Not My Fault

John Lanchester

  • Speaking for Myself: The Autobiography by Cherie Blair
    Little, Brown, 421 pp, £18.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 1 4087 0098 3
  • Prezza, My Story: Pulling No Punches by John Prescott, with Hunter Davies
    Headline, 405 pp, £18.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 7553 1775 2
  • A Question of Honour: Inside New Labour and the True Story of the Cash for Peerages Scandal by Michael Levy
    Simon and Schuster, 310 pp, £18.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 1 84737 315 1

New Labour’s exes are a hard-publishing lot. So far we have had diaries from two of its central figures, David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell, and from a spin-doctor hanger-on (Lance Price); a memoir by its most senior diplomat, the former ambassador to Washington Sir Christopher Meyer; and now memoirs by the former prime minister’s wife, his deputy and his bagman. The granddaddy of them all, Blair’s own memoirs, are still to come. It is an unprecedented cascade of memoirs by prominent figures in a government which is, let’s not forget, still in power. The phenomenon seemed odd when it began – Lance Price was called in front of a Parliamentary committee in December 2005 to account for his temerity in publishing his insider’s account. By now we’re used to it, and it’s getting to the point where it would be more surprising for a New Labour insider not to publish a book explaining how he/she was both a. more at the centre of things than anybody had hitherto suspected while also b. not to blame for any of the stuff that went wrong.

What underlies this rush to publish? The obvious motive, money, shouldn’t be discounted: the sell-by date for these books is not far off. That motive is either fair enough or not fair enough, but at least it is what it is. Other underlying causes are less clear-cut, but two of them seem to me especially important. To be in the public eye in Britain today is to be enmeshed in a thick web of stories, of versions, of arguments, of allegations, of headlines and, perhaps especially, of dislike. We don’t like those set in authority over us, and they can find that difficult to take, because they are a needy lot, our rulers, and they expect us to be grateful or, at the very least, understanding. It’s hard for them. Since we so manifestly aren’t grateful, or understanding, they feel a strong need to tell their version of their own story, to restore the complexity and inwardness to the public version of selves which, very often, exist purely as caricature.

While in office, our rulers tend to move exclusively in circles which agree with what they say, and this makes them feel powerful, successful, loved and validated, while at the same time they’re uneasily aware that there is a wider public which sees them as none of those things. It’s a version of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ in which the court is making approving murmurs which don’t quite manage to drown out the unruly crowd, who can be heard, faintly but distinctly, booing. ‘What are those strange sounds they make?’ ‘It is a peasant fashion of voicing their approval, Your Majesty.’ To make it worse, the public image of any public figure is firmly set by a few early gestures and is very hard to shift: Cherie’s wonky non-smile and crazed lust for cash, Prescott’s voter-punching and malapropisms. They can’t help but feel that such things shouldn’t be allowed entirely to sum them up. They want to get their own version out there. It’s understandable, and also explains the sudden lurches into over-intimacy which overtake these books: Cherie and her traumatic experiences in the delivery room (‘I was given a rubber ring to sit on so that at least I could force a smile’), Prescott and his bulimia.

Cherie Blair and John Prescott may not have been the most unpopular figures of Blair’s government but they were the two who had the hardest time in the press. Both spent long stretches in the contemporary equivalent of the stocks; a scarring experience, and both of them were scarred. If we remember them for these new revelations, we are partly restoring them control of their own narratives, because we are remembering them for things they have consciously chosen to reveal. There is something sad and desperate about that, and it makes one realise what a desolate, devouring thing public attention can become, and the sense of powerlessness it can induce. Even, or especially, in the powerful.

The trouble is that it is difficult to tell the truth about oneself. It’s difficult to locate the truth at the best of times, and writing about oneself makes it harder, since we all have things we don’t want to face, and they are usually the things which most need facing. There are true things we wish weren’t true, and there is also the difficulty that any assertion about oneself creates an echo that suggests the opposite. ‘I have courage’: the echo of that makes the reader wonder what sort of person would need to state that they have courage, and come quickly to the conclusion that it’s someone for whom the whole issue of courage is not straightforward. ‘I am a pretty straight kind of guy’ – there’s another one. Who would say that?

