The New Statesman Essay - The paradox of Tony Blair

Why does new Labour, after giving away power, remain so centralist in its instincts? David Marquand

In a diary entry for 24 September 1966, Richard Crossman, who had served nearly two years as a Labour cabinet minister, observed that the idea of giving people a chance to decide things for themselves - the essence of social democracy to his mind - was "extremely unpopular" with most of his colleagues. "They believe," he wrote, "in getting power, making decisions and getting people to agree with the decisions after they've been made . . . The notion of creating . . . a live and articulate public opinion able to criticise actively and make its own choices is something which most socialist politicians keenly resent."

Crossman's view of democracy can be traced back, through the popular radicals of the middle and late 19th century and the Chartists of the 1830s and 1840s, to civil-war polemicists such as John Milton and James Harrington. In homage to the last two, I shall call it the republican vision. But another vision - to which Crossman's cabinet colleagues were faithful - had dominated British politics and it was well expressed by the Tory imperialist and All Souls Fellow, Leo Amery. Authority was not delegated, he argued, by the electorate to parliament, and then by parliament to the government, as 19th-century liberal commentators had imagined. Since Norman times, the essence of the constitution had lain in a "parley" between two co-equal elements - the Crown or government which directed and energised, and the nation, which assented or acquiesced. The British system, Amery wrote in Thoughts on the Constitution (1947), was "government of the people, for the people, with but not by the people".

Amery's view epitomised the common sense of generations of practical men, skilled in the arts of government and anxious to get the state's business done with the minimum of fuss. It mixed a Whig notion of organic evolution and adaptive statecraft with a Tory notion of executive leadership, Edmund Burke with Sir Robert Peel. With a bow to Sir Lewis Namier's typology of 18th-century politics, I shall call it the court vision. Both the republican and court visions have played central parts in the debate over the future of British democracy that has reverberated through our politics since the late 1980s. But now, I believe, the court tradition has been exhausted and the choice lies between a reinvented republicanism and a bland, almost narcotic populism.

The present government was returned to power on the ticket of a "democratic renewal". The democratisation of Britain, which had stalled after the 1918 Representation of the People Act, seemed about to move forward again. Yet two and a half years later, new Labour's democratic renewal is mired in paradox. The revolution is under way. Almost certainly, it is both irreversible and unstoppable. The Human Rights Act has further shaken the already shaky doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament, which A V Dicey once called the "keystone of the constitution". Scottish devolution has revised the terms on which the independent nation-states of England and Scotland came together to form the multi-national British state nearly 300 years ago. In doing so, it has engendered pressures for further change, almost certainly irresistible in the long run. In Edinburgh and Cardiff, perhaps even in London, new, unexpected and unpredictable political forces are bubbling up. Ripple effects can be expected in some, if not all, English regions. The structure of the British state and the architecture of British democracy are in flux. The old constitution - the constitution under which Amery and Crossman both grew up - is dissolving beneath our eyes. The only question is: what will replace it?

To that question the authors of the revolution have no answer. On the contrary, they have reacted to the predictable consequences of their own achievement with a mixture of incredulity and indignation. Having created new opportunities for voices in Scotland, Wales and London, they have expended large quantities of political capital on attempts to make sure that the voices merely echo the orthodoxies of the centre. Having abolished the voting rights of most (though not all) the hereditary peers in the name of democratic legitimacy, they have set their faces against an elected second chamber that might possess sufficient legitimacy to challenge the executive-dominated Commons. Their proposals on freedom of information are a pale shadow of the commitments they made in opposition, while the proposed referendum on electoral reform has receded into a hazy, post-election distance.

The most frequent explanation for this mixture of boldness and timidity is that Tony Blair is a control freak. That is psycho-babble. He may well be a control freak. But I see no evidence that he is more freakish, or more anxious to exert control, than Gladstone, Salisbury, Lloyd George, Chamberlain or Heath, to mention only a few. Rarely do people get to the top of the greasy pole of politics without a masterful ego and a strong appetite for power. The true origins of the Blair paradox lie, I believe, in his inheritance, not in the accidents of personal psychology.

