Blair then and now
Two examples of the collected prose works of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair have recently become available to his eagerly waiting fans: the first, extracts from a 22-page handwritten letter to the then Labour Party leader Michael Foot, was written on 28 July 1982, not exactly an annus mirabilis for the party. The second, an article about the future of the Labour Party and government, appealing for no more "coded references and implied critiques" but instead open and candid debate on policies, was published earlier this month, nearly a quarter of a century later. The first is part of an article by Robert Taylor, who came across the letter in the course of his researches for a history of the parliamentary Labour Party: it appeared in the New Statesman of 19 June; the second, in the Guardian of 27 June 2006.
Blair's 1982 letter provides a sadly ironical commentary on the philosophy and record of his later years after nearly a decade as prime minister:
Look at Thatcher and Tebbit and how they almost take pride in the rigid populism of their political thought. There is a new and profoundly unpleasant Tory abroad – the Tory party is now increasingly given over to the worst of petty bourgeois sentiments – the thought that there is something clever in cynicism; realistic in selfishness; and the granting of legitimacy to the barbaric idea of the survival of the fittest. … Like many middle-class people I came to Socialism through Marxism (to be more specific through Deutscher's biography of Trotsky). The trouble with Marxism is that it is fine if you make it your political servant but terrible if it becomes your political master. I actually did trouble to read Marx first hand. I found it illuminating in so many ways; in particular, my perception of the relationship between people and the society in which they live was irreversibly altered…. In one sense he [Tony Benn] is quite right in saying that the right wing of the party is politically bankrupt. Socialism ultimately must appeal to the better minds of the people. You cannot do that if you are tainted overmuch with a pragmatic period in power. The phrases that rouse us, or should rouse us, are bound to seem stale in the mouth of anyone who has been too closely intertwined with the establishment. It may not be fair but it is true…
Fast-forward to June 2006:
The second thing, as I've said many times, is to renew the Labour party in a way that builds on the big idea behind New Labour: that economic efficiency and social justice are entirely compatible. This is the whole basis on which myself and Gordon Brown [sic] have worked since 1994. Indeed without expanding opportunity there will be no economic success… In my view, renewing the Labour party means taking further what we've done …I would go further on the law-and-order policies of the past nine years, where we have been more on the side of the people than either Tories or Lib Dems. I would keep our alliances with the US and the EU both strong and where necessary interventionist. I think we have to be a party of enterprise and business as well as trade unions… We must balance rights with responsibilities… we need to complete a radical reform of the criminal-justice [sic] system that focuses on the offender, not simply the offence and the rights of the victim. On welfare reform we need to go further with the principle of new entitlements matched by higher expectations. Our foreign policy must be interventionist, internationalist, multilateralist – and above all driven by our values…
Marx and socialism have of course been long discarded in favour of "economic efficiency", "expanding opportunity" (what was that in the letter to Michael Foot about "the barbaric idea of the survival of the fittest"?), "a party of enterprise and business", and the qualification or curtailment of fundamental human rights by the imposition of 'responsibilities' to 'balance' them. Foreign policy is to continue to be "interventionist" — a shameless demand after the terrible blunders and crimes committed in Iraq and Kosovo with Blair's enthusiastic sponsorship. All these are fundamentally Tory nostrums; indeed, it's hard to find anything in this month's Guardian article that couldn't have been written by a moderately enlightened Conservative leader.
The two pieces however have some things in common. Both reveal an unmistakable shallowness and intellectual superficiality. Neither in 1982 nor in 2006 did young or older Blair betray any understanding of a key ingredient of the socialism that he proved so impatient to abandon: equality, not just of opportunity (a polite Tory euphemism for eventual untrammelled inequality) but much more importantly of outcomes. Did he never read Crosland? J S Mill? Tawney? Michael Young? Certainly not Young's "The Rise of the Meritocracy", a brilliant analysis of the cruelty and injustice inevitably produced by a meritocracy — "the barbaric idea of the survival of the fittest" expressed in a social and economic system; yet Blair repeatedly refers to a meritocracy as the kind of society he wants Britain to become.
Neither in 1982 nor in 2006 is there any hint of understanding of the centrality of liberty and human rights to socialism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The letter of 1982 seems to contain no commitment to, or even interest in, the idea of the absolute right of the individual to liberty, and to a fair trial by his peers before he may be deprived of it, as protection against the rapacious demands of the power-hungry state. There is no contradiction on this score between the letter to Foot on the one hand, and on the other hand the philosophy of a prime minister who has presided over the greatest assault on our civil liberties for more than a hundred years. He seems genuinely unable to grasp why reasonable, law-abiding people, even judges, don't immediately accept his deeply flawed concept that the interests of national security as defined by the government must be allowed to override the fundamental rights of the individual as developed and enshrined in law and political theory over centuries.
Nor is there any suggestion, then or now, of that humane Labour tradition according to which the application of military force can be justified only, if at all, as a genuine last resort, to remedy a blatant wrong so overwhelming, so patently incapable of being corrected by any other possible means, that it justifies the terrorising and killing of innocent people, the destruction of people's livelihoods, the widowing of women and the orphaning of children, and all the other tragic but unpredictable consequences which war always entails. Instead we see a Boy's Own Paper fascination with the use of military force, put into practice more often by Blair than under any other prime minister in living memory, and in at least two cases with neither ethical nor legal justification. And still he wants yet more intervention, along with the removal of the tiresome constraints imposed by the United Nations Charter, just as he wants carte blanche to trample on human rights without the tiresome constraints imposed by the European Convention. If he and his government and his security forces want more powers, they must obviously have them: and anyone who obstructs their provision must be soft on terrorism or mentally incapable of understanding the arguments for conferring them, or both.
Both pieces also suggest a self-regarding preoccupation with Blair's own "passionately held" views and an urgent desire to communicate them to a mystifyingly uncomprehending world lacking the intelligence to understand their transcendental rightness. There's always an underlying suggestion that the passion with which he holds his views, however jejune they might be, defines their value and cogency. But there's still a residual altruism, even a kind of simplified socialism, in 1982, of which not a trace remains in 2006.
A devastating verdict on Blair is delivered in the New Statesman of 26 June by Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former British ambassador to Russia and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee:
Like Eden, he has had his successes. But they have been wiped out by the disaster of Iraq. A country has been wrecked. Terrorism flourishes. Our closest ally has been discredited and humiliated. The Middle East, the source of much of our energy, is in turmoil. Muslims throughout the world have been turned against the west and its values. Our ability to construct a society in Britain in which people of all faiths and backgrounds can live harmoniously has been compromised. Blair has done far more damage to British interests than Eden, more perhaps than anyone since Chamberlain. Tory appeaser meets Labour adventurer: history at its most ironic.
Robert Taylor ends his New Statesman article about the 1982 letter to Michael Foot in no less damning terms:
It is his personal tragedy, as well as the tragedy of the Labour Party, that the ambitious idealist was transformed into an authoritarian and hubristic machine that destroyed the ethical values of a Labour movement he once claimed to hold so dear.
He destroyed them, I suspect, because he never understood them. The Guardian concludes the Blair article of 27 June with the helpful explanation that —
Tony Blair is the prime minister.
And that is our and the Iraqis' personal tragedy.