. . . and finally

The last word on Blair

Britain is changing before our eyes. From 1 July, people will no longer be allowed to smoke in public places, as the ban is extended to England. Hunting has already been outlawed. For beagles, this represents a double whammy: the poor creatures now have few pleasures left. But there is a further development in the air: from 27 June, the date of his resignation, it will no longer be permitted to discuss Tony Blair in public. No longer will innocent people be subjected to others' views on the theme, or inhale their stale opinions. Pubs, clubs and offices will be transformed, as the air clears and the fog is lifted. Those sad addicts who cannot kick the habit will be forced to huddle under patio heaters on the pavement to indulge their craving. Already, in the Westminster village, helplines have been set up and special areas designated where lifelong Blair devotees can gather and discuss his legacy without fear of harassment.

For me it will be something of a relief, albeit a mixed one. In common with many Labour MPs, I disagreed with most of what he said, but was grateful that he kept me in work. When he became Prime Minister, I remember thinking "What do I do now?". I later realised he must have been thinking the same thing. As it was, through the twists and turns of his career, from the Bambi years - all smiles and seeking to please everybody - through the Alastair Campbell era to the grotesque error of Iraq and the surreal spectacle of his final weeks, where Britain has had a dual-fuel premiership, he has provided more material than one could ever imagine.

I wonder, as he looks back, what Blair makes of it all? What Dorian Gray picture there is in his attic to remind him of the difference between the fresh-faced idealist of 1997 and today's careworn practitioner of realpolitik. His speeches as opposition leader are certainly in marked contrast to the direction he later took. I think it's because, as Neil Kinnock has said, he was always impressed by money, by power and by uniforms. He sought to deal with the rich and powerful and ended up doing so on their terms. Likewise, in seeking to harness the power of the media, he ended up in hock to it, seeking "eye-catching initiatives" and becoming preoccupied with spin.

It will be hard for him to leave the big stage behind: I imagine that in the privacy of his bedroom, Blair is probably very good at playing "air prime minister". He must have loved shooting the breeze with Clinton and Mandela - even felt that when Bush came to power, he could be Bill Clinton to Bush's Blair - the wise, guiding influence of a more experienced, liberal world statesman. We know what happened to that dream. At least Blair can walk away from it all. I bet there are a few troops in Iraq who'd also like to get out just by handing over to their next-door neighbour.

He spoke only two words to me as Prime Minister. When I told him he was making our job too easy, he simply stammered "My kids!", which I took to be a reference to his kids doing impressions of me doing impressions of him. As it was, there was so much about new Labour that was beyond parody. Having in John Prescott a deputy PM who looked more like a National Express coach driver; Reid and Clarke, the home secretaries who moonlighted as night-club bouncers; Blunkett, the unlikely Casanova. The purring Mandelson, incapable of keeping his fingers out of the pie. Whatever else, they provided rich pickings as characters. Blair's departure continues a fire-damage sale at Westminster: a bonfire of the vanities, as all the colourful characters head for the doors. ("This deputy PM MUST GO! This shop-soiled home secretary, no longer fit for purpose! These former Tory and Lib Dem leaders, free to good homes!"). I look at the six candidates for deputy PM and despair. Perhaps they should have taken a leaf from Simon Cowell's book and run the deputy leadership contest as a week-long TV spectacular: "Labour's Got Talent!" Except there's one obvious problem with that. The title.

As I write, we really don't know that much about what Gordon Brown will be like. Will any members of his cabinet be recognisable? Is there a factory somewhere, even now turning out Miliband after Miliband on an assembly line, each indistinguishable from the other? Blair once said, "We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose." Will Brown go a step further? "We campaign in prose but we govern in morse code?" Such is our uncertain future. But at least it will be different. It is the end of an era. The Americans pronounce that as "error". Time will tell.

And what of the legacy? Northern Ireland and devolution are plus points, certainly, but all pales into insignificance beside Iraq. For the rest, will this PM be remembered for any great achievements? Or will he be like the fallen hero of antiquity in Shelley's poem:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Rory Bremner writes for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times