Inside Out: My Story of Betrayal and Cowardice at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Watt with Isabel Oakeshott
The Sunday Times review by Rod Liddle
Peter Watt was the general secretary of the Labour party — an important post, previously held by the likes of Ramsay McDonald, Arthur Henderson and so on — for the best part of two years, until he was coerced in November 2007 into resigning over financial irregularities regarding Labour party donors. He has now written a very readable book designed to be as damaging to the party to which he owed his allegiance as it is possible to imagine, and especially so for the prime minister, Gordon Brown, who comes across — as he usually does on these occasions — as a psychologically damaged, sulking bully without a policy to his name. And at one point even as “bonkers”.
Watt has delivered himself of this stream of self-serving and vindictive bile because he believes he was hard done by when his Labour party career came to an end. My guess, reading between the lines, is that he was only a little hard done by, although, as a nurse from Dorset who rose without trace within 10 years to the most senior post in the Labour party, he may also have been over promoted in the first place. He would have us believe that he took the bullet and resigned for the good of the party — but the obvious question if that is so, then, is why this, now? And the answer is because the real or imagined iniquities he has suffered far outweigh any loyalty he might have to those he has left behind, even those few he quite liked. That’s the way it is right now, though, with this rapidly decomposing corpse of an administration.
Watt, a Blairite through convenience if not conviction, dishes it out from page one and his particular target is Brown. The prime minister emerges as a man incapable of taking a decision, especially if it is a big decision. Even more damningly, Watt suggests on several occasions that Brown did not have a political thought in his head. Perhaps one reason why there was not a general election in autumn 2007 is because Brown had no idea what he would put in the manifesto: “Everyone around him thought that there was some big plan sitting in a bottom drawer somewhere, just ready to be pulled out when the moment came. In fact, there was nothing,” says Watt. The prime minister was also startlingly inept at personal relations and Watt quotes Douglas Alexander — international development secretary, and nominally a Brownite — as saying that he and his colleagues had been working for this man night and day for 10 years, but that they really didn’t like him. Invited to meet and greet party workers, Brown would circle the room with a glassy stare and spooky rictus grin, often asking the same questions of the same people, in the manner of an aged monarch with Alzheimer’s.
Watt relates the tale of a ghastly dinner party at No 10 that he attended with his wife. Before the guests were seated, Brown was called away to the phone. When he returned the guests had sat around the table and Brown said furiously: “I didn’t sit you all down!” Watt takes up the tale: “Then he swivelled in his chair, so that he almost had his back to everybody and leaned his head on his arm. For the rest of the meal he was monosyllabic, sulking because he had lost control of the seating plan. The plates had not even been cleared when, quite suddenly, without saying anything, he just got up and left. As Sarah had also disappeared by then we all quite literally had to show ourselves out. ‘He’s bonkers,’ Vilma [Watt’s wife] whispered, as we trooped out.”
Prior to occupying No 10, Brown is revealed as a shadowy and divisive presence, commandeering his own sums of money from Labour party funds for private polling and what have you, wreathed in suspicion and bitterness, trusting nobody.
Mind you, not many people come out of this book terribly well — except, in common with almost all of these rat-on-your-party memoirs we’ve seen in the past couple of years, John Prescott, whom everybody seems to like. Prescott emerges as humane and principled and kindly towards party workers. However, Watt cannot abide Harriet Harman and her constant “dog whistling to the left”, and has even less time for her husband, Jack Dromey, considering him duplicitous and self-indulgent. The national executive committee of the party was, as a whole, an annoying and disruptive influence. But then an awful lot of this book consists of Watt bemoaning the thoughtlessness of others for doing stuff that made his job more onerous. The most telling sentence of Inside Out comes on page 125: “Dad became terminally ill at what was already a hugely difficult time for me.”
Watt left his post a year or so ago when it seemed that he might face criminal charges for having allowed a wealthy donor to funnel funds to the party through a number of third parties. Undoubtedly it was a horrible, frightening time for the young man and he did not receive much in the way of support. But it was nonetheless his responsibility, in the end, a notion that does not seem to have occurred to him.
Inside Out by Peter Watt with Isabel Oakeshott
Biteback £16.99 pp210
by Catherine Flinn
Although the literature on Second World War code-breaking, Bletchley Park, Enigma and Alan Turing and his peers is prolific, Dilly is a significant contribution to the existing scholarship. Mavis Batey is a former code-breaker who worked at Bletchley Park quite closely with her subject, Alfred Dillwyn Knox (1884-1943). However, the book is not – and does not read as – memoir. Rather, this is a noteworthy analytical work in its own right: it is well-written, thoughtful and thoroughly researched.
