The publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs has once again sparked off public interest in Blair’s legacy. Gary Fraser explores why Blair continues to dominate politics today and ponders the biggest question of all, why did he invade Iraq?
If a poll were cast tomorrow to find out who is Britain’s most unpopular person there is every chance the winner would be Tony Blair. Hard to believe there once was a time when he was Britain’s most popular politician; 1997 seems so long ago. The publication of his memoirs entitled *A Journey* have thrown Blair and his legacy back into spotlight and the furore caused by the book is a reminder that Tony Blair, whilst unpopular, is still a major figure in British politics, influencing both right and left of the political spectrum. This article looks back on his legacy. I’m interested in three things; Blair’s influence on neoliberal politics, why his arguments against the left in the 1990s were successful, and why he went to war in Iraq.
Blair’s religious awakening happened when he was a student at Oxford, and was the defining moment of his life. He explains that “religious beliefs are not something that you shut away from the world, but something that meant you had to go out and act”. In Kosovo he acted.
Every era has a politician who stands above the fray who shapes his or her times like no other; Churchill and Thatcher spring to mind. Whether we like it or not our era is the era of Blair. His legacy lives on in the leaders of Britain’s New Right, led by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and David Miliband. For them, Blair is a hero. The young leaders of the Con-Dem coalition spent their formative political years on the backbenches in awe of Blair, studying him closely, learning how to imitate him and giving more respect than they ever did their own party leaders who they regarded as ineffective. For Cameron, perhaps the shallowest of Britain’s post war Prime Ministers, his re-branding of the Tories was an attempt to make the Tories more like New Labour, and the central ingredient of his marketing strategy was to cast himself as Tony Blair.
Sometimes Blair is accused of lacking substance. This is incorrect. Whilst his political philosophy is something of a muddle he was attempting something significant, namely to reconcile 1960s social and cultural progressivism with 1980s neoliberal economics. In so doing he helped turn neoliberalism into a truly modern political philosophy. He didn’t just reform Labour, he also reformed Thatcherism. Blair attempted to provide neoliberalism with a social conscience which for a time appeased his own party. His set of policies, framed around the problematic term social inclusion could work well, in theory at least, provided the economy was strong. The rhetoric of social inclusion demonstrated that Blair unlike Thatcher, believed in society. Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ narrative is a re-branding of the communitarian politics which influenced Blair in the late 1990s. The New Right (Blair, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband) are keen on the concept, whatever they choose to call it, because it is anti-state and emphasises the role of voluntarism and the third sector in the delivery of public services. In office Blair flirted with a range of political philosophies, from Will Hutton’s Stakeholder Capitalism to Anthony Giddens’ nebulous Third Way to Amitai Etzioni’s Communitarianism. Yet his approach was superficial, and each was discarded by Blair once they fell out of fashion. He often struggled to articulate a coherent set of arguments about what he believed in, and at times seemed genuinely incapable of seeing beyond the surface of things. Whilst he talked about ‘community’ or ‘social inclusion’ or ‘equality of opportunity’ he was often vacuous about what these terms meant when asked to explain in detail. One academic who interviewed Blair for a couple of hours about the Third Way concluded that Blair was ‘ludicrously vague, even incoherent’. Melanie Philips, following a lengthy interview with Blair, said it was like talking to a man with no shadow, a man with no form. Having discussed politics with Blair for a couple of hours another academic drew the conclusion that most of what Blair said amounted to waffle and cliché.
What truly drove Blair was power and he believed that the road to power lay in defeating the Labour left. As a young lawyer he advised Kinnock on the expulsion of the Militant and in his memoirs he even admits to not wanting Labour to win the 1983 General Election. In the 1980s a battle for control of the Labour Party ensued between the right and the left, a battle the left were never likely to win. The arguments made against the left by the Labour ‘modernisers’, and echoed by Blair in the 1990s, were to a certain extent accurate, a point seldom acknowledged by leftists today. The left had failed to acknowledge and respond to the sociological changes of late modernity or post modernity. The old left did not recognise that the most cherished of all its concepts, the concept of class, was changing; maybe not fundamentally in terms of classical Marxism, but most definitely at a surface level. The working class had become heterogeneous and working class people no longer thought in terms of class but saw themselves as autonomous individuals. The traditional industries were dying and so too was the politics of class solidarity. Meanwhile a new layer of social aspirational citizens were eager to climb the ladder of meritocracy. The left offered little to this new demographic, and leftist narratives of the period were hostile to the politics of what leftists called ‘individualism’. The left had failed to recognise that it was possible and indeed necessary, to reconcile egalitarian politics with people’s self interest. The left no longer spoke to people as individuals who had needs and desires and aspirations; instead the 1980s left conceptualised people only as abstract categories, e.g. ‘class’ or ‘gender’. The failure of the left to take seriously the changing sociology of Britain resulted in the right winning the battle of the ideas in society at large, but also inside the Labour movement. At a time when the left needed its own moderniser, dare I say its own Tony Blair, it got Michael Foot. At a time when the left needed a grouping that could rearticulate egalitarian politics for a new age, it got the Militant Tendency. The left, in refusing to change or identify a strategy on how to win power essentially left the ground open to what became New Labour.
By the 1990s the social base of the left was no longer enough to win British elections. Blair’s strategic brilliance was in recognising the need to build an electoral coalition which could unite three cross sections of society; the poor, the traditional working classes, and the socially aspirational middle classes. The hard left, stuck in the iconography of a previous age, the age of industrialism, could never have built the coalition necessary to win power. Blair did and he won by a landslide. Hard to believe now, but in 1997 Tony Blair had an approval rating of 90 per cent, and at that moment in time was the most popular Prime Minister in British history. Yet once in power all of the contradictions inherent in Blair began to emerge. Blair never understood why he won power; he didn’t win in 1997 because he had defeated the left. He won because the electorate perceived that New Labour had reconciled the self-interest of the individual with the traditional politics of egalitarianism. But Blair never got this. By denying the politics of egalitarianism and the best traditions of social democracy, it was inevitable that his electoral coalition would fall apart at some point.
What truly drove Blair was power and he believed that the road to power lay in defeating the Labour left.
He stuck to Tory spending plans for his first two years in office, which even the Tories said was unnecessary. He was hostile to any changes that he perceived would threaten his grip on power, and his contempt for the best traditions of social democracy were increasingly irrational, evident in the way he bent over backwards to stop Ken Livingstone becoming the Mayor of London in 2000. Had Blair lost office in 2001 he would have been remembered as an ineffective Prime Minister. The public image of him at the time was of a man who lacked purpose, who was shallow and obsessed by news management and ‘spin’. Linda Smith, a former NEC member, summed it up well when she said “I had no expectations of Blair and even I’m disappointed by him”. He was increasingly seen as a ditherer, someone who couldn’t make his mind up about anything without consulting focus groups. Under his leadership it seemed that Britain was being run a by a well oiled PR company called New Labour. Then came Kosovo. Kosovo was the turning point in Blair’s political life. It was the moment when his religious beliefs, always there in private, started to influence policy.
The great influences on Tony Blair were Gordon Brown, his intellectual soul-mate; Peter Mandelson, who instructed Blair in the politics of public relations and marketing; Roy Jenkins, whose social liberalism Blair genuinely admired; Bill Clinton, the man he imitated more than any other figure; and Margaret Thatcher, whom he admired tremendously. But the biggest influence on Blair was God, and his belief in the Almighty was to lead to his nemesis. Blair’s religious awakening happened when he was a student at Oxford, and was the defining moment of his life. He explains that “religious beliefs are not something that you shut away from the world, but something that meant you had to go out and act”. In Kosovo he acted. He fought and won what he believed was a just war. Clare Short believes that Blair’s taste for war began with Kosovo. Following Kosovo, his world outlook, partly shaped by his faith, became simplistic, sometimes to the point of being naïve. The politics of any fundamentalist, whether of the left or the right, begins with naive and simplistic dichotomies. Blair’s tendency for crude politics was exacerbated by the events of 9/11 whose consequences he blew out of all proportions. Blair, the fantasist, prone to messianic beliefs in good versus evil, misinterpreted the whole event insisting that the attacks were a threat to Western civilisation.
It was this line of thinking that led Blair to war In Iraq. Of course he was not alone in his thinking; the current narrative, that the war was exclusively Blair’s fault conveniently ignores the fact that most of the Parliamentary Labour Party supported the war, including David Miliband; so too did the Tory party and the flag waving sections of the British media. Yet despite this, Iraq was very much Blair’s war. In 2003 Blair was the most articulate representative of a neoliberal class which was at its most confident. The neoliberals were self proclaimed revolutionaries who wanted to impose their political philosophy on the entire world, and like all true revolutionaries they were ready to use violence in the pursuit of political goals. Blair was a true believer. He was no poodle to the crazed Bush as is often portrayed. Bush offered Blair the opportunity not to commit troops in 2003 but Blair said no. Blair wanted the Iraq war and was prepared to lie to get it.
Some people might read his memoirs to try and understand why he went to war. They offer no satisfying explanation because Blair is a master of self delusion. But it is a question he will be asked for years to come. Nothing else will matter. His fall from grace is the most spectacular of any post-war politician. His every move is interpreted by the public with cynicism such as his recent decision to donate the profits from his book to the British Legion. Maybe Blair was trying to buy forgiveness. The great Bob Dylan once sang in Masters of War:
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Could it but you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
The answer of course is no. Blair has to pay a great price for the Iraq war. In all likelihood it cost him his premiership. Had he acted like the leaders of our European neighbours France and Germany, he might well have been Prime Minister today. Deep down he knows this to be the case and is angry. But Blair was driven by a messianic zeal that made him different from most leaders and it was this zeal that led to his downfall. There is an old saying that it takes religion to make a good man do evil things. This best explains Tony Blair. Well it’s the best I can come up with.