T his is a somewhat odd book. It is as clear and eloquent as is its author. It is a diary – with commentary – from the beginning of Labour’s second term in June 2001 until Robin resigned from the government in March 2003. The diary focuses on Robin’s reform of the House of Commons, Blair’s role in blocking democratic reform of the House of Lords and the run up to the war in Iraq. It contains a sharp critique of New Labour and Blairism and above all of the road to war in Iraq. But Robin makes clear in the prologue and repeatedly thereafter – as he did in his resignation speech – that he wants Blair to continue as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party.
I find this mystifying – how can one set out such a well thought through and comprehensive criticism of New Labour and of Tony Blair and then be adamant that he should continue as Prime Minister? It is difficult for me to square the strength, clarity and breadth of the critique contained in the book, with the repeated statements of loyalty to Blair. Robin being Robin will have thought this position through – maybe it is tactical, maybe there were promises of patronage or maybe he thinks it best to wait for the tide to rise before he floats on it. He even tells us that he went to the length of visiting Alistair Campbell to discuss how the damage of his resignation might be minimised and even let Alistair help draft his resignation letter. He also agreed to Tony’s request not to attend the final Cabinet before the war, but agreed to slip away through the side door instead!
It is clear from the diaries that he does not nurse his bruises over his sacking as Foreign Secretary and soon starts to enjoy his role as Leader of the House and the chance to display his wit and verbal dexterity in the Chamber. He also takes very seriously his chance to ‘modernise’ the House of Commons and the attempt to introduce a democratic element in the House of Lords.
I am one of those who find noIt is difficult to square the strength, clarity and breadth of the critique contained in the book, with the repeated statements of loyalty to Blair. pleasure in the old rituals in the House of Commons, but regrets that the 7pm closure which has destroyed the political atmosphere in the House. But I agree strongly with Robin that we must strengthen the capacity of the Commons to hold our overweening executive to account and that this will only be achieved if we change our voting system. Executive arrogance would be permanently tamed if voting powers in the Commons was a true reflection of the national vote. But the only prospect of this change being implemented is if we get an election outcome that gives the liberals the balance of power –which given the way things are going, could even be the result of the next General Election!
On the Lords, I think that both patronage and heredity are unacceptable as systems for composing our revising Chamber, but do think there is a potential problem with a directly elected Second Chamber challenging the authority of the Commons. My own favoured solution is an indirectly elected second chamber. This was the one option that was not before the Commons when we voted down all that was on offer.
Robin was reasonably irritated that Tony used his influence to keep a wholly appointed second chamber. Blair has, of course, taken the opportunity of Robin’s resignation to introduce a bill to abolish all hereditary peers from the Lords, and thus give himself a fully appointed second chamber.
After he ceased to be Foreign Secretary, Robin was given the role of liaising with Social Democratic parties in Europe and clearly relished the task. His devotion to the euro grew greatly after he became Foreign Secretary and is sustained in the book. Indeed the impossibility of referendum on the euro after the debacle of Iraq pains him greatly. His criticism of Blair’s Iraq policy has been widely canvassed and is set out clearly but without the logical conclusion that the only way we can correct our mistakes and regain international respect is to persuade Tony to step down.
Dotted throughout the diaries, in an unaffected way are touching glimpses of the tenderness of his love for Gaynor and the happiness they and their dogs have together.
The last section of the book is entitled “Where do we go from here?”. It is a clearly thought through programme for restoring the Labour Party’s commitment to its values. He contests commercialisation, managerialism and targets, calls for a stronger commitment to the reduction of inequality, the regulation of the market economy , less spin and more honesty and diversity of view amongst Labour politicians. He calls for state funding of political parties which I believe the public would find intolerable and a move to Proportional Representation so that campaigning isn’t confined to attracting swing voters. He is passionately pro-Europe and pro-euro and strongly committed to a strengthened UN with an enlarged Security Council, a stronger commitment to fairer trade rules and stronger action on global warming. I can say Amen to much of this, but cannot for the life of me see how it can happen if Tony Blair goes on and on.