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A few musings on diaries (mine) and memoirs (Peter M’s)

Posted on 14 July 2010 | 1:07am

The Daily Telegraph yesterday asked me to fill their notebook slot with any thoughts inspired by the coverage of Peter Mandelson’s book. Here they are, as printed in the paper today.


One of the reasons I keep a diary is that when ev


ents are fast-moving and days and nights roll into each other, my memory is unable to hold more than a few general impressions and key moments. So when the BBC’s Nick Robinson – despite my thrashing him on Top Gear as a so-called Star in a Reasonably Priced Car – asked to interview me for a documentary on the days between the election and the forming of the coalition government, I consulted my entries for May 6 to May 12.

Nice chap that I am, I even took extracts along, and read out my account of the final call from Nick Clegg which preceded Gordon Brown’s departure from Downing Street. When GB said to NC: “It is a choice one way or the other and you have made the choice. I’m not going to hold on…”, his final words were: “OK, thanks Nick, goodbye.” Then he turned to us and said: “OK, let’s do it.” He was referring to his resignation. Doubtless the formal record – the one taken by the civil servants – will be different in tone.

Minutes are but one form of historical documentation. Diaries are another. And memoirs yet another. The benefit of the diary over the memoir is its immediacy and lack of hindsight. The benefit of the memoir over the diary is, hopefully, a broader perspective – which Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, clearly felt was missing in my diaries. “Nobody can accuse you of writing a self-serving memoir,” he said, “you come over as a complete lunatic.”

Peter Mandelson is perfectly entitled to write a memoir, and as I found when publishing The Blair Years and Prelude to Power, there is never a perfect time and someone, somewhere will always find reason to criticise.

But in getting out his version of the election aftermath, he could have done worse than ask to see my diaries of the time. According to an extract of The Third Man published yesterday, Gordon came back from his constituency in the early hours of May 7, spoke to staff and then had a meeting with Peter and Andrew Adonis. I’m afraid his memory is playing tricks. Gordon did have a meeting, but it wasn’t with Andrew. I remember this beyond doubt, partly from my diary entry (I noted the meeting was with Sue Nye and David Muir from his office, Peter, me, and party polling expert Greg Cook), but mostly for GB’s mild irritation that Andrew was in a television studio rather than hitting the phones to the Lib Dems. Andrew called in shortly afterwards, just as GB was finishing another bacon sandwich. Nick loved the bacon sandwich detail. Robinson that is, not Clegg. The Nick I beat on Top Gear.

“To serialise or not to serialise” may not be up there with “to be or not to be” in terms of dramatic moment, but it can be a sleep-loser. After my third troubled night, I called my agent Ed Victor and asked him to pull the plug on the large deal he had been negotiating for my diaries. I am not criticising those who do, but I worried about ceding to others the way the book was portrayed. Ed took my news as well as could be expected for someone on 15 per cent of any deal struck. He clearly hasn’t forgotten, though. Reflecting on Peter’s “Let me tell you a story” adverts, he emailed me: “I assume your worry was that they would make you wear a cravat.”

Despite our many ups and downs, Piers Morgan invited me to his wedding party on Saturday. Piers, too, is a diarist, though perhaps not as assiduous or as contemporaneous as I am. How else, one wonders, did he manage to record in one of his published “diaries” that he had a meeting with Tony Blair in Downing Street in 1996?

UPDATE:

Good to read Pat McFadden’s Fabian speech today, with its strong defence of Labour’s record, not least on the economy where far from blowing it, we helped people enjoy considerable rising prosperity and vastly improved public services. I appreciated  also his analysis of the new government and the scale of pain it will inflict, and all without a convincing or credible plan for growth or investment in the future. He is also right, however, that Labour needs to do more than just ‘fight the cuts.’ There are many fights against cuts to be had, but what we must not do is go for the comfort zone of opposition. We also have to be providing fresh thinking on the economy and Pat’s speech is a welcome prod in that direction.

*** Buy Prelude to Power here at Amazon.

  • Nicky

    Some absolutely batsh*t crazy responses in the Torygraph to this piece – so no surprises there.

    Interesting reader’s comment elsewhere in the Telegraph – describing the Tories as ‘giving kakistocracy a bad name’. I had to look this word up – it means ‘government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens’.

    The ConDem kakistocracy – that definitely sums them up!

  • olli issakainen

    “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”. Who said that? The answer: Winston Churchill.
    I have in front of me two volumes of the diaries of our former president, Urho Kekkonen. They were never intended for publication, but it has been said that he might have thought that someone would publish them in any case and this knowledge might have affected what is in them.
    Diaries of another former president, J.K. Paasikivi, have also been published. But it turned out that he had altered the text afterwards.
    And the writers of memoirs have often selective memory.
    Authorized biographies do not usually do the trick. I have, for example, Joe Haines´s Maxwell which cannot by any standards be called to be critical of its subject.
    So I do prefer unauthorized biographies to get my information. I am sure that Tony Blair´s A Journey will be interesting to read, but it will not surely be the last word on him.
    As for the election aftermath, I hope Andrew Adonis can bring it to the light.

  • olli issakainen

    Comment on the update. Labour must come up with a new economic model. Labour must also offer an alternative to Big Society.

