The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour
No one who experienced the elated atmosphere of the American presidential election two years ago and who had also been in London in May 1997 could fail to be reminded of the similar mood when Tony Blair won his first general election. He makes the comparison himself. Just as Blair had once been, Barack Obama was greeted by adoring crowds “giving all that you touch something akin to magic.” Blair’s election had “felt like a release, the birth of something better than what had been before,” he writes, and the word “release” is right. After eighteen years of Tory rule, most British voters badly wanted a new government.
But the personable man who entered Downing Street just before his forty-fourth birthday was in many ways an unlikely figure. Blair’s father, who was born poor in Glasgow (and was a youthful Communist), rose to be a prosperous barrister, had hoped to be a Tory MP before he was incapacitated by a stroke, and gave his son the education he had lacked. After attending Fettes, the Edinburgh public school, and Oxford, Blair became a barrister and joined the Labour Party, although he had no roots in the movement or obvious political convictions. In an aside at the end of his memoir, he remarks that he has always been more interested in religion than politics, and he entered Parliament almost by inadvertence.
When I first came across Blair he was standing unsuccesfully in a by-election in 1982. He was elected the following year in an otherwise disastrous general election for his party—Margaret Thatcher’s second triumph—when “I didn’t really think a Labour victory was the best thing for the country, and I was a Labour candidate!” He joined opposition benches much diminished in talent; soon afterward, the Tory politician and diarist Alan Clark spotted “two bright boys called Brown and Blair” among Labour freshmen, and both their stars steadily rose.
After Labour lost again in 1987 and then in 1992, Neil Kinnock resigned the leadership, and John Smith was elected in his place, although Blair considered Smith the real culprit for the latest defeat. Smith had proposed higher taxes for the better-off, which was “great for the party faithful” but electorally disastrous, thought Blair, who saw the need entirely to remodel Labour, discarding its social democratic heritage and offering a sanitized form of Thatcherism. Even he could scarcely have foreseen that “New Labour” under his leadership would win three elections and that he would serve as prime minister for ten years, or where those years would take him, and us.
Apart from the delightful My Early Life, Churchill wrote no memoirs as such, even if A.J. Balfour wisecracked about his…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.