The Man Who Invented British Spin

Last Wednesday, Peter Mandelson resigned from the British government. Every day since then, the story of Peter Mandelson has graced British front pages, and it continues to do so this morning: Click here for the Daily Telegraph, here for the Times, or here for the Guardian. I count 11 articles about Mandelson in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. The front page headline of Saturday’s Independent declared, “Cabinet Ministers are United in Grief.” Beneath the headline were photographs of half a dozen Cabinet ministers, all grinning broadly.

Obviously, to describe Mandelson as “the Northern Ireland secretary,” which was technically his title, doesn’t even begin to explain why the fate of one minister continues to reverberate so loudly. It is hard to think of an American politician, in fact, who even compares to him. Mandelson is loathed by most of his party, loathed by most of the media, loathed by all the opposition. He is routinely caricatured as a vampire or a spider. Cartoonists can’t seem to draw him without putting horns on his head. And yet, until last week, he was probably the most important person in the government after Tony Blair himself. Mandelson’s downfall does not merely mark the end the career of a second-rank Cabinet minister. Mandelson is the man who invented British Spin.

Nowadays, the concept of spin is so common and so cliché that it is virtually impossible to remember that there were once places where it didn’t exist. The Britain of the early 1980s was such a place. Of course there were thuggish press spokesmen and slick politicians who went to great lengths to make disaster sound like triumph. But there was a certain amount of thick-skulled honesty around too. Neil Kinnock, then the leader of the Labor Party, went to great lengths to make sure the British people knew that he would, if elected, raise taxes. He lost and lost and lost again.

Mandelson himself worked for Kinnock in the capacity of media adviser and was one of the first people to introduce American-style marketing techniques to Britain. It was partly under his tutelage that Kinnock abandoned his far-left rhetoric and Labor abandoned its far-left imagery. Instead, the party adopted a perfectly meaningless yet absolutely neutral symbol: the red rose. Obviously, this wasn’t enough to elect Kinnock, who never quite reshaped himself to fit the packaging, but it was enough to impress Tony Blair, who, when he became leader of the Labor Party—with the help of Mandelson’s connivance—kept him on as his most important adviser.

Labor’s 1997 election slogan—New Labor, New Britain—was largely Mandelson. So was the plan to reinvent Labor as a party of the “radical center.” If you don’t know what that means, never fear: Nobody else ever knew either. But it sounded a lot better than “we’ll raise your taxes,” and there were other innovations as well. Some were clearly borrowed from Bill Clinton—Blair was the first prime minister to appear on “soft” talk shows—and some that Clinton could only dream about. On certain issues, leading members of the parliamentary party were actually forbidden to speak to the press without clearing it with the powers that be (imagine Clinton trying to impose such a rule on House Democrats). Everyone had to be “on message.” Those who disobeyed were ruthlessly excluded.

By the time I first met Mandelson, in the run-up to the 1997 campaign, he was no longer a mere media adviser. Although he had few hopes of being prime minister himself—Mandelson is gay, and he thought that probably disqualified him—he clearly believed that high Cabinet office was a possibility. But his instincts hadn’t changed. I once had lunch with him (this was in a previous incarnation, when I was writing a political column for a British newspaper), and much of the conversation was devoted to Mandelson’s explanation of why he was distancing himself from the “presentational” aspects of politics. As we were leaving, he leaned over. “And do tell Max … don’t worry about fox-hunting.” He meant Max Hastings, the editor of my then-newspaper and a known advocate of fox-hunting, a sport that the Labor Party is now on the verge of banning forever. Even as he was trying to make himself into a statesman, Mandelson couldn’t keep himself from spin doctoring at the same time.

Now Mandy is gone, having spun himself one time too many. As usual, it was not so much the error as the cover-up. Read the full story in today’s Daily Telegraph,  but in essence, it goes like this: He made a phone call to an immigration minister on behalf of a rich Indian businessman, Srichand Hinduja, who was applying for a British passport and looking to get it quickly. Hinduja is one of four brothers who run the secretive and hugely wealthy Hinduja Group. As chance would have it, Hinduja also appears to be under investigation for bribery in India. Anyway, accused of making this phone call, Mandelson denied it. Then he confessed to having given “wrong information.” Now he appears to be denying it again, but the break does seem to be final. On Friday, Blair’s press spokesman reportedly described Mandelson as having become “slightly detached,” Britishese for “he’s going nuts.” The prime minister’s office was, in other words, finally spinning against the master spinner.

Aside from the human interest—ambitious politico falls from dizzying heights, etc.—the Mandelson story does tell us a few things about British politics. For one, the apparently genuine general rejoicing at Mandelson’s downfall is a reminder of how much the British really and truly hate their new-look plastic Labor politicians; how much they hate the Labor Party’s empty slogans and over-slick marketing; how much they miss the days when politicians like Kinnock were still allowed to splutter and shout and turn red with anger on television. Whereas Americans seem relatively comfortable with the concept of president-as-marketed product, the British have never gotten used to it. Even British politicians have never gotten used to it, as the vindictive crowing in the Labor Party clearly demonstrates.

On the other hand, it also demonstrates how hugely successful the import of plastic politicians and over-slick marketing into Britain has been. This is indeed an exceptionally bad week for the Labor Party: The headlines are full of bluster about the party being in its worst crisis ever. But that doesn’t mean the Labor Party is actually in crisis, or at least in enough of a crisis to lose the next election, which looks as if will probably be in May. Partly this is due to the weakness of the Conservative Party, whose leader, William Hague, has a talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Partly, though, it seems that the British don’t have to like their politicians in order to vote for them, just as they don’t have to like McDonald’s in order to eat there or to like Hollywood in order to watch a Star Wars prequel.

Indeed of all the many aspects of globalization, this strikes me as the one most often overlooked. Not only are all hamburgers eventually going to taste the same, so are all formerly left, newly centrist political parties eventually going to sound the same. Conservative parties, because of their attachment to ideas about national identity, have so far remained more nationally distinct, but who knows what the future holds. To paraphrase another British politician, Mandelson’s downfall is not the end of the era of spin, just the end of the beginning.