Blair may be clever, but his arrogance could destroy Labour

Anthony Bevins ("Why Tony Blair is the greatest", 17 January) is wrong to say that Blair is the most intelligent politician of modern times - although he may be the cleverest. Of the Oxford-educated politicians of the past century, he probably has the intellectual edge over Harold Wilson, and he certainly outclasses Margaret Thatcher with her philistine tunnel vision. However, cleverness is not intelligence, and by his arrogance and intolerance of different viewpoints, which new Labour defines as "dissent", Blair is betraying much of the narrow, Thatcherite dogmatism that has destroyed the Conservative Party.

Bevins unwittingly makes this point by arguing that Blair "knows where he wants to go, decides how to get there and then does it". Much the same could have been said of Hitler or Stalin or, to draw the parallel that Blair's own acolytes like to make, Napoleon. Blair defines politics as an onward march towards defined goals; anyone who gets in the way is manipulated or crushed. There is no calculation of alternatives, no interest in ideas, and certainly no appreciation that politics is the art of the possible. Intelligent politicians, such as Disraeli or the much-maligned Clement Attlee, understand the need to mobilise coalitions, look after their own people and tolerate opposition inside and outside their parties. Blair drives on without any regard for the consequences. It is no surprise that he admires Gladstone. Yet Gladstone drove his party into the splits of 1886 and the Liberals spent 20 years in the wilderness.

In the short run, firm government pays dividends. But the damage being done to Labour's Broad Church is obvious to anyone who observes the shrivelling of Labour's grass roots and the poor results in the 1999 elections. An intelligent politician would be alarmed by these developments, but alas, Labour is under the grip of a leader who is incapable of understanding that there might be a worm in the bud. True intelligence has a rounded appreciation of the world. Blair's psychopathology is that of a politician who thinks in straight lines and rigid dogmas. The only question is how long new Labour's superficial cleverness will take to crumble, and how much damage will be done to Labour and the body politic in the meantime.

Trevor Fisher

Is intelligence really synonymous with greatness as Anthony Bevins suggests? Granted, Blair is preferable to most of his postwar predecessors, but are we not starting from quite a low base point? I would have thought that Blair's most striking qualities were good fortune and an ability to deflect trouble and attract credit.

The NHS is in a bigger mess now than when he promised to rescue it three years ago. And what is Blair's response to the deepening global environmental threats posed by climate change and pollution? To sign up, in effect, to Thatcher's disastrous, misconceived vision of a "great car economy". He's barely been tested in foreign affairs. Poor Nick Brown was left swinging in the wind over the French beef crisis. The unions have been brought to heel - but largely by others, not Blair. Ditto with the economy.

Where is the radicalism of Blair's thought and action that is necessary to tackle the anti-competitive, restrictive practices that continue to hold back the reform of the legal and medical professions, to the continuing detriment of consumer and citizen. I see little of it.

Pure intelligence is a fine quality. But true greatness is rare without constant application of the "right brain" qualities of imagination, creativity, emotional insight and intuition.

It is not enough for a prime minister to be a great managerialist, the best chief executive of UK plc we have seen. There is such a thing as society, too.

Judy Jones
Malmesbury, Wiltshire

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands