In general, Private Eye’s cover skit tends to outperform the cover photo of Phoenix magazine on a week by week basis, but the latest issue really hits it for me. By accident, it seems to aptly complement an essay in this week’s Economist (subs needed) that describes Blair as “…a Tory of the old fashioned pre-Thatcher, one nation sort, superbly repackaged for the modern era. The fact that he presides over an electorally successful and substantially reconstructed Labour Party, a movement that still in its heart despises every species of Tory, is one of the things that make Mr Blair such a strange and fascinating politician.”
This is the appropriate section:
From its very conception, in other words, New Labour had two faces—and had to have. It presented one of them to the new supporters it needed to reach: voters who had elected four consecutive Conservative administrations, who were ready (to put it mildly) for a change, but who did not want to see the policies of those administrations simply reversed. The other face was shown to the party’s members and traditional supporters: they might no longer be very clear about their socialist principles, but they knew that if they were anything, they were still anti-Tory. Happily for Mr Blair, many of these, even now, regard adopting soft Tory policies as a small price to pay for kicking the despised Conservatives out of power. At any rate, this was the unsteady coalition on which New Labour based its rule.
In a survey of “Britain’s new politics” which appeared in The Economist in 1996, we argued that holding this peculiar coalition together, in such a way that neither side became so bitterly disappointed with Mr Blair’s Labour Party that they chose to abandon it, would require the leadership of a political genius. The article also acknowledged the possibility that Mr Blair, who by that time had already stamped himself indelibly on British political history, might in fact be a political genius. Sure enough, though his coalition has come under strain from time to time, it has not yet—or so it appears—fallen apart.
Even recognising Mr Blair’s talents, it must be noted that the Tories themselves deserve much of the credit. The memory of Britain’s humiliating ejection from Europe’s exchange-rate mechanism in 1992 is still vivid, neither forgotten nor forgiven: “Black Wednesday” destroyed the Tories’ reputation for economic competence in the space of an hour, and more than ten years later the damage has not been repaired. Polls have consistently shown that Labour is regarded as a better steward of the economy. One particularly remarkable sign of this is a recent poll finding (YouGov in the Daily Telegraph of April 18th) that Britain believes the Tories would be about as likely to raise taxes after the election, were they to win it, as Labour. The Tories’ greater desire to keep taxes low can hardly be in doubt: apparently, their competence on the point is what is questioned.
Labour, with luck on its side (and by 1997 with strongly improving public finances too, courtesy of the Tories), has run the economy pretty well. To that end, its instant granting of control over interest rates to the Bank of England was a masterstroke. The Tories make a sad contrast. Even under the relatively competent leadership of Michael Howard, they have often seemed to be reeling still from the setbacks of more than a decade ago.
Be that as it may, New Labour came to power with an intellectually ambivalent programme, and relying on the support of an unruly and uncomfortable alliance of constituencies. As a result, its preoccupations with spin, with tyrannical centralised party discipline and with the need for a marked flexibility of political principle were not optional extras. New Labour could not have ground the Tories down so effectively without them. The problem for Mr Blair was that as these necessary methods of political control became more obtrusive—not least over Iraq—Britain grew disenchanted with them. The leader could no longer get away with his always disingenuous pose of “what you see is what you get.”
Groucho Marx once famously observed, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Mr Blair faked it too much, and got found out. But in a way, justice is served: now, even when he really is sincere, he is assumed to be faking it.
There is no evidence that Mr Blair ever “lied” about Iraq. That is true of the controversy over what was known about weapons of mass destruction, and it is also true of the most recent disclosures about the advice given to him about whether an attack on Iraq would conform to international law. In all likelihood Mr Blair believed, along with all the experts advising him, that Iraq did indeed have weapons of mass destruction. And most likely he also believed that Britain’s interests and the greater good required him to support George Bush’s plan to oust Saddam Hussein—and that a strong case for such action could be made in international law.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty