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Tony Blair and Ramsay McDonald

John Simkin

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Historians love comparing political leaders. This extract is from Francis Beckett and David Hencke's new book, The Blairs and Their Court.

Attempts have been made to rebrand Tony Blair as the direct successor of the most successful Labour leader ever: Clement Attlee, prime minister from 1945 to 1951.

It's a futile, vainglorious comparison. Attlee and Blair were both products of public school and Oxford, and both trained as barristers. And that is where the similarities end. The real parallel with Blair is a very different Labour leader: Ramsay MacDonald, elected prime minister in 1929.

Attlee's government was about fighting the five giants identified in the 1942 Beveridge report: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. So it introduced family allowances, national insurance and the national health service, as well as a vast new council-housing programme and the first universal system of free education, with a huge school-building programme and the raising of the school-leaving age to 15.

The difference this made to the lives of ordinary people was staggering. By the mid-1950s, almost all Britain's 14-year-olds went to school; 20 years earlier, only four in 10 had done so. The dole queues of the 1930s disappeared, and those few who couldn't work no longer starved in the streets. NHS doctors reported seeing thousands of women with prolapsed internal organs which had been like that for years, and men with hernias and lung disease who had never been examined because they could not afford it.

Attlee's government shifted the balance of wealth and power away from the rich and towards the poor. Blair's government has done the opposite. The gap between rich and poor is wider now than it was in 1997 - a matter described at this week's conference as "an embarrassment".

Attlee nationalised the railways. Blair inherited a new privatised monopoly which everyone could see was not working - and still did not take it back into public ownership. Yet the task, compared with the one the Attlee government took on, was simple, and would not have required the level of political courage that the Attlee government had to show in order to nationalise rail in the first place.

Attlee came to power in immeasurably more difficult circumstances than Blair. Britain was bankrupt, with a war-ravaged economy and infrastructure, made worse by the abrupt withdrawal of lend-lease aid by the United States and the harsh terms of the loan granted in its place. There were many who argued that a welfare state should not be introduced until Britain could afford it. If Blair had been prime minister in 1945, it would not have been.

The parallels with MacDonald are exact, both personally and politically. MacDonald, like Blair, was a vain, handsome, charming man with theatrical talent. Like Blair, he preferred where possible to get someone else to do the grubbier jobs, like firing ministers. Attlee once said of him: "You have to send for the man and tell him yourself. MacDonald used to get someone else to do it." In the early days, Blair's bad news was usually conveyed by the chief whip, Nick Brown.

Blair is ridiculed for his deference to the rich and titled. Similarly, MacDonald exulted when he left Labour to lead the national government: "Tomorrow every duchess in London will want to kiss me." Blair is impressed by royalty and the landed gentry, but even more so by the very rich and powerful. Rupert Murdoch is worth a dozen duchesses to him.

MacDonald liked to accept free holidays in the splendid homes of wealthy men. One of his millionaire backbenchers, Harry Day, was a regular MacDonald benefactor, and in 1931 Hugh Dalton confided to his diaries: "There was... a standing order for a bottle of champagne, with three glasses, to be sent each night to MacDonald's room. The order was in the name of Harry Day, and he is still without a job!" The parallels with Blair are painfully obvious.

But the key similarity is that both men had an urge to lead a national consensus that was above politics. Both disliked Labour party ideology, and both yearned to gather other parties under their leadership into a "big tent". MacDonald dreamed throughout his 1929-31 government of taking the Labour party with him into a coalition with the Conservatives and Liberals. In 1930, he was writing to the leaders of both parties suggesting some sort of coalition. By the end of that year, talk of an all-party government was rife at political dinner parties. Unemployment, said MacDonald's chancellor, Philip Snowden, was "a question to be dealt with by no one party, but... in cooperation by all three parties".

In the end, MacDonald was less successful than Blair. The Labour party grumbled its way through two years of MacDonald running the country in almost exactly the same way as the Conservatives would have run it, because they thought MacDonald delivered electoral success. The Labour party has done much the same for the past seven years under Blair.

But it rebelled against MacDonald in the end. Faced with mounting unemployment, MacDonald did exactly what Blair would have done: he found a rather rightwing business leader, Sir George May of the Prudential Insurance Company, to advise him. Sir George gave the advice MacDonald expected: the only thing to do was to cut unemployment pay. And the cabinet refused to agree.

So MacDonald, unlike Blair, had to settle for second best. He left the Labour party to lead a national (Conservative-dominated) government. Shortly afterwards he fought and won the 1931 election under a slogan which would have appealed to Blair who, like MacDonald, prefers to operate in a policy-free zone: MacDonald asked the electorate for a "doctor's mandate". He remained prime minister until his resignation in 1935.

Blair has managed to take the Labour party with him. Most prime ministers spend their time tugging the centre of political gravity a little in their direction. They cannot pull too far to the left or right, or they will lose the middle ground entirely. But they tug as hard as they can.

By that standard, the two most successful post-1945 prime ministers were Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. Attlee tugged the centre of gravity towards the things that Labour stood for, and did it so successfully that much of what Labour did became part of a new political consensus for nearly 30 years. Thatcher tugged the centre of gravity in her direction, again extremely successfully. We still do not know when the consensus she created will be challenged; it has not happened yet.

Blair did the opposite. He did not pull: he pushed. Electorally, it was brilliant. It left the Conservatives struggling for space. They continue to have to find more and more outlandishly rightwing things to say in order to gain some ground of their own. But people who have been voting Labour since Harold Wilson was prime minister are left wondering what they waited 18 years for.

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