Mo Mowlam and the politics of disgruntlement

Everyone agrees that she was a 'breath of fresh air', but what exactly did she stand for?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

The untimely deaths of Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam in the space of two weeks were described as a blow to the ‘Labour left’. The demise of these two former Blairites turned Blair critics (especially over the Iraq war) might even signal the ‘end of passionate politics’, mourned one commentator. Others wonder who will rescue Old Labour from the Blairites now that there is no longer a figure of ‘sufficient prominence’ (Cook) or a ‘genuinely popular figure’ (Mowlam) to stand up to Blair (1). In fact, if the deaths of Mowlam and Cook – and more importantly the response to their deaths – reveal anything, it is that this ‘democratic left’ that is supposedly challenging Blair’s stranglehold over British politics is more fantasy than reality. Mowlam, Cook and their supporters offered no alternative to Blairism, but rather embodied the politics of disgruntlement.

In the acres of coverage that followed Mowlam’s death on 19 August, there was nothing about what she stood for. The obituaries were given over to Mowlam’s personality – ‘she was feisty and funny, passionate and persuasive, committed and courageous’, said one – rather than her politics. She was the ‘Oprah Winfrey of British politics’, gushed Kevin Maguire in the Mirror. ‘Her cuddly-feely, kissy-kissy mateyness made her the undisputed Queen of Labour’, Maguire continued, treating us to the observation that Mowlam would often nibble on other people’s bananas or take an ‘uninvited swig’ of their wine, such was her ‘earthiness’ (2).

Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock said that her ‘greatest gift was normality’, an unglowing tribute if ever there was one. Hillary Clinton recalled Mowlam’s contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process – well, kind of. She described how Mowlam would remove her wig, ‘exposing her bald head with its few wisps of blonde hair’, and wondered if this ‘was a subtle way of suggesting that she had nothing to hide in her work on behalf of the peace process’ (3). Even Mowlam’s best-known political contribution was cited as further evidence of her unstuffy and unstarry personality.

What were Mowlam’s political beliefs? Was there any such thing as Mowlamism? Never mind all that, this was the woman who once ran out of cigarettes on a train and ‘toured the carriages asking everyone to spare two fags each’! (4) The obituaries treated Mowlam as if she were someone’s (perhaps everyone’s) mum rather than a politician. But, in a sense, this was entirely fitting. For all the claims that Mowlam was the anti-Blair, she, like Blair, played on the personal touch. Today, in the absence of political principles and ideology we are left with the empty politics of personality and good character. Blair personifies this approach, having taken power in 1997 on a ticket of attacking the Tories for being wily and corrupt, and promising that his government would be ‘whiter than white’ and he ‘a pretty straight kind of guy’. Mowlam – during both her spells as Blairite and anti-Blairite – played exactly the same game, playing off her image as the mumsy, wig-wearing hugger of individuals in the absence of having anything of political substance to say or offer.

The limits of the politics of personality were dramatically exposed during Mowlam’s tenure of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) from 1997 to 1999. Today she is remembered as the woman who – through humour, salt-of-the-earthiness and sheer force of her personality – brokered the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and brought peace at last to Northern Ireland. One emailer to the BBC website claims that her ‘warm, courageous and humorous personality was unique enough to bring a smile to the face of so-called hard men’ – as if all Northern Ireland had needed after 25 years of conflict was the love of a good woman (5). It wasn’t like that at all. Mowlam’s touchy-feeliness may have endeared her to nationalist politicians like John Hume and republicans like Martin McGuinness (she once called McGuinness ‘babe’ in a secretly-recorded and leaked telephone call), but it won her little respect among the Unionist camp. Famously uppity Unionists such as Ian Paisley cared little for being hugged or ‘babed’: they were more interested in staking their political claim in the new Northern Ireland. Mowlam’s personal approach met its match in the old, stubborn and traditional politicking of the Unionists.

In many ways, Mowlam’s much-celebrated bubbliness was merely the velvet glove over the iron fist of the peace process. It was Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who oversaw the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. Blair visited Stormont and gave the party leaders a ‘stern’ warning that they had better sign up; Clinton phoned from Washington and ‘encouraged’ the parties to do what was best for the people of Northern Ireland (6). With Blair breathing down their necks and Clinton whispering in their ears, the worn-out politicians (they had been debating the deal day and night for a week) finally agreed to do as they were told by Whitehall and Washington. Yet the legend – which is even told by Bill and Hillary Clinton these days – is that a knackered Mo threw off her wig in the backrooms of Stormont and pleaded with both sides to sign up for peace. Mowlam herself seems to have recognised later on that her role was not so central: she complained of having been little more than ‘a tea lady’ at the talks (7).

