Ideas July 2003

The Transformer

Is Tony Blair what Bill Clinton should have been?
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Over the past few months, while much of the world has been watching Tony Blair the world statesman, I've been thinking about Tony Blair the young rock-concert promoter. In 1971 the future Prime Minister had just graduated from the elite Scottish prep school Fettes; a year later he was to attend St. John's College at Oxford. During the interim he went to London, grew his hair shoulder-length, wore a modish fur coat, and hung out with a crowd of hard-partying rich kids, trying to discover the next Rolling Stones.

Blair bought a van, gathered some stray musicians into a band called Jaded, set about booking it into pubs, and cruised teen gathering spots handing out leaflets for its gigs. He met a man named Norman Burt, who owned two semidetached houses in London; Burt let students live in one of them, and he lived in the other. Blair quickly wheedled his way into a room. It wasn't in the raucous youths' house, however; he lived in the quieter Burt house, and he helped Burt, who was something of a God-squadder, as a volunteer at Christian youth groups. The funny thing is, Blair never used drugs. Three years ago The Spectator and the Mail on Sunday investigated his activities during that year, a year largely missing from Blair biographies. People they interviewed recalled that Blair could do a mean Mick Jagger impersonation; they all said he didn't indulge in the pot and acid that were all around.

Blair, who turned fifty in May, has transformed the Labour Party. He has pioneered a Third Way philosophy that has allowed him to dominate the political landscape of his nation. He took a courageous stand on Iraq, facing millions of protesters who marched against him, and became the most eloquent proponent of the war.

Although in many ways Blair has lived a quintessential Baby Boomer's life, there is an air of loneliness and detachment about him. Imagine him as an eighteen-year-old that year in London—wearing the right clothes, apparently popular with the ladies, but passing the bong without ever taking a hit. Picture him handing out concert flyers on Saturday night, which was a fashionable activity, and handing out church announcements on Sunday morning, which was not.

In some sense Blair has built his career on loneliness and detachment. Ideologically he is not clearly aligned with any one group but occupies a point midway between the Thatcherites and the old Labourites. Politically he now occupies a point midway between Europe and the United States, with no firm alignment with either. In Britain, although he is seen as the giant of the age, he is appreciated but not loved. He is too earnest in a political culture that is pervasively cynical. He is too straightforwardly ambitious in a country that detests that quality. He has no deep roots in any region or political faction.

The turning point in Blair's life, as every biography makes clear, occurred when he was eleven. His father, then a prominent barrister and a rising figure in the Conservative Party, had a debilitating stroke, nearly died, and lost the ability to speak for three years. Although Blair senior was a nonbeliever, on the day of the stroke the headmaster of Blair's school and Blair prayed together, thus planting the germ of what became Blair's unusually strong religious faith. "My father's illness impressed on me from an early age that life was going to be a struggle, and there were a lot of losers," Blair has said. He tells his children, "Life isn't easy. You have to make your own way, and no one will do you any favors."

Blair did not participate in student politics at Oxford, nor did he show much interest in public affairs. In 1972 left-wing students occupied an administration building, but Blair did not get involved. Instead he joined a rock band, the Ugly Rumours, a name taken from the cover of a Grateful Dead album. He was a charismatic figure and had a string of girlfriends, but he was also known to be a hard worker—someone who would disappear from parties after midnight to hit the books. During that time he discovered the writings of the philosopher John Macmurray.

Shortly after becoming the leader of the Labour Party, Blair said, "If you really want to understand what I'm all about, you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray. It's all there." Macmurray was a Christian socialist who after World War II became a pacifist and joined the Society of Friends. He emphasized social action and is sometimes credited with having invented communitarianism.

Macmurray rejected politics as it is traditionally understood, with its emphasis on conflict, competition, opposition groups, and partisanship. He regarded the family as the primary unit of society, and believed that people should come together to form communities based on friendship, love, and the Golden Rule. He argued that it is the job of citizens to heal rifts and build partnerships.

Obviously, Blair has not followed Macmurray all the way to his pacifist and Quaker destination. During the debate over Kosovo he delivered a speech in Chicago titled "Doctrine of International Community." In it he argued that it is sometimes necessary to use force against evil in order to create an environment conducive to building community.

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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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