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Gary Younge
Mandelson: the little men's history

In Alastair Campbell's diaries he recalls a heated exchange between himself and Peter Mandelson. On 4 February 1995, a day when the Lords were embroiled in a cash-for-questions row and five IRA prisoners were released from the Republic of Ireland's jails, the two men clashed over what Tony Blair should wear while out canvassing with young Labour activists.

"Mandelson said: 'I'm sick of being rubbished and undermined, I hate it and I want out.' I said I just wanted to be able to do a job. He started to leave then came back over, pushed at me, then threw a punch, then another. I grabbed his lapels and TB was by now moving in to separate us, and the PM just lunged at him, then shouted: 'I hate this, I'm going back to London.'"

"The history of the world is but the biography of great men," wrote 19th-century commentator and historian Thomas Carlyle. His theory hinged on the notion that it was individuals, with their quirks and idiosyncrasies, who shaped history, rather than the complex interaction of people, time, place and power.

But with yet another memoir emanating from the Labour leadership we find ourselves dealing with an even more problematic phenomenon – the little-man account of politics. For what emerges from these tomes is that those at the centre of the last government are not larger-than-life characters bending the world to their will, but smaller-than-life individuals for whom substantial matters play a secondary role to their obsessions with petty jealousies, pathetic vendettas and trifling grudges. We already knew they didn't like each other. Now we are being asked to relive each particular, pathetic squabble as though in real time and as though it is both of political import and public interest. The recent history of the Labour party, Carlyle might have argued, is but the memoirs of small-minded men.

In growing, tedious detail, we are learning just how much those who posed as leaders on the world stage were constantly preoccupied with private rivalries, professional status and personal advancement. There has always been an element of this in politics. The trouble with the New Labour leadership is that this seems to be the full extent of their politics.

What has long been obvious is that these disputes have almost no relevance beyond themselves. They relate neither to policy, ideology nor legislation. So where "great" people might debate, manoeuvre and cajole, these people bickered, sniped and whined.

It's not as though they had nothing important to disagree about. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair's tenure spans four elections, several wars and an economic collapse. With the possible exception of joining the euro, throughout that time they seemed to have been joined at the hip politically even as they were in each others' faces personally.

Even then, if these disputes revealed something salacious, or outrageous, that would be one thing. Tales of debauched parties at Chequers, fist fights over the cabinet table or secret sexual fetishes would at the very least be compelling. The fact that they are vain comes with the territory – it's politics, after all – but the fact that they are so dull does not. The Clintons' relationship is intriguing; Berlusconi's flamboyancy is eye-opening; Hugo Chávez's extrovert behaviour ("Marisabel, tomorrow I'm giving you yours," he told his wife on national TV on Valentine's day) is entertaining.

But these are the tales of a group of fairly dull middle-aged men, their career ambitions, thwarted or otherwise, and the personal emnities that framed them. If there must be personality politics – and there's nothing to say that there must – then the very least we can ask is that either the personalities or the politics be interesting.

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