Damian McBride’s shocking revelations raise questions about how much his master knew of the underhand tactics used to crush rivals, writes Allan Massie
Damian McBride has been dishing the dirt. For many, especially here in Scotland, the saddest, and to some the most surprising, thing about his revelations is the complicity of Gordon Brown. It’s unlikely that Mr Brown knew precisely what Mr McBride was doing, easy to believe that he preferred not to; nevertheless it is even more improbable that he was ignorant of the general drift of his activities. As for Mr McBride, one assumes that he was sure he was not only acting in his master’s best interests, but believed that he was doing what, deep-down, Mr Brown wanted him to do. In Nazi Germany it wasn’t always necessary for Hitler to give precise orders for horrible acts; there was a phrase “working towards the Fuehrer”. It meant doing what you were sure the Fuehrer wanted you to do. Likewise one may assume that Mr McBride was “working towards his leader”.
The sad, and for some the surprising , thing is that we had thought Mr Brown a better man than the McBride revelations suggest he is. A few years ago at an annual gathering in Freudenstadt, organised by Professor Christopher Harvie and Eberhard Bort, Owen Dudley Edwards delivered a eulogy of Gordon Brown, who had been his student at Edinburgh University and whom he knows well. He spoke with equal admiration of his intellect and his character. Nobody dissented. One might have had grave doubts about his management of the Treasury, but none about his wish to make the United Kingdom a better, more prosperous and fairer society. In many ways Gordon Brown represents all that is best in Scots Presbyterianism. But now comes Mr McBride. So what is one to think?
The story of the relations between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is of course already well-known. It’s a sad story of friendship turning first sour and then bitter, corrupted by suspicion and jealousy – resentment on Brown’s part, fear on Blair’s. In defence of Gordon Brown – and , by extension, of Damian McBride – one should point out that the first public blows were struck by the other side. It was Alastair Campbell – Blair’s McBride – who put it about that Mr Brown was “psychologically flawed”. (Nevertheless he remained Chancellor of the Exchequer.)
Politics is, as we all know, a rough old game. It always has been. Margot Asquith, wife of the Liberal prime minister, once said of his rival, and chancellor David Lloyd George, “Mr Lloyd George cannot see a belt without hitting below it”. It is rare for a Cabinet to be a band of happy brothers. When somebody remarked that Aneurin Bevan was his own worst enemy, Ernest Bevin replied: “Not while I’m alive, he ain’t.” Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe worked in harmony together for years until impatience with his caution led her to humiliate him in Cabinet meetings; he had his revenge with a savage resignation speech which led to her downfall.
Tensions will develop in any group of politicians who have worked together for some time. In the early years of the Thatcher government, the so-called “wets” in the Cabinet briefed the press against her. In turn she gave her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, licence to deliver scarcely-veiled criticisms of her colleagues; he discounted one of them, John Biffen, as “a semi-detached member of the government”. The Westland affair, an argument over the future of a not very important manufacturer of helicopters, saw ferocious briefing and counter-briefing. It led to Michael Heseltine flouncing out of the Cabinet, complaining bitterly about the way in which the government was being run.
Harold Wilson’s Cabinets were riven by animosity, but for the most part this remained hidden from public view, and it was only when former Cabinet ministers, notably Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle, published their diaries that one learned about the hatred and contempt with which some ministers viewed their colleagues. Likewise it wasn’t until years after the event that we knew how impatient his colleagues were with the aged Winston Churchill’s loss of grip in his 1951-55 government and how they longed for the old man to retire.
Things have changed now, and not only because such deference is no longer practised. The seepage began some time ago, and you no longer have to turn to Private Eye for an insight into what goes on in the murky corners. One reason for the change is that government ministers – and members of the Opposition front-benches – all now have their “special advisers”, or “political advisers” who exist only to serve their immediate masters, not the government or even the party. Sometimes, admittedly, they are accorded civil service status, or are even recruited from the civil service, as Bernard Ingham was. But their role is not that of the traditional civil servant who was required, or at least supposed, to give non-partisan advice. They are indeed nothing but partisans, and they are there to advance their master’s career. Inevitably this is at the expense of his or her rivals in the party. In the laager of politics, their guns point inwards more often than not. So Mr McBride was far more concerned to destroy anyone perceived to be a rival to Gordon Brown, or a critic of him, than to attack the Tories.
Modern communications have changed things too. We all know that it is easier to write an e-mail than a letter; the medium seems impersonal and also encourages immediacy: you fire off an e-mail, and may get a reply in an instant; and it may feel less compromising to commit thoughts to the ether than to paper – even if it isn’t. Viewing the e-mails exchanged by Mr McBride and his cronies, and also by the Blairites opposed to him, one wonders if they would all have expressed themselves so nakedly if they had been confined to pen and paper. The frenetic atmosphere within the Labour Party in the last days of Tony Blair’s premiership was surely stimulated by the ease and speed of electronic communication. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan told us in the Sixties, is the message, and this medium makes for nastier messages.