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.

Also obviously, Blair does not reject party politics. But, influenced by Macmurray, he tends to use political means to achieve post-political ends. He can be a ruthless leader, and he has mastered all the tricks of modern politics (focus groups, sound bites, branding), but he uses them mostly in pursuit of his gauzy communitarian vision. Even more than Bill Clinton, Blair has spent his life trying to bridge the divide between left and right. Even more than Clinton, he views the family as the most important social institution, as the seedbed of love, trust, and responsibility.

A frequent paradox of communitarianism is that whereas more-traditional politicians, who are not averse to conflict, bind themselves firmly and fiercely to one party or team that helps them attain their goals, the peace-loving communitarian is often more or less alone, dreaming of an abstract community but lacking in the here and now an intimate group to help realize the vision. While other students at Oxford were banding together and issuing angry manifestos, Blair was charting his own course, and showing no signs of anger or alienation. He moved to London and trained to be a barrister; he had little interest in political office until he met his future wife, Cherie Booth, who had earlier in her life talked about becoming Britain's first woman Prime Minister. Both Cherie and Blair unsuccessfully sought a Labour Party nomination for Parliament in 1981; Blair won a seat in Parliament in 1983.

At first Blair went along with the Labour Party doctrines of the day—unilateral disarmament, the nationalization of industry, withdrawal from the European Community—without fervently believing in them. He gradually discovered his own style of politics, which almost always involves reconciling opposites: fiscal discipline with social spending, tough anti-crime policies with compassionate welfare support, the free market with government activism. Blair rarely went out dining or drinking with members of his party, preferring to go home to his wife and kids. In social situations, I'm told, he can be strangely businesslike, steering the conversation to a single subject and then probing for information, rather than engaging in anything resembling small talk or banter.

"There has always been something of a Jesus complex about Tony Blair," The Spectator recently commented. "It suits him, temperamentally, to evangelize, to parade the passion of his belief, and to accept the devotion of his followers." That passage captures the ambivalence that many Britons feel about Blair; it also points to an odd truth about him. Blair has little innate interest in traditional politics, in the sort of coalition-building and deal-brokering that so obsessed, say, Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt. He has none of the quality, common to Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, that inclines politicians to seek greatness through combat, through bravery against foes and loyalty to friends. He entirely lacks the traditional outlook of the European statesman—the view that history deals you certain conditions, and you simply do the best you can.

Blair is impatient with the status quo and can be grand in his ambitions. "Jesus was a modernizer," he once commented. And although he does not wear his religious faith on his sleeve, and is as liberal on abortion and other social issues as any of his secular compatriots, he appears to be motivated by a pre-political moral idealism. He aims to be what Thatcher once said he already was—"a decent Christian gentleman."

Watching him on the campaign trail, Joe Klein, then of The New Yorker, observed that Blair suffered from "a generational disease, a perennial callowness that seems to afflict those of us who were born in the years immediately after the Second World War." Klein continued, "Perhaps it is the absence of great issues, great crises; perhaps it is simply the absence of suffering—but baby-boom politicians, even in middle age, still seem like helium-filled dilettantes."

This is no longer quite true of Blair. He risked his political career on a single moral proposition: that it was right to use U.S. and British strength to liberate the people of Iraq. Whatever one thinks of his specific policies, one has to recognize that this points to something in him deeper and more interesting than previously seen. In waging a struggle on behalf of such a widely unpopular cause, Blair has emerged as the world's greatest Baby Boomer—the figure Bill Clinton wanted to be. Perhaps we are beginning to see in him what Baby Boomer gravitas will look like: a little self-righteous, in keeping with the generational mode; a little utopian, because Baby Boomers always did believe that theirs was the most gifted generation and was meant to solve the problems of humankind; a little self-absorbed and self-indulgent; but also admirably independent and self-confident. At least in the case of Tony Blair, the stubborn idealism compensates for and even redeems the annoyances.

Boomers grew up drunk on idealism and have always spent an inordinate amount of time congratulating themselves for this quality. As Blair's example suggests, their idealism may mature, taking on a serious and productive form. Here's hoping.

David Brooks, an Atlantic correspondent, is also a contributing editor of Newsweek, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, and a political analyst for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.
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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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