The Rise Of The Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost Its Way
by Steve Richards
Atlantic Books £18.99
In January 1993, together with the Labour pollster, Philip Gould, I organised a big weekend conference at the QE2 centre called “Clintonomics”. After Labour’s 1992 defeat the party was in the doldrums and then, suddenly, a young American politician infused with progressive rhetoric swept into the White House. Bill Clinton heralded the arrival in the 1990s of democratic left governments here in Britain, but also in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and other EU nations.
The outsiders of opposition in the 1980s became the insiders in government in the 1990s.
In this fascinating survey of today’s politics, Steve Richards makes the fair point that entering government is pointless unless you know what to do with power. The 1990s left did not. Clinton, Blair, Brown, Jospin and Schröder could shape a coalition to win power, but then what?
This is an unusual book by a one of our best political commentators as he locates his study of populism and post-truth politics associated with Trump or Brexit’s Project Lies in a survey of similar challenges in European countries, as well as America. It is refreshing change from the provincial mono-lingual solipsism of the London political commentariat.
Richards makes the point that the BBC employed battalions to cover Parliament from its Millbank operation. They far outnumbered No 10 press officers. The BBC could not be pro Labour or pro Tory, but it could report on how policy was presented. Thus, from 1997 onwards the BBC attacked spin and raised issues of trust which was precisely the Tory line. From William Hague’s leadership onwards the BBC reflected the sneering anti-EU tone of the right. At times its key political programme felt like Radio Spectator or Daily Telegraph Question Time.
So instead of discussing the strategic error of destroying the state in Iraq, the BBC focused on whether Blair was a liar. As a result David Cameron made exactly the same mistake when he destroyed the state in Libya (with the help of Nicolas Sarkozy) from which we are all suffering.
It is hard to work out from Richards’ book if politicians get the journalists they deserve or vice versa. But the quality of political writing – still largely in the same hands as 10 or 20 years ago – is not high. Which comes first – better quality politicians or better quality writing on politics – is an interesting question to which as yet there is no answer.