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The Self-Made Man

I have a modest contribution to make to the story of Tony Blair, the leader of the recent May Day Massacre, which left the Conservative Party in Britain with its lowest number of seats since 1832. It is a memory which must date from 1962, when Blair is nine and I am thirteen, and we are at Durham Choristers School, in the playground during morning break. Blair and his friend Ellis come up to me—a bold thing to do, since I am head boy and they are only “day bugs” (day boys) and so much younger, and this is a school which strongly deprecates the casual mixing of older and younger boys. So when they come up to me with their smiling and enthusiastic faces, I know they must have a special purpose. They have. Blair asks me what seems like a very intelligent question, to which I make a noncommittal answer.

For a long time, as Blair emerged as a promising member of Parliament and his career soon began to flourish, I would ask myself whether this modest story might not be improved. What was the seemingly intelligent question, and why did it leave me stuck for a response? Finally I remembered, or seemed to remember. Blair had asked whether we could found a school civics society. This would certainly have left me nonplussed because I would have had no idea what a civics society might be or do. It might be something to be encouraged. It might on the other hand (one could never tell) be something to be severely punished, cracked down on, stamped out as soon as it reared its ugly head.

A friend of mine once announced, during a school mock election, that since all other candidates had been found, he was going to stand as a fascist. It wasn’t that he had any remotely fascist sympathies—I don’t think he had yet had a chance to look up what fascism might involve—he simply thought that it might be original and sophisticated to put the fascist case. And nobody could have been more surprised than he at the horror his announcement caused among the staff, who moved swiftly not only to forbid him but also to hush the incident up, as if it were some outbreak of plague in a fancy resort.

To found a school civics society, where none existed, might possibly be laudable, but I think that, just to be on the safe side, I made some faintly discouraging reply, while carefully concealing my ignorance of what he was talking about. And my reward for this early discouragement is that I must now live in the vast civics society that Blair is going to create.

A year later, according to his biographer Jon Sopel,* Blair was taken by our headmaster, John Grove, into his study, and informed about the implications of the fact that his father had just suffered a massive stroke. At the end of the discussion the two of them knelt and prayed together (it was in the same study that Grove informed me, also aged ten, that my mother had died) and Grove, according to Jon Sopel, “has no doubt that this whole experience had a profound impact on Blair, bringing him into contact with the power of religious faith for the first time, a faith that, although it has flickered, has never been extinguished and which now burns brightly.” Blair’s prayers were answered, for at the end of the afternoon, while he was playing outside, his mother came rushing over saying, “The news is better. He’s going to be all right. He’s going to live.”

Before his stroke, Blair’s father, Leo Blair, had been a lawyer, academic, and chairman of the Local Conservative Association, who, all things being equal, would have soon been chosen for the safe seat of Hexham. After the stroke, which put an end to that career, the young Blair continued with a private education, but in straitened circumstances, of which he was painfully aware. In Britain, where education is the cause of so much painful division and bitterness, people who go through this kind of experience can never explain it to those who haven’t without risk of provoking bad feelings or derision. On the one hand, one is constantly reminded that one is privileged (Grove would tell us that school was a place where he had privileges …but no rights; I was reminded of his manner of speaking the other day when Blair called his new MPs together and reminded them that they were not the masters, they were the servants of the public), but on the other hand it feels like deprivation. Blair’s relatives stepped in to ensure that he continued his private education—and at what was considered a good school, Fettes in Edinburgh—and we may be certain that Blair would have been aware of the sacrifices made on his behalf. Here is how he puts it:

People read that I went through the private system, finishing at Oxford, and think that it must have been a bed of roses. Don’t get me wrong, it was a happy childhood, but it also seemed as though I was spending every spare minute in Durham hospital, visiting either my father or sister… and there was a lot of worry and uncertainty attached to that.

To get a feel for the political culture in which the young Blair grew up, you have to understand that Durham City and County Durham, taken as a whole, were overwhelmingly Labour, but that the cathedral and castle, the university and its immediate community, were strongly Conservative. The cathedral was Low Church to a degree which shocked even some of the visiting clergy. The canons abjured vestments, and celebrated Holy Communion in their academic hoods. I remember a sermon which the bishop, Maurice Harland, preached to the judges of Assize during one of their annual visits, in which he extolled the virtues of hanging. The dean and chapter of Durham had, until the nationalization of the mines, been significant coal owners.

The miners were the backbone of Labour, and the Durham Miners’ Gala was an important national event in Labour’s calendar. On that day, the city filled with the miners, their families, and their bands. Every significant Labour politician of the period would have attended the gala and addressed the crowds, and it was an awesome sight when, at evensong, the cathedral was crammed full with miners, and the hymns were sung in a markedly different accent from other days of the year. None of this gets mentioned by Sopel, perhaps because it is the kind of memory associated with “Old Labour,” perhaps because what we are talking about is a festival of union power. But it is inconceivable that Blair was left untouched by it in some way, even though his father was a Tory.

