Saturday, September 09, 2006

Tony Blair and Political Lilliputians

I'm a fan of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

An alliance of political Lilliputians who hark for the old style socialism of brotherhood and victimhood, together with patronage seekers, are trying to speed his exit from office.

The late British politician Enoch Powell said that every political career ends in failure. In a certain sense that is true, because no political leader can ever be satisfied that all goals and objectives are met in a particular period of time.

A political leader who is in office almost a decade will inevitably have disappointed some of the electorate and colleagues who may have missed out on the ministerial gravy train. Tony Blair's remarkable period in office has had its successes and failures but like Margaret Thatcher, he has made a difference. It's only when he will have departed, that his record will truly be appreciated.

Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph and now a columnist at the newspaper has written an incisive analysis of the turmoil that is currently afflicting the British Labour Party.

Labour will miss him when he's gone (and Cameron takes over)

"My pride in what our Government has achieved under your leadership is beyond expression," wrote Tom Watson, parliamentary under secretary at the Ministry of Defence, to the Prime Minister this week.

You or I might find words such as these quite flattering, but Tony Blair is a politician, so he will have seen at a glance that what his very, very junior minister meant was: "I want to kill you." Sure enough, by the second paragraph, Mr Watson had got to the point: "I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country."

Mr Watson began his letter by explaining his qualifications, as he saw them, for writing it: "The Labour Party," he said, "has been my life since I was 15 years old."

Inspection of Who's Who confirms Mr Watson's sad story. He was born in 1967. Apart from being a fundraiser from 1988-89 for Save the Children, he appears not to have done anything that anyone outside politics would call a job.

After being a "deputy general election co-ordinator" and a "national political organiser", he became MP for West Bromwich East in 2001.

The key to Tony Blair's career has been that he always understood that people such as Mr Watson should, wherever possible, be ignored. So in the tragicomedy that is politics, it is fitting that such people are now pulling him down.

But in his struggle against the Tom Watsons, he has always been on the side of us, the voters. Although we mostly want rid of him now, we shall therefore miss him.

No political party should ever be anyone's life. Its value is only instrumental – that it can mobilise enough people, ideas, money and interests to run things that need running and get things done that need doing.

Mr Blair knew this. He had no connection with the Labour Party before he met Cherie Booth, and has not had much more to do with it since. He felt a vague but strong desire for a centre-Left alternative to Thatcherism, and had a justifiably high opinion of his own persuasive gifts.
He could see that Labour was the only means of winning power if you weren't Tory, so he joined it. And when he came to lead it, he never deviated from his original intentions. That is what he meant when he said that he was elected as New Labour and would govern as New Labour.

Although the methods of "spin" have often been even more disgusting than people understand, the central message being spun has been astonishingly truthful. New Labour is modern, moderate, middle-class.

Even today, when we are sick of his mannerisms and stare rudely at his scalp to detect the hair-dye, Mr Blair still expresses this to us with a remarkable clarity and courtesy. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher are the only prime ministers in the past 50 years who set out with a clear idea about what they wanted to do, and did it.

The much-mocked leaked memo from Mr Blair's advisers about how to organise his farewell actually said something that is true: "His genuine legacy is not the delivery, important though that is, but the dominance of New Labour ideas … the triumph of Blairism."

As someone whose proudest childhood moment was when our husky puppies appeared on Blue Peter, I quite understand why the memo-writers want to make that the venue for his swansong. It fits with the unpolitical politics that he represents. Appearing on Blue Peter is a normal human ambition. Appearing on Newsnight is not.

On that warm May night in 1997, I felt curmudgeonly. We grumblers had warned that a Blair government would increase the tax burden, fail to improve the public services, undermine private pensions, disrespect our institutions, give in to the IRA, disturb the balance of the constitution, abolish hunting, reduce liberty and lose control of immigration.

Today we have every right to say: "We told you so." And yet, the people wandering the dawn streets of London looking irritatingly idealistic grasped something that we did not – that change was needed and that the hour had produced the right man. Many of them feel disappointed now, but they weren't wrong.

In the new film The Queen, which dramatises the week of the death of Diana, there is a moment when Blair's entourage sits round scoffing at the Queen's refusal to leave Balmoral and come and grieve all over everyone in London.

They see her as a figure deserving no sympathy. Blair, although instrumental in persuading the Sovereign to change her mind, suddenly gets angry with his gang. He sees that the Queen is real, and stands for something. "I don't like it when people start to bully her," he says.
That's what I feel about Mr Blair this week. Of course he should go fairly soon.

He committed political suicide on September 30, 2004 by saying that he would not fight the election after next, and the only surprising thing has been how long it is taking him to die.

So these little Watsons (not so little actually: I gather one of the consequences of the 5ft 8in Mr Watson spending his whole life with the Labour Party, and so not getting out enough, is that he weighs 16 stone, thus contributing to the "obesity epidemic" that his party is pledged to fight) who are trying to bully him are not mistaken in thinking his time has come.

But this week, like the Tories in November 1990, they have given voters a traumatic reminder of what political parties are actually like. Mr Blair is a better man than his critics, and what they want will be worse than what we've got. He can be quite proud of their hatred.

People such as Tony Blair get made leader only when their party is in opposition. Desperation drives parties into daring originality. In (peacetime) government, the Tom Watsons decide.

They think about whose turn it is, who has the largest amount of relevant experience, who has most successfully courted the big factions, who will give them a job. The result is the likes of Alec Douglas-Home or John Major or Jim Callaghan, never Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher.

One must do Gordon Brown justice, though a heavyweight faction led by a well-lunched Charles Clarke does not want us to. He was as important as Tony Blair in inventing New Labour.

He is not Buggins. He has a big brain and plenty of determination. But for all that, and for all the efforts – cuddling his children, smiling at strangely random intervals – he diligently puts in, the Labour Party is his life, just as it is Tom Watson's.

I think this is why, when he speaks in public, he is so boring, so impermeable and so hard to understand. He cannot really imagine what it is like to be his audience.

This does not necessarily mean that Labour will lose the next election. People forget that, although the Tories were declining even before Mrs Thatcher fell, they still managed to struggle on in government for seven more years.

But I do believe that Labour's currently most over-used word, "renewal", cannot now take place. In British politics, there is a sort of apostolic succession of the leader who can reach beyond party.

This passed from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, and the candidate who seeks it today is not Gordon Brown, or any of the other contenders for the Labour leadership, but David Cameron. After this week, Tony Blair won't be unhappy to lay the hands upon his head.