Au revoir, Iain Dale

Britain's leading Conservative blogger has called it a day and moved on to be a publisher and broadcaster, leaving active party politics. What does it mean?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
14 December 2010

Unlike others on the left who have an allergic reaction to Iain Dale I admire him, he is open-minded and curious. I once made the mistake of paying him what I thought was a compliment by calling him an intellectual. He looked horrified and promptly denied it. I guess he was right; he's not deeply interested in ideas or principles. But he has another quality which has emerged in Biteback, the book publishing company he's helped launch. He likes a good conversation. This was the quality of his blog, that he has now announced he'll stop. Biteback is outstanding in this respect. It  publishes well and quickly books that no traditional publisher would touch or dream of making money out of. I don't know what they sell, but the occasional serialisation the Mail must help pay the bills. Biteback has become an essential part of the ongoing conversation of politics in Britain. Out of respect for Iain I won't say it has taken it to another intellectual level but it has, as the phrase goes, deepened and widened it.

The David Laws account, which I've not seen yet (hint), is clearly a need-to-read on the formation of the Coalition and Rob Wilson's Five Days to Power a must read, see the review by Peter Oborne that also congratulates Biteback's publishing achievement.  Brian Jones Failing Intelligence documents how the security establishment utterly failed to act honestly, independently and on the country's behalf but instead colluded with Blair's reckless embrace of the Bush 'kick-ass' strategy. The books may be uneven (Anthony Seldon on Trust was a good idea but is pretty pathetic) but this is what you would expect in any gathering: they have added a level of understanding to what is going on in Westminster.

The relaxed, revealing style reflects Dale's approach, which can also be seen in Total Politics. His two recent interviews with Ian Duncan Smith and then Peter Mandelson are classics, only a political groupie could have done them. It is not that they are forensic or aggressively disclosing, but they draw his victims out with a mixture of knowledgable scepticism.

But enough of praise. I also have the intellectual's response. What does this mean? What lies behind this important shift in Britain's blogland? The first thing that I think is important is that Dale is also leaving party politics, now that he is a presenter (on LBC 97.3 Radio) as well as a magazine and book publisher. I always thought it was a test of character for Cameron's Tory party to ensure that he got the parliamentary seat he craved and worked for, a process he blogged openly on Iain Dale's Diary. True he was David Davis's campaign manager when he ran against Cameron for the leadership. But you'd have thought Cameron would reward Dale for not being very good at it! A political party that wanted to be pluralistic and wide in its appeal should have welcomed Dale as an MP - he has a following and he knows how to attack. He'd deny that he was stopped in any way and says that the selection processes were always autonomous. Well, I think that if Central Office had decided he would be an asset they would have helped. It's a condemnation of the Conservatives that they have lost him from Parliament, where his wit and skill would have been a great asset in the battles to come. Such is the fate of many genuine independents.

Then there is our changing times. Dale says his stopping the blog is not connected to the Tories being in government which makes being a right-wing blogger more defensive, and that after five years he is just tireing of the personal grind involved in daily blogging and losing interest. Yet there are surely larger forces at work behind this human response. The blogosphere is become more demanding and experienced. It is no longer a plug-in to a political life. Politics is becoming more dramatic - and less parliamentary where Dale's skills were at their best. Those of us on the demonstration last Thursday were not supposed to have taken over Parliament Square in an unprecedented confrontation as the law on fees was being changed. The Euro was not supposed to be collapsing as the financial system buckles. China was not supposed to be about to burst, the Americans were not supposed to walk away from peace in the Middle East, the British constitution was not supposed to be shredded by the Coalition. The dry, witty, laid back approach that is Dale's forte may still find a natutral home on the radio. But it is at its best in a world where the furniture is comfortable and drinks are being served, not one where the roof is falling in. Perhaps it is time for intellectuals!

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