The obituaries also claim that Mowlam was ‘an instinctive politician who cared little for spin and polish’ (8). In fact, while at the NIO, Mowlam oversaw one of the most notorious spindoctoring campaigns of the New Labour era. On 4 March 1998, six weeks before the Good Friday Agreement was even agreed by the parties, never mind put to the people in a referendum, NIO officials authored and circulated a secret document entitled ‘Information Strategy’. It outlined a campaign to ‘manipulate’ (its word) the public and media by planting pro-Agreement stories in newspapers, magazines and on TV and encouraging ministers, church representatives and women’s groups to promote the Agreement in public statements (helping to avoid the perception of ‘big government imposing its views, which would be entirely counterproductive…’).

It also proposed carrying out opinion polls, but only releasing the results if they showed public support for the Agreement: ‘It will be important…to ensure that not all the results of the opinion polling, etc, will be in the public domain.’ It’s not often I agree with Ian Paisley, but he had a point when he said this document made ‘Machiavelli look like a rank amateur’ (9). The making of the Good Friday Agreement by Mowlam, Clinton and Blair – by a combination of touchy-feeliness and cynical manipulation, hugs and stern warnings – suggested there is a thin line indeed between the politics of personality and the politics of spin. It demonstrated that the new emotional politics beloved of New Labour types could be as coercive and undemocratic as anything from the old political order.

Both Mowlam and Robin Cook were demoted following successful stints in the early Blair years. Mowlam was demoted from Northern Ireland secretary to ‘Cabinet enforcer’ in 1999; Cook was demoted from foreign secretary – during which he oversaw the bombing of the Serbs in the Kosovo war of 1999 – to Leader of the House in 2001. Both were known to be seriously miffed by their demotions: Mowlam complained of Blairite spindoctors conspiring against her and even using her illness as a reason for why she couldn’t be trusted in a job as high-profile as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, while Cook admitted to being shocked by his sideways move from the Foreign Office to the House (10). It was only after their demotions that Mowlam and Cook became critical of aspects of Blairism, criticism that came to a head over the Iraq war. Mowlam, Cook and others who had been close to Blair in the beginning but who were later snubbed – including Frank Dobson (one-time health secretary) and Chris Smith (former culture secretary) – were the most prominent Labour critics of Blair’s war.

This appeared less as a serious opposition to Blair and his invasion of Iraq than an expression of frustration with the New Labour machine. It was the politics of disgruntlement. For many Labour supporters, members and MPs, Iraq has become a rallying cry against Blair and his small coterie of loyal ministers and advisers: it is the issue through which they express their disillusionment with Blair and their own feeling of isolation from his regime. Some of them even talk about Iraq as a ‘boil that must be lanced’ if Labour is to be rescued and restored to esteem in the public eye, revealing the often deeply narcissistic nature of their anti-war position (11). At the big anti-war demo in Hyde Park in February 2003, Mowlam told the crowds that she was ‘not a pacifist’ and launched an attack on Blair for ‘not listening’ to the British public. Cook was the driving force behind New Labour’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ and was the cheerleader-in-chief of the Kosovo war, yet even he took Blair to task over Iraq.

Mowlam, Cook and others were not spearheading an independent challenge against Blairism but rather were fallen Blairites kicking against the party. The response to their tragic deaths – where various politicos and commentators have complained about the dire state of the democratic left and said ‘we now know exactly how bad things are’ – reveals the paucity of today’s critique of New Labour (12). If you want a new ‘passionate politics’ and an opposition to the Labour government, then a first step would be to look outside of the Labour camp.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) The end of passionate politics?, Peter Wilby, Observer, 21 August 2005

(2) Queen of the party outshone her boss, Mirror, 20 August 2005

(3) ‘She engaged people in politics like no other living politician’, The Times, 20 August 2005

(4) ‘She engaged people in politics like no other living politician’, The Times, 20 August 2005

(5) Mo Mowlam: your tributes, BBC News, 23 August 2005

(6) See ‘A peace of nothing’, Brendan O’Neill, LM, May 1998

(7) Mo Mowlam, 55, British politician, dies, New York Times, Sarah Lyall, 19 August 2005

(8) Mowlam: a true friend of peace, Irish News, 22 August 2005

(9) The voice of No 10 that whispered too loud, Michael White, Guardian, 6 August 2003

(10) See Robin Cook: from ethical imperialist to anti-war activist, by James Heartfield

(11) Iraq is Labour’s poll tax, a boil that must be lanced, Larry Elliot, Guardian, 20 May 2004

(12) The end of passionate politics?, Peter Wilby, Observer, 21 August 2005

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Topics Politics UK


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