“A return to what we are really about, what we believe in, would be healthy journey for our country as well as the Labour Party… There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We all know this, of course, but it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language.”
Tony Blair wrote these words in the foreword to Reclaiming the Ground, a slim volume of essays on Christianity and socialism published last year. Long before John Major dreamed up the slogan, “back to basics”, Blair had embarked on his own search for the values that underpin society. It has been a delicate journey for him, fraught with hazards and rewards.
Blair is no longer regarded as the enthusiastic young pretender of the Kinnock era, who bounced his way on to Labour’s front bench and Britain’s television studios in the 1980s. He is now by far and away the man most likely to be the next leader of the Labour Party, although that prize is by no means guaranteed.
He began to raise his game a few years ago by attempting to reposition Labour after it had been caught in a pincer between the Tories’ enduring electoral success and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Labour movement is quick to sneer, and he got his fair share of mockery for setting himself up as the party’s philosopher king. All the same, his critics began to treat him rather more seriously from then on.
His timing has been impeccable. He was talking about moral issues and his concern for the place of the individual in the community before he was made shadow home secretary. Although the Tories claim to be setting the agenda on crime and the family, Blair has kept one step ahead of them. In the aftermath of the Jamie Bulger case, with divorce laws and child maintenance under scrutiny and the welfare state under attack, the public is beginning to expect more from politicians than just the usual knockabout stuff.
Blair believes there is an ideological vacuum, post-Thatcher, that the Tories have been unable to fill. He is not surprised that there is a whiff of moral panic in the air, because people are feeling genuinely uncertain about the principles they want to govern their lives. He believes it would be a great mistake for the left to dismiss people’s anxieties as a passing phenomenon stirred up by the tabloids.
By calling for “back to basics”, the Tories have stumbled into natural Labour territory, he says. “We’ve been hesitant about arguing our case because we’ve been reluctant to be drawn into what seems to be a narrow argument about morality.” It is more than that, he insists. “It is about respect for other people, fairness, social justice and equality of opportunity. These are good values for Labour to put across.”
Blair was in short-trousers in the 1960s, and now considers the legacy of that era mixed. He says it is daft, absurd even (two of his favourite words in this debate) to blame the sixties for everything. He is all in favour of the permissive society. “No one would want to go back to the days when, if you were gay, you repressed it, and women stayed in the home. The left was very important in opening up all these areas of debate.”
But he points to an interesting contradiction that arose at the time between the left’s theory and practice. People on the left have always been motivated by a passion for improving the lives of individuals. Somewhere along the line, that got confused with both social libertarianism and Marxist economics – the idea that rules do not matter and that people cannot be held responsible for their actions. “For many people, Marxist economics became a way of saying ‘I’m avoiding making a judgement about society.’”
There are advantages, says Blair, to believing in a market economy. “The clearer you are about that, the easier it is to say that there are certain things it cannot achieve.” As he sees it, at the beginning of the century, there was “a great movement” to enhance people’s opportunities by means of collective power: free education, municipal housing, public health care, the first principles of national insurance and so on. But, in time, this led to the creation of a large public sector, with built-in bureaucracies and vested interests, which the taxpayer funded and came to resent. “Inevitably, there was going to be a reaction in the name of the individual, and that’s what Thatcherism was.
“The basic principle that lay behind these great collective institutions was the notion of cooperation between people.” He still wants that ethic to apply today, but he has redefined it to fit his belief in a partnership between the individual and the community. He would like to see greater decentralisation, and more of a mix between the public, the private and the voluntary sector.
It is a very sensitive terrain for a Labour politician. Most members of the shadow cabinet are keeping their heads down. The problem is this. To say nothing is to cede the whole debate about crime, family breakdown and other social issues to the Tories. To say anything more than “Hands off the welfare state” risks giving Tory right-wingers the go-ahead to dismantle it. Peter Lilley and Michal Portillo have already plundered the arguments of Labour politicians to justify their own long-term review of social security spending.
Blair is more careful than most, and they only rarely fling his words back in Labour’s face. He is convinced that he is advocating something very different to the Tories. “The idea is not to provide a safety net welfare state, which only comes into operation when people are destitute, but to lift people out of poverty by offering equality of opportunity. The right wants to set up a situation in which you disintegrate society, leaving the majority resenting every single penny that they pay in tax to recipients of state handouts.”
An old tune, but one that he thinks is worth repeating, is that, “The more that a young person grows up with a stake in society, with the chance of getting a job and some prosperity, the more likely they are to be a responsible member of society.”
He is not interested in what he calls the “political correctness of the right”. Manifested in ideas about providing hostels for single mothers or “rewarding” stable families with a higher place in the queue for a council house (although David Blunkett has ventured, sometimes clumsily, into this territory). He really is talking about going back to basics: about education and parenting.
It is absolutely fundamental to him that notions of right and wrong and respect for others are learned as children. He is convinced they have to be taught: they are not innate values. “If you don’t provide children with rules, somebody else will. It is ridiculous to suppose that people grow up in a vacuum.”
Christianity has provided Blair with his own moral framework. Although he attended a chorister’s school, he did not have a particularly religious upbringing (he describes his father a more atheist than agnostic). His Christian beliefs were formed at university, at the same time as his commitment to socialism. He is understandably wary about entangling his religious and political views, since the Labour Party dislikes piety and the God-squad tendency. He almost backed off writing the foreword to Reclaiming the Ground lest people confuse him with the kind of sanctimonious American politicians who is never seen without a Bible and claims God is no his side.
“The values that underpin Christianity are good values and people can respond to them whether they believe or not,” he insists. He does not want to over-emphasise the importance of religion to his views. But he and his wife go to church regularly and take their children with them. He is not leaving their moral education to chance.
One of the surprises of Reclaiming the Ground was just how many front-bench labour politicians turned out to be practising Christians: John Smith, Paul Boateng, Hilary Armstrong and Chris Smith were also among the contributors. Christian socialism has long antecedents in the Labour movement, but it was easier for people to keep their beliefs private in the days when the party had a stronger secular sense of its core values.
Tony Blair is trying to define Labour’s place in the material, not the spiritual world, although it is clear that, for him, the one informs the other. He has already run into trouble as a “moderniser” with ideas about changing both the Labour Party’s organisation and culture. He lost votes in the elections to the national executive in the fall-out over one member, one vote, and his place is at risk a year from now. His tough line on crime and individual responsibility could easily have been an extra handicap to his advancement.
In fact, it has done him the power of good. The trade unions say that a strong moral message goes down well with their members. He is the only Labour MP who is fully trusted to challenge the Tories on their traditional home territory. After the word “moderniser” was so besmirched at the Labour Party conference, it is the reason he remains Smith’s heir apparent.
This article is part of the New Statesman’s 1997 election archive, New Dawn. Click here for the full collection.