As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, June 1996
"You have to remember," says someone who knows him, "that the great passion in his life is his hatred of the Labour Party"
by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
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.
AS parties go, Labour is quite young, much younger than the Tories and than both the Democrats and the Republicans. Its birth isn't easy to pin down. An Independent Labour Party (independent of the parties then existing, that is) was born in 1893, shortly after Keir Hardie became the first man to be elected to Parliament specifically as a labor representative rather than as a "lib-lab" loosely attached to the Liberal Party. But the ILP remained one of many small bodies in the larger and looser movement. A Labour Representation Committee was created in 1900, and formally christened the national Labour Party in 1906. In those early years any number of different and sometimes conflicting forces jostled within this movement. Marxism had struck its roots in England through the Social Democratic Federation, but not deep or widespread ones. The Fabian Essays, published in 1889 by seven writers, including George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb, offered an alternative version of nonrevolutionary bureaucratic socialism. Three radical American writers, Henry George, Edward Bellamy, and Laurence Gronlund, had perhaps as much influence in England as in their own country, but ethical and utopian writers such as John Ruskin and William Morris were more influential still.
With all that, Labour remained what its name said: the political and industrial voice of the organized working class. Bodies like the ILP and the SDF were socialist but tiny; the labor or union movement was large but not socialist. Labour organized unions on the one hand, and on the other increased political representation for the masses as the franchise was gradually extended to them. In 1906, twenty-nine Labour MPs were elected, almost all of them workingmen by origin. And their policy remained what Keir Hardie had set out in 1903: "When acting in the House of Commons, they should be neither socialists, Liberals, nor Tories, but a Labour party."
That party waxed as the middle-class Liberals waned, and by the 1920s Labour had become the chief party opposed to the Tories (whose own survival and adaptability over 150 years has been one of the most extraordinary stories of modern European politics). Not until around the time Great Britain finally granted universal franchise did a Labour government come to power. There were two Labour governments before the war, in 1924 and 1929-1931, but neither had a clear majority in Parliament, and both ended in grief, with recriminations and accusations of betrayal.
By the time it became a party of government, Labour had also formally become a socialist party. At its 1918 conference it adopted a new constitution, including the famous Clause Four, which laid down the party's objective:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service.The sentence was drafted by Webb, a man who personified the dominant ethos of the Labour Party, which was Fabian managerialism. With his imperious, terrifying wife, Beatrice, he believed that the world could be put to rights by the efficient collection and application of statistics. The two of them were lampooned by H. G. Wells in his novel The New Machiavelli, though a couple who could spend their honeymoon attending the Trades Union Congress in Glasgow were in reality beyond satire.
Like others on the left early in the century, Webb was fascinated by eugenics, or scientific breeding. In the 1930s he became fascinated by another socialist experiment, and with Beatrice wrote the adulatory Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, which has been described by one historian as "despite severe competition, the most preposterous book ever written about Soviet Russia." Webb summed up his political philosophy: "The perfect and fitting development of each individual is not necessarily the utmost and highest cultivation of his own personality, but the filling, in the best possible way, of his humble function in the great social machine."
When Labour finally came to power with a clear parliamentary majority, in 1945, it acted on Webb's program and in his spirit. The 1945 government was the apotheosis of bureaucratic socialism, founded on the principles of collectivism, central economic planning, and redistributive taxation. It created--or, more accurately, completed--the modern British welfare state, whose core was the National Health Service and universal benefits, and it also nationalized the "commanding heights" of the economy--or at least some of those heights, as they were then seen. But the timing was wrong, and the old industries that were nationalized, such as railroads and coal mines, though deeply rooted in the emotional memory of the Labour movement, were already in decline and soon to be a burden on the nation.
Mid-century saw Labour's high tide. In the 1951 election the party received more votes than ever before or ever since, and more votes than the Tories. But owing to the vagaries of the electoral system the Tories won the election, and remained in office for thirteen years. And in the forty-five years since 1951 Labour has managed to interrupt Tory rule for only two brief periods: 1964-1970 and 1974-1979. After Labour's defeat in 1992 some of us began to believe that a secular historical tide was sweeping the party away forever, as the Liberals were swept away before. We were wrong, it seems. For most of 1995 and 1996 Labour has enjoyed a huge lead in the polls, around 30 percent at last count. A general election must come by next spring and may well come sooner, as the Major government's slender parliamentary majority evaporates. It is almost universally assumed that Labour will win it, and many Tory politicians are already making discreet plans for alternate careers. So reports of the death of Labour were much exaggerated. Or were they? It might be that the Labour Party as it has existed for nearly a hundred years has indeed disappeared, with only its name left behind, like the grin on the face of the disappearing Cheshire cat.
