Michael St George reviews “Power Trip”, the account by discredited Gordon Brown spin doctor Damian McBride of his time at the centre of power.
For reprehensible things to be done in a leader’s name, it isn’t necessary that the leader has to specifically order or approve their doing at all, much less be liable to be seen to have done. Given enough knowledge of the leader’s general attitude and ambitions, his acolytes can safely engage in nefarious activities, confident that by doing so they’re carrying out the (conveniently unstated) wishes of The Man. It’s called Führerprinzip.
All that’s necessary for them to do is correctly assess what the leader’s wish would be, then act. But when and if it goes embarrassingly wrong, why then of course The Man can plausibly deny he had any knowledge of either act or intentions, which he naturally finds hugely distasteful, etc. etc., and which he would undoubtedly have vetoed had he only but known.
Astute architects of the governance regime in most organizations understand the ethical corruption and repugnant behaviour this can lead to if unrestrained. That’s why they build in checks and balances, clear lines of authority and responsibility, and provisions for evidence trails.
Political parties, though, are often much less ethical. Perhaps it’s because of the assumed nobility of the cause: or maybe the degree of raw power achieved from success. But possibly in few other fields of human activity do we find a conviction that ends justify means to such an extent that the leader’s implied sanction for almost anything can be taken as read. Führerprinzip.
This is what, for this reviewer, most shines through Damian McBride’s confessional revelations of the spin, smears and adverse briefings he undertook in the service of Gordon Brown until sacked on the exposure of his pivotal role in what was dubbed Smeargate – the plan to counteract Brown’s free-falling popularity by surreptitiously spreading the most ugly, not to say untrue, personal smears imaginable about his opponents: and including, in one case, the opponent’s wife, a largely unknown figure publically, with no political role or profile at all.
Although that did at least make a change from the usual activity of smearing his (nominal) colleagues in the confidently-assumed interests of his master. Given the well-recounted Nixon-like contradictions and conflict within Gordon Brown’s psychological make-up – the maudlin, if misguided, statist-redistributionist altruism fighting against the vicious, paranoid-prone, tribal, sociopathy – the devotion to Brown and the Brownite cause admitted to by McBride, by no means either an entirely amoral or unintelligent man, comes across as extraordinary.
To further that devotion, in the name of either enhancing Brown’s position or protecting him from internal Labour Party threats, real or imaginary (and a lot of them were imaginary), he and the team of backstairs attack dog operators he led smeared anybody. Via Brownite-friendly journalists, they put it about that James Purnell, an only improbably threatening rival for the leadership, was gay: he isn’t. They briefed against Brown’s own Chancellor, Alistair Darling, for suggesting in the wake of the 2008 banking crash that the coming recession could be the worst for 60 years: not because they thought he was wrong, mark you, but because they knew he was probably right but to say so hurt Brown politically.
To assume that the book focuses exclusively on the smearing and spin, though, even though it’s those salacious details which have dominated the tabloid-serialised extracts, would be wrong. Because it’s also a fascinating addition to the lexicon of how the political communication process functions in a 24-hours, 7-day, multi-platform media environment, where the urgency of establishing a desired narrative, and the superficiality of much public interest in politics, reinforce yet oppose each other at the same time. In that context, it’s an illuminating counterpart to Andrew Rawnsley’s more restrained and detached “The End Of The Party”, although much more gossipy (and profane) in style.
For example, the notorious No 10 media “grid” controlling the co-ordination of news management has rightly attracted much derision as a vehicle primarily for spin. But when McBride reveals that a 12-inch high pile of paper can comprise the papers for the various Cabinet Committees for just one day, the reader does at least start to appreciate why some kind of co-ordination vehicle is necessary, even if it’s misused for less than ethical purposes.
The Press don’t come out of it well, for all the high-minded condemnation of recent days. To anyone familiar with Peter Oborne’s superb “The Triumph Of The Political Class”, McBride’s account confirms the impression of a media, if not compromised, then certainly colluding to a greater or lesser extent in what’s been called “manipulative populism” – the willingness to further the government’s agenda as a trade-off for access and stories with reader and viewer appeal. Whether this is done for narrow commercial reasons, or reflects a majority centrist-leftist groupthink in the metropolitan media bubble, is perhaps a judgement best left to the individual reader.
In the wake of the book’s publication, the queue of senior Labour figures claiming to have had only the briefest and non-intimate acquaintance with McBride and his less reputable activities has been almost unending. For several of those extensively mentioned in the book who were part of the Brownite inner backstairs cabal, such claims are, the text shows, somewhat unconvincing.
McBride’s assessment of Ed Miliband’s political personality, read by this reviewer only hours after Miliband had delivered the most left-wing speech of any leader to his party conference in three decades, suddenly appears highly prescient. In contrast to Ed Balls, a social democrat who’s prepared to tolerate The City and financial capitalism because it generates the tax revenue with which to pursue social-democratic ends, Miliband is a true believer. McBride shows how the profound and lasting influence exerted by his Marxist academic father, and the latter’s analysis of a modern Socialism to replace that which failed in Eastern Europe, informs his overriding philosophy. He genuinely, even fervently, believes in a fundamental re-casting of the liberty-freedom market-capitalism model, and the re-shaping of society to enable the State to become the overwhelming means of empowering people.
Fascinating as this is, in the end, though, it’s the black ops that pervade the book and make into an enthralling read rather than a routine one, whether they’re front-and-centre, or in the background but still casting a shadow. We’re now assured that all these practices were, in effect, just an unfortunate aberration of their time, and that things now are done differently. The fact, though, that this contemporary narrative wouldn’t have been at all out of place in the period and atmosphere described in the pages of “Power Trip” should make one wonder how true that is.
You can purchase a copy of ‘Power Trip’ here.