The Reinvention of Blair

Published in The Blair Effect 2001-5 edited by Anthony Seldon and Dennis Kavanagh (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

In 1992, when Tony Blair was Shadow Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, the actual Home Secretary, said of him ‘he’s so shadowy it’s ridiculous’, and went on to quote a jingle: ‘As I was going up a stair, I met a man who wasn’t there’. Eight years into his premiership, the question of who Blair is, what he believes in, is scarcely closer to being answered. One is tempted to write of him, as Keynes did of Lloyd George: ‘[He] is rooted in nothing; he is void and without content; he is an instrument and a player at the same time’. In fact Lloyd George is probably the prime minister Blair most resembles. Keynes praised Lloyd George’s ‘natural good instincts, his industry, his inexhaustible nervous vitality’, his ‘vast stores of spirit and of energy’. But these qualities were not grounded in ‘permanent principle, tenacity, fierce indignation, honesty, loyal leadership’.

Other similarities suggest themselves. Like Lloyd George, Blair has no sense of history, he does not read books. He runs a sleazy court, and he is an exceptionally gifted political seducer. (Unlike Lloyd George, Blair is not reputed to be a sexual seducer.) Despite his deceptions – which we shall turn to in a moment – people can’t help liking him, and therefore disbelieving in his capacity for lying. This charm, together with eloquence and passion, makes him a formidable public advocate and private persuader. Both Lloyd George and Blair were peaceniks who became war leaders. Keynes concludes: ‘If Mr. Lloyd George had no good qualities, no charms, no fascinations, he would not be dangerous. If he were not a syren, we need not fear the whirlpools’.

Blair’s political achievement is greater than Lloyd George’s. Lloyd George destroyed the Liberal Party; Blair saved the Labour Party, not just by making it electable, but by making it more electable than the Conservatives, thus reversing a hundred years of political history. The real Blair effect has been to make Labour safe for the middle-classes.(How long this ‘effect’ will continue when, or if, Brown becomes prime minister is far from clear.) Of course, others had a hand in the business, not least Margaret Thatcher, who destroyed any lingering attachment on the Left for large-scale public ownership. Thatcher made Blair’s task in ridding his party of the incubus of Clause IV easier than Hugh Gaitskell’s failed effort in 1959. Nevertheless, the bravery, ruthlessness, and skill with which he fought the battle against the traditionalists showed that there was much more to him than a winning smile.

His legislative achievement is unlikely to equal Lloyd George’s. (It might be argued that he has had less opportunity, since the only government office he has ever held is that of Prime Minister.) Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act of 1911 started the Welfare State. Despite Blair’s personal passion for education, his government is unlikely to leave a mark on its structure as profound as Balfour’s Act of 1902 or Butler’s Act of 1944. Both Lloyd George and Blair were constitutional reformers, but Lloyd George’s instincts were more radical than Blair’s, although his political circumstances were more straitened. It may be, of course, that the era of large-scale social and political transformation is over, and that only incremental change is now possible.

Like Lloyd George, Blair exhibits a kind of unfocussed radicalism, which soars above more solidly-based ‘isms’, but also empties them of content. Both men viewed Britain as an archaic, rundown property, ‘in need’, as the estate agents have it ‘of modernization’. Modernization meant adopting ‘modern’ ideas, whatever their source, and applying them to Britain’s decrepit institutions. Lloyd George tried to overcome the class war by establishing a Centre Party made up of ‘patriotic’ Labourites, radical Liberals and ethical Conservatives; Blair, more fortunate in his political circumstances, has simply converted the Labour Party into an instrument of his modernizing agenda. He has taken over the public-private partnership themes paraded by Lloyd George in the 1920s. Blair’s attempt to moralise capitalism after the ultra-dry Thatcher episode replicates in a remarkable way the late Victorian effort to overcome the economism of the Peel era. Both rested on a ‘social’ interpretation of Christianity. Blair imbibed his as an undergraduate through the writings of an obscure Scottish philosopher, John Macmurray, and a circle of Christian friends. He called his creed ‘ethical socialism’, but it sounds much more like ethical capitalism, and Blair has long since given up calling himself a socialist of any kind. In this, as in other ways, the modernizing Blair harks back to the much more fluid intellectual atmosphere which existed before class politics and class ideology became solidified.

