What's worse than a Blairite? A Blair-basher
As Blair prepares to exit Downing Street, spiked's editor introduces our sober but cutting appraisal of the Blair years and what will come next.
Tony Blair and I both got new jobs in the summer of 1997: he became prime minister and I started my career in political journalism.
At 43, Blair was the youngest British PM of the twentieth century. At 22 (shortly to turn 23) I was just an angry young man. (You would be too if you’d been a child in the Thatcher years and a teenager/twentysomething during that seven-year black hole – or should that be grey hole? – that was the Major administration.) Blair took up residence in Downing Street and made grand pronouncements about making a ‘New Britain’. I spent my time in the dusty, newspaper-strewn offices of LM magazine in north London making coffee, and helping to develop that magazine’s searing critique (if I must say so myself) of the illiberal, interventionist, philistine underpinnings of Blair’s New Britain.
How things have changed. Today, Blair is a greyer version of the toothy PM who stormed to power in 1997, and I am an angry older editor. And strikingly, hardly anyone has a good word to say about Blair these days. Back in ’97, you had to be an LM-subscriber to read serious, cutting criticism of the New Labour clique. Virtually everyone else looked upon Blair as a messiah. I’m not making this up. Last week, reminiscing about the summer of 1997, a writer for the London Evening Standard said: ‘Tony Blair – smiling softly, like a messiah come to save us from the Toryism we had known all our lives – decreed, “A new dawn has broken.”’ (1) Yep, back then Blair was seen as the PM who had descended from the heavens to be ‘our best prime minister since Churchill’ (New Statesman). Now he’s widely considered to be the Great Satan of British politics, a B-liar, a spinner and a self-obsessive, who is an albatross around the neck of the Labour Party and parliamentary democracy and who should close the door behind him when he finally – thankfully! at long last! – leaves the political stage.
The political and media elites have gone from bashing off over Blair to bashing Blair. Both of these approaches – Blair-worship in ’97 and Blair-bashing today – have been equally misjudged. The Blair-worship was based on wishful thinking, a naive belief that one man and his advisers would transform Britain for the better. As rigor mortis set into British politics at the tail-end of the Tory years, a kind of cult of personality that was the rival of anything in North Korea developed around TB. (In 1998, I attended a meeting at which Blair was present and watched with indisguisable bemusement as certain female newspaper columnists – some of whom are now critical of Blair – went all giggly and gooey-eyed every time our Dear Leader opened his mouth to speak.) The collapse of political alternatives in the 1990s led many to invest all of their hopes and aspirations into Blair, whom they believed would reshape Britain and, through his ‘ethical foreign policy’, the entire world in his and their image.
Today, Blair-bashing – which is indulged by many of those who bowed and scraped before Blair 10 years ago – is driven by cynicism and frustration. It has become fashionable, a sign of respectability, to say that you don’t like Blair. From Labour government ministers to Labour Party members, from the commentariat to the ranks of the anti-war movement, Hating Blair is the new Loving Blair. Yet it is a contentless, shallow and gesture opposition. It is not about properly analysing what ‘Blairism’ means and why it is a problem; it is simply about saying ‘I blame Blair for everything!’ Cynicism with politics, and fatalism towards the idea that we might really change things for the better, is now expressed in the sentiment that Blair’s continuing presence in parliamentary politics is the cause of all the nation’s problems. Blair is now discussed as a ‘boil’ on the Labour Party’s record, or a ‘blot on the British political landscape’, who must be squeezed and drained and cleared away before things can get back to normal (2). Anti-Blairism is an emotional spasm rather than a political critique, and often it is driven by petty and envious inter-Labour rivalries. It is the lowest form of politics.
Where the absence of political alternatives in 1997 led many to hail Blair as Britain’s saviour, today the failure of Blair’s critics to come up with a decent alternative has led them to demonise the PM as a block against change and renewal. Neither yesterday’s Blair-worship nor today’s Blair-bashing has really been about Blair – after all, anyone who looked at his programme and proposals in 1997 would have seen that there was little to get excited about; and Blair today, far from bring evil or sinister, is pretty much the same spun and opportunistic political operator he has ever been. Rather, over the past 10 years Blair’s fortunes have been shaped by the political climate and by the misplaced hopes and angst of his cheerleaders-turned-critics.
In many ways, today’s anti-Blairism is worse than Blairism. Consider two crucial issues: freedom and military interventionism. Some of Blair’s critics have suddenly discovered that Blair’s New Labour is an illiberal party that has severely undermined some of our core freedoms. (This is a rather belated observation. The June 1997 issue of LM, the first to be published after Blair’s election, had the following on its front cover: ‘The Tony Blair Commandments: Thou Shalt Not smoke, drink or eat what you like; have a gun, a knife or a wild sex life; watch, read or download what you want; bring up your children as you see best; use what words, gestures or jokes you choose; or in any other way think for yourself.’) (3) Blair’s critics now call on the law lords to protect our freedoms against Blair’s ‘electoral tyranny’ (4). Instead of having a big debate about freedom, and why it is important, the Blair-bashers turn to the rarefied and elitist courts and plead with them to stand up to Blair.
This is bad for liberty, and for politics. It’s bad for liberty because it will ossify freedom, turning it into an abstract thing that is preserved on our behalf by bewigged judges rather than something we live and breathe everyday. And it’s bad for politics because it potentially removes the freedom issue from the political realm and places it beyond the reach of the electorate. We are better off with Blair’s assault on freedom in parliament, which we can at least hope to influence through the ballot box, than we are with the Blair-bashers’ attempt to protect freedom, and in the process destroy it, by elevating it above the messy world of political debate. It is better to be unfree and possess the power to challenge your state of unfreedom than it is to be ‘free’ by the grace and mercy of greying, changeable law lords.
Blair’s critics also fire rockets at the PM over the disastrous war in Iraq. Yet their main concern is not that Blair overrode another state’s sovereign independence and launched a war that has killed thousands. Rather it is that the PM has damaged Britain’s claims to be a tyranny-toppling force for moral good on the world stage. As one columnist recently opined, Iraq has ‘tainted for a generation the Blairite doctrine of muscular humanitarianism’ (5). The Blair-bashers’ line on Iraq has nothing to do with questioning the right of Britain or the West to determine other states’ affairs. Instead it is a plea for a return to the good ol’ days of Blair’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ in Iraq (1998), Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2000) and Afghanistan (2001), when Britain dropped bombs on cities and shot people in order to liberate them. The anti-Blairites desire a more muscular and moralistic – that is, more lethal – form of foreign warfare.
I never thought I’d say this, but 10 years after Blair and I got our new jobs, Blair appears almost principled in comparison to some of his critics. Certainly he has leadership skills that are lacking in his heir Gordon Brown, his new model David Cameron, and in those currently bitching over who should become deputy leader of the Labour Party. This week on spiked we will publish a series of articles analysing the Blair years, and what is likely to come next. As early critics of Blair and all that he stood for, who now refuse to buy into the outbreak of cheap and opportunistic Blair-bashing, ours will hopefully be a sober but cutting appraisal of the Blair decade – all the better so that we can then launch our war of words against the illiberal and anti-democratic anti-Blairites who are likely to be his successors.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
(1) How I changed in the Blair years…, London Evening Standard, 2 May 2007
(2) See Is Iraq ‘a boil that must be lanced’?, by Brendan O’Neill
(3) The Tony Blair Commandments, LM magazine, June 1997
(4) Liberty’s wake-up call, Comment Is Free, 27 March 2007
(5) The legacy of Iraq is that the world stands by while Darfur burns, Guardian, 14 March 2007