I have been reading The Third Man, the autobiography of Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of New Labour, who ruled Britain from 1997 to 2005. Mandelson was a cabinet minister under Tony Blair (though twice dismissed on rather petty grounds) and effectively deputy prime minister under Gordon Brown. In between he was Britain's Commissioner at the European Union responsible for the international trade talks and the failed attempt to lower trade barriers between emerging nations and the rich. It ought to be seen as one of the most successful political careers of his generation, yet Mandelson is probably regarded as a failure.
He is a man who is regarded with suspicion; a Machiavellian character who plotted behind the scenes, open to any form of dishonest spinning of the truth. Although he is the grandson of Herbert Morrison, deputy prime minister in the 1945-51 Attlee administration, he is not a typical Laborite. His parents were upper middle class, he attended a very good Grammar School in North London and went on to Oxford University. He was aways privileged, with easy entry into the higher echelons of the Labour Party.
With Blair and Brown he set out to change the party from the unelectable, far-left, rump that supported Michael Foot in wanting to ban-the-bomb, into the progressive party of Tony Blair that wanted to occupy the middle ground. Much of what he achieved was a superficial gloss. Blair was a consummate showman; articulate with a barrister's silver tongue, he could work equally well with Clinton and Bush and was able to persuade his colleagues into several unpopular wars. But many of his ideas were impractical (taking unruly teenagers to ATMs to pay a fine on the spot to policemen, for instance) and these would irk Gordon Brown who considered himself to be the brains behind New Labour and had been in one colossal sulk since 1994. When Brown finally achieved the leadership of the Labour Party that he had always craved, he proved himself to be wholly unsuitable as Prime Minister and completely unelectable.
The picture he presents of the internecine wars within Labour during the years in government may be true, but one would have to read Blair's and Brown's autobiographies to be sure, but Mandelson has a reputation for dissembling and I wouldn't trust him to deliver the post let alone the truth.
At the end of the book he comes up with the following: the goal... is to create the sort of society in which the daughter of a Hartlepool shop assistant has as much chance of becoming a High Court Judge as the daughter of a Harley Street doctor.
This statement is so awry that it takes my breath away.
First of all, the daughter of a Grantham shopkeeper, has already become, not a High Court Judge, but Prime Minister of the UK: Margaret Thatcher.
Second, the Grammar Schools, from which he benefited, have already caused a great deal of social mobility. The writer is himself the son of a bar steward who became an internationally renowned doctor thanks to those same Grammar schools. Yet it has always been Labour Party policy to have comprehensive schools in which bright boys and girls are lost within a morass of low-achievers and instead of being stimulated by good teaching, resort to being the class clown to get attention.
Third, being a High Court Judge, takes a certain degree of brain power. Although clever people may come from any stratum of society, most clever people have already found their niche. There is not a huge reservoir of brain-boxes among the children of shop assistants. Intelligence is not entirely genetic, but it is in part. It is true that very few students at Oxford and Cambridge come from working class backgrounds, but that is not because of lack of opportunity.
Fourth, High Court Judges are hardly the example I would set before my children. A recent report of the foul language issuing from a female judge prosecuted for drunken driving is hardly what I want from my kids.
Fifth, there is a distressing tendency for people in government to rate intellectual skills above more practical ones. I would rather my son were a good carpenter than a politician with a reputation for mendacity, no matter how high and mighty he might be. Even more, I would want him to be a man of integrity even if his joints didn't fit.