Andrew Rawnsley, Penguin, £25
Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party is a massive, overblown account of the rise and fall of New Labour, written in the manner of a court history. Not a court history written by a courtier, celebrating the virtues of the powerful, it has to be said, but rather a court history written by a disillusioned moralist, chronicling the dreadful consequences of human weakness. This is the great man school of history without any great men in evidence.
Instead Rawnsley's cast of characters range from the weak and delusional (Tony Blair) through to the positively demented (Gordon Brown). He portrays New Labour as a band of deeply flawed individuals, united only by the fact that they loathe each other and have been engaged in bitter infighting since day one.
The problem with this is that while Rawnsley piles excruciating detail upon detail, he does not provide the context for the unfolding tragicomedy. Of course, to some extent New Labour do lend themselves to such treatment, so effectively have they eliminated what was left of democracy in the Labour Party and cut themselves free of the influence of the labour movement. But he does not explore their relations with the super-rich, big business and finance. David Blunkett's affair with the wealthy Kimberly Fortier is amusingly chronicled, but not New Labour's equally passionate affair with the rest of the capitalist class. His 679 pages of text actually contribute very little to our understanding of the politics of the last 25 years.
Even with regard to Gordon Brown, the book's villain, while there is no reason to doubt Rawnsley's account of paranoid bullying and violent rages, he does not explain how the man ended up like this. What we see in Brown is a man who sacrificed all of his principles and beliefs in order to become prime minister, only for a man who never had any principles or beliefs to begin with to seize the prize instead. Brown's personality was seriously damaged in the process of embracing neoliberalism, and then to have Blair, all presentation and no content, supplant him, well, it would be enough to make anyone mad!
Part of the problem is that Rawnsley cannot conceive of any alternative to neoliberalism himself. Consequently, he focuses on personalities, rather than on the New Labour policies that have culminated in the current recession. What is important about Brown is not his personality problems, but that he was one of the architects of the worst recession since the 1930s and that his response has been a species of right-Keynesianism - Keynesianism for bankers, so to speak.
As for Blair, he is Rawnsley's tragic hero, brought down, indeed corrupted, by his Iraq miscalculation. Once again this reduces politics to personalities. The Iraq catastrophe is not just down to Blair. The fact is that any British government, Labour or Tory, was going to support the US invasion. Every British government since 1945 has supported the US. Blair's problem was that he was required to pledge allegiance to one of the most incompetent administrations in US history, headed by a laughing-stock president. What Rawnsley does not appreciate is the extent to which Blair's support for the US has continued under Brown - and this support will continue whoever wins the next general election. This is not a matter of personalities. It is all about pursuing the interests of the capitalist class.