons. He came across as an ideas man, removed from the practicalities. "I think I was an uncomfortable colleague for that reason," he says.

Gould's book displays the ability, unique to political memoirs, to dwell on a succession of personal setbacks without actually conceding anything. "I was disappointed in, but not surprised at ..." is a typical construction. In person, he appears more flexible. He confesses that when he heard the news of John Smith's heart attack, the dark thought dropped into his mind, "just for 10 seconds - what does this mean for me?"

"It has to be a matter of regret," he says, "that you spend 20 years of the most productive period of your life and you don't get into power. In a different political era, I might have done very well."

What about in the present political era?

"I don't suppose I would have figured much in Tony's plans. Increasingly I could see in 1992 that I would be listened to only in as much as I was critical of the Labour Party. I would have gone on enjoying the fruits of being recognised and listened to, but increasingly as a peripheral figure. And with a long, slow decline ahead of me. My overriding feeling about leaving is, 'Thank heavens I did.' "

He would clearly have had a problem with Blair's adviser Peter Mandelson. Gould's book claims that Mandelson fed stories to the press to ensure the succession of those with Mandelson's best interests at heart - Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This was part of the in-fighting which Gould says sickened him in the end.

During his own leadership campaign, a false story was issued to the press that he was standing down. "I smelled a rat," is all Gould's book says. Gould says his libel lawyer advised him to remove the name from the text. "I know who did it," he says, sounding momentarily like a teacher. "I don't want to sound prissy and I'm not a saint, but I just do not accept that you should behave in politics any differently from the way you behave in ordinary life.

"Most politicians grossly overstate the importance of politics," he says. "Politics actually doesn't matter hugely to most people, anyway. That's the first mistake politicians make. They think politics is the greatest show on earth. In fact, most people are happy or sad according to whether they've just been chucked by their girlfriend or promoted at work."

Recently, reading Edwina Currie's terrible novel A Party Affair ("I was asked to review it," he insists), Gould discovered himself popping up as a character, somewhere around the 300-page mark. Gould adds: "Just a bit player, I should say." She's a cruel satirist, that Edwina Currie.

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