  • Nick

    By any standards, Mandelson’s self congratulatory tome presents “New Labour” in an extremely unflattering light. Thank God this country is being governed by ego-free grown ups again.

  • Jacquie R

    Have loved and loathed Peter Mandelson in equal measure, but the unseemly haste with which he’s brought out his book only reinforces the negative side of his reputation. Shouldn’t think his friend/foe, Rupert Murdoch, is complaining. The book’s serialisation in The Times has been neatly linked to the new paywall, which Times journalists have been unashamdly exploiting on Twitter. Add this to the tawdry advertising and the so-called (or trumped up?) publishing spats with Blair, and it leaves an uneasy feeling about the soul of New Labour.

    Perhaps I’m getting paranoid but I’m even beginning to wonder, AC, if your piece in the Telegraph correcting Mandelson’s account of the election aftermath is simply part of the PR for all your books – and, you, he and TB are merrily collaborating. The trouble is, one just doesn’t know. But I do know that both the constant tittle tattle and gargantuan promotion of The Third Man are not doing much for Labour’s integrity. And that’s bad news for our party and our country.

  • kathy

    Peter Mandelson has been called many things over the years, usually uncomplimentary ones and usually well deserved. However, one word that can never be attributed to him is Loyal. What a sleezebag! Poor Gordon Brown, with friends like Peter who needs enemies! Talk about untimely haste and kicking a man when he is down. He is a disgrace and the sight of his face fronting Labour’s election campaign lost them many votes. He is only in it for himself but we knew that anyway.

  • joblessbastard

    The New Labour grandees are shafting Labour by publishing their diaries, which will inhibit Labour’s chances of recovery aimed to provide a viable opposition to the Tories, now that the cuts will bite (the poorest of us, at least!). But perhaps as the money rolls in with each serialisation and then reviews appear and further comments about who screwed who, and who didn’t, what those who’re losing their jobs, homes, who can’t make ends meet, what those poor sods think and how their lives are being ruined is way down on the list of these egotistical grandees’ priorities.

  • Graham Jones

    The best thing GB and TB can do, is stay silent on Mandy’s memoirs. To pass comment on them will only add fuel to the fire. GB has a hide like a rhino, so I can’t see it bothering him, particularly as he’s moving on in his life. And TB has survived the gauntlet of Iraq, so I don’t think he’ll care either.

    It does answer a lot of questions about Mandy though. Who else would exploit the situation, opening up recent wounds to make a few pounds? Who else would stab a man in the back, who rescued him from political obscurity in Europe. Perhaps it was his duplicity that was most appealing, as his employment of the black arts was needed to counteract the tory spin machine.
    History will show everyone for what they were, and much will remain shrouded in mystery. But Mandelson will be regarded as an able minister, who tended to venture into caricature when opportunity arose.

    I fully agree that there is more than a battle with cuts to be fought; it’s more like a war. The fight must be taken to the coalition on every front, because it is an ideology driving these policies. I can’t believe that nobody in the Lib-dems hasn’t pulled Nick Clegg aside and told him how ridiculous he looks. He is going along with a programme that is a recipe for disaster. The Lib-dems used to be a party with principles, but they don’t have a leader now with any. It appears, that the only person who spun harder than Cameron during the election, was Nick Clegg – which leads us back to Mandy.

    He was prophetic about “going to bed with Nick Clegg, and waking up with David Cameron”, but he should also be honest and say he wouldn’t have made a good PM. He did a good job as a minister, but he would have been an even bigger target than Gordon Brown. He would have been the proverbial sitting duck.

  • sarah

    @Nick
    An “ego free grown up” would, I hope, recognise the utter tragedy of the most desperate, not condemn them without any sympathy in our Parliament. Everybody feels acute sympathy for Moat’s victims this week and it is right and proper that this is expressed in the House. But I would hope for a significantly higher degree of emotional intelligence from an individual who holds such a lofty post of Prime Minister than he exhibited today. Cameron has shown that either his pompous ego will do anything for a good tea time sound bite or that he lives in a make believe world of “goodies” and “baddies.” Yes, express concern about anybody who sees Moat as a hero. But I am personally left cold at his inability to express sympathy at the the utter tragedy for everybody concerned in this weeks awful events.

  • adam in norwich

    If only half of backbiting and maneuvering that Mandelson details in his book took place then the Labour Party elite should be ashamed of themselves. No matter who started it.

  • Tricky Dickie

    The truth is we had the best PM and the best Chancellor in the history of modern politics.
    The economy with the longest period of growth on record and a PM that made Britain taller in the world and more compassionate at home.
    Blair was held back by the infighting. Brown felt he had to forfill his ambition to be PM before it was too late. The real shame is together they were unbeatable and apart they dragged each other down. TB made Labour electable and GB provided the funds to rebuild after the wasted years of Thatcher and Major..
    The model didn’t fail it was the people that didn’t finish it. That is the saddest truth.

  • Richard Brittain

    Hello Alastair. You’re not a lunatic! I have to say I really enjoy listening to your interviews and reading your writings. You come across as a lot more straightforward than most politicians, even though you’re supposed to be the king of spin!