The First Tony Blair Book and the Failure of New Labour
Open Democracy, September 5th 2010
This week has been a total Blair-fest. The launch of Tony Blair’s memoirs, the carefully crafted and controlled TV interviews, and the even more planned book signing with resulting protests. It has all had a certain cinematic, star quality to it; like outtakes from Piers Brosnan in ‘The Ghost’.
An interesting aspect of ‘Tony Blair: A Journey’ is how little Blair wrote as a politician, and how temporary and superficial it all was. So where Gordon Brown has written or edited thirteen books (most of them not very good one can say – with the exception of James Maxton: A Biography), ‘A Journey’ is only Blair’s second book.
The first Blair book was ‘New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country’ published in the sunny uplands of New Labourland 1996 pre-landslide. It is a fascinating tome. It is light, breezy and chatty – in a nearly totally unself-conscious way. It is also deeply superficial and of the moment – not aspiring to be historic – while hoping that it is part of history in the making.
There is a case for making that the first Blair book – being the product of the young, eager pretender – is more the genuine article than ‘A Journey’ – which is a product of the calculating, socially constructed Blair – where chattiness and self-depreciation have become an ingrained part of the entire act and stageshow.
What is revealing about the first Blair book is that this came out at a time of immense hope, expectation and even possible radical ideas – at the fag end of the discredited Major Government. Progressive thinking such as ‘the stakeholder economy’ were being openly debated; books like Will Hutton’s ‘The State We’re In’ made it seem like a fin de siecle.
In a 1996 speech on the Church of England report ‘Faith in the City’ ten years on, Blair delivers an assessment which it is hard to square with his record and what he became. Thus he says of the Conservative Governments of Thatcher and Major:
At the bottom, what some people call an underclass has been created …. But even more striking is the contrast with those at the top. While the risks facing the majority have multiplied, those at the top have been served up a one-way bet to a risk-free fortune. (1)
This translated itself into New Labour’s concern for ‘Middle England’ and the middle classes:
Between the underclass and the overclass is a new and growing anxious class – people insecure about their jobs, afraid that public services will not be there when they need them, struggling to pay mortgages and new charges, prompted to opt for private pensions and now finding that they get little in return. (2)
Strange that the Blairite fixation with ‘Middle England’ forgot these elementary insights.
The young Blair goes on to pose that the Britain of 1996-7, the nation on the brink of electing a Labour Government by the largest parliamentary landslide in its history, faces two possible futures:
In one, Britain’s communities follow the process that has occurred in some places in the US, where the affluent have retreated into fortresses with private security guards, leaving the rest to live in ghettos of low opportunity, crime and insecurity. But the cycle of decay and economic underperformance continues. This is the Blade Runner scenario. (3)
This could be seen at the ultimate destination of the Blairite ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ of the Bubble, and the dogmatic, determinist vision of the most radical economic liberals in the Cameron-Clegg coalition – described accurately by the Tony Blair of 1996 as ‘the Blade Runner scenario’. This is not the Britain the younger Blair finds attractive:
This is not the sort of Britain I want to live in in the twenty-first century. And this is not a future in tune with Britain’s basic instincts. We are a country that supports the underdog. We are tolerant. We are great adventurers. We are patriotic, but we will always stand up against aggression against someone else. (4)
With the exception of the tail end of the last quotation, you have to wonder if the Blair quotes of 1996 are said by the same person as the hardened warrior, economic neo-liberal, and defender and apologist of power and privilege of 2010. And on his own account: they aren’t. Blair dramatically changed in office: maturing he thinks and becoming more radical; deforming and adopting wholesale a mindset and worldview which had nothing in common with centre-left or democratic values to many of us.
Fascinatingly, Blair now dismisses his earlier book, yet it still manages to capture the radical wind and hope which was in the air of New Labour 1996-97 – and which was quickly controlled and toned down, long before the deforming and morphing into one of the most authoritarian, centralist administrations in British history.
In his ‘Postscript’ to ‘A Journey’ – a book he calls ‘something of a letter (extended) to the country I love’ (5) – Blair asks himself, ‘what makes you a progressive?’:
I would say: belief in social justice, i.e. using the power of society as a whole to bring opportunity, prosperity and hope to those without it; to do so not just within our national boundaries but outside of them; to judge our societies by the condition of the weak as much as the strong; to stand up at all times for the principle that all human beings are of equal worth, irrespective of race, religion, gender (I would add of sexuality) or ability; and never to forget and always to strive for those at the bottom, the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the ones others forget. (6)
The strange story of Tony Blair and New Labour will take years to fully untangle and understand. Yet, these closing remarks in ‘A Journey’ show that on his criterion the Tony Blair of 1997-2007 was no ‘progressive’, that he knows what is the basic defining blocks of a progressive politics, but has not yet come to terms with the inconvenient truth: that he ended up part – an important and influential part – of the global forces of conservatism, power and privilege.
1. Tony Blair, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, Fourth Estate 1996, p. 300-301.
2. p. 301.
3. p. 307-8.
4. p. 308.
5. Tony Blair, A Journey, Hutchinson 2010, p. xvi.
6. ibid, pp. 683-4.