September 3, 2010


The strange brilliance of Mr Blair (Bagehot, 9/02/10, The Economist)

There are passages of rather brilliant political analysis. Progressive parties, he writes at one point, are "always in love with their own emotional impulses", starting with the idea that if power is placed in their hands, they will use it for the benefit of the people: thus the more power, the more benefit. Hence, he says, their affinity with the state and the public sector. They fail to see, however, that the state and public sector can be vested interests too, and that as people become better educated and more prosperous, they don't necessarily want anyone else making their choices for them. The additional problem with intellectual left-wingers, he argues, is that they care for ordinary people, but struggle to feel like them. They do not, in his matey phrase, "get aspiration". [...]

He is adamant that his instincts and values are progressive, and naturally of the left. But on the defining crisis of his time in office, the war on terror, he almost defiantly tramples on the instincts and values of his party. He is not just generous about Mr Bush. He is, literally, kinder about Dick Cheney than he is about several colleagues in his own cabinet, saying that there is much to be said for Mr Cheney's central insight that the war on terror is a war, and that America faces a threat from a single ideological enemy, namely extremist Islam. [...]

And yet his defence is not that history will absolve him, or some such appeal to exceptionalism. Instead, Mr Blair repeatedly defends his inconsistencies and complexities by appealing to the court of mass public opinion, and his success at winning over millions of "normal people".

The old Labour party was full of oddballs and obsessives, he says more than once. At its worst, it resembled a "cult". His allies lay not inside the party, but among the broad mass of the general public. He boasts of having avoided student politics at Oxford, and of his many non-political friends. He talks about his drive at all times to see Labour as ordinary people saw it. In seeking lines of attack against each of the Tory leaders he faced in the House of Commons, he says he tried to shun shrill partisanship, in favour of some "telling" observation that would trigger head-nodding in an ordinary voter. Again and again, he points to his success with voters as proof that he was on to something. Look, he says again and again, I won three elections in a row.

Ordinary people, he says, are not as dogmatic as politicians. They are not interested in left-right labels, or even as fussed about consistency as party loyalists. There is an interesting passage where he talks about Harriet Harman, then a senior member of his shadow cabinet, sending her son to grammar school. Yes, he concedes, her decision was a "real shocker", after all: "The whole of the Labour Party programme since the 1960s had been to abolish academic selection and bring in comprehensive, non-selective schooling." Yet Mr Blair, then Labour leader of the opposition, refused to denounce her, though he says he was in a minority of one. Why? Well, he muses:

"although Labour people would understand why Harriet might have to resign over this, no ordinary person would. Some woman politician decides to send her kid to grammar school. She thinks it gives him the best chance of a good education. Her party forces her to resign. What do you think? You think that's a bit extreme; and not very nice; and a bit worrying; and is that what still makes me a bit anxious about those Labour people?"

In other words, yes, Ms Harman was being hypocritical, but when it comes to family, ordinary people understand a bit of hypocrisy.

A common jibe against Mr Blair is that he is really a Tory in disguise, who pretended to be a Labour politician. His defence is different: that real people are just not fussed about partisan claims of ownership, when it comes to policies. Yes, he says, Britain needed the economic and industrial reforms of the Thatcher era. It was, frankly, a good thing that Labour lost the 1983 election (though he campaigned for Labour at the time). It took time, but he came to believe that the Conservatives were also right when it came to introducing choice and market forces into the public sector. Blairite plans for foundation schools, freed from local authority control, were inspired by Tory ideas. And now, he notes, David Cameron's coalition has borrowed the idea in its turn, and is pushing ahead with free and academy schools.

The winning centre ground of politics is shared space, in short. That may alarm more partisan types, but, he writes:

"that's the way it is! And it's not a bad thing—in fact it's rather good, and the public, by the way, understood this ages ago."

Among other things, this makes the character and likeability of party leaders of "paramount importance" in modern politics, he concludes, because voters make choices on instinct rather than by studying party manifestos or policy platforms.

In fact, since successful Anglospheric leaders essentially run against their own party as much--or more--than against the opposition, the platform should be ignored.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 3, 2010 5:42 AM
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