They lie, first, in the long, convoluted and fiercely contested process through which Britain became a democracy. The notion that this country is the cradle of democracy is a myth. Democracy came to Britain slowly, haltingly and late. The best part of a century passed between the Great Reform Act of 1832, which increased the size of the electorate from 4.5 per cent to 7 per cent of the adult population, and the arrival of manhood suffrage in 1918. Even then, women could not vote until they reached the age of 30. As late as 1945, my own parents had four votes between them - two as ordinary citizens and two as university graduates. The first general election in which every adult citizen had one vote, and no one had more than one, was that of 1950.

The political class viewed the approach of democracy with trepidation. So did much of the intelligentsia. Its many opponents offered stubborn resistance. Luminaries as varied as Lord Macaulay, Lord Cranborne, and Sir Leslie Stephen warned that the masses were too poor, too ignorant and too dependent on their superiors to practise the civic virtues, for which the suffrage was properly a reward.

That history lived on in the mentalities of leaders and led. New groups were incorporated into the political nation; new men joined the political class. But the old, oligarchic order of the past changed the newcomers as much as they changed it. In their exhaustive study of the high politics of the Home Rule conflict of the 1880s, A B Cooke and John Vincent pointed out that the world of the Westminster politician was "a very specialised community . . . whose primary interest was its own very private institutional life". It had been recognisably the same community a century before, and it was recognisably the same community a century later. Like townees settling in a rural village, its new inhabitants gradually adopted the ways of the old ones. The result was that, even after the arrival of a more-or-less democratic suffrage in 1918, the court vision enjoyed a kind of hegemony. The republican vision never vanished, but with rare exceptions it was a vision of outsiders not of insiders, of dissenters not of establishments. Autonomous executive power was the hallmark of British government, just as the absolute and inalienable sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament was the hallmark of the British constitution.

For the right, the British state was clothed in a mystic patina of custom and memory, from which its authority ultimately derived. For the left, the state was a utilitarian engine of social transformation, legitimate because it could deliver the goods. But the differences mattered less than the similarities. The cadres of the Labour movement came largely from the professional service class and the trade union movement. Both were schools for leadership; the products of both displayed what A P Thornton once called the "habit of authority" as fully as any aristocratic Whig or Tory. By the same token, socialists and social democrats were as zealous in their commitment to the British tradition of autonomous executive power and to the doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty which accompanied and sustained it as any Conservative. In effect, the left made a Faustian bargain with the old order: power within the existing system, in exchange for adherence to its norms. The young Aneurin Bevan saw parliament as "a sword, pointed at the heart of property power". What mattered was to use the sword, not to waste time searching for a better one. Most of the progressive left took it for granted that if the central executive were to promote social justice and to overcome the relentless pressures making for inequality and injustice, it would need all the autonomy it could lay its hands on. As R H Tawney once observed, Britain accepted democracy "as a convenience, like an improved system of telephones" rather than as a moral ideal and she "went to the ballot box touching her hat".

Not until the mid-1970s did the hierarchies that sustained this view of democracy begin to dissolve. The confident governing class, which right-of-centre courtiers had presupposed, was in retreat. "The real toffs," as Alan Clark put it, "have opted out." The professional service class was on the defensive. Though the trade union elite still walked tall, it walked on thin ice.

Then came the Thatcher revolution. Margaret Thatcher was to the court tradition what Mr Toad was to motor cars. She drove it so hard that she smashed it up. You might call it government by poop-poop. Westminster absolutism and executive autonomy were essential to her whole project. Without the concentration of power that they made possible, her governments could not have marginalised the trade unions, curbed the local authorities, privatised most of the nationalised industries or imposed market norms on the remaining public sector. But she and her colleagues ignored the intricacies of the apparatus that they used with such enthusiasm.

