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 “history” of the Great War that “Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it World Crisis.” But every other prime minister in office from 1945 down to Blair has written memoirs, and grim reading most of them are, whether by Anthony Eden or Harold Macmillan. Not only did Blair want to write something different, he says, he wanted to write it himself. Alas, those worthy intentions give us a book written in a manner that is not so much conversational as rambling or downright incoherent. It’s like being trapped by the pub bore, who also wants to share his excruciating confidences. Yes, “the prime minister has sex,” he tells us after his wife becomes pregnant; or, of an earlier night, “I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly, I devoured it to give me strength, I was an animal following my instinct.”
But then comes an alarmingly dis- concerting turn: Matey Tony becomes Blair Exalted, as he finds his Destiny. Visiting Parliament when young, he “had a complete presentiment…. This was my destiny.” Years later, “I felt a growing inner sense of belief, almost of destiny,” in the way that “an artist suddenly appreciates his own creative genius.” Blair had no reason to know that Smith would die suddenly aged only fifty-five, “except that, in a strange way, I began to think he might.” By now Blair was charged “with this curious sensation of power, of anticipation, of prescience. Then John did die.”
That was 1994, when Brown and Blair were the obvious candidates for the party leadership, but Blair persuaded Brown to stand aside in return for a loose promise that he would later become prime minister after Labour had taken office. As the title of The Third Man unblushingly implies, Peter Mandelson helped create New Labour, supporting first Brown and then Blair, before he was twice appointed to the Blair Cabinet, and twice sacked. Mandelson now acknowledges that the original deal with Brown was a grave error on Blair’s part.
He did not want to compete directly with Brown, Blair writes, because he “was scared of the unpleasantness…of two friends becoming foes.” But why? Until then, Labour had known open, fair contests for the leadership, from 1935, when Clement Attlee defeated Arthur Greenwood and Herbert Morrison (Mandelson’s grandfather), both of whom later served in his Cabinet, until 1976, when James Callaghan defeated five others who all remained in his Cabinet. Far from being pushed aside, Brown should have been obliged to stand against Blair for the party leadership. He would without doubt have been decisively beaten by Blair, and could never have nursed his imaginary but corrosive grievance of having been cheated of a rightful prize.
As it was, “the unpleasantness…of friends becoming foes” is horribly ironical. Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party, a fly-on-the-wall account of the later years of the Labour government by the political columnist of the Observer, is dominated by the savage feud between Blair as prime minister and Brown as chancellor of the exchequer, which steadily poisoned relations between them. But then it also dominates The Third Man, and much of A Journey.
Since the prime minister and chancellor are the two most important members of a British Cabinet, a harmonious relationship between them is essential if the government is to function properly. If there’s disharmony, the chancellor usually resigns, or is removed. In 1958 there was a “little local difficulty,” in Harold Macmillan’s misleadingly breezy phrase, when his chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, resigned in protest at inflationary policies, and in 1989 more than another little difficulty when Nigel Lawson resigned as Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor, to her grave discomfort. An interminable vendetta can only hobble the government, which is what happened.
For years, Blair and Brown were barely on speaking terms, although they were often on screaming terms. Mandelson describes a characteristic meeting in November 2000 with Brown shouting at Blair, “It’s about time you fucking realised that’s all the election is about,” meaning his own supposedly successful conduct of the economy. And so on, and on, until the choicest line in The Third Man: “As Tony dealt with the twin pressures of Gordon and Saddam Hussein…”
While Mandelson gives an indelible portrait of Brown as a man almost unhinged, he also, intentionally or not, portrays Blair as a weakling, quite unable to curb such destructive disloyalty. Blair himself can offer no explanation of his inertia, except that Brown was “an outstanding Chancellor.” Blair seems unaware that, despite the increased prosperity after 1997, the supposed economic miracle now looks much less rosy, following the financial implosion for which Brown, who delighted at the time in the fiscal fruits of unregulated and reckless “casino capitalism,” must bear large responsibility.
And yet there may be another reason. Until becoming prime minister, Blair’s concerns had been entirely domestic, from “tough on crime” to reform of public services and welfare, and he had little interest in (or knowledge of) foreign policy. Finding himself thwarted by Brown at home, Blair turned his gaze abroad.
One day, the feud between Brown and Blair will seem an esoteric episode of British political history. Iraq will not. With his interventions in Kosovo in June 1999 and in Sierra Leone in May 2000, Blair had acquired a new sense of mission—and a relish for military force. Then came September 11, and another vision. “I felt eerily calm” on hearing the news from New York; “there was no other course; no other option; no alternative path. It was war.”
Already imbued with an intense, though historically ignorant, loyalty to the United States, Blair flew to the stricken city and gave a speech on Fifth Avenue that he still quotes with pride: “My father’s generation went through the Blitz…. There was one country and one people which stood by us at that time. That country was America and those people were the American people.” We have become aware of how little history Blair knew, but even he might have heard that the United States remained conspicuously, and profitably, neutral while the Blitz was raging in 1940–1941.
Such ignorance might have been merely risible had it not been for its implications. Ever since Churchill, British policy has been bedeviled by a “special relationship” that was special largely in that only one side knew it existed. Like most great powers, the United States ultimately pursued its own interests, regardless of friends, let alone foes, and the Americans humored the British while ignoring them for practical purposes. It has been the repetitious theme of former ambassadors and other witnesses at the recent Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s part in the Iraq war that Blair gained nothing whatever from the Bush administration in return for his unswerving support, and indeed exerted almost no influence at all in the White House. With Iraq, the special relationship met its nemesis.
But Blair could influence others. More articulate than the President and, unlike him, admired by many liberals or progressives, he could crucially speak to opinion, American as well as British, far beyond the reach of Bush. Back home, he gave, in his own phrase, a visionary speech to his party conference:
The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause…. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.
The next morning the Tory Daily Telegraph acclaimed “Blair’s Finest Hour”—one of many Churchillian invocations at the time—but more significantly, a columnist in the liberal Guardian saluted the speech as the “moment British politics became vigorously, unashamedly, social democratic. The day it became missionary and almost Swedish in pursuit of universal justice.”
In Washington, the administration was already plotting military action against Iraq—whatever weapons Saddam did or did not possess, with or without the support of the United Nations—as Blair well knew, since President Bush had told him so. And so while Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the neoconservatives planned a war for their own purposes, Blair’s task was to sell this war to people who believed in social democracy and liberal values.