Of course, The Economist is a maddening read. On the one hand, its editors can't quite help themselves, letting their editorial "slip" show from underneath their chosen image of "sober journal of record for the sophisticated businessman." But, nevertheless, the magazine contains a lot of damn good reporting, like this week's piece examining Tony Blair's political career.
Basically, their proposition is that of Tony the Red Tory, or that Blair isn't really a man of the left in any significant way--or to use Lord Callaghan's words upon meeting Mr. Blair for the first time, "I don't know what that young man is, but he's not Labour." No, he's not "Labour" as Callaghan understood it, thats for sure. But is he just a 21st century one nation Tory? (a proposition I have certainly entertained)
Anyway, here's part of the Economist's view on the matter:
In 1998 this newspaper called Mr Blair “the strangest Tory ever sold” (see article). The years since then have done nothing to render that judgment incorrect. Mr Blair is no Thatcherite: be clear about that. But he is nonetheless 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 was not merely a dusted-down and smartened-up Labour Party, this was New Labour—to all intents and purposes, another party altogether. Shibboleths such as clause four (the party's absurd yet cherished commitment to take the whole economy into public ownership) were ritually torn down. These were fights Mr Blair chose to pick; he won every one. The changes were not superficial. They ripped the party up by its roots, and that was the idea. The trade unions, formerly the party's paymasters and the font of its old ideology, were appalled. Mr Blair loved it that they were appalled: what could be more pleasing to voters at large? His mission was to steal the party from its previous owners, and have it understood that that was what he had done. He succeeded.
OK, so far the standard left wing (and right wing) critique of Blair. Blair as sell-out of the left on the oned hand, Blair as usurper of the Tory's natural "role," on the other. Indeed, I think there is much to this analysis. But Blair's "modernization" project is not ultimately my problem. Rather I simply don't think the Labour Party needed Blair and "Blairism" as much as many in the media (rather conveniently) think they did(most notably, and perhaps not surprisingly, the right leaning media, such as the Economist). Blairism is great for folks like those at the Economist and media moguls like the Sun: if the Tories are a mess, make sure the opposition is instinctively right wing as well. Not simply non-socialist: but instinctively pro all that is dear to the hearts of the City and of right wing Fleet Street.
Now don't misunderstand me. Certainly, Labour needed modernization and to become reconciled to capitalism in a way they weren't before Thatcher, but did they need "Blairism" to do it? To me, new Labour was clearly, but was New Labour™? Perhaps Murdoch and the Economist needed a capitalized "n", but I don't think the British public needed it. The Tories had been in power for far too long by '97, even if they hadn't discredited themselves through ERM and the poll tax and all that.
Could Kinnock have won in 1997? Now that might be streching it. But I have no doubt that John Smith or Gordon Brown would have (as would any other number of leaders). Now would they have achieved the smashing victory Blair did? Maybe not, but the victory would have been convincing. Would this alternative Labour path been re-elected in 2001? Probably yes, as long as they didn't try to roll back Thatcher's reforms. A conservative (in the dictionary sense of the word) caretaker with the social democratic instincts - as I have suggested below - could easily have governed Britain, and easily - although probably never as emphatically - won the elections Blair has won.
Here, though, we come to the crux of the matter. Is Blair's "radicalism," his desire to have a "legacy," for there to be a "Blairism" for future generations to discuss really a necessary part of Labour being a governing party? I don't think it ever was. But whatever the case, its this instinct - new Labour with a capital "n" if you will - has become a liability. I think this, ultimately, is what drives people's disaffection with Blair, with the New Labour™ project. And this, ultimately, is what the Iraq War was about. It was Tony's war, Tony's "vision" that drove Britain to join what was arguably a mistaken undertaking, or at the very least, an undertaking that was not fundamentally in the British nation's interest. Ultimately, Blair pushed so strongly for a war that had no real constituency in Britain, except for a cadre of New Labourites and their intellectual backers. In this way, it became the perfect paradigm for what has "gone wrong," a more generalized sense that the New Labour's "betrayal." While the war and the debate about its morality and its relationship to broader geopolitical concerns was important, ultimately, "the issue wasn't the issue," but the perfect example of a more fundamental disconnect.
I'll leave the Economist with the last words here:
the main awkward truth that needed to be brushed over was that New Labour was largely consolidating, albeit softening, the reforms of previous Tory administrations. Again, that policy was not wrong. It was most likely in Britain's best interests, and for New Labour it was anyway politically necessary. But for a man of Mr Blair's ambition and vanity, it was also embarrassing. He wanted to be regarded as a radical in his own right—a transformer of the country, in the mould of Margaret Thatcher, not merely of his own party. This inclined Mr Blair and his circle to a perpetual state of making a great fuss over nothing. What New Labour lacked in substance, it could make up for in public relations. And, to be sure, the team for that was in place. . . .
At the smaller scale, New Labour's hyper-energetic public-relations machine ensured that every fluctuation in policy was elaborately packaged and repackaged, launched and repeatedly relaunched, each time as an entirely new policy more radical than any previously conceived. Initiatives and their supporting documentation poured forth in a torrent. The method soon descended into self-parody. At some point, diminishing returns, so far as the public's perception was concerned, set in. Worse than generating mere boredom, the strategy of permanent policy revolution bred weariness and cynicism. Politically, it became counter-productive: often the government now finds itself getting less credit than it deserves for its innovations, such as they are.