The spectre stalking this year’s Labour Party conference was Damian McBride, forced to resign as Gordon Brown’s media adviser after it became clear that he had sought to set up a website to smear political opponents. McBride became a symbol for a certain type of aggressive, macho and ruthless politics that came to be associated with Brown’s premiership and, more generally, New Labour; a politics that above all saw the end as justification of the means. In the event, McBride – whose book was published by a former Tory candidate who became embroiled in a farcical sea-front scuffle with a protester, and which was serialised in the Daily Mail – did nothing to derail a very successful conference for Labour. But his presence raised deeper questions – about the tone and methods of politics, especially politics on the left, where safety and inclusiveness matter.
A piece in today’s Telegraph examines some of the McBride back story; his time at Cambridge and how that influenced his future career path. I worked with Damian McBride when he was a relatively young fast-stream entrant in the HM Treasury tax policy team; at the time I was the DfT official responsible for policy on vehicle registration and taxation, and we worked on the graduation of Vehicle Excise Duty introduced in the 2000 Finance Act.
Many of the characteristics that marked out McBride’s future career were already in evidence. For a young man in what was essentially a training grade, his self-belief was absolute and terrifying. Crucial to the delivery of the policy was the ability of the DVLA, the vast Government agency responsible for collecting Vehicle Excise Duty, to deliver the change. In those days, vehicle registration and licensing was still entirely paper-based; the huge DVLA campus just north of Swansea – a sixties concrete complex that on a wet and windy day (not unknown in South West Wales) was about as desolate a place as you could imagine, was essentially a vast paper processing plant. Vast numbers of forms were ferried up and down the railway line on special Royal Mail trains; tens of millions of transactions per year were entered by hand into databases. Hundreds of people manned customer service lines. I’ve never forgotten accompanying bright young things from Treasury and Cabinet office, straight out of Oxbridge, to meetings at Swansea and seeing their shock and amazement at this slice of life on the Civil Service front line. As far as implementing change at the DVLA was concerned, the analogy of the super-tanker was precise; faced with such processes, change was inevitably slow and needed the most careful planning. There are 30 million registered vehicles in the UK; a Treasury civil servant would come up with the bright idea of sending a mailshot to their owners; and when a DVLA official mentioned that doing so at short notice would take down the entire British brown envelope industry he was being realistic, not facetious or obstructive.
Enter Damian McBride. His approach was ruthless, and took no account of the realities of delivery. There is always tension in Whitehall between those who make policy and those who deliver it; but McBride’s behaviour was, in the experience of almost everyone who witnessed it, unprecedented in its arrogance, its insensitivity, its rudeness and its occasional sheer personal cruelty. When you work closely with someone over a period of time, there is usually some sort of personal relationship with that person; you open up, you discuss other things. McBride was one of the most closed people I have ever met, and one of the most driven. Civil Service life is essentially collaborative; you have disagreements but the policy-making cadre of the civil service is small, you are likely to meet the person you disagree with in another context in future, and you understand the political pressures they face. As the proposals advanced we had little doubt that, whether intentionally or not, the limits to deliverability were not being represented fully to Treasury Ministers; demands were issued and there was no attempt at understanding or compromise. McBride was often the most junior official in the room (not unusually, since part of the Treasury’s power game is to send relatively junior officials to meetings with more senior officials in other Departments) but through the sheer force of single-mindedness – and ownership of the Chancellor’s mandate – was able to run the debate. McBride was incapable of playing by accepted rules, to an extent that was often breathtaking (such as the time he rang up First Parliamentary Counsel, Parliament’s most senior legislative draftsman, to offer drafting advice on the Finance Bill; a breach of protocol so vast that dropping one’s trousers in front of the Queen – who is probably considerably less grand than First Parliamentary Counsel – would seem minor in comparison). Somehow the decisions that McBride had persuaded his Ministers we had signed up to were delivered, but by then, as is the way, he had moved on to higher things.
Those who had been involved in all this watched his apparently unstoppable rise, both horrified and unsurprised; the lack of normal humanity was both an asset in the rise, and, we felt, the precursor of an inevitable downfall. Sooner or later, the hubris would mean that he would get found out.
Why does this all matter now?
It matters because McBride exemplified a type of politics that has become commonplace; the politics of the end justifying the means. The casual brutality with which those on benefits have been treated by the Coalition is simply the politics of Damian McBride carried on by other means; the serialisation of his book in the Daily Mail extraordinarily apposite. The most important thing about last week’s Labour conference is perhaps that the political language was moving away from that approach. I am expecting that this week’s Tory Party conference will show that it is still alive and well. The politics of personal cruelty, and the dismissal of evidence and debate, inform coalition politics to the core and in some respects (as with the mirroring of the coalition’s language on welfare) Labour has not always covered itself with glory. Locally in Brighton, when one reads that the Green Group has become so dysfunctional that mediators are required to ensure that meetings are safe places for some (especially women) councillors, one realises that the mentality can infect even those parties who explicitly reject its rationality.
Safe politics is good and inclusive politics. And it means that the end does not justify the means. Politics is a process; means matter; it is moving away from this kind of politics that seems to me to be essential to creating an inclusive democracy.