This was the second element of the Blair inheritance. The Thatcher governments tried to reconstruct a complex civil society, rich in intermediate institutions operating by non-market rules, in the stark image of an "enterprise culture". Their object was a liberal economy, centred on the rational, calculating, freely choosing consumer. But the constitution through which they tried to attain it derived its authority from unchosen custom, beyond rational criticism. Thatcher herself saw no inconsistency in this. For her, free competition and traditional authority went together. She did not reckon with the social forces that she herself summoned up. Market forces were given freer rein; opportunities were widened; the already enfeebled old elites were further undermined; new men and the occasional new woman clawed their way to the top. But the mystique that had helped to legitimise the court tradition was stripped away. The hedonistic, tradition-scorning individualism that was fundamental to Thatcherite economics eroded the uncalculating respect for custom which was no less fundamental to its politics. The vulgar, vital, undeferential, bourgeois Britain that Thatcherite economics helped to bring into being became less and less willing to doff its cap to a monarchical state.

Against that background, the Blair paradox falls into place. New Labour inherited not so much a constitutional crisis as a constitutional vacuum. Blair and his colleagues saw that they would have to reconstruct the political order on lines appropriate to a modern, post-imperial, late-20th-century society. The trouble was that they belonged to the Westminster village themselves. Its customs and assumptions were in their blood. If they were unwitting republicans, they were also unwitting courtiers. They wished to reform the old order, but they also wished to renew the Faustian bargain that an earlier generation of social democrats had made with it. Like their political ancestors, they wanted to use the powers available to the autonomous executive of the court tradition to re- engineer society from the top - not, any longer, in the name of social ownership, or even social citizenship, but in the no less compelling names of equal opportunity and international competitiveness.

Manifestly, the old constitution is broke. But politicians, party functionaries and civil servants are still in thrall to it. Ministers half want to disperse power in the interests of modernisation from below, and half want to concentrate it in the interests of modernisation from above. Plainly, this state of affairs cannot last. Further movement is inevitable. The only questions are: in which direction? and under what banner?

The danger, as de Tocqueville always feared, is that democracy slides into a politics of populism - a politics that hinges on a charismatic leader's claim to communicate directly with the sovereign people, and to embody its will. Populist leaders do not in fact embody the popular will; they invent it. But that does not make the claim any less effective. Populist languages flatter the emotions; they promise the isolated and alienated the warm glow of membership of a greater whole; they place the burdens of freedom on someone else's shoulders. Populist appeals can easily be made to sound new, radical, democratic, even - objectionable only to incorrigible reactionaries like fox-hunters and believers in trial by jury. When institutions are in disarray, when an old order has fallen apart and there is no coherent alternative in sight, the easiest way to cut through the resulting contradictions is to appeal directly to the people, over the heads of such intermediaries as remain. Since modern techniques of opinion research are more sophisticated than anything available to the populist leaders of the past, this is much easier than it used to be. The focus group becomes a proxy for Rousseau's "General Will", and the leader's claim to possess a direct line to the people acquires a specious plausibility.

The present government is not irrevocably and monolithically populist; it is torn. But populism is the line of least resistance for ministers trying to balance between incompatible imperatives. I don't want to make your flesh creep. A new Labour populism would be warm and cuddly, not harsh and divisive: a populism of healers, not of warriors. All the same, it would carry two great dangers - one immediate and one longer-term. It would be inclusive, but suffocating; genial, but manipulative. It would marginalise dissent, blanket debate and foster the banalisation of politics. It might also pave the way for an uglier populism, a populism of xenophobia and intolerance, later on.

Can an alternative be distilled from the republican tradition? It would mean a change of mentality and assumption both among leaders and among led. The republican argument for democracy is that it is better - morally better, not just pleasanter or more convenient - to be a free citizen, bearing the burdens of freedom, than one of what de Tocqueville called "the flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd". From that it follows that it is better to allow people to make the wrong choices for themselves than to make the right choices for them. For politicians and publics schooled in the court tradition, that proposition runs against the grain.

Just before he was executed for his part in the doomed Monmouth rebellion of 1685, Richard Rumbold, the old Leveller, distilled the essence of the republican vision in one of the most memorable sentences in British history: "I am sure there was no man born, marked of God above another; for no man comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him." Is Britain at last ready for Rumbold? I wish I knew the answer.

This essay, by the principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, is an edited version of a recent lecture at St Antony's College, Oxford. The full text will be published in July in "Political Quarterly"