ALL of which is one man's work. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was born in May of 1953. His background is partly conventional, partly romantic. His father, Leo, was the son of Charles Parsons, a small-time actor, and Celia Ridgeway, a dancer and a dropout from a rich family. Because they were unmarried at the time Leo was born, he was adopted by a couple in Scotland called Blair. Leo grew up poor and had little education, but his gifts emerged during the war, which he began as a private and ended as a major. After the war he qualified as a barrister, or trial lawyer, and became a university law teacher at Durham, where his children grew up. He married a woman named Hazel Corscaden, the significance of whose background has gone entirely unremarked. Her family were poor Protestant farmers from County Donegal, one of the three predominantly Catholic counties of the historic province of Ulster, which went to the Irish Free State when Ireland was partitioned, and most of whose Protestant minority subsequently departed. Blair has already moved Labour sharply away from its former "united Ireland" policy, and my hunch is that the cause of Irish nationalism would get no more of a hearing from a Blair government than from John Major's.
In the pattern of upward mobility, Leo sent Tony first to Durham Choristers School (the poet and journalist James Fenton claims to remember him with avuncular affection), and then to Fettes, a public (private) school in Edinburgh. It will be a nice irony if Labour gives us the first "public-school man" as Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan retired in 1963--the subsequent Tory leaders, Heath, Thatcher, and Major, having all come from backgrounds as humble as those of their Labour opponents. More to the point, Leo Blair was a Tory voter for most of his life (though he now loyally supports his son), and Tony has no Labour roots at all, either in intellectual socialism or in the broader labor movement.
He went on to Oxford, where he was a conventional enough undergraduate. He belonged to one or two dining clubs, he dated a few women, and he played for a time in a rock band called Ugly Rumours, which he would now rather forget, though his wife sometimes plays tapes of the band at parties to tease him. A.C.L. Blair, St. John's College '72 (Oxford dates classes by the first year), has learned one lesson from W. J. Clinton, University College '68. He flatly denies that he ever so much as touched, let alone inhaled, any form of illicit narcotic. A cynic might say that this makes him unique among student rockers of the 1970s, but that's his story, and it fits the serious and even priggish picture of young Tony. People who knew him then still tend to think him a bit of a stick, as the English say: dour, worthy, maybe a little dull.
As interesting as what he did at Oxford is what, apart from drugs, he didn't do. He had no political interests, never spoke at the Union debating club, joined no left-wing societies, didn't protest the tail end of the Vietnam war or Margaret Thatcher's policies as Education Secretary in the 1970-1974 Tory government, which were a cause of much radical rage at the time. Other than the law he was studying, his chief interest was religion. An Australian friend, Peter Thomson, introduced him to the works of John Macmurray, whose Persons in Relation, The Self as Agent, and other books attempted an amalgam of Christianity with the politics of "community."
Since then Blair has remained a disciple of Macmurray's, an exponent of "communitarianism," and a practicing Anglo-Catholic, or "High" Episcopalian. Americans may not easily realize how unusual this makes him. We have a Church of England "by law established," and its services are regularly attended by about three percent of the population of England, which is now the most irreligious country in the West. Only a minority of British Prime Ministers in this century have been Christians in any serious sense, and it is possible in British politics for someone like Thatcher's former lieutenant Norman (Lord) Tebbit to be both a bareknuckle populist right-winger and a self-proclaimed atheist--a combination hard to imagine in America.
After Oxford, Blair became a barrister, and practiced for several years in industrial and employment law. At his law chambers he met another young lawyer, Cherie Booth, who comes from Liverpool and is the daughter of the actor Tony Booth, best known for playing the son-in-law of Alf Garnett, the Cockney bigot in the television comedy Till Death Us Do Part, which inspired, if that's the word, All in the Family. Blair and Booth married in 1980, and have two sons and a daughter. Cherie did brilliantly on her bar exams, way ahead of Blair. She is probably a smarter person than her husband, and certainly a better lawyer. Last year she "took silk"--the quaint phrase for when an English barrister joins the Inner Bar, puts "QC," for Queen's Counsel, after her name, and trebles her fees.
