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Paul Routledge

Mandy: The Unauthorised Biography of Peter Mandelson
Paul Routledge
Simon & Schuster
London 1999

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Perhaps more interesting than Paul Routledge’s sensationalist biography of Peter Mandelson have been the reviews that have followed its much publicised release. In recent weeks, senior politicians and journalists have flocked to offer us their considered critical opinions of Mandy, the book which professes to be the root cause of the former Secretary of State’s spectacular fall from grace. In most cases, however, these respected commentators have used their column inches not so much to evaluate Routledge’s portrait of the Great Spinmeister as to correct the book’s apparently erroneous portrayals of themselves. Sarah Baxter, formerly of The Spectator, wrote in The Sunday Times that whilst she had allowed Paul Routledge to ‘get away’ with what he had said about her in his book on Gordon Brown, she would not forgive his repetition of the fiction in this latest volume. Roy Hattersley in the Independent on Sunday strongly refuted the book’s claim that he had ever been Mandelson’s ‘mentor’, whilst David Aaronovitch in the Independent claimed a superior understanding of Mandelson’s complex personality to defend himself against what he obviously felt to be an inaccurate picture of his friendship with the Prince of Darkness. In the Evening Standard Charlie Whelan began his contribution with a snide reference to Mandelson’s resignation letter (‘I can scarcely believe I am writing this review…’) before launching into a vociferous defence of his own role in the drama of Mandelson’s downfall, and ending with a thinly veiled promise to reveal more in his own forthcoming book.

This kind of critical response might be seen as an occupational hazard of writing the life of a living contemporary figure. Even so, the self-serving natures of most of Mandy’s reviews say a great deal about the nature of the book itself. Just as Routledge’s critics have courted self-justification under the guise of ‘reviewing’, so Paul Routledge has clearly pursued his own agenda under the name of biographer. The exact nature of the particular axe that Routledge has to grind is less clear. His stance is avowedly Old Labour as he berates Mandelson for refusing to ‘romanticise the working classes’ and for compromising the Party’s old ideals. However as Routledge condemns Mandelson as both a former Communist and as a man who nearly defected to the SDP, we begin to see that there is no clarity or purpose to the political subtext of this book. What prevents this book from holding any water politically is that it seems to be chiefly driven by an overwhelming personal antipathy to its subject. Routledge hates Mandelson. He hates him for being middle-class, for his intelligence and ambition, and for his ability to understand perfectly the aspirations of the electorate without feeling any need to share them. He is suspicious of Mandelson’s homosexuality and seems to resent Mandelson’s staunch refusal to share the details with his public. On the first page of the book Routledge theorises that Mandelson’s ‘socially and politically risqué way of life’ might be an ‘exhibitionist function of his homosexuality’, thus revealing from the start his own brand of barely disguised Old World bigotry.

Routledge’s prose is characterised by that potent combination of frenetic, event driven narrative and sly suggestiveness that is so beloved of the tabloid press. He is undoubtedly a shrewd political commentator but his time at the Daily Mirror seems to have had an unfortunate effect on his writing style. Parts of the book, particularly those devoted to Mandelson’s sexuality, are written in pure tabloidese; ‘Ashby, 35, a writer, spoke openly to the News of the World about his ‘deep love’ for 33-year-old Mandelson’, writes Routledge. He is prurient and invasive, dredging up a sordid and totally unsubstantiated story of sexual abuse at the hands of a scoutmaster in Mandelson’s childhood. To be fair, Routledge does criticise the hypocrisy of the vicious homophobia that was evident in the tabloids in the ‘Eighties but in this book he displays an approach to politics not dissimilar to the classic NoW approach to sex. The book is full of fear, suspicion, sensation and conspiracy theories and Routledge gives an unhealthy amount of space to the Sun newspaper’s preposterous ‘gay mafia’ claims.

The book climaxes as Paul Routledge ‘reveals’ Mandelson’s masterplan to become Prime Minister through ousting Gordon Brown, becoming Blair’s right hand man in the Cabinet and eventually taking over from Blair himself. Not even Charlie Whelan believes this. Mandelson is an intelligent man if nothing else and he knows his limits. Routledge, on the other hand, seems to think that Mandelson’s power is boundless. Whilst he tells us that Mandelson is incompetent and universally loathed within the Labour Party he also seems to think that Mandelson can somehow win enough party support to become leader and enough public confidence to become Prime Minister. Routledge is scathing about the dark arts of spin but at the same time seems to believe wholeheartedly in their magic powers. By refusing to acknowledge any of Mandelson’s talents or triumphs as genuine Routledge undermines his own contention that Mandelson is poised to take over the world. Particularly as, thanks to Routledge’s little loan secret, when this book went to the press it was no longer the biography of a Secretary of State but 300 pages devoted to the life of no more glamorous a personage than the Hon. Member for Hartlepool.

It would be impossible for any reader to make a sound judgement of Peter Mandelson’s character based on the evidence that Routledge presents. His obvious distaste for his subject and his self-defeating insistence that Mandelson is not the superb political strategist that he is reputed to be make a mockery of any notion of balanced discussion. Routledge mistrusts everything that Peter Mandelson has ever said, a notably ridiculous example being his disbelief in Mandelson’s reasons for shaving off his ‘trademark’ moustache. The spin-doctor’s own, perfectly reasonable, explanation is that it was ‘going grey at the ends’. Routledge is sceptical and seems to suspect this mundane act of middle-aged vanity of being part of some kind of elaborate and secretive public relations stunt. It is this kind of blanket disbelief that makes Mandy less a biography than a rather crude character assassination. Routledge’s book provides an enjoyable if heavily partisan romp through the politics of the last two decades but contributes nothing to the current debates surrounding New Labour nor any real insight into Mandelson’s politics of spin.

Reviewed by Polly Rance


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