Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 September 2005
I suppose it was inevitable that this week’s Labour Party conference would become the Gordon and Tony Show. Tony Blair declared earlier this year that he would be quitting as prime minister some time during the current parliament, and Gordon Brown is so strongly placed to succeed him that no one credible is likely to stand against him.
So it’s hardly surprising that many journalists have spent the week in Brighton desperately searching the texts of speeches, analysing body language and talking to “allies” of Blair and “friends” of Brown in the hope of finding out (a) when Tony will go and (b) how Gordon will be different.
Not that they’ve discovered anything very much about either. Blair didn’t announce his imminent departure, which means that he probably isn’t retiring this year but, er, we still can’t be quite sure. And Brown said nothing to indicate what he would do differently, though he did make it pretty clear that he wouldn’t be any friendlier to the trade unions or any less enthusiastic for free trade. So we’re still guessing what Brown would be like as PM, just as we were before.
For what it’s worth, my hunch is still that Blair will go this time next year or early in 2007 rather than hanging on until late 2007 or even 2008. The next general election does not need to be until 2010 but (unless the opinion polls turn against Labour, which is by no means impossible) it is more likely to be in spring 2009.
Because it makes sense for a new prime minister to have a good two years in charge before polling day — enough time to establish familiarity with the voters but not enough to start looking jaded — and because Labour’s leadership election process is rather long-winded, the feeling in my bones is that Blair will be gone by spring 2007.
As for how Brown would be different as prime minister, well, we’ll see. I’m sure he will be much growlier than Blair and much more serious. But I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that he will change very much of substance.
It’s true that he has deeper roots in Labour politics than Blair — he was active in Scottish Labour politics years before Blair joined the party and is an assiduous networker — and that 30 years ago he was quite left-wing. But he abandoned his youthful lefttsm long ago, and during the past decade has (for better or worse) been at least as responsible as Blair for Labour policy.
The invention of “New Labour” was a joint Brown-Blair effort. It was Brown who embraced the private finance initiative, Brown who abandoned “tax and spend”, Brown who resisted calls for big increases in pensions. He is just as ardent an Atlanticist as Blair and has said and done nothing to indicate that he would take a different approach to foreign policy. There have been faint indications that he might be interested in reviving the process of constitutional reform, but otherwise everything suggests a Brown premiership will mean business as usual.
On a different subject entirely, I know that new releases from the National Archives rarely make the front pages. But I’m still just a bit surprised by how little coverage there has been this month of the publication of a massive collection of documents detailing the security state’s surveillance in the late Betty Reid, one-time witchfinder general of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The Guardian gave the released papers a cursory mention, the Times ran a story remarking on the banality of much of the material, and that was just about it.
Yet the documents — page after page of transcripts of tapped telephone calls, copies of intercepted correspondence and MI5 and Special Branch agents’ reports — are quite remarkable.
It’s no surprise that the spooks took an interest in Reid, who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and rose to become head of its organisation department, responsible for enforcing party discipline. The Sunday Times revealed more than 20 years ago that her live-in nanny for many years, Betty Gordon, had been an MI5 agent.
But the newly released documents show in extraordinary detail precisely what the spooks’ interest entailed in the 1940s and 1950s. They followed her everywhere she went, recorded the identity of every person she met, listened to and transcribed every phone call she made and opened and copied every letter she was sent.
Of course, a lot of the documentation produced by this intensive surveillance is banal or incomprehensible. But the picture of the cold-war security state’s methods that emerges from them is fascinating. It’s clear that the spooks had the CP pretty much completely penetrated in this period.
Reid responed to the Sunday Times story about her MI5 nanny with the immortal words: “I’m afraid it makes me look rather silly.” This new material makes her and her comrades look even sillier.