A great deal about Leo Blair’s background was only discovered by the rest of the Blair family during the leadership election in 1994, which brought Tony Blair to the leadership of his party. Leo had changed his name. He was the product of a liaison between a music hall dancer and a small-time actor in regional theater, and had been fostered by a Clydeside family, while retaining some contact with his real parents until the war, when his foster mother appears to have succumbed to the delusion that she was his real mother. Not only did she destroy all of Leo’s mementos of his mother (with whom he was in occasional correspondence). She also informed Leo’s real parents that their son was missing in action. When Leo returned to civvy street in 1948, he believed that his family had abandoned him entirely, and so he changed his name by deed poll to that of his foster parents.

This is the key to the Conservatism that Tony Blair would have imbibed as a child. It could be summed up in the slogan from the famous wartime cartoon: “Very well, then—alone!” Self-reliance is the order of the day. You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. No one (this is such a typical North of England philosophy, and one which Tony Blair says he has inculcated into his own children)—no one is going to do you any favors. Blair told Sopel that he understands very well the mentality of people like Norman Tebbit (the leading working-class Tory of the Thatcher years, whose message to the unemployed was “On yer bike!”) because of growing up with such a father. And he is right to pride himself on this insight, because the last election was very much a fight for the Tory-voting working class or lower middle class. And the upshot of the election was not only that the Tories lost all representation in Scotland and Wales, but also that, generally speaking, in England they were wiped out in the cities.

None of the last three leaders of the Conservative Party was remotely upper-class. Edward Heath had an accent that immediately betrayed an attempt to conceal something in the past. Margaret Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter, and came to be proud of it. John Major’s parents, like Leo Blair’s, came from the world of vaudeville, and it seemed romantic, in a way, to have a Tory leader whose parents were said to have been acrobats. This story was later filled out with details of a business Tom Major founded in later life, making garden ornaments. It was not a successful business. Major grew up in straitened circumstances, was a failure at school, and never received a university education. Often, when it has suited him as Tory leader, he has harked back to the struggles and sufferings of his childhood, in an attempt to reverse the expected roles, making Blair the privileged toff and himself the struggling underdog. Because the election was fought on such personal terms—not in the sense of muckraking but as a struggle between two rival party leaders—the nuanced differences of childhood and upbringing were often visible.

On one occasion, a rogue poll showed that Labour’s lead, hitherto almost constant, had been slashed. Blair’s response was to say: Very well, we will now do the fifth term. What this meant, in shorthand, was that they would now concentrate on the dangers of allowing the Tories a fifth term of office, and in particular the danger that they would privatize pensions. As soon as Blair began to push this line the Tories uttered a yelp of pain: Labour was playing dirty, trying to frighten the pensioners with untrue scare-stories. And the volume of that yelp gave a clear indication that the Tories knew the scare was working, that it would work, because people would believe this of them. Major’s reaction was outrage: he would never muck about with people’s pensions, he said—as a young man he remembered his father being on a pension: he knew what this was all about.

I don’t think that Labour’s most devoted followers really took the pensions scare at face value, but many believed that, if the time had come for fighting dirty, then they were glad that it was Labour, this time, who were fighting dirty, and fighting well. Large sections of the party had taken a vow of silence and agreed to the strictest discipline. That meant they relied more than ever on Blair. And if Blair knew very well how to fight Major, it might well be because he, Blair, was the son of a self-made Tory vaudeville artiste’s son.

Blair himself was always difficult to fight. He is a most unusual man for his generation. He seems to have been rebellious in his teens, and then to have undergone the kind of religious conversion which often used to take place in Oxford but which I thought was a thing of the past. It was a conversion to a kind of Christian socialism, a line of thought represented in Scotland by a writer called John MacMurray. (This was connected for Blair with the writings of Amitai Etzioni and with his American Communitarian Network.) Blair does not deploy the Christian terms in his rhetoric—he is nothing like an American evangelist—and he does not appear to push his religion. But there it is. The man held responsible for his interest in religion at Oxford, an Australian called Peter Thomson, came back to Britain for the duration of the election campaign in order to serve, it was said, as Blair’s personal chaplain. If so, it is a political novelty (bishops have chaplains, army units and ships have them, but I have never heard of a party leader employing one) but it is one of many examples of the thorough preparations Blair made for victory. If he had lost,the Labour Party would be truly in despair.

In the upshot it is the Tories who look suddenly irrelevant. As the extent of their defeat became clear on election night, Blair spoke from his working-class constituency near Durham, emphasizing, not for the first time, that he owed everything to what he had learned from his local party faithful. It was all part of the rhetoric, of course, but it was also part of reality. Durham made him. Durham formed him twice over—first as a little Conservative, next as a man who overthrew the kind of man his father would have been, but for that stroke.

May 15, 1997

  1. *

    Tony Blair: The Moderniser (Bantam, 1995).

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