All memoirs wrestle with this issue, and political memoirs are no exception, not least because so many of them are at heart exercises in self-justification. Writers, actors, sportsmen and everyone else who writes memoirs are telling their own story, but they are not usually, not primarily, doing so to justify themselves. Political figures, by and large, are. It creates a strain, and the strain shows in all of these books, whose authors are very different people, but who have written books with a marked formal similarity: they are interesting in the early bit, before the author was famous, and when they’re concentrating on telling the story, and then much less so when the author becomes well known and settles down to the all-important task of explaining why they were always in the right about everything.

Cherie’s book is the longest of the three, the most careful. It is also at moments the least persuasive, perhaps because she was the New Labour figure who had most trouble with her image per se, and therefore the one who seems most preoccupied with how she wants to come across in print. The first three pages, recounting the immediate aftermath of her shouting ‘I won’t miss you’ at photographers as she was leaving Downing Street for the last time, are the single phoniest thing in all three books. Admittedly, it’s no easy thing to explain how she got from that moment, in which a real revulsion at the press seemed clear, to publishing her memoir, with the attendant publicity and interviews and self-touting, less than eleven months later. So she works the excuses hard. She mentions that she had ‘just said goodbye to all these people we’d loved and who’d loved us’ (i.e. the staff); that she is a ‘bolshie Scouser’ and that ‘Scousers have always been outsiders’; that she was ‘born into a hard world, raised by strong women and I learned to cope’; that in her work she ‘spoke on behalf of other people and was used to being heard. Yet in this other life my voice had been literally unknown.’ She concludes by asking us to believe that ‘as we drove down the Mall’ on the way to Buckingham Palace, she decided to write Speaking for Myself.

I can’t help feeling, after reading 400-odd pages of her memoir, that I still haven’t heard her real voice. A pity, since she seems not to have had a ghost, unlike John Prescott, who was ventriloquised by Hunter Davies; Michael Levy credits a journalist friend, Ned Temko, for his ‘invaluable help, talent and patience’. You certainly don’t hear the Cherie described by Michael Levy, ‘every bit the get-ahead barrister’, who on their weekend afternoons together ‘would typically sit on the terrace hunched over a brief’. Levy quotes a snippet of this Cherie, from a letter to Blair’s old friend and assistant Anji Hunter. There was an internal Downing Street argument which ended with the promotion of Cherie’s assistant. Cherie to Anji: ‘The room which is at present partially occupied by you will be turned over to my office. Your terms and conditions of employment will remain the same. If anything, your attempt to force a change in your terms by threatening to leave has only hardened my hostility to you. I will not allow either myself or the PM to be held to ransom in this manner.’ The conclusion: ‘In so far as your job brings you into contact with me, that will be kept to a minimum … I trust this is clear.’ Now that’s speaking for yourself.

The story told by the books is not the same as the story in the books. The larger story, the meta-story, is about aspiration, and about the ways in which Britain has and hasn’t changed. A working-class Catholic born in Liverpool in 1954, who became a driven and brilliant lawyer; a young man with no education, born in Wales in 1938 who went to sea at 17 and rose through the seamen’s union, via Ruskin College, to become an MP; a shammes’s son from a one-room flat in the East End, born in 1944, who trained as an accountant and then made a fortune after drifting into show business by starting a record label. Those are interesting stories, less likely to happen to people born today, with British social mobility having stalled – a phenomenon which none of the books mentions.

In one of his novels, Patrick O’Brian has his character Stephen Maturin say: ‘Have you ever known a village reputation to be wrong?’ Cherie (I’m going to call her that to avoid confusion with the other Blair) has a village reputation which stresses her ambivalent relationship with fame and her obsession with money. Speaking for Myself makes that rep seem justified, but it also shows that Cherie grew up with good reason for anxiety about public exposure and financial security. At the age of six weeks her actor parents left her with her paternal grandparents, who raised her until she was two. Not long afterwards her father, the actor Tony Booth, left, and not very long after that he had become, courtesy of his role in the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, the most famous non-Beatle Liverpudlian in the country. Cherie was in a perfect position to have all the disadvantages of local celebrity, combined with none of the advantages; her mother had to go to work in a chip shop to support her and her sister, as well as what was then the public ignominy of single motherhood. As for how they found out that Booth had definitively left, it was via a formal announcement placed in the Crosby Herald, announcing the birth of a daughter with his new girlfriend. ‘We had no idea … It is difficult to overestimate the humiliation.’ Cherie was eight. No wonder she grew up preoccupied with keeping control of her own secrets, and her children’s privacy, and the need to be financially secure.