Part of Blair's public good fortune has been timing. In the early 1980s the Labour Party was in very bad shape. The last Labour government had been a sorry affair. Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister in 1976, abruptly and in a miasma of scandal, and his successor, James Callaghan, barely hung on until his government fell apart in 1979. The party was falling apart also, torn between the social-democratic right and a new left, markedly different from the old left.
Most great political parties have been coalitions, often of highly disparate elements. Think of the Democrats in their Rooseveltian heyday--that truly strange alliance of organized labor, big-city bosses, intellectual liberals, northern ethnics, and southern segregationists. Labour was no odder than that, but it was odd enough. It had always been a "broad church" (in a hackneyed phrase beloved of Wilson), bred from the various strains already described and stretching from conservative union men, often North Country Methodists or Irish Catholics, to out-and-out fellow travelers. By the 1970s this had changed. Stalinism was in eclipse, and a quasi-Trotskyist new left was in the ascendant.
After the 1979 debacle in which Margaret Thatcher and the Tories won, this left, led by Tony Benn, very nearly captured the Labour Party, and the old right peeled off to form the Social Democratic Party. Labour fought the 1983 general election on an ultra-left platform that included withdrawal from the European Community and unilateral nuclear disarmament. This manifesto was nicely described by the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as the longest suicide note in history, and so it proved. Labour went down to its heaviest defeat (in terms of seats lost) since 1940.
On the face of it, this was not an auspicious moment to enter Parliament as a Labour MP, as Tony Blair did, but it meant that he avoided the worst of the intestine fighting in the party. He had had one dry run the year before, following a rite of passage in which aspiring politicians begin their careers by fighting for a hopeless seat. For a Tory this might be a mining constituency in South Wales or Yorkshire, for a Labour lad or lass a retirement seaside resort or somewhere in the Home Counties, the outer suburbs of London. Blair had duly stood for Labour in 1982 in a by-election in Beaconsfield, northwest of London.
It would have been a lost cause at any time; while Thatcher basked in the glory of the Falklands war, it was utterly doomed. I covered that by-election fourteen years ago, and recently turned to my clippings hoping to find some percipient intimation that one of the candidates might be a future Prime Minister. Alas, I seem to have been struck mostly by the sameness of the three candidates, all professional, middle-class Oxford men, with Anthony Blair (as he was before he chummily Tonified himself) plausible but not electrifying.
He subsequently became the Labour candidate for the safe seat of Sedgefield, in Durham, but not painlessly. There was a left-wing rival for the nomination, Les Huckfield, and the way Blair talked his way into being chosen by the local Labour Party less than three weeks before the general election involved a mixture of charm, cajolery, mild misrepresentation, and shameless exploitation of the show-business background of his wife, who, he said in an unfeminist way, would make a new career in the northeast of England if her husband became an MP there. (She didn't.)
Shortly after he was elected, there was a Labour rally in Sedgefield, at which Blair began to outline what was to be his great project. Labour had lost touch with the people it was meant to represent, he said. It should come to terms with its defeat and Thatcher's crushing victory. The party must grow out of its old tribal traditions and modernize itself. He was followed by another speaker, Dennis Skinner, one of the firebrands of the Labour left, who has for more than a quarter century bitterly, and sometimes wittily, insulted Tories in the House of Commons--though he has just as often insulted his party colleagues.
At that meeting Skinner denounced the new MP alongside him for his betrayal of the socialist cause and then, in a moment of pre-arranged theater, pointed to Huckfield, who had just strolled into the back of the hall, and shouted that he was the man who should have been chosen instead of Blair. The left-wingers in the audience cheered to the echo. Blair suffered his public humiliation in silence. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that his life since has been calculated revenge for that moment.
In a parliamentary Labour Party that was not then bursting with talent, Blair soon shone. He was an official opposition spokesman within a year of becoming an MP. Following the Labour rout of 1983 the amiable but hopeless Michael Foot had been succeeded as Labour leader by Neil Kinnock, also amiable and, as it turned out, not much less hopeless, who duly went on to lose not one but two elections: in 1987, when everyone expected the Tories to win again under Thatcher, and in 1992, when many people, including Kinnock, were amazed that the Tories won under Major.
After that defeat Kinnock resigned and was replaced by yet another amiable man, John Smith, who was more capable than either of his predecessors and had made some quiet political headway before he suddenly died of a heart attack in May of 1994. Blair had bided his time but now went into action with ruthless effect. He leaned on his contemporary, colleague, and, until then, close political friend Gordon Brown to stand aside, and won the leadership election against John Prescott, "old Labour" par excellence, a man of working-class background, generous emotion, and incoherent eloquence.