It is likely that there is no better author to have taken on the challenge of presenting the life and work of Knox, who has been both under-appreciated and overlooked. Mavis Batey was hired to work in the Government Code and Cipher School at the beginning of the war. Soon after, she was sent to Bletchley Park to work with Knox on breaking early Enigma messages. Batey worked with him until his death, in 1943, and continued to work at Bletchley Park until after the end of the Second World War.
The book successfully chronicles “Dilly” Knox’s important place in British history, documenting his ground-breaking work without over-glorifying his life, yet still giving proper credit where due. Readers are taken from his origins as a minister’s son who grew up solving logic problems, to his work as a Classics scholar with important publications in Greek literature, to the translation of that work into his interest in and talent for deciphering and code-breaking. Batey is able both to understand and detail his code-breaking theory and methodology. She also successfully contextualises Knox’s interest in the author, mathematician and logician Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), having published on the subject herself.
Although Alan Turing (1912-1954) has received most of the code-breaking acclaim, the reader comes to understand that Knox should have shared such recognition equally. Yet for many years - and still today - much of the relevant documentary evidence remains unavailable. Batey also provides a bigger picture, which highlights the importance of Dilly’s contributions to the war in general, from the British naval victory at Matapan to the role of code-breaking in the campaigns in North Africa and the Normandy landings.
Additional themes in the story continue to have contemporary significance: Dilly stressed the importance of sharing intelligence so that it got into the hands of those who needed it most and was useful. This same theme is in the forefront of today’s news, as the United States has admitted that security issues brought to light via the “Christmas Day bomber” (2009) resulted from a lack of cooperation within government intelligence organisations. Of current importance also is the ongoing science of encryption and decryption, used daily in modern communications, with scientists having recently demonstrated an ability to break mobile phone security. A final recurring theme is Dilly’s awareness – so often overlooked – that all the operators transmitting the coded messages were human, and made mistakes, and it was often the exploitation of these mistakes that gave the “way in” to getting a break.
Ralph Erskine’s introduction is very helpful if somewhat inflammatory: he is highly critical (though probably rightly so) of the British government’s over-classification and continued secrecy over documents, which could help set the record straight, rather than endanger current national security. The appendices – contributed by Ralph Erskine and Frank Carter – are a cryptanalyst’s dream and extremely helpful for anyone interested in the details of breaking Enigma. It would have been even more useful to have included photographs of the “rods” used, but this is a minor point.
The only real shortcoming of the book lies in the lack of scholarly sourcing. This is presumably not the author’s fault, since the editor is the journalist Michael Smith (who himself has published interesting work on both code-breaking and Bletchley Park), and the book is perhaps not intended to be used as a resource. Nevertheless, the hit-and-miss nature of the sourcing and style (no in-text numbers or notes) was very frustrating for an academic historian. Yet on the whole, this first publication off the new “press” of Dialogue is very impressive: historically significant and worthwhile reading for both historians, and anyone interested in problem-solving, code-breaking and certainly the Second World War.
I had never done a live TV interview before – and on Sunday I had to do two. To say I was nervous when I went to bed on Monday evening is an understatement. To be honest I didn’t sleep very well and getting up really wasn’t a problem. Vilma was brilliant at trying to keep me calm but the house was so busy this weekend that I couldn’t wait to leave.
I got to the Andrew Marr show and waited in the Green Room and I began to feel calmer. I knew what I wanted to say and this was my first chance to say it in person. The only slight glitch was that I think that I overdid the coffee and I was getting caffeine rushes. Sat waiting for the opening shots I managed to have a conversation with Nick Clegg – we spoke about the joys of early mornings with the kids.
The interview with Andrew Marr was over in a flash buy I think it went ok. Carol Vorderman, who was reviewing the papers, told me she thought it went well and asked for a signed copy of the book. And then on to Sky for a session with Adam Boulton and Steve Pound MP.
The Green Room was busy as Ken Livingstone and Edwina Currie were preparing for their paper review. It was good to see Steve, I’ve always liked him and we spent some time catching up. And then we were on. Steve had a bit of a go at me, I had a bit of a go back – but it was all pretty friendly. It was over pretty quickly.
In the car on the way home Vilma texted me to say well done, she said that I only looked nervous right at the start of the Marr show. I was pleased as well; I had a chance to again explain why I have written Inside Out and why now. I had a chance to acknowledge that some Labour activists are understandably cross with me. And I was able to show that I stand by and am proud of my book.