She also, it seems clear from Speaking for Myself, grew up with that paradoxical sense of entitlement that people from difficult childhoods sometimes have. She wants her children to be private, and yet is happy to tell us how her youngest was conceived; she is determined not to write about any of the intimate detail of her family life (quite rightly, in my view), but then says that ‘first and foremost this book is about a family on a journey,’ which is emetic, and also can’t be true, in the absence of any family detail. Her worries about money were clearly very real. For instance, as a newly qualified barrister, she borrowed money to pay her sister’s way through law school. The same worries were much less grounded in reality by the time she was married to the two-term prime minister, but she doesn’t seem to notice the difference – which is a sign of how vivid the early traumas remain. She likes both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, and resents Downing Street’s failure to make better use of her as an ‘asset’, but doesn’t notice that the two presidential wives have a clarity to their respective roles that she never seeks in her own. She eventually sees through Carole Caplin but never admits that the people who did so years before were right all along. She talks about her desire to ‘speak for myself’, and how women’s voices in general are silenced and ignored, and then tells a story like this, about her assistant Fiona Millar, Alastair Campbell’s partner:

Fiona was firmly in the camp of those who believed Britain should not get involved in Iraq. It was a non-stop tirade. ‘Why don’t you just tell Tony to stop it? He’ll listen to you.’ And it wasn’t only me she harangued, but Alastair too. If it was bad for me, it must have been terrible for him. No let-up at work or at home. My response to her was always the same. ‘Listen, Fiona. I don’t see the papers. I don’t see what he and Alastair see, and if Tony tells me, as he does, that if we don’t stop Saddam Hussein the world will be a more dangerous place, then I believe him. And in my view you and I should be supporting our men in these difficult decisions, not making it worse by nagging them.’

Making it worse. That’s a good one. When it comes to Iraq, her policy is not so much ‘speaking for myself’ as ‘Sois belle et tais-toi.’

The latter two-thirds of the book are full of self-justification and give a strong sense that more interesting things could be said, but aren’t being. The code of politics is ‘he who dies with the most secrets wins.’ That code is not broken here. Once Blair is in office, the most engaging character in the story is Cherie’s hairdresser, André, who travels with her (she pays – and boy does she mind) and brings order to what Cherie would be the first to admit is ambient chaos. Cherie’s clothes and appearance are one of the subjects on which she was lavishly attacked by the papers; this seemed nasty and unfair at the time, and seems more so once you have read her account of how uninterested in fashion she had been before, and how tormenting she found the press’s not-at-all-benign interest. It was André who rode to the rescue, sorting out the frocks and the ’do and many other things beside. At the UN’s Millennium General Assembly in 2000, André had charge of newborn Leo while his parents were otherwise engaged; he brings Leo to the Waldorf Hotel to meet Cherie via an emergency stop at Ralph Lauren to replace Leo’s outfit after an exploding-nappy incident. (At this point, you know that whatever Cherie was paying him, it wasn’t enough.) He cleaned Leo up, changed his nappy, and was given a new outfit of dungarees and a jumper with the Stars and Stripes; he was then taken through the kitchens of the Waldorf (‘the route of choice for American presidents and their wives’) and straight in to see Bill and Hillary Clinton. ‘I arrived about five minutes later, to find Bill holding Leo and generally cooing, although my son’s red face showed that he had clearly been exercising his lungs until very recently. André gave me one of his looks. “Cherie,” he hissed. “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”’ Some time later they go to meet Blair at the UN and he asks: ‘Why on earth is the British prime minister’s son wearing an American jumper?’ Note how his first thought is always for himself.