Just quite what Blair had in mind was not obvious that summer of 1994, but there were audible signals in his speeches during the leadership race: "The new right had struck a chord. There was a perception that there was too much collective power, too much bureaucracy, too much state intervention, and too many vested interests created around it." Too much, in other words, of what the Labour Party had always stood for. Now it was time, Blair said, to move "from the politics of protest to the politics of government."
THE ruthlessness he had shown in becoming leader was even clearer after July of 1994. He gave a barnstorming performance at his first party conference, the following October, replete with indistinct but minatory rhetoric of modernization. And he arranged a special conference to be held in the spring, to put to rest the hallowed Clause Four. It was duly scrapped, and replaced by something quite lacking the lucidity of the original, a lengthy, obscure list of "Aims and Values" that might have been the mission statement of a large corporation keen to display its social awareness.
Even Blair could not break the party's links with the union movement overnight, but they have been steadily chipped away. Blair has made it plain that the unions will enjoy no special favors when he reaches Downing Street: "Unions should do the job of trade unions. The Labour Party must do the job of government. The British people expect Labour to govern for the whole country, and we will." This spring Blair moved to end the arrangement, existing since Keir Hardie's day, by which unions "sponsor" individual Labour MPs.
All of which may have been understandable enough. It is plainly the case that by the 1970s the unions had become an arrogant and destructive force, and that their connection with Labour was politically damaging for the party. When the Thatcher government curbed the unions' power by removing their privileged status outside the law (originally conferred by Disraeli, of all people), the step was welcomed by almost everyone except the union bosses. Any Labour leader who wants to become Prime Minister must accept that.
He must also accept that heavy taxation is unpopular, that rainbow coalitions of ethnic and sexual minorities arouse little enthusiasm among ordinary voters, and that the kind of liberalism that appears better disposed toward criminals than toward their victims doesn't win many votes either. Hence Blair's insistence that there will be no return to the taxation rates of the last Labour government, hence his fulsome tribute to a policeman murdered on duty and his almost-too-neat promise to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime."
There is also a growing consensus, way beyond neo- or paleo-conservatism, that Dan Quayle Was Right: that the hedonistic individualism of the 1960s and 1970s was socially destructive, and that its ultimate victims have been not the well-to-do bohemians who first propagated it but the poor. Hence also Blair's language of responsibility, duty, and self-discipline. This was shrewd as well as sincere.
There was, finally, the need to recognize in intellectual honesty that traditional command-economy socialism has had its day, and that in every Western country the traditional industrial proletariat that was the labor movement's original constituency has dwindled to a minority. All of that was necessary. But Blair has gone much further--beyond the call of duty or even ambition, one might say.
Despite his political triumphs, Blair, and the Blairs, have been much mocked, with obvious comparisons made between Tony and Cherie and Bill and Hillary. They have the same flavor of radical chic, the same affinity with what we call the chattering classes, or liberal media folk, and the luvvies, or self-regarding, mildly progressive show-biz and media folk, and the same cronyism. Blair's inner court is not at all the same as the official shadow cabinet. His principal courtiers are Alastair Campbell, a former political journalist, witnessed earlier twisting the BBC's arm, and Peter Mandelson, a Labour MP who has earned his spin-doctor's M.D. cum laude and has just written a hero-worshipping account, The Blair Revolution.
This book does not really explain what form the revolution is going to take when Blair has to rule the country, as distinct from lecturing it. To the extent that there is a Blairite political philosophy, its language is either vague--"community," "solidarity," "cohesion"--or opaque. "Stakeholding" has an impressive ring but has yet to be satisfactorily defined. Of course there is territory to be exploited by Blair. Everyone knows that the years since Margaret Thatcher was first elected (and Ronald Reagan) have seen a widening of the gap between rich and poor, though most British people are now better off than they were in 1979, an assertion that isn't true of most Americans. There is a perception that the social fabric has frayed, with beggars on the streets and increasing violent crime. Many people claim to have disliked some aspects of "Thatcherism," even if the claim is a little hypocritical, since they often went on voting for it. Blair's strategy is to appropriate the economic gains of the 1980s but to mitigate the worst side effects, differentiating himself from the Tories by shifts of emphasis, by a rhetoric of community and civic virtue, and by simply playing on the undoubted disenchantment or weary boredom of the electorate after seventeen years of Tory rule.
