June 22, 2007


Neoconned!: How Blair took New Labour for a ride: In this brilliant new essay, Britain's leading philosopher argues that Tony Blair owes more to the free-wheeling imperialists of the American right wing than Labour tradition. John Gray explains how George Bush helped shape Blair's decade in office, how religious conviction emboldened him to send troops into battle - and why the truth became a casualty of war (John Gray, 22 June 2007, Independent)

Neo-conservatism is not the most recent variety of conservatism. It is a new type of politics that can emerge at any point on the political spectrum. In Britain, neo-conservatism's political vehicle was not the Conservative Party but the new party that Blair created when he seized the Labour leadership.

The single most important fact in Blair's rise to power was Thatcher's new settlement. Both in economic and political terms it was an established fact, but while this was an index of Thatcher's achievement it was also a source of weakness for the Conservatives.

Thatcher often declared that she aimed to destroy socialism in Britain. She never paused to consider what would be the effect on her party if she succeeded. For much of the 20th century the Conservatives acted as a brake on collectivism. The Conservative Party existed to oppose not just socialism but also - and more relevantly - any further advance towards social democracy. By dismantling the Labour settlement, Thatcher removed the chief reason for the existence of the Conservative Party. Without a clearly defined enemy it lacked an identity. Labour had never been a doctrinaire socialist party - as Harold Wilson remarked, it had always owed more to Methodism than to Marx - but by identifying New Labour with the market, Blair was able to deprive the Conservatives of the threat that had defined them for generations. As a result they were mired in confusion for nearly a decade.

While Blair's embrace of neo-liberal economic policies was a strategic decision, it soon acquired an ideological rationale. More conventional in his thinking about domestic issues than most politicians, and having an even shorter historical memory, Blair embraced without question the neo-liberal belief that only one economic system can deliver prosperity in a late modern context. Modernisation became the Blairite mantra, and for Blair it meant something precise: the reorganisation of society around the imperatives of the free market.

When he was still in opposition, Blair curried support from disillusioned Conservatives by representing himself as a One Nation Tory - a progressive conservative who accepted the central role of the market but also understood the importance of social cohesion. Once in power it was clear Blair came not to bury Thatcher but to continue her work.

Blair's One Nation Toryism was like his fabled Third Way, a political marketing tool. The Third Way originated in Bill Clinton's practice of "triangulation" - a tactic invented in the mid-1990s by Clinton's adviser Dick Morris, which involved Clinton setting himself up as a more pragmatic alternative to both parties in Congress. Adopting the same tactic, Blair attacked his own party as much as the Conservatives. His successful campaign to remove Clause Four (which mandated common ownership of the means of production) from the Labour constitution in 1995 was a symbolic act rather than a policy shift. At the same time it was a marker for larger challenges to Labour's social-democratic inheritance. Blair carried on the agenda of privatisation that had developed from Thatcher's original programme into core areas of the state such as sections of the justice system and prison service, and inserted market mechanisms into the NHS and the schooling system.

In these respects Blair did no more than consolidate Thatcherism, but he did not change British society in the way Thatcher did. His chief impact has been on his own party. New Labour was constructed to bury the past and in this, if in nothing else, it succeeded. It began as a coup masterminded by a handful of people - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Philip Gould and others - who aimed to rebuild the party as an instrument for securing power.

New Labour was a purpose-built construction with few links to the political tradition that preceded it.

Note the incoherence in Mr. Gray's essay that is caused by recognizing, but not being able to accept, that Clinton and Blair are the heirs of Thatcher and W . In fact, Blair and Clinton were tightly tied to the preceding political tradition of their countries, just not of their parties. Thatcherism/ThirdWay has so completely transformed the Anglosphere that there's rather little difference among the governing parties of Australia, Canada, America and England.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 22, 2007 8:43 AM

"Thatcherism" is so prevalent now that no one can seriously think of returning to the prior economic settlement. (The political settlement isn't quite over yet [Mr. Gray rages against it, but can't think of anyway to replace it], and the social settlement is still being strenuously [hysterically - see any actor or academic on the dread horror they express about that] fought.)

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2007 11:48 AM

While Blair's embrace of neo-liberal economic policies was a strategic decision, it soon acquired an ideological rationale.

I'm always amused by arguments like this. It couldn't possibly be that Blair realized that socialism was a proven failure. No, it had to be that his embrace of the market was a purely political tactic, which then "acquired an ideological rationale."

About a dozen years ago I met someone who was convinced that Rush Limbaugh didn't really believe any of the stuff he talked about: it was all just a calculated fraud to get ratings. Imagine the effort it must take to argue live on the radio, 15 hours per week, for positions that you don't really believe in!

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 22, 2007 5:10 PM

Pap, the left does it all the time. The babble on about equality and helping the downtrodden, when in truth, they're avaricious, power hungry elitists.

Posted by: erp at June 24, 2007 6:56 AM