Why Blair is obsessed with history

We seem to be looking back more often these days. Bookshelves around the country, or at least in one or two houses around the country, creak with premature biographies of our senior ministers. Anniversaries relating to the government come and go with alarming frequency. The third year of the first term has just passed, although it only seems like yesterday that we toasted the First Hundred Days. Or was it the First Hundred Years? No, that was the anniversary of the Labour Party's birth, an event that prompted more reflections on the rise of new Labour.

Although ministers stopped choreographing these celebrations long ago, the retrospective spirit chimes with their fragile psyche. The most chronicled administration of modern times is itself obsessed with the past.

In the case of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, their preoccupation lies not so much with the immediate past - although they probably dip into their own biographies (two each, so far, with plenty more to come shortly) - as with the decades that predate new Labour.

One of the many myths about Blair and his entourage is that, as far as they are concerned, history began in July 1994, when the great man acquired the crown. This is as much a misjudgement as is the related perception that Blair has become arrogant with power.

The opposite is the case. Blair's sense of the past, or more precisely Labour's past, has made him cautious. He never for a moment takes power or future victory for granted. He is so anxious that he will spend a sunny bank holiday composing long hand-written letters to the Sun when the newspaper writes a stroppy editorial.

After rising up Labour's ranks during the party's four election defeats, he is not one to wallow in untrammelled power. Much of the time, he behaves as if he has an overall majority of one. Those who voted against new Labour in the local elections and the London contest in order to give the party a good kicking underestimate its own capacity for self-flagellation.

Blair and Brown have learnt some useful lessons from their party's unimpressive electoral past, but history is proving a fickle guide. Recently, Blair has been fairly open about the enormous, sometimes destructive, influence of his past. In apologising for the shambles in Wales, he cited the chaos of the Labour Party in the 1980s. His control-freakery was aimed at avoiding a similar anarchy again, he explained.

Evidently, he has talked at length about this with Roy Jenkins. Recently in the London Evening Standard, Jenkins wrote about a dinner conversation he had with Blair a month ago. Blair genuinely wanted to devolve some power, Jenkins wrote, but could not let go of the Labour Party for fear of a 1980s-style civil war. The past has led him down a hazardous path in Wales and also in London.

Viewing politics through the prism of the 1970s and 1980s is proving increasingly useless, though. There is no great appetite for monolithic parties, full of politicians who all say exactly the same thing. It may be Sod's law, but just as Labour has learnt to present a united front, the people are yearning for some diversity, colour and personality. The Blairites may regard Geoff Hoon as a star turn, but the voters prefer Mo Mowlam.

Labour's devolution programme has created a more varied political structure, in which national party machines are viewed with suspicion and, in some cases, hostility. Those who appear to transcend the machines have started to thrive. They are part of the "anti-politics" fashion that prevails at the moment. Several newspapers, including nearly all those regarded as left-of-centre, are run by editors with only a passing interest in politics. Television producers find it increasingly difficult to get political programmes on to the airwaves. Voters are wary, also, because of the exaggerated talk of sleaze in the 1990s and the main parties' determination to close off any lively internal debate. Ken Livingstone, a charismatic personality and never a stooge of the party machine, proves a vote-winner at the start of the new century. Yet he was a factor in Labour's defeats in 1983 and 1987.

None of this means that voters would tolerate an eruption of public internal rows. Only we journalists enjoy those. It does mean that they would welcome leading politicians expanding their repertoire beyond "what we have achieved is an end to boom and bust".

Talking of which, Mr Prudence at the Treasury is at least as preoccupied by the past as Blair. Brown did not begin his reign as Chancellor, rubbing his hands with glee and declaring: "Wow, I'm the first Labour Chancellor to have inherited a decent economy" - which, in fact, happened to be the case. Instead, his mantra has always been: "I must not make the mistakes of past Labour governments . . ."

Brown has managed the economy through the prism of the 1960s and 1970s. Early on he stated: "We must not make the mistakes of past Labour governments which spent money early on and then had to cut back later." His nightmares have been the devaluation of the 1960s and the humiliation at the hands of the IMF in the 1970s. He was, I am told, especially moody after last month's IMF report, which ticked him off for loosening the fiscal reins. Even tiny echoes of the 1970s send shivers down his back.

As a result, the government spent less on public services in its first two years than the Conservatives would have done if they had been re-elected. Only now is the government getting a grip on public services, which were in a state of crisis when it took office. The delay helped the rise of Livingstone: for three years, London Underground, used by millions of Londoners, has got worse. There was no way a Labour candidate was going to flourish in such circumstances. Livingstone offered a means of punishing the offending government, as well as bringing hope, probably illusory, that as last "something would be done". The mayoral contest has largely been about personalities, but I do not believe that Livingstone would have thrived if the tube were running properly.

At last, three years into power, the government has grown in ambition. Soon it will start to spend substantial sums of money on the National Health Service, as well as to preside over much-needed reform. Other public services should benefit from the Comprehensive Spending Review in July, although improvements will not take effect until after the next election. In the longer term, Europe, electoral reform and welfare also demand bolder action.

But the delay means that ministers will be tackling these issues at a more awkward moment in the political cycle. For two and half years, they had a friendly media and no opposition. Now newspapers such as the Sun are starting to heap plaudits on William Hague.

In the early years, the Blairite entourage used to complain about the lack of opposition. "People would appreciate us more if the Conservatives were more effective in attacking us," some of them would say. I can think of no other government that yearned for the recovery of the main opposition party.

If the Conservatives show signs of sustained improvement, those masochistic strategists would change their mind. They would come to rue the missed opportunities of that early golden period, when newspapers heralded Blair's every move and Hague donned his baseball cap. As it is, the Conservatives still lack a compelling narrative on the electorally decisive policy areas. Crime and asylum will be B-list issues at the next general election.

Those who know Blair well insist that he wants to be much more radical in his second term. Whatever the constraints, they suggest, he seeks his place in history as a radical prime minister, not just a competent one.

Amid all the analyses of who is up and who is down after the 4 May elections, here is the question that matters most: will Blair's sense of history, the source of caution in the first three years, propel him on to radical deeds in the future?

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The tiny group that controls us all