Maggie's boy

"You were the future, once," David Cameron famously taunted Tony Blair - but, in our final assessmen

A late by-product of the Eighties, Tony Blair will be remembered for using his party as a vehicle for an outdated version of the Thatcher project. Applying the half-truths of the political generation that preceded him, he secured ten years in office and is sometimes described as the most successful leader Labour has had. In fact, he has wasted a decade of unique opportunity and damaged Labour irreparably.

In domestic policy, Blair pursued the neo-Thatcherite strategy of thrusting markets into public institutions while expanding state power. His legacy is a hollowed-out party, which, despite the best efforts of his most likely successor, seems fated to be edged aside by David Camer on's new-model Conservatives. The hegemony that Labour was poised to achieve in 1997 has been frittered away. Whether or not it manages to form a government after the next general election, Labour faces a rerun of the disarray and paralysis suffered by the Tories since the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

Over the past 30 years, the right has been the vehicle for radicalism while the left has been reactive. The pattern continues today. Intriguingly, the Tories are the first to exploit the fact that the Thatcher era is over. Cameron has given voters only a simulacrum of a post-Thatcher project. Despite doffing his cap to local communities, he is unlikely to devolve powers to them. Rather than sweep away the Blairite apparatus of monitoring and targets, he will pretend to make it work. In this, as in much else, Cameron's new Conservatives will follow new Labour, but with a crucial difference: while continuing the neo-Thatcherite trend, they will be talking to the public of other things. The soft rhetoric of green consumerism has replaced new Labour's grating pro-business rant - a shift that appeals to voters who want the benefits of the market while feeling virtuous.

Cameron has grasped the central paradox of the Thatcher era: while it has been highly successful in strictly economic terms, it has bred a generation that wants self-realisation and quality of life as much as material wealth. Thatcher aimed to reinvent a country ruled by old values of duty and family. In fact, by rubbishing the ethos of public service and preaching that there is no such thing as society, she helped create a society in which self-realisation is the overriding ideal. Contemporary Britain is lax in its attitudes to sex and debt and uninterested in "traditional values", but it is still Thatcher's creation. Cameron, by turning his back on her while aligning himself with the values of the society she unwittingly created, has rendered new Labour obsolete.

The coup that created new Labour was a reaction to Thatcher's success. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the project's other architects concluded that, for Labour ever to return to power, it must adopt Thatcher's policies. New Labour was the result of this strategic choice rather than of any change in the basic beliefs of the party.

Yet, under Blair, the party soon became a vehicle for a version of neoliberalism more dogmatic and mechanical than even that which Thatcher had come to represent. Blair not only endorsed the Thatcherite settlement, in which market forces were accepted as beyond political control, he injected market mechanisms into areas Thatcher never envisioned. The core of the state was targeted - with large sections of the prison system, social services and healthcare being contracted out to private suppliers or forced to create internal quasi-markets. Here, Blair was more of a prisoner of ideology than Thatcher. Unlike Thatcher, however, he is a neoliberal by default rather than from conviction. A politician of considerable intuitive gifts but intellectually mediocre, he allowed himself to be shaped by the conventional wisdom of the Eighties.

If a neoliberal by default, Blair was a neo conservative by instinct. Embracing George W Bush's apocalyptic view of the "war on terror", he compromised British freedoms to a degree that Margaret Thatcher - despite having a close acquaintance with the terrorist threat from Brighton in 1984 - never contemplated. Blair's subservience to the White House went far beyond anything ever seen before, tran scending any geopolitical calculation he may have made about the celebrated Anglo-American "special relationship".

Like his fellow neoconservatives in Washington, Blair believes that America embodies the cause of human freedom, and that in any conflict with retrograde regimes it is invincible. His failure to condemn Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo reflected this: no doubt torture, secret jails and concentration camps are unfortunate, but in the long march of humanity they are unimportant. Like the pro-Soviet intellectuals of the Thirties, Blair identified himself with the state he believed to be in the vanguard of history. Confident a new world is coming into being, he views its human casualties as the acceptable cost of progress.

Article of faith

It would be naive to imagine that the grisly farce that unfolded in Iraq in any way dented Blair's confidence in American power. Despite their vastly superior technology, the US forces have suffered strategic defeat at the hands of 20,000 lightly armed insurgents. The US is no more invincible than other western states whose neo-colonial adventures also ended in humiliating débâcles. France was driven out of Algeria and the former Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, for example, though they waged their wars of occupation with ferocious intensity.

