The Paradoxical Case of Tony Blair

"You have to remember," says someone who knows him, "that the great passion in his life is his hatred of the Labour Party"

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ON October 3 of last year the world awaited the verdict from a Los Angeles courtroom. That Tuesday was also the opening day of the Labour Party's annual conference at Brighton, and at 6:00 P.M.--10:00 A.M. Pacific Time, when the jury's decision was due--many of us covering the conference headed for televisions in bars or hotel rooms. To our astonishment, the BBC led off its news program not with the O. J. Simpson verdict but with the keynote speech that Tony Blair, the Labour leader, had given earlier that day. Surprise turned into a mixture of irritation and amusement when the full story emerged. The television companies had been badgered by faxes from Alastair Campbell, Blair's press secretary: "Whilst I fully understand there is much interest in the verdict, I would implore you not to lose sight of the news value and of the importance to the country of Mr Blair's speech." Nor did they lose sight of it. The BBC did as it was told. This went beyond spin-doctoring. It was news management worthy of a none-too-democratic Balkan state, or of some Third World country rejoicing in the "new information order."

The arrogance would have seemed outrageous coming from the Prime Minister's office. But Blair was not Prime Minister, only behaving as if he were, after little more than a year--though a triumphant year--as leader of the opposition. When he became party leader, Labour had been out of office for more than fifteen years; an entire generation has grown up knowing only Tory rule. Labour has lost four general elections in succession, a record unprecedented since well before the advent of universal suffrage. It managed to lose the last election, in 1992, to what looked like an enfeebled Tory government in the depths of a recession. Since 1974, when Harold Wilson last won a general election for Labour, the party has had five leaders, none of whom has won a general election and four of whom have never been Prime Minister. A British citizen now needs to be over forty to have voted for a Labour government.

This pattern of failure has seemingly been reversed. Blair became the Labour leader in July of 1994, at the age of forty-one, projecting glamour, youth, freshness. His slogan was "modernization," and he unofficially but definitely renamed his party "New Labour." It may have looked more like a marketing strategy than a political philosophy, but it worked. Within a year Labour was so far ahead in the polls that if (in the political commentators' illusory hypothesis) an election had been held then, the Tories would have suffered the kind of wipeout their Canadian counterparts experienced not long ago.

Almost more startling than what Blair did was how he did it. He took over a party all but terminally demoralized by endless defeat, presenting himself as the man who could make the party electable once more. What wasn't clear at first was that he meant to do so by utterly transforming the party, by uprooting its traditions, by effectively destroying Labour as it had been known since its beginnings. There had long been struggles between the left and the right of the party, between advanced socialists and cautious reformists, and some leaders were more radical than others. But Labour had always had a sentimental tradition to which all paid homage, embodied in totems such as the state-socialist Clause Four of its old constitution and the singing of "The Red Flag" at the end of conferences.

Blair is the first Labour leader who barely pretends to be a socialist. He determined to ditch Clause Four, and duly did so. In the process he caused what one writer has called "the collapse of Labour as the party of organised labor"--an outcome that, as the oddly oxymoronic phrase suggests, is as though the Pope caused the collapse of the Church as the medium of organized Christianity. Even more brazenly, Blair has courted figures ranking high in the demonology of the British left, from the rulers of the East Asian "tiger" countries to the Prince of Darkness himself, Rupert Murdoch.

Above all, he did what no leader of the "progressive" side in British politics had done since the 1840s. Every Tory leader since Sir Robert Peel had implicitly agreed with his opponents that the future belonged with their side; that at best a rearguard action could be fought; that conservatism's role was to make concessions as slowly, and with as good grace, as possible. That is, until Margaret Thatcher. She was the first Tory leader who did not share this belief.

And Blair agrees with her. He is the first of the Tories' political opponents ever to concede that they have largely won the argument. An anthology of Blair's recent reflections speaks for itself.

"I believe Margaret Thatcher's emphasis on enterprise was right."

"A strong society should not be confused with a strong state."

"Duty is the cornerstone of a decent society."

"Britain needs more successful people who can become rich by success through the money they earn."

"People don't want an overbearing state."

Any of these could have been uttered by a Tory, or by a none-too-liberal Democrat or, indeed, by a none-too-liberal Republican. Come to think of it, Patrick Buchanan's main disagreement with the Labour leader would be over Blair's uncritical admiration for "wealth creators" and free trade. It has been a breathtaking achievement--but a paradoxical one. Political parties have changed character before now, and have sometimes been taken over from the outside. This is a unique and much stranger case: a party has been captured from the inside, and by a man who in his heart despises most of that party's traditions and cherished beliefs.

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