Not Jeremy Corbyn – unilateralist, friend of Hamas and Hezbollah, committed opponent of economic reality – but Tony Blair.
The former prime minister’s intervention last week into the contest to decide who will lose the 2020 election to George Osborne stirred the pungent stupidity never far from the surface on the Labour left.
You expect it from Diane Abbott, who has made it her life’s work to keep Labour out of government (with some success), but John Prescott’s sniping was particularly ingrate for someone who owes his entire ministerial career to Tony Blair’s indulgence. I suppose that is what happens when you take a deck hand and stick him in a first mate’s uniform.
The reaction to the most successful leader in the history of the Labour Party is another signal that this a party no longer interested in government. We have dwelled enough on the Labour leadership election – Punishment Park for the centre-left – and I am more interested in Blair’s place in the firmament of British politics.
He is closely identified with the Third Way, a late 20th century movement of progressive politicians who returned their parties to government via the centre ground. Leading practitioners include Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, and Romano Prodi while Australia’s Bob Hawke and Paul Keating are the uncredited progenitors. Although denounced at the time for selling out their principles, these statesmen came to be respected, even revered by their parties.
Not so Tony Blair. Many in Labour are circumspect about his legacy, others sharply hostile. Far from a Labour man, he was a Tory entryist who captured the party and turned it to his own ends, like an Estuary-toned Trotskyist. His government was too cautious, critics say, and failed to embed a new political consensus. During the 2015 general election, a number of Labour candidates publicly refused donations from their former leader.
Back when Michael Gove trolled the liberal intelligentsia from Wapping instead of Whitehall, he penned a panegyric of sorts to Blair. It was the eve of military action against Saddam Hussein and the Labour prime minister was proving a staunch and clear-sighted ally to President Bush and giving his party and the press fits of the vapours in the process. Seizing the moment to poke some wounds, then Times columnist Gove announced: “As a right-wing polemicist, all I can say looking at Mr Blair now is, what’s not to like?”
The Lord Chancellor is long overdue a reply.
What’s a right-winger not to like about Tony Blair? How about introducing a minimum wage, tax credits, the Human Rights Act, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and civil partnerships? Or bringing in Sure Start, paid paternity leave, statutory paid holiday leave (then raising it above European requirements), and free nursery education for three-and-four-year-olds?
Nor were traditionalists keen on his ban on fox-hunting, repeal of Section 28, and removal of most of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
It must have been pretty galling too, after denouncing Blair’s “target culture”, to watch him cut in-patient waiting lists by 50%, slash waiting times from 13 weeks to four, and lift600,000 children out of poverty. Worse, he only went and delivered 39,000 more NHS doctors and 81,000 more nurses, hired 39,000 more teachers and 103,000 more teaching assistants, and recruited 175,000 more apprentices.
British nationalists were less than enthusiastic about the peace he brokered in Northern Ireland and the Bloody Sunday inquiry he established. Isolationists hardly cheered when he rescued Sierra Leone from armed militiamen, helped stop Slobodan Milošević’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, ousted the theocratic Taliban in Afghanistan, and deposed mass murderer Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
If you incline to the political left, this is not a legacy to defend. It’s a legacy to hoist on your shoulders and carry through every street in the land with songful joy and pride unbecoming. Allowing that you might lament the fallout from military intervention in Iraq, as a left-winger looking at the rest of Tony Blair’s record, what’s not to like?
The answer lies in what kind of “left” person you are. If you conceive of politics along the old left-right conflict of class, command economics versus free markets, and East against West, Blair is not the man for you.
Here is how he sees the world:
“The forces shaping the world at this moment are so strong and all tend in one direction. They are opening the world up. I sometimes say to people that in modern politics, the dividing line is often less between traditional left versus right; but more about open versus closed.”
In this worldview, conflict arises between democratic liberalism and Islamism, social democracy and nationalism, tolerance and chauvinism. Once we understand this perspective, we can begin to see where Tony Blair is coming from and recognise it as a progressive rather than a conservative stance.
As he puts it in his memoirs: “It is true that my head can sometimes think conservatively especially on economics and security; but my heart always beats progressive, and my soul is and always will be that of a rebel.”
Blair in government was an enemy of conservatives of the left and of the right, and to this day boasts an opposition coalition of Trots, Eurosceptics, homophobes, Saddam groupies, Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Countryside Alliance, and people who think New York stockbrokers had it coming. Unlikely bedfellows, you might suppose, but all share contempt for Blair’s liberal cosmopolitan worldview, with its open societies, blurred identities, and moral universalism.
When traditionalists accused him of undermining the family, Blair pressed ahead on LGBT rights because he understood what was at stake.
When self-styled anti-imperialists said Arab culture was incompatible with democracy, he dismissed this racist view and now Iraqis are four elections into their fledgling democracy.
When narrow nationalists said it was unpardonable folly to send the RAF to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Blair and Nato allies recognised their duty to humanitarian principles. (Such people often veil their insularism in the language of international law but inevitably slip when they rail against “foreign wars” in “far-off” lands.)
It is true that he sometimes failed to meet his own standards. His pandering to public prejudices on immigration and asylum was hardly faithful to his open society model and his instinctive authoritarianism problematic when it came to identity cards and some aspects of anti-terror legislation. No politician is a paragon.
By conventional wisdom, there were three great prime ministers of the 20th century. Churchill secured our freedom, Attlee created the NHS and the welfare state, and Thatcher rescued our economy and rekindled our love of liberty. Blair deserves a place alongside these titans for recognising the struggle against Islamism as the defining issue of our age.
There was more too. He championed political and services reform, liberalised our culture, and advanced our values and interests abroad. The Conservative Party was forced (eventually) to return to sanity after two decades of Maastricht-induced madness. Our pro-gay marriage, NHS-investing, minimum-wage-hiking, tax-cuts-for-the-low-paid Tory prime minister would have been impossible without Blair. He understood where Britain was, where it could be taken, where it could not, and what it thought in its most private moments. Who needs a programmatic ideology when you have intuition like that?
Where his legacy is lacking it is because he didn’t go far enough, extending choice in health and education but stopping short of more radical reform. It is increasingly clear that his biggest mistake as Labour leader was not breaking the funding link with the trades unions, an anachronistic set-up that gives organised ideologues undue influence on the party and public policy.
Ironically for someone diagnosed with a messiah complex by the Kings Place school of political psychology, Blair was remarkably relaxed about modern Britain. He was at ease with the country he found and encouraged us to be at ease with ourselves. Those for whom politics has supplanted religion as the true path to redemption cannot make peace with this. These are people who mean to improve us, to save our souls. They are the Labour left who want to make us less selfish, the Tory right who yearn to make us more British, and the SNP which seeks independence to make Scots more Scottish.
Soul matters in politics. It’s what sets the visionaries apart from the lunatics and the leaders from the technocrats. If Tony Blair’s soul is that of a rebel, it owes to that most British streak of rebellion: Against do-gooders, busybodies and know-it-alls. The rebellion of ordinary people who want to go about their lives untroubled by the grand schemes of politicians and intellectuals. It is that soul that drew the British public to Blair and his progressive heart, beating with idealism, that drove them away again. Iraq and the war on terror, they felt, was less about our security than our moral destiny.
As it searches for a new leader, Labour should do more than look to Tony Blair’s example. It should try to understand him. When it does, it will come to learn that Labour politics –winning Labour politics – is not really about left and right. It’s about heart and soul.