Luck and The Thing

As he bows out, Tony Blair may reflect that, helped by good fortune, he has left his country a more

Leaders are never easy to judge. Part of their job is to dazzle, disguise and deflect attention. Some who, close up, appear to command all around them, defining the age, come, in retrospect, to appear more like minnows, carried along by the currents of history. Others, more modest, in retrospect turn out to have laid the foundations for the future.

Tony Blair, more than most leaders, will confound the judges and juries for a long time to come. Few will doubt that he became an extraordinarily skilled politician. His was a bravura exposition of the craft. He effortlessly found the dead centre of public opinion. He articulated it with ease and showed again and again that the most important quality in any leader is resilience - the ability to weather shocks and disasters with a smile.

That resilience was helped by the fact that he achieved so many of his stated goals. He rebuilt the Labour Party as a winning machine. This was not something he cared about much for its own sake, but it was quite an achievement all the same (even if the tools that helped him succeed later left the party somewhat hollowed out, just as the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher and the Saatchis hollowed out the Conservatives). He then made Labour a successful party of government, and the envy of others around the world. He turned around the long demoralisation and underinvestment in public services, and, incidentally, left public servants better paid than those in the private sector in every region of Britain bar one. He did much to alleviate the ugly poverty that was such a disastrous legacy of the 1980s. Although much poverty remains, most British cities have quite a different feel from the sullen fatalism of 20 years ago, while mass unemployment is now a dim memory. And he carried through bolder constitutional reform than any other prime minister of the modern era.

All these achievements were shared by his colleagues, especially Gordon Brown; future historians may bracket their administrations together. They are the achievements of a sane and decent social democratic administration, and they have left Britain, for most of its citizens, a more pleasant place to live.

Yet the achievements come with caveats. My guess is that many future critics could say that Blair's skills as a politician may have diminished his longer-term impact. The truly great leaders bring with them a grit, anger and a willingness to go against the grain that often make their careers turbulent roller-coasters. They become associated with a body of ideas that begins on the margins of their society but, at a certain point, through struggle, becomes the common sense. Just think of Churchill or Gladstone, de Gaulle or Gandhi. Blair was certainly not lacking in bravery. But his boldest risks were not taken in the name of a new idea: instead, most of them were guaranteed to have the centre ground of opinion on his side.

Two centuries ago, William Cobbett described the establishment in Britain as "The Thing": utterly convinced of its own rightness and utterly resistant to change. Today's establishment may appear more reasonable, but it is every bit as powerful. Its strength explains much about the virtues and vices of new Labour's time in government. Two centuries ago the centre of gravity of "The Thing" lay in the aristocracy and the leading factions of the main parties. Today, the aristocracy (and monarchy) are at its edge. Its centre of gravity lies in the media and business. It includes swaths of the senior civil service (though most are somewhat to its left), some of parliament, and the "international class" in every profession. It is firmly committed to market capitalism. It is internationalist, more pro-American than pro-European, and divided on questions of social order.

Labour's ability to court "The Thing", to convince it that the new government would not be a threat and might actually do some good, was the precursor to victory. It meant that Labour ruled from the centre in more senses than one, co- opting, flattering and recruiting an extraordinary army of business leaders, artists, writers and consultants to its cause. All of this was made easier because Blair embodied the liberal end of "The Thing". Unlike his predecessors, he didn't have to pretend to care about the views of business leaders and newspaper editors: much of the time, the respect was genuine.

Embracing the establishment

This alliance helped Labour to marginalise the Conservatives and appear, against all odds, as a natural party of government. Yet this alliance also explains Labour's most visible scandals - all of which blew up when the effort to embrace the new establishment overshot. From Bernie Ecclestone's £1m donation, through the twists and turns of David Blunkett's personal relationships, to the unfolding of the cash-for-peerages scandal, this has been the consistent leitmotif of the Blair years. It also explains much about the contours of new Labour's radicalism. Revising Clause Four or upping the ante on public service reform were bold gambits, but they were ones in which Blair could be confident that the vocal centre ground (or rather centre right) would be cheering from the sidelines. Even the gamble on Iraq fits the same pattern. By contrast, the gambles he eschewed - such as an earlier and bolder stance on climate change, or fuller constitutional reform, or joining the euro - were issues on which that conventional wisdom was either opposed or divided.

This highlights the other ambiguity of his legacy. More than any other prime minister in recent history, Blair has been lucky in domestic affairs: lucky in that he inherited an economy well placed for growth; lucky in that he didn't preside over a world recession; and lucky in that he came to power at a time when Britain was relatively free from titanic social struggles such as the miners' strike or the riots of the 1980s. He brilliantly made the most of this luck - and his record in domestic affairs will be seen as overwhelmingly positive, particularly for the many in society whose interests had almost disappeared from the radar of the elite during the 1980s and 1990s. This achievement is less visible to the opinion-forming middle class in London (few of whose friends have benefited from policies such as tax credits). But it is the main expla n ation for the continued strength of Labour's electoral support.

