Mandelson - Machiavelli or an ordinary bloke?

Trevor Phillips
Friday 29 August 1997 23:02

No self-respecting student activist could have gone through the Seventies without hearing those tell-tale clicks on the line that told you that MI5 or Special Branch had joined your conversation. Both I and my regular colleague on this page, David Aaronovitch, had years of entertainment sending (we hoped) counter-intelligence agents on wild-goose chases to non-existent demonstrations and secret meetings. What the listeners would have made of urgent meetings of BLOTE, FTOs and the Caucus, I don't know; but to the uninitiated they must have suggested a world of deep, dark secrets rather than the long dreary conspiratorial gatherings of small groups of student hacks plotting to do down even tinier groups of plotters.

The astonishing thing, we learn this week, is just how seriously the state took such things. For us they were badges of honour; but little did we realise how expensively the taxpayer was buying us our moments of excitement; these thrills did not come cheap.

Reading that even Peter Mandelson had a file makes the whole thing seem even more absurd. Mandelson has now taken hold of the public imagination in a way that is granted to few; his name is on the verge of becoming one of those terms we bring into the language to describe political phenomena - Thatcherism, Butskellism, Reaganomics. But what should "Mandelsonian" mean?

On the one hand, there is the Prince of Darkness, the man who lives in the dark, the cunning organiser, the crypto-communist, and the Machiavelli to Tony Blair's Prince (or is he Iago, lusting after the power to be the general's only counsel?); and on the other, there's this bloke called Peter Mandelson whom I've known for half a lifetime, makes devastatingly witty speeches at weddings, who is good with kids, and whose main political philosophy is a somewhat old-fashioned belief that the Labour Party's business in life is to create a more equal society. Can these two be related?

Perhaps, if you believe that a Labour government is the sole instrument through which equality can be achieved, and that therefore all else must be ruthlessly sacrificed to the creation and preservation of such an administration. But which one counts when it comes to running the country? The political classes seem to have decided that it's the first. They are wrong, and as a result could be about to make a desperate mistake.

If I had to gamble on which member of Labour's top table would be most likely to preserve its traditional values, I would choose Mandelson. That may seem a surprising claim about the arch-moderniser; but Government changes people.

Who would have thought that soppy, bleeding-heart Clare Short would take a tough line with people in the shadow of a volcano? And most of us would have scoffed at the idea that the deft hands of Robin Cook, so used to slicing the Tories into salami, might fumble when it came to human rights in Indonesia. On the up side, who would have credited Jaguar-driving John Prescott with the chutzpah to attack the gas guzzlers?

So we should not be surprised if Mandelson reveals his true colours to be what Tony Banks calls Vintage Labour. His reference points are not, as so often supposed, the Democratic Party, or some version of European socialism; they are clearly not the Labour Party of the Eighties, all GLC and -isms; they are not even the Callaghan or Wilson years.

The clue, as some are beginning to twig, lies in Mandelson's family background. He is a Prince of Labour, the grandson of Herbert Morrison, the post-war deputy to Atlee in Labour's greatest moment of national renewal. It is the ideas of 1945 - a house and a job for everyone at home, decolonisation and freedom abroad - that dominate Peter Mandelson's background; and with it, the idea that only the Labour Party has the capacity and the will to deliver these ends.

I first met him, 20 years ago, not in some smoke-filled room, plotting to win a vote in some obscure student or trade union battle, but on an anti-apartheid march. Charles Clarke, later to become Neil Kinnock's right hand man and now MP for Norwich, introduced us with the words "You two had better get to know each other - you'll probably run across each other a lot." Little did he know.

Within two years, all three of us had become embroiled in the affair that came back to haunt Mandelson this week - the World Youth Festival in Cuba. During the Cold War the Soviet Union, following the dictum that if you catch 'em young you have 'em forever, put huge efforts and resources into bringing together democratic - ie communist - and fellow-travelling young people from all over the world. The biggest such jamboree was a periodic World Festival of Youth. When it became known that the 1978 Festival was planned for Cuba, Clarke, then President of the National Union of Students and a longtime advocate of human rights campaigning in the Soviet bloc, argued that we should go and make the case for human rights.

He persuaded the NUS; Mandelson, then President of the British Youth Council - which included all the Scouts and Guides in the UK - agreed that a delegation should be sent. Clarke then went off to live in Cuba for a year to help in the organisation of the Festival. I became chairman of the British committee organising the 300 Brits going to Havana, who included the Tory MP Nigel Evans, Paul Boateng, and Slough MP Fiona Mactaggart.

Suffice it to say that we turned up, had a terrific time and made a mess of the Soviet hopes that the Festival would end with a paean of praise to Eastern European socialism. The proposition, so vigorously propounded this week, that Mandelson was in some way a puppet of Fidel Castro would have caused astonishment amongst those who watched him criss-crossing Havana for ten days and nights, blocking every attempt to bring the Brits into line.

I learnt many things about Peter Mandelson during that trip. The most important is that he has always had only one aim in life: to establish a Labour government that concerns itself with ending inequality and poverty. It may be that this almost religious faith has often blinded him to the fact that those who do not share his belief are not necessarily enemies of the people. His legendary touchiness about press criticism may arise in part from his frustration that journalists who do not share the faith might stand in the way of progress.

If Peter Mandelson has an historical parallel, it is Robespierre, the architect of the Terror. Without his zeal and cool passion for the right of the French people, the ancien regime would almost certainly have reasserted itself in some way. His defence of the ideals of the revolution was absolute and unmoving. It won him no friends, and eventually swallowed him. It would be a tragedy for Labour if it were to do the same to the architect of its own revolution.

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