For Blair, however, the evidence of history is irrelevant. His belief in America's big battalions is an article of faith - a modern version of the Whig interpretation of history, in which the advance of an Anglo-Saxon version of freedom is seen as divine providence at work - which he shares with Bush. But Blair's faith in American supremacy has another source, in a mistaken reading of the end of the cold war. Along with many others, he perceived the collapse of communism as creating a unipolar world. He overlooked how other great powers were emerging with the advance of globalisation, leading to a loss of US hegemony - a process that has been accelerated by the disaster of Iraq.

Blair's abject relationship with Bush inflicted untold damage on Labour. He has presided over a huge drop in party membership, which has fallen by roughly a half since he became Prime Minister. Few Labour activists joined the party in order to celebrate the military crusades of a fundamentalist US president, while watching Britain's public services descend into chaos as they struggle to adapt to "market reforms".

The strategic decision to embrace Thatcherism may have helped Labour to exploit Conservative divisions, but it has also deprived Labour of much of its reason for existing. Old Labour had many flaws, some fatal, but it embodied a political culture for which people were ready to work. With the destruction of this culture, Gordon Brown has lost a vital resource. In the interests of party management, he insists he will carry on the course set by Blair. But it is not easy to see how a long spell in power can be secured by pressing on with a decision to continue a Thatcherite project that was devised in the mid-Seventies, the impact of which has been to leave Labour an empty shell.

Blair's departure marks a generational shift in politics. The Thatcher narrative, of achieving national renewal by releasing market forces, has dominated politics for the past three decades. And yet, if the country she helped create is somewhat different from the one she envisaged, it is also in some ways more attractive than the one she inherited. Though less cohesive, it is also more tolerant. If it is highly materialistic, it is at the same time aware that its prosperity is fragile.

A threatening truth

The ruling cliché has it that Cameron models himself on Blair. The truth is more complex - and more threatening for Brown. Certainly Cameron owes his PR techniques to Blair, but in this case the medium is less important than the message. Cameron is identifying with the values of voters who know nothing of the struggles of the Eighties. Thatcher's children may decide the next election, but they know that her story belongs in the past, along with new Labour.

For all the presentational stunts, Cameron remains mired in orthodoxy, and once in power he will faithfully implement the bankrupt consensus. The alacrity with which he saved Blair from defeat over Trident - a ruinously expensive cold-war inheritance that serves no useful purpose - shows him to be at one with the rest of the pol itical class in refusing to question Atlanticist pieties. No party has begun to think about where Britain fits in a world where US hegemony is fast vanishing; and, for all their affectation of novelty, the Cameroons are as much prisoners of anachronistic assumptions as Blair.

In practice, there is likely to be little new or different in a government led by Cameron, but, by speaking to the generation Thatcher created, he has stolen a march on Labour. It looks as if, after ten years in power, Blair will bequeath to Labour a long sojourn in the wilderness.

John Gray's next book, "Black Mass: apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia", will be published in July by Allen Lane (£18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

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

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Paul Mason: How the left should respond to Brexit

It's up to the labour movement to rescue the elite from the self-inflected wound of Brexit.

For the first time in a generation there is a tangible split between the Tory leadership and the business elite. Forget the 41 per cent poll rating, forget Theresa May’s claim to have moved towards “the centre”; the most important thing to emerge since the Tory conference is a deep revulsion, among wide sections of normally Conservative voters, at the xenophobia, nationalism and economic recklessness on display.

Rhetorically, May has achieved a lot. She quashed any possibility of a soft Brexit strategy. She ended 30 years of openness to migration. She scrapped the Tories’ commitment to balanced books by 2020 – though she neglected to replace this keystone policy with anything else. And she pledged to stop constitutional scrutiny over the Brexit process from Holyrood, Westminster or the courts.

Yet in reality she achieved nothing. May’s government is not in control of the crucial process that will define its fate – the Brexit negotiations. And on Scotland, she has triggered a sequence of events that could lead to the end of the UK within the next five years.

In the light of this, the left has to be refocused around the facts that have emerged since the referendum on 23 June. Britain will leave the EU – but it faces a choice between May’s hubristic nonsense and a strategy to salvage 30 years of engagement with the biggest market in the world. Scotland will hold its second referendum. Labour will be led through all this by a man who, for the first time in the party’s history, cannot be relied on to do the elite’s bidding.

Brexit, on its own, need not have caused a great shift in British politics. It is the new, visceral split between Tory xenophobia and the implicitly liberal and globalist culture in most boardrooms that makes this a turning point. It is a challenge for the left as big as the ones Labour faced in 1931, when the gold standard collapsed; or in 1940, when the reality of total war dawned. It represents a big opportunity – but only if we jolt our brains out of the old patterns, think beyond party allegiances, and react fast.