There have, of course, been mistakes. Management of the hefty investment in health was often flawed - but overpaid doctors are preferable to the collapsing services that we'd be seeing if there hadn't been such a huge infusion of funds. The encouragement of gambling and 24-hour drinking, and the failure to rein in an often malign media - the aristocrats of contemporary Britain - have left British culture harsher and nastier than it need be. But the big judgements in domestic affairs were broadly right.

Blair's skill, and luck, in domestic affairs contrast strikingly with a different position in foreign affairs, where he combined great energy with extraordinary bad luck. The man who wanted to make Britain a leader in Europe, and at ease in this new role, coincided in office with several of the weakest leaders the European Commission has ever had, and a period of unprecedented public disappointment in the European project. He was unlucky when it came to his fellow leaders. Some, such as Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi, were dire examples of the corrupt and incompetent (I suspect that future historians will marvel at Blair's poor taste when it came to holidays with the man with the bandanna).

He has been even more unlucky with America. A strong relationship with Bill Clinton gave way to an equally strong relationship with George W Bush. But where Clinton was cautious and measured, Bush and his neoconservative allies have turned out to be wild risk-takers, inspired by an extraordinarily unrealistic view of how the world works, and largely careless of their allies.

I'm one of those who think that there were good grounds for intervention in an Iraq that wanted the world to believe it had WMDs. But a narrow alliance with a flawed US leadership never looked like a wise bet, and the Iraq débâcle has inevitably overshadowed Blair's domestic successes. He is particularly unlucky in this regard because in the longer run his arguments for international intervention may come to be seen as prescient. In the late 1990s, he was the first major leader to understand that a new era of interdependence would spell the end of 19th-century ideas of national sovereignty.

The world's responsibility to protect citizens from their own states will be one of the defining ideas of the 21st century, as will the world's responsibility to look after its common resources. A more active and interventionist global community remains the only alternative to an ugly future in which deadly weapons circulate more freely and the world's common resources are plundered and run down. Blair's cheerleading, browbeating and coalition-building over Africa and climate change may not have achieved all he wanted, and many of his efforts were undermined by Bush's unwillingness to collaborate. But they look like heroic partial successes, in a different league from the paltry attempts of his peers.

For progressives, disappointment is tempered by the fact that Blair leaves behind a Britain that is no longer a Conser vative nation. Margaret Thatcher thought she had changed the country irreversibly, but she and her chorus line over estimated her success. They failed to see that "The Thing" saw little of the social costs that accompanied her rule and cared little about her most cherished goals, such as recreating Victorian values and the family.

The Britain of today is a fairly social-democratic country, in which ideas that once languished on the far left are mainstream, and in which David Cameron has no choice but to dress himself in liberal clothes. Even the policies that so many liberals dislike - the coercive activism on asylum and criminal justice - reflected a government that was in touch with public opinion and determined to block a Conservative revival.

An impressive balance

Blair made many compromises with "The Thing". But he also left it changed, slightly more decent, more responsible, less ashamed to care. Where some leaders become more brittle, he matured in office, becoming ever more interested in finding the right answers rather than the easy ones. It is a great paradox that a man accused of being all spin regularly upbraided civil servants and advisers for giving him expedient, incremental options rather than choices based on first principles.

This is where the historians will find it hard to decide. Was he a supremely competent pragmatist, brilliant at adapting to circumstance? Or was he a man of conviction, repeatedly willing to risk his own skin? Comments he made on Pontius Pilate in the mid-1990s are telling. "The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate's advisers telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion." Blair then cites the Munich agreement of 1938, the Reform Act 1832 and the Corn Laws. "It is not always clear, even in retrospect, what is, in truth, right. Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient? Christianity is optimistic about the human condition, but not naive. It can identify what is good, but knows the capacity to do evil. I believe that the endless striving to do the one and avoid the other is the purpose of human existence. Through that comes progress."

It is far too soon to judge whether Tony Blair was on the side of progress, whether he struck the right balance between doing what is right and doing what is expedient. His most visible mistake - Iraq - arose from doing what he thought was right, not what was expedient. His greatest successes came about when a steady moral compass was combined with tactical agility and pragmatism. As always with history, how Blair is judged will depend on what happens next: whether Britain remains a centrist society; whether it continues what now looks like a sustained bounce back from its long decline in the 20th century; whether the Middle East descends further into chaos. My guess is that, in most things, he will be seen to have struck an impressive balance. But we should be wary of instant judgements. Only the future will make sense of the present and determine who looks wise and who looks foolish.

Geoff Mulgan, former head of policy in Downing Street, is director of the Young Foundation

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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