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Tony Soprano


The more you hear about the sordid soap opera that was Labour government in the early years of this century, the more it sounds like a version of the Sopranos – except that the New Jersey Mafiosi were at least able to keep their mouths shut.

Not only did most of them, from the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to the spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell, seem to suffer from profound psychological distress – at least according to the testimony of their colleagues – many emerge as men of explosive temperament, who showed a disturbing eagerness to resort to force to get their way. You didn’t want to get wise with these guys.

Now, it may well be that the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, did not expect to be taken seriously when he told the head of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, to send in the army and “machine gun” rioters in October 2002. I’m sure Blunkett was overwrought. According to his own diaries, which were serialised last week, he was overwrought a great deal of the time.

He records that at the height of the Iraq invasion he advised the PM to bomb offices of the independent Arab news service, Al Jazeera. He’d probably have liked to machine gun liberal lawyers as well, and the BBC who he claims had a vendetta against him.

However, there are all sorts of mechanisms in government which are designed to prevent ministers, however over-stimulated, from talking in this way – just in case anyone does take them seriously.

The presence of permanent secretaries, for example, who take notes of all important ministerial conversations, is supposed to ensure that ministers don’t forget themselves. They can’t just lift the phone and bark at people, any more than they can march into the offices of public officials and threaten to have them sleep with the fishes.

Unless they are David Blunkett, that is. For these mechanisms seem to have broken down in this administration. David Blunkett was allowed a licence to go massively over the top. Perhaps this was because of a kind of inverted prejudice about his own disability; a reluctance by the sighted to censure a blind man. Or maybe, staff were just afraid of him.

Hardly surprising that Blunkett ended up being sacked twice, effectively, for misconduct. First, over fast-tracking the visa of his lover’s nanny and, second, over failing to declare shares in a company which could benefit from public contracts.

But it’s the personal pettiness and animosities that saturate the Blunkett account of the life and times of the Labour Cabinet that is most disturbing. They all seemed to be at each others’ throats.

Blunkett had a profound loathing for John Prescott, and basks in Schadenfreude at the Deputy Prime Minister’s subsequent downfall over his own sexual antics and his freebies from an American businessman, who wanted to turn the Millennium Dome into a super-casino.

Yes, you feel John Prescott would hve been very much at home in the Ba Da Bing, and not just because he’s built like Sal “Pussy” Ponopensiero. The Bing is brash, American, involves gambling and employs women who are available for sex with the boss. The DPM showed just how good he is with his fists when he floored that countryside protester during the 2001 general election campaign.

Prescott certainly knows where Labour’s bodies are buried. Afterall, he isn’t one of the longest-serving Cabinet ministers because of his command of the English language or his felicitous turn of phrase at the Dispatch Box. He was Tony’s muscle.

But how soon before we learn that, like Blunkett and Campbell, Prescott was seeking professional advice about his ‘issues’? Psychological eccentricity was practically a job-requirement in Tony Blair’s second administration. Yet the PM himself seems such a mild-mannered decent sort of a guy. You wonder how he kept control of these rampant feuding egos.

Men like Charles Clarke, the who replaced Blunkett as Home Secretary, and “Dr” John Reid who soon replaced Clarke. Clarke completely lost the plot before the 2006 Labour conference and publicly accused the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, of being a “delusional” control-freak who couldn’t delegate, wouldn’t listen and didn’t tell the truth.

As for John Reid, his behaviour has frequently on the far side. Ask Elizabeth Filkin, the former parliamentary standards commissioner, who accused him of intimidating witnesses in her investigation into the employment of Reid’s son Kevin as a parliamentary researcher. Reid also famously came close to blows with the former First Minister, Donald Dewar, at the 1999 Labour conference.

With other Cabinet hard men around, like the Blairite former Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, and the former Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, you wonder what Cabinet away-days must have been like. A cross between the Borgias and Goodfellas.

And of course when it comes to using force to get your way, Tony Blair is right up there with the best of them. After all, he signed up to the Iraq invasion, which has so far caused around half a million civilian deaths, according to the medical magazine Lancet last week. This is where it gets serious.

The PM drove this country to war, against its best instincts, and inpursuit of weapons of mass destruction which didn’t exist – except in the dodgy dossiers produced by his aide, Alastair Campbell, who now says he was suffering from clinical depression. The Prime Minister clearly wanted to start a fight, and he got one.

But not even Tony Soprano at his most belligerent would have tried to take on the entire Middle East. Yet by invading a Muslim country, Tony Blair has inflamed the entire region and turned Britain into a prime terrorist target. And British forces in Afghanistan are paying the price.

This Labour administration may go down in history as one of the most belligerent and authoritarian in British history. It has sought to curb civil liberties – freedom from arrest, freedom of speech – in a way no peacetime administration has attempted in modern times. It has started wars which were almost certainly illegal, and undermined international institutions like the UN. Ministers can’t seem to stop themselves from confronting Muslim groups.

I don’t particularly subscribe to psychological interpretation of history, but you have to ask whether there wasn’t some kind of group psychosis at work in the British Cabinet. All top politicians lose touch with reality after a while, but this lot seemed to be out to lunch from day one.

Something of the embattled mentality which Labour politicians acquired during the long years of opposition, when they were repeatedly beaten up by the press and the voters, was translated into government. Perhaps, like the abused child, which grows up into a dysfunctional adult, Labour couldn’t help itself turning delinquent.

But there was something more. Having lost the moral compass of socialism, New Labour lapsed into populism and the politics of law and order. And now, adrift with nothing but vanity to keep them going, they are desperately blaming each other for the collective mistakes of the past.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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