Let’s start with the facts around which May, Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd constructed their rhetorical body swerve at the Tory conference. Britain is £1.7trn in debt. Its budget deficit cannot be eradicated by 2020 because, even on the steroids of quantitative easing, growth is low, wages are stagnant and its trade situation deeply negative. Austerity, in short, did not work.

With sterling weakened, by next year we’ll begin to feel the pressure of imported inflation on real wages, re-creating the economic pain of 2011-12. On top of that, by attempting a “hard Brexit”, May has created damaging uncertainty for investment that no degree of short-term positivity can mitigate. Even if the range of outcomes only widens, investment will get delayed – and with May’s commitment to hard Brexit the range of outcomes will get significantly worse: 7.5 per cent lopped off GDP, according to a leaked Treasury assessment.

Civil servants believe Britain’s negotiating position is so weak that it will have to leverage its intelligence-providing services to Europe and concede “free movement of high-skilled workers”, just to persuade the French and the Germans to cut any kind of decent bilateral deal. Yet in the two years of brinkmanship that begin when Article 50 is triggered, the EU27 will have no reason whatsoever to concede favourable terms for bilateral trade. By adopting hard Brexit and hard xenophobia, Theresa May has scheduled a 24-month slow-motion car crash.

To orient the Labour Party, trade unions and the wider progressive movement, we need first to understand the scale of the break from normality. Labour already faced deep problems. First, without Scotland it cannot govern; yet many of its members in Scotland are so dislocated from the progressive Scottish national movement that the party is bereft of answers.

Next, the old relationship between the urban salariat and the ex-industrial working class has inverted. With a vastly expanded membership, Labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia – the cities that voted to stay in Europe. Its electoral battlegrounds are now places such as Bury, Nuneaton, Corby and Portsmouth, where the “centre” (as measured by the Lib Dem vote) has collapsed, to be replaced by thousands of Green voters and thousands more voting Ukip.

This was the known problem on the eve of Brexit, though layers of Labour MPs and councillors refused to understand it or respond to it. The solution to it was, even at that point, obvious: Labour can only attract back a million Green voters and hundreds of thousands of Ukip voters in winnable marginals with a combination of social liberalism and economic radicalism.

The alternative, as outlined in the Blue Labour project of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, was an overt return to social conservatism. That cannot work, because it might win back some ex-Labour Ukip voters but could not inspire Labour’s new urban core to go on the doorstep and fight for it. On the contrary, it could easily inspire many of them to tear up their membership cards.

A new strategy – to combine social liberalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism with left-wing economic policies aimed at reviving the “communities left behind” – was, for me, always the heart of Corbynism. Jeremy Corbyn himself, whatever his personal strengths and weaknesses, was a placeholder for a political strategy.

Brexit, the attempted Labour coup and the Tory swing to hard Brexit have changed things all over again. And Labour’s leadership needs to move fast into the political space that has opened up. The starting point is to understand May’s administration as a regime of crisis. It is held together by rhetoric and a vacuum of press scrutiny, exacerbated by Labour’s civil war and the SNP’s perennial dithering over strategy to achieve Scottish independence. The crisis consists of the perils of hard Brexit combined with a tangible split between the old party of capital and capital itself. The elite – the bankers, senior managers, the super-rich and the ­upper middle class – do not want Brexit. Nor does a significant proportion of Middle Britain’s managerial and investing classes.




All this presents Labour with a series of achievable goals – as an opposition in Westminster, in London, as the likely winner in many of the forthcoming mayoral battles, and at Holyrood. The first aim should be: not just oppose hard Brexit, but prevent it. This entails the Labour front bench committing to an attempt to remain inside the European Economic Area.

The wariness – shared by some on the Corbyn side, as well as the Labour right – is born of the assumption that if you commit to the single market, you must accept free movement of labour. The party’s new spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer, expressed perfectly what is wrong with this approach: first it’s a negotiation, not a finished relationship; second, you start from the economics, not the migration issue.

Leaving the single market will be a macroeconomic disaster, compounded by a social catastrophe, in which all the European protections – of citizens’ rights, labour rights, consumer and environmental standards – will get ripped up. That’s why the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.

John McDonnell’s “red lines”, produced hurriedly in the days after Brexit, embody this principle – but not explicitly. McDonnell has said Labour would vote against any Brexit deal that did not involve some form of single-market access, and preserve the City’s passporting arrangement, where banks are authorised to trade across an entire area without having to be incorporated separately in each country. Freedom of movement is not included in the red lines.

