John Reid, the Blairite bruiser all set to do battle
THERE was an elegiac little moment in the VIP suite at London's military airport at Northolt late on Thursday morning. Before Peter Mandelson, returnin
THERE was an elegiac little moment in the VIP suite at London's military airport at Northolt late on Thursday morning. Before Peter Mandelson, returning from packing his bags at Hillsborough Castle, began his handover briefing of his successor, John Reid recalled to Mandelson their first, very different, meeting some 18 years ago.
Mandelson had been the 30-year-old LWT researcher on Weekend World compiling the questions for a Brian Walden interview with the relatively new Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Reid was one of the most trusted members of Kinnock's team, charged with preparing him for the programme. Frankly Reid had laid out Kinnock's true feelings on how the Labour Party had to change. Reid reminded Mandelson that he had said: "That's great. I agree with every word. Why can't he say that in the interview?" Grimly Reid replied: "Because it would split the party from top to bottom."
The pugnacious and heavy-smoking hard man Reid, who revels in his working-class origins as a postman's son in a Lanarkshire pit village, and the metropolitan Mandelson, could hardly be more different despite the fact there are odd coincidences between the two men: both had brief flirtations with communism in their youth. Both took part in schoolboy rebellions. Both have Brazilian-born partners, (in Reid's case the talented film-maker Karine Adler who won the best independent film award in Edinburgh three years ago with Under the Skin her study of a young woman driven to promiscuity by grief). Nevertheless, both were modernisers. Indeed Reid has been part of Labour's revisionism for even longer than Mandelson. Back in 1983 Reid had, at Kinnock's request, put on a single sheet of paper what had been making Labour so unelectable for the past few years. "Leaderless, unpatriotic, dominated by demagogues, policies 15 years out of date," Reid had written. He was contemptuous of the party campaign machine which Harold Wilson had, in 1955, called a "Penny Farthing." "The only difference now is that it's a rusty penny farthing. Fix all these things and you will fix the party." It had taken, of course, another 14 years to "fix the party." Now one of the fixers-in-chief was down and out. And another, Belfast-bound, was very much on his way up.
If nothing else, Tony Blair's appointment of Reid testifies to the importance Blair attaches to Northern Ireland. South of the border, the confidence Blair increasingly feels in Reid, Scottish Secretary until last Wednesday, has been barely noticed though it was significant that he had already made him his sole Cabinet nominee on the party National Executive. Now he steps into one of the highest-profile jobs in politics.
John Reid was born in 1947 and brought up in Cardowne, a Lanarkshire pit village on the Eastern outskirts of Glasgow. Thomas, his postman father, had a passionate belief that the liberation of the working class lay in education. His mother Mary, who is 81 and whom he phones every day, is fiercely protective of her son, who still has to restrain her on occasions from calling newspapers when he gets a bad press.
The comment provoked by the fact that he is the first Roman Catholic at the Northern Ireland Office needs to take into account not only that his Hamilton and Bellshill constituency contains both strong Protestant and Catholic communities but also that his father's parents were an ecumenical match, the Reid grandfather a staunch Church of Scotland Presbyterian and his grandmother a poor and illiterate Irish peasant.
He didn't want to go to university and instead worked in a series of jobs in the late Sixties including construction work on the then new oil pipeline and one in insurance which opened his eyes politically. He did an Open University course and was then accepted for Stirling University, where he became rector of the Students' Union at just the same time that the younger Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown held similar posts in Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
Of the period, he says: "I used to be a Communist. I used to believe in Santa Claus." But it helped to form his view that political discipline is necessary. He retains a belief that technological change shapes politics and not the other way round. So it was as a working-class intellectual that he became a researcher a political officer in all but name of the Scottish Labour Party.
There he met Neil Kinnock at a party conference before the 1983 election. George Robertson had been verbally assaulted in the bar by a young activist who complained about Robertson's lack of Marxism. He was talking rubbish, said Reid, a man who has never knowingly avoided a political argument. Kinnock signed him up on the spot as a full-time aide, from October 1983.
The new leader did not regret it. Reid was loyal and productive, having a hand in the epic attack on Militant at Bournemouth in 1998. He was present at the famous exchange in the Shadow Cabinet room between Derek Hatton and his boss when Hatton said: "Kinnock you're a traitor" and Kinnock replied: "Hatton, you're a wanker."
It was the kind of response Reid, with an ample share of Kinnock's macho approach to politics, would certainly have liked to make himself. With an academic's understanding of Trotskyism, Reid saw clearly that the Militant party-within-a-party could destroy Labour from within. During the 1984-85 miners' strike he was torn, like Kinnock, between loyalty to individual miners, like those in Cathie Reid's family, and hatred of Arthur Scargill's methods.
He had always told Kinnock he wanted to be an MP and he was elected at Motherwell North in 1987. He joined the front bench two years later and he began to shine as a junior defence spokesman. He was an obvious choice to become the Armed Forces Minister of State after the election, where he played a key role in George Robertson's Strategic Defence Review.
By now, although he had been close to Gordon Brown, he was a Blair man. He was appointed Minister of Transport in 1998. But Reid was only there until the following year, when he became Scottish Secretary, replacing Donald Dewar, the new First Minister. Reid was also dogged for a time by the saga that culminated in the inquiry by Elizabeth Filkin, the Commissioner of Standards, into claims that taxpayers' money had been used to pay political researchers, including Reid's son Kevin. She produced evidence that Reid had put undue pressure on witnesses, including Labour general secretary Alex Rowley. The MPs to whom Ms Filkin reports threw out the case. Some Scottish politicians saw this as a measure of Reid's persuasive skills. Reid's line has been that she put the case for the prosecution, he for the defence and the MPs decided. Friends say Reid was a changed man when he stopped drinking six years ago. He once said: "I didn't have a drink problem. I loved the stuff." His irascibility lessened significantly.
His relationship with Karine Adler, who has brought an artistic element to his never dormant intellectual life, was also fundamental. He owns a Gibson acoustic guitar on which he jams with his younger son Mark, and is a passionate Celtic supporter. Which brings us back to his appointment, as a Catholic, to Northern Ireland. The fact is that Reid is unlikely to adopt a different stance to the two communities than did Mandelson.
His Catholicism is notably balanced for unionists by his part, as a defence Minister, in the Fisher-Wright case in which he reinstated two Scots Guards who had shot a young nationalist. The one thing he may need to do is curb his outspoken, bullish and sometimes even bullying style. He is intelligent enough to do just that and win his arguments. One of the interesting features of Reid's appointment is that it marks a moment in which Blair is reaching for the original Kinnockites, partly perhaps to fill the vacuum left by Mandelson's departure.
Reid worked in Kinnock's office. So did Charles Clarke and Patricia Hewitt, both ministers tipped for Cabinet promotion after the election. Reid is now the first of this group to advance into the big time. It a challenging job. Those tough years of the early 1980s have brought their just reward.
* Independent News Service