He has not explained in detail what his government would do. Instead he has conducted a brilliant marketing operation for a product no one quite understands, known as New Labour--or Labour Lite, as someone has unkindly called it. And in the process he has lorded it over the party he now leads, and rubbed his colleagues' noses in it. It was right to recognize (as the chattering classes are still reluctant to do) that the Tories have some genuine achievements to their credit in these past seventeen years. It is another thing to say so in the way Blair does: to insist that "the Thatcher-Reagan leadership" of the 1980s "got certain things right. A greater emphasis on enterprise. Rewarding, not penalizing, success. Breaking up vested interests."
Just as there are ways and ways of saying something, there are places and places to say it. When Blair accepted an invitation to go to Australia last summer and address Rupert Murdoch's corporate gathering, it was almost a calculated insult to his party. Murdoch has been a bitter enemy of Labour, and his gutter tabloid the Sun has boasted that it won the last election for the Tories; indeed, its coverage was fantastically tendentious and biased. Murdoch's minions were a remarkable audience for a Labour leader to address, as he did in even more remarkable words:
"During the sixties and seventies the left developed, almost in substitution for its economic prescriptions, which by then were failing, a type of social individualism that confused, at points at least, liberation from prejudice with a disregard for moral structures. It fought for racial and sexual equality, which was entirely right. It appeared indifferent to the family and individual responsibility, which was wrong.
"There was a real danger, occasionally realized, that single-issue pressure groups moved into the vacuum. Women's groups wrote the women's policy. Environmental groups wrote the environmental policy, and so on. This was the same elsewhere. I remember a telling intervention of a speaker at the Republican Convention of 1984 in the U.S. asking rhetorically, `When was the last time you heard a Democrat say no?' It was too close to the truth for comfort."
When the leader of a party of "the left" approvingly quotes Republicans, something very funny is going on.
On top of this came a row about the education of the Blairs' son, who is being sent to an educationally superior Roman Catholic school (Cherie is a Catholic) across London, rather than to his nearest high school, as the spirit of party policy, if not its letter, demands. And all the while Blair has imperiously kept his colleagues in their places, stifling any voices of dissent. He has appointed a "shadow team" of more than a hundred parliamentary spokesmen--a ridiculous number considering that there are only 271 Labour MPs in all.
These shadows are expected to voice no independent opinions. When one of them, Clare Short, thought out loud about the possibility of legalizing cannabis, and another, Ron Davies, did the same about the Prince of Wales's fitness to rule (neither topic unknown in public debate), they were silenced and made to recant in tones worthy of a Stalinist show trial. All in all, there has scarcely been a moment in the past two years when Blair, given a choice between his party's doctrines and conciliating what he thinks is public opinion, has not chosen the latter.
It is no wonder (though fascinating enough) that he is deeply admired by newspaper columnists on the soft right, like Bernard Levin, or even on the hard right, like Paul Johnson, both of whom formerly adored Thatcher. No wonder either that another Tory columnist, William Rees-Mogg, of The Times, writes with approval of the way that the Blair leadership can now "accept right-wing policies which Margaret Thatcher did not even contemplate in the 1979 manifesto."
And it is no wonder that Blair's relations with his party are what they are. Alan Watkins, the doyen of London political journalists, has been writing weekly since Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and John Kennedy President. He observed not long ago that although Labour MPs have gone along with Blair, the truth is that most of them hate what he is doing to their party. But, then, the feeling is mutual. Someone who knows him says, "You have to remember that the great passion in Tony's life is his hatred of the Labour Party."
You also have to remember our old friend English irony as you read that, but it is not just a joke. Tony Blair's career has been a freak of political nature. When he was chosen leader, two years ago, the Labour Party was punch-drunk, demoralized by its miserable run of lost elections, desperate for any chance of returning to office. The puritanical "culture of defeat" might have permeated sections of the movement, but the brighter and more ambitious in the party had not gone into politics to spend a lifetime in opposition. They wanted their ministerial red boxes and secretaries; they were fed up with waiting in line for cabs and craved black limos. That meant that they wanted a leader who could win, and in the process they struck a Faustian bargain.
Except that Faust knew what he was doing. Labour had not truly reckoned with Blair. The party did not realize just how deep was his contempt for its traditions, and certainly didn't guess that its first Prime Minister in a generation will be further to the right not only than any previous Labour premier but than several postwar Tory premiers. It is an extraordinary performance, and a political triumph of sorts--but for whom? The life, times, and government of Tony Blair may yet be seen as Margaret Thatcher's greatest victory.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; The Paradoxical Case of Tony Blair; Volume 277, No. 6; pages 22-40.