Mandelson on Judaism, Lord Levy and his JC dad
Tony Blair’s closest ally reveals the inside story on the cash-for-peerages scandal and his pro-Israel sentiments
Lord Mandelson: “My father became very militant and really emotional when Israel was under attack. In a sense it was the same for me”
Lord Mandelson's book, The Third Man, Life At The Heart of New Labour has enjoyed a heady reception in the week since its publication. He has the relieved look of someone who has run a marathon without keeling over, as well he might, since he reveals that he only finished writing two weeks ago. "It only came off the presses the day before the launch," he says. "It was a high-wire act. Now I'm used to living dangerously, flying too close to the sun, but even for me it was a bit of a daredevil project."
Peter Mandelson began life in Hampstead Garden Suburb, the younger son of Mary Morrison, daughter of the Labour politician, Herbert Morrison, and the flamboyant advertising director of the JC, Tony Mandelson. It was a household steeped in Labour Party ideology, though not Judaism, and this is a matter of some regret.
"My father was an atheist," he declares, cheerfully, although in fact his paternal grandfather, Norman, who also once worked for the JC, was the founder and president of Harrow United Synagogue. But Peter has vivid memories of his father becoming "overtly Jewish" during the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. "My father became very militant and really emotional when Israel was under attack. In a sense it was the same for me."
He was "dimly aware of my refracted Jewishness" during his youth. On most Friday nights he would go to dinner with his school friend Caroline Wetzler, whose "wonderful parents" had fled Germany and the Netherlands to escape the Nazis. "They kept a Jewish Friday night, and I loved it. Where my father was naughty was that he didn't introduce me to some of the more institutional aspects of Judaism. I wish I had learned a bit more about the religion."
I was dimly aware of my refracted Jewishness
In fact, Lord Mandelson "still keeps Friday nights, particularly whenever I go to my friend (Lord) David Alliance. It's not that I am religious. It's the extended family, which part of me wants to be part of."
Tony Mandelson joined the JC in 1947 and spent the rest of his working life with the paper. "I would occasionally go with my father to the offices of the Jewish Chronicle in Furnival Street, just off Holborn," Peter writes in his memoirs. "His army of advertising salesmen and administrators were unfailingly deferential to him, and unfailingly kind to me. But my main Jewish Chronicle memory was when the man in charge of ad layout, Nat Goldstein, took Miles [my brother] and me to the Hammersmith Odeon one evening, shortly after my twelfth birthday, for a Beatles concert." Such events have rarely been repeated for JC staffers' children.
In October 1975, the JC published an article by the 22-year-old Peter Mandelson, giving his views on the Middle East. He had spent 10 days in Israel at the end of an Arab League-sponsored tour of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Thirty-five years after publication his piece is still remarkably prescient - and, by the same token, profoundly depressing. The young Mandelson calls for an "independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza," sitting alongside an Israel "which would reasonably demand very tight guarantees of security." Looking back, Lord Mandelson smiles and describes the piece as "a touch naive, a touch one-sided." But, he adds: "I think the bulk of JC readers, even in those days, knew that you could have a support of Israel that saw its future and security behind some high brick and reinforced walls, or a future and security based on political consent and a more live-and-let-live existence. But all that has happened since has polarised opinion, has made people more fearful and angry, and made people's prejudices even more deeply rooted."
We speak about the Labour fundraiser par excellence, Lord Levy, who became the focus of the "cash for peerages" scandal. Lord Mandelson writes: "Michael had been a fund-raiser for a range of Jewish... charities… but the very qualities that had allowed him to excel in that role - his hand-grabbing, cheek-kissing genius for corralling one person after another and working a room - left me with a feeling that he was far too self-promoting for his own, and our, good."
One paragraph later, however, he revises his opinion: "To say Michael Levy was 'self-promoting' is a bit ungenerous." He declares that "without Michael we would never have been able to recast the Labour Party successfully, because without Michael we would have continued to have been bound hand and foot to trade unions' funding of the party. So his part in the New Labour revolution was very important.
"What happened, however, is that the problems of prejudice we encountered through our trade union links was transferred to too great an association with people who seemed to be giving to the Labour Party because they wanted something back. I think that was grossly unfair on the bulk of our donors who wanted to put their money where their mouth was, and that's perfectly honourable. We need that sort of political philanthropy. We owe a great debt to Michael and he suffered a lot for the time and the energy he devoted to New Labour".
But Lord Mandelson is swift to rebut the charge that Tony Blair hung Lord Levy out to dry.
"That is absolutely untrue and terribly unfair. Tony was devastated by the false charge. He thought it was a gross injustice to Michael. But the problem was that Tony was the Prime Minister. He had to be, and to be seen to be, totally separate from the process of investigation. And if there had been any contact between him and Michael that could have been misrepresented or misinterpreted, then he would have brought even further trouble on Michael's head, which everyone would have regretted".
But asked about Blair's behaviour towards him during the Hinduja affair, when he was forced to resign from government a second time, Lord Mandelson is pained and reticent. "It was not only humiliating, but it's the stain that it leaves on you." After he was cleared of any wrongdoing, he says that Blair "came as close to an apology as any Prime Minister could," adding that their relationship had "long since healed," and insisting that Blair was far from "livid", as had been reported, over the timing of publication of The Third Man. But it is clear the matter still rankles.
Though the endless Blair/Brown war of attrition brings few surprises, readers might be intrigued to read of Lord Mandelson's assessment of the last straw for Blair-baiters. It was not, says Lord Mandelson, his support for Israel which brought Blair down. But what it did, he thinks, "further weakened support that had already been damaged by Iraq. He really needed friends and it would have been easier for him to play to the gallery - but he chose not to. It speaks volumes for Tony Blair. He was not at that time prepared to make concessions to Israel's enemies. He was not prepared to let Hizbollah off the hook by simply joining the criticism of Israel."
He is not finished. "It's so easy," he says, "when peer pressure is so strong. When I left government for the second time, the Jewish community of Britain held a huge rally in Trafalgar Square to demand peace."
Israel had sent Binyamin Netanyahu and Mandelson was warned that it might not be a good idea to appear on the same platform. "But I didn't think twice," he says. "I made a speech that was not merely pro-Israel, but pro-peace. And I was proud to be there. If you start making concessions to political correctness, as I believe some people were trying to make me do, not only do you lose your sense of conviction - in the end, you become unable to live with yourself."
The Third Man is published by Harper Collins at £25