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Who is Tony Blair?

David Clark

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Who is Tony Blair? This may seem an odd question to ask about someone who has been prime minister for eight years, but it remains the crucial dividing line of British politics as we enter the election campaign. The answers we give will do more to explain how Britain votes than probably any else.

To the editorialists of the Times and the Economist, he is the thinking Conservative's prime minister of choice: the person best placed to preserve the Thatcherite legacy by giving it a human face. Many Conservatives privately agree, even though they portray him as the champion of big government by stealth. That's the main reason why the realignment of the right has so far lacked the urgency and ambition of Labour's modernisation in the 80s and 90s. The foxhunters may be up in arms, but Conservative Britain is broadly content.

To his critics on the left, Blair is a market fundamentalist with a coherent, if only partially declared, agenda to privatise as much of our lives as possible: a neoliberal cuckoo in the social democratic nest. The Blairite counter argument states the opposite. He is the ultimate Fabian gradualist, busily transforming Britain in a thousand ways so subtle as to be invisible to the human eye. One day we will all wake up in the New Jerusalem and wonder how we got there.

There is evidence to support each of these propositions, but none provides a satisfactory and consistent template for explaining Blair's actions. Someone wishing to privatise public services would have run them down through sustained underfunding, as the Conservatives did, instead of investing billions more in health and education. Conversely, no one seriously concerned with equality would have kept such a low top rate of tax or introduced a policy as socially regressive as top-up fees for higher education.

To judge Blair against traditional ideological benchmarks is an impossible task, and not simply because he cultivates ambiguity in order to sustain broad electoral appeal. The confusion arises because he is driven not, as many suppose, by the desire to realise any specific political vision, but by his own peculiar calculus of power. By this I don't mean the power of office so much as the power of those he fears might deny it to him.

Blair's experience of opposition led him to conclude that Labour could only govern by making a binding accommodation with power. But what others saw as a necessary expedient of opposition, Blair has transformed into a permanent logic of government. This is the true meaning of "elected as New Labour, govern as New Labour". Labour can govern, but only by deferring to forces more powerful than it. Dismissed at the outset was the idea that government could be used to change power relations in any significant way.

Power, and the need to accommodate it, is therefore the unifying principle of Blairism. It explains why the government has cosied up to big business (strong) and marginalised the trade unions (weak). It explains Blair's determination to keep Rupert Murdoch onside, even when it means watering down media ownership rules or backsliding on Europe. It explains both the good and the bad in his approach to public services. The good is the extra investment that comes from the realisation that the nation's electoral pivot, middle England, does not want to pay for private health and education. The bad is reform designed to replicate within the public sector the advantages the aspirant middle classes enjoy in the marketplace.

Most of all, it explains Iraq. There is no power quite like a superpower, and Blair's decision to go to war reflected a fear that any deviation from the American position would provoke the vengeful wrath of transatlantic conservatism. He was not emboldened to defy public opinion by the courage of his convictions, but by the calculation that, whatever the risks, it would ultimately prove to be the line of least resistance.

The political consequences of this defensive mindset are profound. Just as surely as you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, you can't build a fairer society without challenging wealth and power. That is something Blair is psychologically incapable of. In the battle against what George Orwell once colourfully described as "the lords of property and their hired liars and bumsuckers", Blair will always be with the liars and bumsuckers - not because he agrees with them, but because he is mesmerised by their power.

So the short answer to the question "who is Tony Blair?" is that he is a weak man who bends to power. The mystery is why so few on the left have realised this. Ken Livingstone is one. Faced with a rigged selection that denied him the Labour candidacy for mayor of London, he cheerfully stepped outside the tent, drubbed Blair at the polls and negotiated his readmission from a position of strength. The trade unions appear to have cottoned on, too. A few sharp tugs of the purse strings were enough to secure the "Warwick agreement" to include a clutch of new employment rights in Labour's election manifesto.

How widely this realisation is shared will have a significant impact on the election. Behind the panic signals emanating from Labour is the assumption that voters who threaten to rebel are, in the words of one anonymous minister, "bluffing it". As a buttress to this complacency, Labour's critical friends in Fleet Street pen dire warn ings of a protest vote. The recent analogy drawn between disillusioned Labour supporters and stray dogs waiting to be called home by their master's whistle captures the relationship rather well (Fetch! Beg! Roll over! Good girl!!!). This lapdog left barks occasionally, but will always come to heel.

For those who aspire to more than the occasional Bonio, the choice is harder. None of them is frivolous in assessing what a Conservative victory would mean, or doubts that a Labour government is essential. It's just that they also understand the consequences of handing New Labour another blank cheque. Their fears are more than justified. Rumours circulating among journalists close to Downing Street suggest that, in the event of another three-figure majority, Blair is preparing to "do a Major": to see off his critics and consolidate his authority by standing for re-election as Labour leader. With another four years in office, he plans to make the Blairite revolution irreversible.

Labour supporters are tired of being taken for granted, and increasingly coming to the conclusion that the ballot box is the only place where they have the power to make themselves count. This is why many of them, against their deepest political instincts, will wake up on May 5 with the solemn intention of hurting Tony Blair. It's the only language he understands.


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