NS Essay - Labour can renew itself only by recognising that Blair has become a dangerous liability
Though the PM likes to compare himself with Thatcher, he looks like ending up as another Major. He,
Tony Blair will never make a mark on history comparable to that left by Margaret Thatcher. Setting out to devise a successor to Thatcherism, he has ended up peddling a pale imitation of it. Thatcher's forced march to modernisation has not been followed by a post-Thatcherite project. Instead, aiming to consolidate Thatcher's inheritance, Blair has embarked on a crusade to entrench a revolution that ran out of steam more than a decade ago. His defiant conference speech - "I can only go one way. I have not got a reverse gear" - may have uncannily echoed Margaret Thatcher's "the lady's not for turning", but there is no parallel between Thatcher's historic impact and Blair's vain aspirations. None the less, just as Thatcher lost power as a result of a revolt in her own party and the public backlash against her hubris, so power is slipping inexorably away from Blair.
It is not that Blair has run out of ideas. He did not need an ideology in order to complete the destruction of the Tories and his lack of one may actually have been an advantage in securing the support of former Conservative voters. Tony Blair is not at risk because Blairism is crumbling away, for no such body of ideas has ever existed. Nor is he vulnerable because he is not trusted - a common disability of politicians, and no great obstacle to success. If Blair fails to make it to the next election, it will be because his judgement has come to be seen as flaky. As the consequences of taking Britain into an unnecessary and unwinnable war become clear, his competence will be increasingly at stake. With a hostile press at his heels, Blair may increasingly appear seriously detached from reality - a perception that proved fatal for Thatcher.
From one angle, Blair's position is stronger than Thatcher's was at any point in her career. He has a mountainous majority and the opposition is non-existent. In the 1980s, the split in Labour that issued in the formation of the Social Democratic Party was the single most important factor that ensured Tory hegemony. Even at its worst, however, Labour's condition was not as parlous as the Tories' is today.
The Conservatives were avowedly a party of institutions, but Thatcher's assault on Britain's institutions - the universities, the BBC and the Church of England, as well as the trade unions - alienated them from the Tories and left them open to colonisation by Blair. The Tories were the party of the Union, but they have been virtually wiped out in Scotland and Wales, where they survive only by courtesy of an electoral system they derided. The Tories were the party of big business, but the sheer battiness of their campaign against the EU frightened off much of that support, and some of it transferred to Blair. The Tories were the party of the establishment - a position they lost for ever when Thatcher's animus against British institutions became unhinged during her last few years in power. Blair's strategy was to co-opt the institutions and assemble a new establishment, and for a while, it succeeded beyond anyone's hopes.
Stronger than Thatcher in these respects, Blair is strikingly more vulnerable in others. At the time she was toppled, Thatcher was hugely popular in her party, enjoying wide and deep support in the constituencies; even in the cabinet, there were Thatcherite true believers. In contrast, Blair is mistrusted and despised in the constituencies; there is no one in the cabinet on whose support he can count. In his recent attempt at a relaunch he has had to trawl among former cabinet members such as Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn for supporters.
Thatcher did not always have the hardline free-market convictions with which she came to be identified. Until she became leader of the party, it was hard to distinguish her outlook from that of many other Tory hopefuls of her time; but the world-view she adopted in office chimed with the instincts of much of her party and a pivotal section of the electorate. By contrast, Labour has never warmed to Blair. It tolerated him because it saw him as a winner. Now his increasingly hysterical incantation of the Tina mantra - "There Is No Alternative" to neoliberal modernisation - is turning off segments of even those parts of the electorate that voted for Thatcher. What is the point of a leader so hopelessly adrift from opinion in his party and the country?
No matter how contrived her media personality may have been, Thatcher embodied the spirit of the age. She understood that the postwar British settlement had broken down irretrievably. True, she was not the first politician to come to that realisation. Denis Healey first understood that the Keynesian economic management and corporatist institutions by which Britain had been ruled since the end of the Second World War were no longer viable. But Thatcher was able - where Labour was not - to break with the ruling consensus. The result was a revolutionary shift in British politics. Thatcher's policies had all the blemishes and human costs that go with revolutions, but they represented a genuine break with the past. Who can say the same of Blair's policies?
At a deeper level, Thatcher's vision of Britain was backward-looking. While she boosted an American-style culture of individualism, she harked back to the repressive mores of postwar Britain. Though she rejected the economic settlement that came out of the Second World War, she dreamt of restoring the kind of society that it had produced. But the social conservatism of the 1950s went hand in hand with the postwar economic settlement. The stuffy suburban Arcadia to which Thatcher looked back with such nostalgia was an artefact of Labour government.