It is a bit of an irony that John Prescott was the other most attacked New Labour figure, since he did not consider himself to be New Labour at all, and went to some trouble never to use the term. He is chippy, as he would make no attempt to deny; he is proud of the fact that he doesn’t socialise with, or indeed speak to, Tories. He is especially touchy about his cage-fight, his ultimate smackdown, his death struggle with the English language. This provided columnists and Parliamentary sketch-writers with plenty of copy over the years, greatly to Prescott’s irritation. He sees this as being to do with class, which it isn’t, as the identity of the world’s most powerful language-mangler makes clear. If it were an Olympic event, though, our feller could give the Yale-educated most powerful man in the world a good contest: ‘They misunderestimated me’ versus ‘The green belt is a Labour achievement and we mean to build on it.’ (And on the other side of the argument, there’s Arthur Scargill: ‘My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your ability to master words.’)

The fact that Prescott minds being teased about this gives his touchiness a tragicomic edge. The accounts of early slights, almost always based on class, are very vivid in both Speaking for Myself and Prezza, which is one reason why, read together, they are depressing books. Prescott failed the 11-plus and is stinging about the experience. His father came back from France an amputee and thereafter became an accomplished cadger and skiver, an energetic seeker of free admission and free drinks; also a trade-union official and a JP. Prescott had next to no education, and left school at 15 to work in hotels, before getting a job with the Cunard line as a ship’s waiter. He joined the seamen’s union, then notoriously concerned with the privileges of its own senior members, and too close to the ship-owners. There was perhaps a parricidal edge to the energy Prescott brought in rising up through the union and reforming it. Before long, as a known militant, he was banned from all Cunard and P&O ships. Forced to be ashore for long periods, he ended up applying for a union scholarship to Ruskin College; was accepted; had the union pull his funding after he attacked the leadership in a speech at its conference; and then went there after all, thanks to Ruskin wangling him a place.

Ruskin did what it was supposed to do: gave Prescott confidence in his own intelligence and some training in how to think and argue. (When you see how higher education changed the lives of senior Labour figures – Blunkett is another leading example – it is astonishing how badly treated university teachers have been.) He went on to do a degree course at Hull, in the process making the mistake of asking Philip Larkin: ‘Do you do seminars?’ (‘He looked down his nose at me – and walked on.’) Prescott was keeping up his interest in politics all the while. He fought a losing campaign in Southport in 1966 while still a student at Hull; that might sound a broad-minded thing for the university to allow him to do, but in fact he didn’t tell them about it until afterwards. For the general election of 1970, he was adopted as the candidate for the safe seat of Hull East, which he will hold until his retirement at the next general election. At the end of his book Prescott expresses the ‘worry that in the future we won’t have many politicians, in any party, who have come from my sort of background, people who have had experience of real, ordinary working life. They’ll all be lawyers or people who have gone straight from university into the political world in some form – working in think tanks, as researchers or advisers.’ Looking at today’s front benches, this seems entirely true. The young’uns on one side have all been to Eton and the others haven’t, but they share the same hermetic experience of full-time professional politics, and not much else.

There is one fascinating counterfactual to emerge from Prezza. It concerns the incident when he punched an egg-throwing protester in Wales during the 2001 general election. He includes a photo of the punch, a solid left jab right on the man’s chin. There was a furore, which Prescott survived because the public (not the papers, not at first) were largely on his side. But Prescott was an amateur boxer in his youth, and on page 118-19 there is a photo of him landing what looks like a knockout punch on an opponent. He is right-handed, and the knockout punch was a right. Here is the counter-factual: if 16-stone Prescott had hit the egg-thrower with his right, he would have knocked him out, and quite likely have broken his jaw. If either of those things had happened – if the man had ended up in hospital – Prescott would have had to resign. Whoever Blair appointed as his new deputy prime minister would have had much less pull with the party, because no one had as much pull with the party as Prescott. So when the crucial vote on the Iraq war came, Blair wouldn’t have had a deputy able to bring the party onside in the way that Prescott did. Instead of 139 Labour MPs voting against the war, a majority of them would have voted against, Blair would (as he said in private) have had to resign, and we wouldn’t have gone to war. And all because, for once, a New Labour figure didn’t lean to the right.

Michael Levy, in A Question of Honour, is the only person I have ever known to use the word ‘schmoozer’ about himself – usually it’s a descriptor applied, without much warmth, to other people. Levy, though, is a schmoozer, and proud of it, and the ability to get on with people was the basis of his second career as a fund-raiser, the one which ultimately led him to a morning appointment for his own arrest at Colindale police station, during the cash-for-honours inquiry of 2006.

