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Divided they stand

Johann Hari on the big hitters of the Labour right torn apart by personal differences.

Friends and Rivals by Giles Radice (Little Brown, £20 h/b)

At the core of this book, there is a terrific story: 'Our Friends in the North' meets Evelyn Waugh, with a dash of Michael Dobbs for good measure. Three men - Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland – meet as students in the intensely politicized world of pre-war Oxford. Attracted and repelled by each other, they soon find that their paths are inextricably linked. Each of them rises over the following decades to the heights of the British government. United in their support for a revisionist, pragmatic agenda, they have it in their grasp to transform their country. And yet, and yet?

Although each of them individually becomes a great and substantial cabinet minister (some of the best of their century), something goes awry. They cannot unite. They squabble, and personal frictions burn away at their loyalty to a shared political vision. All three of them stand to be leader of the Labour Party -and therefore Prime Minister - in 1976. All three of them lose, to a man who does not share their principles, Jim Callaghan. The Labour government crumbles, the party veers disastrously to the far left, and we are all condemned to live in the cash-starved Thatcherite rubble that our country became. Giles Radice must have seemed like the ideal person to tell this story. As an intelligent Labour MP throughout the careers of this extraordinary troika, he can provide reportage straight from the political battlefront.

Unfortunately, Radice is, when it comes to writing biographies, no Roy Jenkins himself. His prose is clearly the work of a man who has been reading too many government reports and not enough literature, with sentence after sentence seeming odd. For example, he describes Crosland as ‘the apple of his parents' eyes.’ Not wrong, but not quite right.

Yet there is still a huge amount to learn from Friends and Rivals, and even more to enjoy. The dialogue provided by the three subjects is delicious.
In 1975, when Jenkins was clinging to his European principles and Healey was urging greater flexibility, Healey said, "I don't want to be a politician like you, Roy. You are not concerned with the centres of power." Jenkins snapped back, "And what about your centres of belief, Denis?"

No doubt some reviewers will use this book as an excuse to bash our current government by asking where the politicians are today to match this extraordinary triple whammy, but this is probably a trick of perspective.

True, they were all great thinker-politicians, each with Firsts from Oxford (Crosland's The Future of Socialism remains a key text in the development of the Left). But these three - as the book shows - worked in the shadow of great men like Churchill, Atlee and Bevan all of their political lives. It's not hard to imagine, thirty years from now, people asking why they don't have great politicians like Gordon Brown, Clare Short, Mo Mowlam or David Blunkett any more. Politicians in the rear view mirror always seem larger than those sitting on the dashboard.