Labour's new leader has much to learn from Tony Blair. "A Journey" is an honest and insightful self-portrait by a man who personified modern Britainby David Goodhart / September 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
A Journey by Tony Blair (Hutchinson, £25)
The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson (HarperPress, £25)
Diaries Volume One: Prelude to Power 1994-1997 by Alastair Campbell (Hutchinson, £25)
Trio: Inside the Blair, Brown, Mandelson Project by Giles Radice (IB Tauris, £20)
If Tony Blair and new Labour had not existed history would surely have invented something similar. After 18 years of Tory rule the pendulum was bound to swing to the left in 1997 while leaving most of the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s in place. Moreover, thanks to the changing sociology of Britain—above all the decline of heavy industry and the old working class—it had become possible by the mid-1990s to change the terms of the left/right debate in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. It became feasible, in fact, to shape a political ideology that for the first time combined market economics with social justice—meaning well-funded public services, economic redistribution and concern for the poor—or, put another way, individual aspiration plus mild collectivism. This was, in fact, roughly what both moderate Labour governments and One Nation Tory ones had practised for several decades after 1945 but the synthesis had never won a proper place in the mind (or heart) of the political nation.
It seems obvious now: we are all third wayers, even if the concept itself has been derided and abandoned. Politics is about maximising the welfare of the average voter, even if different parties approach this goal in somewhat different ways guided in part by their history. But when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s the two main parties still overtly strove to look after “our people”—their respective class bases. Activists, too, tended to be driven by belief in either private enterprise or the state as the engine of progress.
Blair was a lucky politician, at least in domestic politics—the benign economic circumstances, the enfeebled opposition, even the timing of his departure. But perhaps his greatest good fortune was to be in the right time and place to fashion a political outlook for Britain that combined the best elements of left and right; to realise the centrist dream that voters had long said they wanted. And he did it with great panache. He helped British politics grow up and become more honest—who on the left really still believed in clause 4 and its promise “to secure for the workers… the common ownership of the means of production”? Politics under Blair also, perhaps inevitably, became more technocratic and disenchanted. And that is probably why so many people seem to hate him (although that’s a bit of a myth)—especially “political” people who once embraced the ideological totems, and some of whom then believed too naively in Blair’s own transformative powers.
Was new Labour really inevitable? Surely, if John Smith had not died, and if he or Gordon Brown had become leader and then prime minister, things would have been significantly different: only one or two terms for Labour, much less reform (and possibly investment) in the public services and no participation in the Iraq war?
Indeed, part of the point of the various new Labour autohagiographies—as they have been called, with some justice—is to assert the “great man” theory of history against the determinist version: to show that what seems inevitable was far from it. Perhaps inevitably, in each case the great man turns out to be the author.
In both Peter Mandelson’s memoir The Third Man and Alastair Campbell’s Diaries (1994-97), their own roles in the new Labour project loom very large. Blair is important, but a rather weak figure buffeted by events and by Gordon Brown. In Blair’s own account, A Journey (in which Mandelson features hardly at all, and Gordon Brown only at the end) it is of course very different. Almost everything is driven forward by him; the new Labour project was not imminent in Britain’s political history—it had to be shaped and moulded.
Determinism and the great man theory represent two different truths about the historical process—as Marx famously said, “Men make their own history… but they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing.” And clearly the personalities have mattered a great deal in the new Labour story. Of the four books I read, Campbell’s diaries and Mandelson’s autobiography are, as you would expect, most about personalities, while Giles Radice’s Trio: Inside the Blair, Brown, Mandelson Project and Blair’s A Journey are more about ideas and policy.
Radice’s book is a sympathetic account of the project by a leading Labour politician whose political memory stretches way back. He points to some of the seldom noticed similarities between Blair and Harold Wilson who, according to Radice, originally coined the phrase “New Labour, New Britain.” Radice underlines new Labour’s social democratic successes: the revived public services, the better exam results, the reduced poverty (especially among old people), the free nursery schools and so on. If he was giving marks out of ten it would probably be a seven or eight—rather better than the disappointed six out of ten that Polly Toynbee and David Walker offer in their book The Verdict.
Radice’s greater generosity may be because of his longer memory. He lived as an active politician through the gloomy days of Labour tribalism, general incompetence and out-of-touchness from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Peter Mandelson’s memory does not go back as far as Radice’s, but his rather Pooterish memoir—largely devoid of fresh insight—makes much of his roots in the Labour aristocracy. He may have been a revisionist, he is telling us, but he had deep Labour instincts: he knew what was being revised.
The complaint of even the moderate left, of course, was that in new Labour’s heyday it cut itself so adrift from its labour movement roots that it lost touch with what it was supposed to be revising. One of the few scenes that bring the Campbell diaries to life is when Neil Kinnock suddenly, and angrily, realises that Blair is not just a moderate social democrat but something rather different: not really part of the Labour family at all.
Which brings us back to Blair. As one might expect, Blair’s is by far the most interesting of these books. I was more impressed by his analysis of events than I expected to be, yet ended up liking him less than I imagined I would. I was a sympathetic observer of Blair and new Labour when they emerged in the early 1990s but had never been a true believer. I remember being immunised against “true belief” by a young David Miliband, who came bounding up to me at a party in 1995 after the rather fatuous “Young Country” speech Blair had just delivered to the Labour conference, suggesting that this phrase alone was an inspirational idea. I laughed, assuming he was joking—isn’t the whole point about Britain, or England at least, that it is a very old country? When I realised he was not joking I felt rather chilled by his cult-like commitment to the cause; not a bad cause but not one that required one to suspend all critical faculties.
But I remained a loose supporter, voted for Blair three times—despite scepticism about Iraq—and certainly think Britain is a much better country in 2010 than it was in 1997. (And just imagine for a moment that the Tories had continued to govern after 1997: the UK would probably have broken up, there would have been a huge expansion of private health and education and the Iraq war would have led to serious social unrest.) I have only once spent any time alone with Blair, over a lunch, and that was way back in the early 1990s when he was a very effective and charming shadow employment spokesman and I was the employment editor of the Financial Times. My abiding memory of the lunch is how much of the time he spent looking at himself in a mirror behind me on the restaurant wall. That is a cheap shot (though true)—almost all leaders require a hefty streak of narcissism, after all, and it is usually balanced by more attractive personal qualities, as indeed it is in Blair’s case.
But the narcissism is certainly evident in the book. For example, there are his claims to sole origination of almost all significant policies—including some, such as Bank of England independence, that clearly did not originate with him—as well as the depiction of himself standing alone at the helm, despite the fact that we know thanks to the other accounts how dependent he was on close friends and advisers. And for someone famous for his emotional intelligence there are passages in the book that reveal a peculiar lack of self-knowledge—the now famous Cherie sex scene, for example (“I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct…”), or the quasi-mystical call to leadership and the premonition of John Smith’s death. The latter smacks of false memory syndrome with the benefit of hindsight, the former simply of lurid writing. Blair’s style lurches from the straight and dull to the jocular and irritatingly chummy. His prose has its moments, though: there’s a moving section about Diana; and he is genuinely funny about John Prescott’s famous punch and some episodes in the Northern Ireland talks.
The book is also more thoughtful than many reviewers—even critical ones—had expected. Blair is no policy wonk but he is a very smart man: A Journey is full of insights about modern politics, both domestic and international, with mini-essays on everything from why targets work (and can also go wrong) through why the European Union doesn’t work to the reason politicians have affairs. He also convincingly refutes various myths. The myth that Blair is a Thatcherite—beloved of the left and Simon Jenkins—is buried in several places here; it always struck me as very odd that Blair could be called a Thatcherite when his main domestic political goal was to reform and invest in Britain’s creaking public services with the explicit aim of improving them for the less well off. The myth that he is not interested in history, a favourite of many commentators and intellectuals, is also dispatched; he seems to have his nose permanently in a history book, often from the library at Chequers. And the myth that he was ruled by focus group and opinion poll gets short shrift; he in fact expresses proper scepticism about how little polls tell you about what the public might be persuaded to believe, about how the public fibs on some issues, and how focus groups tend to tell you what you want to hear.
Blair is also surprisingly honest. Honest about his fear and self-doubt, his dread of prime minister’s questions. And honest, too, about policy failures; about how there was too much stress on spin and not enough on policy in the first term, about how finely balanced the argument on Iraq was. And on Iraq and many other subjects he is far more generous to his opponents and their arguments than they have tended to be towards him.
There are plenty of other surprises too. The serious consideration he gave to the scrapping of Trident. His big stress on the importance of sport in health policy. And the extraordinarily radical Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (this is something which I had simply not noticed). This reverses the normal rules of proof and evidence by allowing the police to seize the assets of local drug dealers and pimps before they have proved that their flash cars, say, were bought with the proceeds of crime. I sympathise with much of Blair’s scepticism about modern civil libertarianism, but that gave me pause. Yet the fact that the coalition does not seem to have proposed reversing the legislation suggests it may be having a beneficial effect on Britain’s worst estates.
