Adam Somerset delves into the murky world of Westminster in his review of Off Message, a memoir of his time in Parliament by Bob Marshall-Andrews.
Bob Marshall-Andrews is best known in Wales for his ownership of Malator, also known as Project 222, or the Tellytubby House. It is his futuristic holiday home, once a timber barrack building, on the cliffs at Druidston. A successful barrister, who specialised in fraud cases, Marshall-Andrews served as MP for Medway for the thirteen years of the Labour government. Malator does not feature in his memoir Off Message; it is a safe bet that his political masters would wish he had spent rather more time there than with a small group in Westminster battling his party’s alterations to the justice system.
Wales features twice in Off Message. Marshall-Andrews joins a party of thirty for a sumptuous dinner at the Guest mansion outside Hay. He is with Paul Flynn for the annual dinner commemorating the Newport Rising. The polar opposite of the party-researcher-turned-parliamentarian, Marshall-Andrews comes across as a kind of eighteenth century figure of Burkean politics and Johnsonian gusto and appetite. He is a fine figurehead for those who believe that a life before Parliament is a useful prerequisite for a life within Parliament.
In the book’s final sentence, written May 2012, Marshall-Andrews describes ‘a sense of universal relief at the passing of a putrid age.’ The particular cause is the revelation of Downing Street’s open-at-any-hours access to millionaire editors and owners of the red-tops. But he has been suspicious from the start. Even before government he is sceptical. ‘It was on 19 October 1996 that I first formed the view… that Tony Blair… was dangerously delusional.’
The Project may have been winning election after election but Marshall-Andrews is unconvinced: ‘a political deformity known as the New Labour Project’ underpinned by ‘New Labour’s high moral tone and total lack of principle.’ As for political philosophy the Third Way, which he ascribes to the late Philip Gould, is ‘pretentious nonsense…(rightly) consigned to the book of political jokes where it now resides.’ The ‘Big Conversation’ is ‘this odious piece of populism.’
The mismatch is total. Party headquarters pumps out a stream of instructions on ‘the Line to Take.’ Young pups send out giant cardboard cut-outs of syringes for local photo opportunities to symbolise how much the government is injecting into Health. Marshall-Andrews’ politics are unreconstructedly those of Edmund Burke. He is rooted in history and the supremacy of Parliament. Thus, when Brian Sedgemore makes his resignation speech, it is ‘a volcanic tour-de-force, equal to any that has been heard in the Chamber for centuries’. He wonders how could ‘a Party that prided itself on its civil libertarian credentials descend into one of the most authoritarian regimes in British history, certainly since that of Lord Liverpool?’ Rather like fellow parliamentarian Chris Mullin, who in his diaries cites John Bright for inspiration, Marshall-Andrews should have been in Parliament a century and a half ago.
Chris Mullin features early on in Off Message. As new MP for Medway, Marshall-Andrews enters Parliament with earnestness and optimism. ‘I foresaw a lengthy period of Labour rule which would address the serious problems of the British constitution, buttress parliamentary power, entrench civil liberties.’ Six days into the Parliament of 1997 an invitation to join the Home Affairs Select Committee is withdrawn, as it happens by Chris Mullin: ‘unusually, he appeared a little discomfited.’ ‘Who exactly by?’ he asks. ‘I’m afraid’ says Mullin ‘it is at the highest level.’
In his 1969 novel The Joke, Milan Kundera describes how a small joke ricochets on and on to devastating personal effect. Marshall-Andrews traces the cause of his disfavour to the mildest of jokes at the expense of a friend of the leadership at a five hundred pounds-a-plate fund-raising dinner, ‘a gentle jibe’ in his words. That Husak’s Prague has a small echo in Downing Street is confirmed when he meets the Premier’s wife. ‘Without a single pleasantry she fixed me with a beady eye, and enquired acidly why he has not carried out an instruction he has considered unnecessary’. ‘You will go to the bottom of the list’ he is told. It may sound ostensibly mild but it leaves him in ‘no doubt that no living thing, however pestilential or foul, would be likely to inhabit the space to which I had been consigned.’