It is, again, the early part of the book which is the more interesting. Levy was an only child, born poor, of first-generation immigrants. Levy’s father was a shammes, a ‘beadle’ as it’s usually translated, the man who looked after the social and community aspects of his synagogue. He was a profoundly devout man, and left Levy with both a deep religious faith and a keen wish to experience a wider world. The portrait of the pious, financially straitened, hard-working Jewish Hackney of his childhood is interesting, and shows a life which has moved elsewhere: the synagogue where he studied for his bar mitzvah is now a mosque and base for UK Turkish Islamic Funeral Services. Levy did well at school and wanted to go to the LSE but decided that he needed to start earning money straightaway, so he could help support his parents. The options came down to law or accountancy: he literally flipped a coin, and went off to train as an accountant. He took his articles with a big firm, set up on his own, then began to do the books of a small chain of record shops called Disci.

In those days, as Levy says, record shops were important places for the promotion of records, as well as being nexuses for networking, meeting like-minded cool people, hearing the latest news, and generally hanging out. (Brian Epstein, Levy points out, ran a record shop before he began to manage the Beatles.) The shops’ owner recommended Levy’s accountancy services to a band called the Foundations. He began to help them with other aspects of their business, such as negotiating contracts; other groups were taken on, and this side of the business expanded, until eventually Levy set up his own small record label, Magnet. One of his clients, Peter Shelley, wrote a song called ‘My Coo-Ca-Choo’, and they advertised for someone to sing it. Then this happened:

I had mixed feelings when a flamboyant, blond-haired 31-year-old knocked on our basement door a few days later and said he was our man. Auspiciously I suppose, his real name was Bernard Jewry, but he was better known as Shane Fenton. With his band, the Fentones, he had a few hits in the 1960s, but was not exactly a star. We explained to him as politely as possible that we had in mind someone with a ‘harder, rock-type image’ to front the song. He was utterly unfazed. A day later he returned – with his hair dyed black, black leather jacket, and wearing one black glove. We were instantly won over, the only remaining problem being the name. For a new company, and a new song, we needed at least the appearance of a new talent. It was Peter who came up with the name, which I thought was frankly nuts. They decided to call him Alvin Stardust.

It would be invidious to say that Alvin Stardust was the worst pop act in history: there is too much competition. But he was right up there. He and his like made Levy very rich. This part of the book is interesting.

Levy’s life changed in 1987, when his mother died. He was 43. His account of the crisis this brought on is touching, because his version of it is so direct: ‘I am not a naturally reflective person,’ he says. But, realising that he was tired of the music business, he sold Magnet for £10 million, and devoted himself to raising funds for mainly Jewish charities. ‘The aim was simple: to give back some of the fruits of my good fortune to the community whose traditions and values had helped me achieve success.’ He turned out to be ‘extraordinarily good at raising badly needed funds’. He felt unembarrassed about asking for money for good causes, indeed actively enjoyed it – a point which gained in importance because ‘most other people in most charitable or voluntary organisations positively detest raising funds.’ A corollary of this is that ‘even media profiles that touched on my talents as a fund-raiser often implied there was something not quite wholesome about it.’ That’s a fair observation. Levy doesn’t say so, but it might have been different if he had been a Gentile.

In 1994, while John Smith was still leader of the Labour Party, Levy met Tony Blair at a North London dinner party. The Smithites were a little cautious about Levy, but Blair liked him and became a personal friend, via the famous bonding sessions on the tennis court. He raised a lot of money for the party, and became Blair’s personal envoy to the Middle East, to not much practical effect, it seems, but the photographs are entertaining: Mum and Dad, then Alvin Stardust and Chris Rea, and then Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasir Arafat, President Assad, King Abdullah … No question, the man gives good schmooze.