The innermost contradiction of Thatcher's project was in its attempt to remake the economy on narrow, individualist lines while renewing a society based on the authority of the past. Economic life was to be based on freewheeling choice and the pleasures of unrestrained consumption; family life on duty and stoical restraint. It was an impossible combination, and in the event the conflict proved fatal for Thatcher. Her economic policies accelerated changes in society that left the party she had reshaped in her image redundant. She succeeded in forcing a brutal version of modernisation on Britain, but her most lasting legacy may be to have given birth to a country in which her party is irrelevant.
Blair never bewitched his party in the way Thatcher did, and for that reason he has done less damage to it. Unlike the Tories, Labour can renew itself - but only by recognising that Blair has become a dangerous liability. For all the talk of relaunches and big new ideas, Blair cannot recover his position. The damage has been done, and it is irreversible.
Blair himself struck the most fateful blow to his position. When he took Britain to war in Iraq he threw in his lot with George W Bush; but he cannot expect much in the way of gratitude for this gesture. In Washington, he is loathed by the neo-cons for persuading Bush into going the UN route. His constant talk of the need for state-building evokes deep mistrust in American nationalists such as Donald Rumsfeld. There can be no doubt that if Bush's strategists - ruthless pragmatists such as Karl Rove - were to advise him that the war was hurting his presidential chances, he would bring it to an end without hesitation.
As far as Bush is concerned, Iraq is expendable - and so is Tony Blair. The Prime Minister was invaluable to the president in giving the war a veneer of legitimacy. His eloquence in stating the case for war has often been praised, but his lawyerly clarity in fixing on weapons of mass destruction as the chief casus belli has only aggravated the administration's difficulties. From being a priceless asset, he is well on the way to becoming an embarrassment.
In Britain, the Hutton inquiry is unlikely to deal the PM a fatal blow, but its cumulative effect can only weaken his position. Its remit may be restricted to examining the circumstances surrounding Dr David Kelly's death, but the inquiry has already shown that, in making the decision to go to war, Blair did not rely on expert judgement about the nature of Saddam Hussein's threat to Britain, if any. He relied instead on his own moral compass. It is this revelation that may ultimately prove most damaging.
Tony Blair's popularity was at its peak when he seemed to be doing little more than intuit the public mood. The chameleon-like skill in being all things to all people that was so useful in opposition also served him well in his first few years in power. During that period, Blair's finely tuned antennae seemed near-faultless. His success during that period may well be related to his not calling on any reserves of personal belief, but simply responding to events.
It is sometimes said that the Prime Minister has no political beliefs, but a better way of describing him is to say that he believes in something other than politics - his own capacity to judge right from wrong. A consummate trimmer in all matters political, Blair is stubborn and reckless on what he takes to be basic issues of morality in international relations. Some may see this as an admirable trait, but it is also a dangerous one when accompanied - as it is in Blair's case - by a simplistic view of the world.
It seems clear that Blair decided early on that he would support US action in Iraq come what may. This decision was justified by geopolitical reasoning - unilateral American action would have dire consequences for the international system, he argued - but it was not long before British support for the Americans acquired the status of an overriding moral imperative for the Prime Minister. Starting as an exercise in realpolitik, his uncompromising support for US policies soon turned into a moral crusade. In effect, Blair staked his political future on the ethical rectitude of Bush's ill-fated adventure in Iraq.
It is here that a genuine parallel can be found with Margaret Thatcher. She, too, identified herself with certain policies - most notably the poll tax - and persuaded herself that only a lack of resolute will stood in the way of their success. Her immovable stance was her undoing, because it created the impression - not wholly inaccurate - that she had become hubristic and irrational. From that point on, her judgement was no longer trusted. Blair is already in this unhappy position and, as the news from Iraq gets steadily worse, doubts as to his judgement can only grow stronger.
Blair's persona, like Thatcher's, is largely a media construct. From being a fawning Bambi, he has become a weary Caesar - but neither caricature does justice to the complex reality behind the public image. His insistence that he will never deviate from his self-appointed mission to make Labour the vehicle of the orthodoxies of the Thatcher era fails to inspire conviction.
Is it possible that Blair does not understand that history has moved on since Thatcher's time? Or is he laying the ground for his last stand, so that when his message is rejected he can turn his back on his party - a prophet scorned?
At present, Blair resembles John Major more than he does Margaret Thatcher. The recent relaunch is eerily reminiscent of the dog days of the last Major administration, right down to Blair's new campaign (which made the Sunday Times's main front page on the eve of the Labour conference) "to crack down on unnecessary roadworks".
Major was destroyed by a single decision - to go into the exchange rate mechanism at an unsustainable level. His government went down as one of the worst in British history. So far Blair has not brought his party to such a desperate pass, but it will be downhill all the way for Labour so long as he remains leader.
John Gray is professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. His Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals is now in paperback (Granta Books, £8.99)