In domestic policy, the only obstacles to Blair’s ecumenicalism have been those imposed by his Party (ie., the Chancellor).The differences, but also the overlap, in the outlooks of the two men is more fascinating to the observer of political fashions than the humdrum story of their personal rivalry. In a nutshell, and oversimplifying matters, Blair rejects any necessary, or inherent division between the private and public sectors, while Brown insists that separateness is built into their logic. In Blair’s view, the private sector should be moralized, and the public sector subjected to market disciplines. He has taken up the ‘quasi-market’ approach to the organisation of public health-care and school education, and would probably not be averse to a significant element of private payment for these services –as he pushed through for the universities. In these ways a seamless system of political economy might emerge, with the central ground occupied by organisations which are not wholly private or public. The similarity between this vision, and that sketched out by Keynes in his essay ‘The End of Laissez-Faire’ (1925) is striking. Typically, Brown’s analysis is more rigorous, even pedantic. Limits to markets are set by technical ‘market failures’ so chronic that non-market provision, especially in the health care and education sectors is needed.. They must be wholly state-funded, with performance centrally targetted and policed.

More important than these differences is the way both men were able to wrap up Labour’s traditional commitments to full employment and income redistribution in a post-Thatcherite, ‘Third Way’ language, which reassured the faithful without alarming the prosperous. In his Mais lecture of 1995, Blair accepted the main thesis of Nigel Lawson’s Mais lecture of 1984, that monetary and fiscal policy should be aimed exclusively at controlling inflation, leaving it to supply side policy to reduce unemployment – the exact opposite of classical British Keynesianism, which made full employment the goal of government macroeconomic policy, leaving it to ‘prices and incomes’ policy to control inflation. However, whereas Lawson and the Thatcherites thought of supply-side policy mainly in terms of freeing up labour markets and accepting whatever the level of unemployment resulted, New Labour embraced the notion of active supply-side policy, which aimed at rebuilding labour supply damaged by shocks to demand in the 1980s. Furthermore, improving labour market flexibility was interpreted not just as a matter of removing obstacles to market transactions, but in terms of policies aiming to increase the capacity of the workforce to cope with the competitive challenges of globalisation. Price stability combined with active labour market policy was to be New Labour’s route back to competitive success and full employment. So far it has worked wonderfully well.

New Labour’s proxy for redistribution was ‘investment in human capital’. The flaws in capitalism which had produced inequality were redefined as technical ‘market failures’, which prevented the private sector from investing sufficiently in education, training, and health-care. This left a substantial role for public investment which, however, would yield a dividend for the whole society in the form of faster economic growth. From this kind of analysis sprang the reinterpretation of social justice as ‘inclusion’. Absent from this repackaging of traditional principles was any commitment to equality as a moral imperative and policy goal. The Blair-Brown approach, while decked out in technical economic jargon (eg Brown’s notorious ‘post-classical endogenous growth theory’), harks back to the ‘enabling state’ ideas of T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, and the National Efficiency movement of the 1900s.The differences between Blair and Brown about how far market disciplines should be extended into the public sector are much less important than this joint redefinition of Labour’s governing mission.

In his often stormy relations with his Chancellor, Blair has shown himself the more ruthless of the two in the pursuit and retention of power. He has used to the full the advantages of incumbency in outmaneouvring his rival. Weakened by Iraq, he was forced to concede that this would be his last term in office even before his prospects for continuing as prime minister were undermined by the reduced scale of his third election victory.But such is his resilence and capacity for passionate reinvention, that it would be foolish to take the succession for granted until it actually happens.


Blair’s second term will always carry the taint of Iraq. It is clear to any unprejudiced observer that there was no defensible casus belli for the joint Anglo-American invasion of Iraq either in terms of national defence or international law. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, and the most that could be justified was a continued policy of surveillance and pressure to make sure he did not develop or acquire them. Moreover, this would have been a reasonable conclusion from the course of events since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, and of any military intelligence analysis not pumped up by the demand of its political masters to produce evidence to the contrary. It is now also tolerably clear that Blair agreed to back George W. Bush in a war to overthrow Saddam when the two met at Crawford, Texas, in April 2002. The only problem was to manufacture a plausible casus belli, since the object of regime change could not be openly avowed. WMD was to be the justification, and their removal the only ostensible object of their war preparations. Blair’s one requirement was that UN authorisation for the use of force should be obtained, if possible; hence the charade of the failed Anglo-American Security Council resolution which immediately preceded the war.There is no ‘smoking gun’, no Nixon tapes to nail the conspirators. The truth will only come out in bits and pieces, and then possibly never wholly –just as most insiders knew that Eden had colluded with the Israelis at the time of Suez long before compelling evidence for this collusion emerged.