May, meanwhile, insists there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating stance, or of the outcome. This position cannot stand, and overthrowing it provides a big, early target for Labour and the other opposition parties. They should use their constitutional influence – not only in Westminster but at Holyrood, Cardiff and the mayor-run cities, to bust open the Conservatives’ secrecy operation.

By declaring – formally, in a written pact – that they will refuse to ratify a Brexit deal based on World Trade Organisation tariffs, the progressive parties can destroy May’s negotiating position in Brussels overnight. Let the Conservative press accuse us of being “citizens of the world”, undermining the national interest. They will dig their own political grave even faster.

In parallel, Labour needs to lead – intellectually, morally and practically – the fight for a coherent, pro-globalist form of Brexit. In order for this to embody the spirit of the referendum, it would have to include some repatriation of sovereignty, as well as a significant, temporary retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left need to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.

In response, Labour needs to design a proposal that permits and encourages high beneficial migration, discourages and mitigates the impact of low-wage migration and – forgotten in the rush to “tinder box” rhetoric by the Blairites – puts refugees at the front of the queue, not the back. At its heart must be the assurance, already given to three million EU-born workers, that they will not be used as any kind of bargaining chip and their position here is inviolable.

Finally Labour needs to get real about Scotland. The recent loss of the council by-election in Garscadden, with a 20 per cent swing to the SNP, signals that the party risks losing Glasgow City Council next year.

It is a problem beyond Corbyn’s control: his key supporters inside Scottish Labour are long-standing and principled left-wing opponents of nationalism. Which would be fine if tens of thousands of left-wing social democrats were not enthused by a new, radical cultural narrative of national identity. Corbyn’s natural allies – the thousands of leftists who took part in the Radical Independence Campaign – are trapped outside the party, sitting inside the Scottish Greens, Rise or the left of the SNP.

The interim solution is for Scottish Labour to adopt the position argued by its deputy leader, Alex Rowley: embrace “home rule” – a rejigged devo-max proposal – and support a second independence referendum. Then throw open the doors to radical left-wing supporters of independence. If, for that to happen, there has to be a change of leadership (replacing Kezia Dugdale), then it’s better to do it before losing your last bastion in local government.

The speed with which Labour’s challenge has evolved is a signal that this is no ordinary situation. To understand how dangerous it would be to cling to the old logic, you have only to extrapolate the current polls into an electoral ground war plan. Sticking to the old rules, Labour HQ should – right now – be planning a defensive campaign to avoid losing 60 seats to May. Instead, it can and must lay a plan to promote her administration’s chaotic demise. It should have the ambition to govern – either on its own, or with the support of the SNP at Westminster.

To achieve this, it must confront the ultimate demon: Labour must show willing to make an alliance with the globalist section of the elite. Tony Blair’s equivocation about a return to politics, the constant noise about a new centrist party, and signs of a Lib Dem revival in local by-elections are all straws in the wind. If significant sections of the middle class decide they cannot live with Tory xenophobia, the liberal centre will revive.

The best thing for Labour to do now is to claim as much of the high ground before that. It must become the party of progressive Brexit. The worst thing would be to start worrying about “losing the traditional working class”.

The “traditional working class” knows all too well how virulent Ukip xenophobia is: Labour and trade union members spend hours at the pub and in the workplace and on the doorstep arguing against it.

All over Britain, the labour movement is a line, drawn through working-class communities, which says that migrants are not to blame for poor housing, education, low pay and dislocated communities. For the first time in a generation Labour has a leader prepared to say who is to blame: the neoliberal elite and their addiction to privatisation, austerity and low wages.

It was the elite’s insouciance over the negative impacts of EU migration on the lowest-skilled, together with their determination to suppress class politics inside Labour, that helped get us into this mess. An alliance with some of them, to achieve soft Brexit, democratic scrutiny and to defeat xenophobic solutions, must be conditional.

We, the labour movement, will dig the British ruling class out of a self-made hole, just as we did in May 1940. The price is: no return to the philosophy of poverty and inequality; a strategic new deal, one that puts state ownership, redistribution and social justice at the heart of post-Brexit consensus.

That is the way forward. If Labour politicians can bring themselves to explain it clearly, cajole the party apparatus out of its epic sulk and make a brave new offer to Scotland – it can work. But time is important. We are up against a corrosive nationalist bigotry that now echoes direct from the front page of the Daily Mail to Downing Street. Every day it goes unchallenged it will seep deeper into Britain’s political pores.

Paul Mason is the author of “PostCapitalism: a Guide to Our Future” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge