Fleet Steet is loud with the grinding of axes this morning. After years of hoping and wishing he would just go away Tony Blair is going to do precisely what he always said he’d do and will leave the job voluntarily, some time within the next 12 months. To this and many other degrees, the comparisons with Mrs Thatcher’s unplanned departure seem severely misjudged.Of course there is always “cash for peerages” which could see a premature, and possibly ignominious, end to his time in No 10, but a cursory glance at the faces of the two men at the top of British politics yesterday would suggest that Blair’s departure (thanks largely to a failed coup a few weeks back) is now largely his own, and not Brown’s gift.
You don’t have to be a Blair fan to recognise that his premiership has brought important changes, not simply to Britain but the Labour party itself. When I landed in Liverpool in the early 80s, there was a full-scale civil war going on between a sidelined old guard of old Labour councillors, and a tight band of youngsters from the Militant tendency led by Derek Hatton. The city was a frenzied scene of dissent from Thatcher’s Britain.
Eddie Shah’s decision to print his Today newspaper in Warrington without union labour, brought thousands on to the street. The following year, the miner’s strike locked Britain into two antagonistic and mutually exclusive camps.
On the left, it was a time of the grand but futile gesture. Shah’s paper eventually went bust, but the power of the print unions was broken everywhere. Former mining villages paid dearly for the NUM’s determination to use its own industry to try to get rid of Thatcher through strike action.
Blair reminded his party yesterday that the grand gesture doesn’t work. He also reminded them of a lesson that Labour eschews at it peril: values are not the same as policies.
“In the 1960s, re-reading the cabinet debates of ‘In Place of Strife’, everyone was telling Harold Wilson not to push it. They said it was divisive, unnecessary, alienated core support. In the end he gave up but so did the public on Labour.
“Even in 1974, the Labour government spent two years renationalising shipbuilding and the public spent two years wondering why. In the 1980s, council house sales had first been suggested by Labour people. It was shelved. Too difficult. Too divisive. We lost a generation of aspiring working-class people on the back of it.
“In the 1980s we should have been the party transforming Britain. We weren’t.”
Progressive parties have a tendency to atomise after a strong period in government. Lloyd George destroyed nearly 20 years of Liberal domination, by refusing to let go. Labour’s best chance of holding it together for a fourth term now that Blair has begun his swan song is that afterwards it will have a limited two to three year period to pull things together, and get after David Cameron’s Tories
Blair has never quite dropped the habit (or talent) for concentrating the often wandering attention of his party’s collective mind. The question is, now he is going, will it listen? Or will it simply busy itself on yet another frenzied bout of self-consumption?
Cross posted in Comment is Free