As with the other books, the section about Labour in office is much less interesting than the early part of the story. The cash-for-honours stuff should be the climax of the dramatic interest, but isn’t really, not least because, as Levy says, what he did was straightforward: he asked for donations for the party in office, and people were happy to hand it over, in large amounts. In the 2005 election, when Labour needed to raise a lot of money quickly, donors often did so using a loophole by which sums loaned to the party, rather than given to it, did not have to be publicly declared. The Tories had used this loophole for years, and for far bigger amounts than Labour ever did. But then a Sunday Times reporter took a head teacher to drinks at a London hotel, and the teacher said that an ‘academy sponsor’ could expect to be nominated for ‘an OBE, a CBE or a knighthood’. Cue media frenzy. The story broke about the use of loans; the party treasurer denied knowing anything about them; and a Scottish Nationalist MP demanded a criminal investigation. This went on for a year with every detail seemingly leaked to the press, and ended with no charges being brought.

Levy is firm in his view that what is really needed is ‘a radical reform of … an inherently untenable marriage of fund-raising and party politics’:

The current system was open to abuse, or at least a corrosive appearance of abuse. The reality was that very few of the businessmen who gave large-scale donations to any of the parties did so without at least the vague hope that they might get some honour in return. That was by no means the only reason that they supported the party. At least in my long experience with Labour, there was always also a genuine, core political commitment – often a passionately personal commitment when Tony was at the peak of his powers. But history, and a mere cursory glance at the number of major Conservative donors sitting in the Lords, would suffice to inform anyone who had been smart and ambitious enough to make millions in business that an honour might – might – come with the territory. None of which meant that I had ever offered a peerage to any of the lenders who had bailed Labour out before the election. I had not. Ever.

Levy, rather unexpectedly, comes across as a slightly ingenuous but very straight man. No doubt there are a good many other stories he could tell; but when he does give an occasional glimpse of what people say in private, you tend to believe him. Blair, while still in Downing Street, on the prospects for Brown v. Cameron: Gordon ‘“can’t defeat Cameron” … Cameron had major strengths – a sense of political “timing”, a winning personality, and a natural ability to communicate and connect with people outside the closed world of politics, particularly in the “middle England” constituencies crucial to a general election victory, that Gordon would simply be unable ever to match.’

The yield from these three books of similar insiderish moments is disappointing. We learn from Cherie that the Granita restaurant deal was a myth: not that there wasn’t a meeting, but that it ‘was basically for them to talk about the announcement. It wasn’t the forum for the kind of stormy discussions that had preceded it. No way would that have happened in public, in a restaurant.’ We learn from Levy that Brown blamed Mandelson for putting around rumours that he is gay. The most interesting thing we learn from Prescott, who was often the only other person present when Blair and Brown met to discuss their differences, was that in 2003, Blair promised to go at the next election. ‘That’s definitely how I took it and how Gordon took it – as did all the Brownites because he must have told them afterwards. But Tony maintained later that he hadn’t said it. As far as I’m concerned, he did. Tony reneged on his promise.’ Since Prescott is in general loyal to Blair, this seems unequivocal.

The most salient characteristic of these books read together is their overwhelming emphasis on self-justification. The books reek of their authors’ need to explain and justify their actions; barely a paragraph, barely a sentence, of these hundreds of pages is not an explicit or implicit self-justification. It makes the New Labour memoir a gruelling, unnatural genre for readers. As always, when a powerful attempt is made at excusing oneself, it causes one to wonder what exactly is being excused; what it is that so desperately needs to be justified. In these books, page by page, incident by incident, it is the small change of everyday actions that is talked away, from Cherie’s ‘I won’t miss you’ to Prescott’s 250-yard Jaguar ride at the Labour Party Conference, to Levy’s arrest. But it is hard not to think that there is another, more powerful urge underlying this, and that it is connected to the reason these books are all being published now. It seems likely that, before long, the Tories will be back in power, either with a narrow majority or – if the economy doesn’t improve, and Brown carries on being Malvolio – after a Labour wipe-out. For about a decade, the Labour Party under Blair, with its unchallengeable Parliamentary majority, had the biggest opportunity granted to any progressive party in the Western world in the last half-century. How well did it do? Well, to ask that question is immediately to have some insight into why New Labour’s prominent figures are so obsessed with self-justification, with telling their side of the story, with getting their version of events into the record.

It’s clear why they all seem so keen to publish their self-justifications. There will be plenty more to come. New Labour’s principal actors will soon have long years to ask themselves the question which, according to Cherie, Blair was already asking himself in the early hours of 2 May 1997. On the plane down from Sedgefield to the election victory celebration in London, he put his head in his hands and said: ‘What have we done?’