Why Tony Blair is a Bobo

The bourgeois bohemian has succeeded the yuppy. Cristina Odoneargues that the term explains almost e

It is 8.30am on a Monday, and Starbucks in Notting Hill, west London, is full of men and women sipping skinny latte and dunking biscotti in their cappuccinos. The look is uniform, a kind of upmarket casualness crowned by teeny James Joyce specs. But while some scribble in notepads and tug their chins like intellectuals at a Left Bank cafe, others hide behind the pink pages of the FT and talk into mobile phones about mergers and acquisitions.

Once upon a time, you would never find the bourgeois in his corporate pinstripes and designer gismos sitting cheek by jowl with the bohemian who wore brown sandals and signed petitions for the legalisation of cannabis and the banning of the bomb. Today, you can hardly tell them apart: he is probably behind the legalisation of cannabis; she has her mobile in her Incas hand-dyed basket. The bohemian and the bourgeois don't just share clothes from Gap and tables at Starbucks; they share values, aspirations and lifestyle. Indeed, they share so much that they have merged into one - the Bobo, or bourgeois bohemian.

An American author called David Brooks identified the type earlier this year, in his bestselling book Bobos in Paradise, as the new elite that sets the tone for the new millennium. But the phenomenon seems to me to go beyond America and to be more than purely sociological. It explains almost everything about the current generation of social-democratic leaders in the west, and particularly about Tony Blair. And it suggests that those who look for a coherent political philosophy from the Third Way are looking for the wrong thing: the Third Way is not a political movement at all; it is a lifestyle movement.

Bobo culture is the Third Way between the radical counter-culture of the 1960s and the laissez-faire materialism of the 1980s. Its exponents are well-educated professionals who try to reconcile their adult success with their youthful anti-establishment instincts: they may be prime minister, but they once wore long hair and played in a rock band. Bobos uphold the Puritan work ethic and bourgeois ambition, but condemn crass materialism and overt snobbery. They believe in healthy living, they care for the environment, they value art and creativity. Bobos work hard and earn well, but their icons are not Rockefeller and Rothschild but Ben & Jerry and Richard Curtis - laid back, jean-clad folk who just happen to earn millions "while pursuing their creative vision". A Bobo wouldn't be caught dead in a flashy car, but he'll spend thousands on an industrial refrigerator in which he can store his vine-ripened tomatoes and home-made ciabatta. He'd steer clear of exhibitionist anti-intellectual millionaires such as Donald Trump, but would genuflect to a high-profile, high-earning prof like Anthony Giddens.

The sprouting of Bobos is nothing new. From the English Romantics in the 19th century to the French left-wing intellectuals in the 1950s, there have been flocks of anti-establishment rebels who mellowed with age (and financial need) into establishment gurus. But today's Bobos come in unprecedented numbers, constituting an entire social strata, rather than a small cult. Their proliferation is down to the spread of prosperity and social mobility. In the past, the upwardly mobile aspired to the lifestyles of their social betters. This new swelling middle class does not want to go hunting or to dress up for formal dinners, but nor would it subscribe to a manifesto banning cars. It is a meritocracy for the information age which prefers a subscription to Wired to membership of White's or Pratt's. It is an elite that is anti-elitist, and it has made too many compromises to have any taste for ideology, whether it is envious collectivism, selfish Thatch-erism or rabid anarchism.

The Bobo politicians understand this - and none better than Blair, the biggest Bobo of them all. Even if Blair doesn't get a mention in Bobos in Paradise (Bill Clinton, instead, merits three pages), Brooks's guide to the new elite seems an Identikit of the governing class in Britain. These are men and women whose radical student youth (remember Peter Mandelson's communist salad days and Alan Milburn's involvement in the International Marxist Group) shaped their sensibility, but whose adult aspirations fall well within bourgeois conventions - reaching, and staying at, the top of the establishment tree.

New Labour Bobos were brought up in the caring, sharing 1960s, and at university they listened to the Sex Pistols; but they went on to become lawyers and civil servants with homes in Islington and Notting Hill. They may wish for Cool Britannia, but they have a healthy respect for money, such as Bernie Ecclestone's and Ken Follett's and Lord Levy's. They may still be in awe of bad-boy artists such as Oasis, but they warn us off smoking and violent television and porn on the net.

New Labour Bobos have watched their political predecessors on the box, and witnessed Arthur Scargill rant and rave against tyranny and Margaret Thatcher rant and rave against anarchy. Both failed - and if there is one thing all Bobos share, it is a fear of failure. As a result, Blair's Bobos do not conceive of our political arena as a battleground for fiercely opposing fanatics; rather, they view it as a space where middle-class professionals - former lawyers, teachers, journalists - can try to weave the best elements of left and right into a new national agenda.

These politicos boast that they have peeled off the old labels and exploded the old caricatures. The confrontation of opposites has given way to the co-opting of different approaches: a bit of caring-sharing here, a bit of three-strikes-and-you're-out there. For them, nothing is mutually exclusive. They send out conservative-sounding messages ("tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"; keeping Chris Woodhead as education tsar), as well as liberal-sounding ones (dropping the Lords and cutting the gay age of consent to 16). As Brooks says, Bobo politicians don't debate, or initiate, so much as "triangulate" - finding that elusive third option that blends together what were once irreconcilables.

Triangulation allows Gordon Brown to declare that he would balance the Budget without Budget cuts, and improve public services without increasing taxes. No more old Labour sermons about self-sacrifice for the welfare of the community, or Thatcherite talk of looking out for number one. Bobos in government release us from the need to choose between austerity or greed - we can have a New Deal that makes us feel we're doing something for the less fortunate, but also a courtship of big business that keeps the corporate world sweet.

It's a high-wire balancing act that can lead to confusion: where does the Bobo's new Labour stop being Labour and become Tory? Is it compassionate conservatism or wishy-washy liberalism?

The other danger is that it stifles brave initiative: if your mission is to reconcile, you dare not offend anyone, and you keep your eyes on the press and polls, rather than on the policies and people. If you believe in a pick'n'mix of ideological maxims, it is near impossible to come up with a cohesive and consistent set of principles to frame your vision. Soon, even the most indifferent electorate will ask how you propose to continue squaring the ideological circle - talking of the importance of the family while cutting married people's allowances; speaking of ethical foreign policy while selling arms to oppressive regimes; urging women to work but ignoring their calls for better and cheaper childcare. Three years on, in fact, triangulation risks feeling like strangulation.

The Bobo politician would argue, and a lot of Bobos seem to buy this, that this hybrid philosophy has made for a kinder, gentler world, in which the destructive excesses of the 1960s and 1980s have been reined in. We've taken the best from both eras: the sensitivity of the flower child with the drive of the masters of the universe; the hippy's appreciation of the natural world around us and the bourgeois's faith in the family. And we're governed by politicians who don't stampede over every individual right like a nanny state run amok, or turn their heads the other way and leave us to it.

The rub is that, in their fusion of right and left, it is not only combat which has faded from the political arena, it is conviction. For the Bobo, conviction means buying his cappuccino made with Cafedirect and toothpaste made with all-natural ingredients by tribesmen in the Andes. Anything beyond that smacks of ideals and ideology - and there's room for neither in the Bobos' paradise.

This article first appeared in Why Tony Blair is a Bobo

2000-07-31