There are plenty of gaps and omissions. Religion is oddly absent, despite Blair’s claim that it is more important to him than politics. One of his main domestic legacies—mass immigration—gets only three or four paragraphs, perhaps because there was relatively little of it in his Sedgefield constituency, his abiding connection to the real world. He leaves a hostage to the left by dwelling so little on poverty or inequality (his main failure in their eyes). And although there are two long chapters on Iraq, there is almost nothing on why the invaders were so badly prepared for what happened. He also largely ignores the criticism that he used his eloquence and influence far too little to promote good causes he believed in, such as the euro and even his watered-down social democracy. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, at the end of his period in office the British were more tolerant of difference—sexual, racial and so on—but less compassionate towards the least well off and more hostile to redistribution.
Does this reflect Blair’s own beliefs? Perhaps. His political credo is scattered through the book, a mix of the succinct and the banal. He believes in individual striving and aspiration combined with a mild communitarianism that stresses interdependence and community. So far so unsurprising—and the credo is sufficiently elastic and unobjectionable to provide no particular guide through the dilemmas of modern social policy. Blair would no doubt have preferred it if inequality had fallen further on his watch, but he seems to be more inclined to prioritise a “high floor” of decent public services and an appropriate welfare net, rather than fretting about narrowing income differentials.
The foreign policy credo is rather more interesting and even slightly disturbing. His internationalism borders on the post-nationalist at times (although he can still talk casually about “loving the British people”) and is underpinned by a positively utopian ethic of global responsibility. He describes going to see the film Schindler’s List with Cherie and talking long into the night about it afterwards. He was particularly struck by the scene in which the camp commandant is having an argument with his girlfriend, gets up to have a pee and casually shoots an inmate before resuming the quarrel. Blair is interested not so much in the obvious evil of the commandant as in his girlfriend. “She didn’t shoot anyone; she was a bystander. Except she wasn’t. There were no bystanders in that situation. You take sides by inaction as much as by action. Why were the Nazis able to do these things? Because of people like him? No, because of people like her… We are not bystanders either. If we know and we fail to act, we are responsible.”
This has obvious implications for his global interventionism, although his relative success in Kosovo and Sierra Leone must surely have been a big factor too when it came to Iraq. But the moral absolutism of the Schindler’s List lesson does seem rather sweeping—there is a big difference between a death camp commandant’s girlfriend bearing responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust and an ordinary British citizen bearing responsibility for the crimes of Saddam against the Kurds.
Towards the end of the book the messianic tone that briefly appeared when he seized the leadership in 1994 makes a return as he describes the shift from audience pleasing populist to lonely man of principle. He does, however, still have interesting things to say about leadership and how he learnt it on the job and can always see the funny side of his own hubris.
The postscript to the book shows his opinions drifting off to the right. The next version of the sensible centre-left will not find much inspiration there. He continues to assume that the market economy will continue to deliver, but surely the lesson of the financial crisis is that this can no longer be taken for granted. Especially in Britain, where our economy has become dangerously over-dependent on finance, public policy needs to focus again on the production of wealth and not just its distribution. In social policy too surely we need to think harder about how to raise the incomes, and the self-esteem, of the large group of people who are not blessed with great talents and are not strivers. Blair’s insistence on “opportunity” and permanent modernisation came to be read very negatively by such people, even when it was being done in their name.
My own small epiphany about Blair came in the book’s introduction. The final sentence reads: “It is true that my head can sometimes think conservatively especially on economics and security; but my heart always beats progressive, and my soul is and always will be that of a rebel.”
Hmm. Being a fan of Mick Jagger does not make you a rebel. But those sentiments do, truly, reflect our zeitgeist. Moreover, Blair could be described as the first prime minister of the celebrity era, or at least the first one who seemed to understand the dynamics of celebrity, both his own and others—consider the way in which his premiership blurred the line between the public and the private (and his book has been accused of doing the same over revelations about his meetings with the Queen). And that sentence from the introduction illustrates one of the great truths of the past 30 years in Britain: that the right won the economic argument and the left won the cultural argument. That is, of course, a grand over-simplification. Blair did shift Britain to the left, but perhaps only as far as the centre-right—and the country’s various power elites in the City, the media, the law and so on—would allow. His easy liberalism on matters of sexuality, race and gender (although not crime) combined with his suspicion of the state and trust in markets makes him a prime minister for our times. Both for good and ill, when we look at Tony Blair we look at ourselves.
Read Ed Balls on why he is wrongly called a “deficit denier.” A wide consensus supporting cuts does not mean they are the right policy—just look at the past, he says