Helena Kennedy calls Marshall-Andrews ‘the attorney general we should have had’. It is a truism that too many lawyers throng to parliament but he sees the reverse. Many a parliamentary speaker proudly disclaims any experience of any kind that might taint their fealty to the wishes of the Whips. Marshall-Andrews is fierce in defence of properly made legislation. In making it a serious offence to ‘glorify’ terrorism he senses the hand of the Prime Minister himself. His response is withering: ‘Glorification may be a magnificent word in the music of Handel and the pen of Blake or Milton. It has absolutely no place in criminal jurisdiction. We do not do Beatitudes at the Old Bailey. We do criminal justice based on statutes.’ He abhors the elevation of noble intention over doing the work properly, that ‘the Government’s intention would, by some mystic means, overcome the clear wording of a statute.’
His experience at the Bar on complex fraud cases allows him to puncture government waffle. Borrowing another trick from pre-1989 Prague the government intends to deny its citizens passports unless they apply for its identity card. He derides a piece of government literature: ‘The Government document went on to claim that the card system would prevent £250,000,000 in VAT fraud, a claim plainly bogus as major VAT fraud is committed by companies.
The roots of Bob Marshall-Andrews’ discord with his masters are several. One is that ‘the New Labour project, and those who devised it, believed firmly that the downfall of the Labour administration which led to the rise of Thatcherite Conservatism lay almost entirely in its lack of discipline.’ His narrative is too sprightly to be diverted by Labour history but the second election of 1974 produced a minority of only three. The bloc vote always lacked popular legitimacy. The 1981 Wembley Conference turned down the notion of one-person-one-vote and the party split. He is also a barrister and debate is his meat and drink. Thus his ire against the leadership’s contention that ‘the outpouring of free speech…was not the acme of political liberty and debating, it was the essential harbinger of doom.’
The second is the party’s relentless attention to what the public is telling it. Jobs, schooling, health are what matter over and over. The Chief Whip tells him, ‘Bob, people in my constituency do not give a toss about civil liberties.’ Interestingly, Bob Marshall-Andrews adds that before the 1970’s ‘law and order, crime and punishment was not a political issue, did not appear in manifestos; the consensus was that it belonged to the realm of theology.’ But the focus groups won elections. His scepticism may be justified. The Times, in a largely admiring obituary of Philip Gould, reported on the view of critics that the later focus group work reflected more the views of the author than the electorate.
Bob Marshall-Andrews is as warm towards his constituents as he is relentless in pursuit of official high-handedness and humbug. The concept of constituency surgery is often misunderstood and he encounters problems with prostheses, gallstones and false teeth. Journalism and commentary frequently assert a gulf between citizen and representative. The Medway towns are some of the most hard-done by in England’s South-East. His experience is ‘not hatred – a bit of derision or banter here or there…but generally…humour, kindness, goodwill and even a little sympathy of purpose…even touching gratitude for the little we could do.’
Off Message has had plaudits across the political spectrum. For all its brio and literary finesse it suffers a few shortcomings. The law, for all its gravity, does not do low-level crime well. Chris Mullin records whole streets in Sunderland being made uninhabitable by tiny numbers of offenders. At one time forty per cent of recorded crime in London’s Lambeth was attributable to one teenager. Like it or not, the Prime Minister tapped into something genuine and potent at the neglect and desperation felt by victims of low-level crime.
Secondly, the book on occasion simplifies issues of complexity to fit a narrative of eschatological struggle. In Kosovo he sees only a ‘NATO fuelled by an extraordinary mixture of guilt and a new sense of international evangelism.’ But, when the action began, on 22 March 1998, it was only after months of diplomacy. The previous August 1997 the UN had estimated that two hundred thousand Kosovans were displaced and living out in the open. Aid agencies were warning of a humanitarian disaster. The state murders around Gornje Obrinje included five children who were aged between a year-and-a-half and nine. History can be very complicated.
The last omission is how it felt in those days of 1997-2001. Wales, Scotland, Mo Mowlam, the Good Friday Agreement, devolution, the Minimum Wage are all absent from the index for Off Message. Maybe it was an illusion but it felt good. But then political memory is not a thing of reason, it is emotion. And Britain possessed a Chancellor whose eternal watchword was Prudence.