The fierce debate in Britain as to whether Blair lied, or was misled, or deceived himself, owes its importance to the convention that leaders are not expected to lie to their own people (or in our parlance, to Parliament) on matters great or small. Lying breaks the accountability of rulers to ruled, which is the foundation of democracy. At the same time this convention is a myth. Politicians do lie continually. They are usually caught out on the small lies, and get away with the big ones. The reason they lie is that they believe that real transparency would make effective pursuit of the national interest or welfare impossible. Although Goebbels is thought to have been the inventor of the Big Lie, the true inspiration for Nazi propaganda was the war leader Lloyd George, as Hitler makes clear in Mein Kampf.

The necessity for lying in politics was most famously defended by Plato in The Republic. Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates a compelling rational case for the rule of the best (philosopher-kings) and for the specialised education needed to fit the best to rule. But for Plato, who accepts this argument, there is a dreadful snag. The rational case for minority rule cannot be made acceptable to the masses. So they must be persuaded to accept it by a ‘lordly lie’ -the so-called the myth of the metals: ‘God..has put gold into those who are capable of ruling, silver into the auxiliaries, and iron and copper into the peasants and the other producing classes’. Plato concludes: ‘It is the business of the rulers of the city, if it is anybody’s, to tell lies, deceiving both its enemies and its own citizens for the benefit of the city’. Plato also understands the precarious line between lying and self-deception: it is even advantageous for rulers to come to believe in their own lies , since this makes their propagation more effective.

A similar case for double standards is advanced by the late 19th century philosopher Henry Sidgwick:’Thus, on utilitarian principles, it may be right to do and privately recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly’ Sidgwick writes: ‘Thus…it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric’ -an argument which |Bernard Williams dubs ‘Government House Utilitarianism’.

These considerations are not entirely abstract. The Platonic doctrine of the ‘noble lie’ was made familiar to neo-conservatives round Bush like Paul Wolfowitz by the conservative political scientist Leo Strauss at Chicago University, via the teaching of Alan Bloom. President Bush himself may be largely exempt from intellectual influences, but it would be a great mistake to think this is true of some of his highly-intelligent and well-educated advisers.

On this kind of reasoning the deception is justified if it produces good results. As the argument for going to war to destroy Saddam Hussein’s WMD has faded, Blair, while continuing to insist that he believed at the time in the the existence of the WMD, has been increasingly driven to justify the war on the ground that Iraq and the Middle East as a whole will be a better place with Saddam Hussein gone. This, of course, may turn out to be true.

To me the interesting question is not whether or not Blair lied, but why he chained himself to Bush’s mast. Blair and New Labour ae much more obviously ideological twins of Clinton and the New Democrats than of Bush and the neo-conservatives. And Clinton, though he lied about his sexual life, was not disposed to invent reasons for going to war. There were no doubt persuasive foreign policy reasons for staying close to the Bush Administration. But this leaves out Blair’s personality, which is, in one important respect, more akin to Bush’s than to Clinton’s. This is his missionary zeal. It is not attached to any concrete projects or doctrines. It is a generalized, unfocussed, urge to make the world better, to right wrongs, combined with a willingness to use force. Blair’s eagerness to put troops on the ground in Kosovo in 1998 contrasted strongly with Clinton’s reluctance to do so. In its afermath came a speech in Chicago which outlined what can only be called a doctrine of ethical imperialism wrapped in the language of globalization. In this, as in other respects, Blair has shown himself to be a throwback to an earlier era, with a big bypass round the century of socialism.

It is not just, then, that Blair made Labour electable by ignoring the central points in its tradition. He has reconnected British politics to its radical, progressive, pre-Labour roots.And it has been his own lack of roots which has given him the audacity to do so. He remains the most interesting, most striking politician in contemporary Europe, and his course is still not run.