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…