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26 February 2001

The age of Blairjorism

Hesitant on Europe, beset by scandals, too fond of stunts, Blair and Major are twins

By Leo McKinstry

Tony Blair often claims to have taken Margaret Thatcher as his role model for political leadership. In the wake of her example, he is fond of posing as the resolute prime minister, willing, he says, to take tough decisions in his crusade to revolutionise both party and country.

At first glance, recent events might appear to reinforce this Thatcherite image. Whether it be bombing Iraq, attacking comprehensive schooling or promising “a war” against drug dealers, Blair, according to his supporters, has displayed the highest levels of courage.

Yet as his executive staggers from one scandal to another, the modern premier whom Blair most resembles is not Thatcher but John Major. The Derry Irvine fundraising affair, the serious allegations against Keith Vaz and the Hinduja “cash-for-passports” fiasco are reminiscent of the darkest days of the Major administration, when government had sunk into a quagmire of sleaze.

Blairites might argue that Thatcher was equally afflicted by a series of damaging resignations, such as those of Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe. But the crucial difference is that all those departures were ultimately caused by clashes over policy involving Europe. By contrast, in almost all the high-profile resignations of the past 11 years, from the fall of Neil Hamilton to Ron Davies’s “moment of madness” and Peter Mandelson’s unreliable memory, the cause has been personal, not political.

And this goes to the heart of the parallel between Major and Blair. Neither has had any sense of purpose beyond the retention of power for its own sake. Thatcher knew exactly why she wanted to govern Britain: to create a culture of free enterprise, to reduce the influence of the state and the trade unions, and to maintain British independence in Europe. Major and Blair could never state their goals with such clarity. The political vacuum of their governments has therefore been filled with petty feuding, press stunts and fatuous initiatives.

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In the 1950s, British politics was said to be driven by the force of “Butskellism”, when the Tory chancellor Rab Butler and his Labour shadow, Hugh Gaitskell, shared exactly the same high-spending, welfarist outlook on Britain’s economic needs. Over the past decade, Britain has been governed by another political consensus, that of “Blairjorism”, an anxious creed led by personality and opinion poll.

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Blairjorism means constantly facing both ways in a desperate attempt to maximise political support. On the economy, for instance, both the Blair and Major governments have proclaimed their attachment to sound finance, simultaneously boasting of the greatest public-spending increases in history. The revenue side is equally contradictory. They have trumpeted their pledges not to raise taxes, yet have introduced a barrage of clandestine measures; Major’s insurance and airport levies would certainly have appealed to stealth bomber Brown.

Blairjorism is just as Janus-like on the EU, on the one hand promising to “be at the heart of Europe”, while on the other giving assurances to stand up for Britain against the tide of integration. Despite causing such damage at the 1997 election, Major’s notorious “wait-and-see” policy on the single currency has been taken up with enthusiasm by Blair.

In the absence of any coherent policy for running the country, Blairjorism is continually forced to resort to bureaucratic tinkering and empty rhetoric. Major’s National Cones Hotline, Citizen’s Charter and Child Support Agency could have come straight from new Labour. Equally, many of Blair’s public relations initiatives, such as the Action Plan Orders for Young Offenders or the New Deal for Single Parents or Health Action Zones, have achieved nothing beyond the creation of the illusion of a government doing something.

The stench of civic failure infests everything touched by Blairjorism, whether it be the NHS, the transport or asylum systems, or the fight against crime. Sometimes, Blairjorites try to prove their free-market credentials by indulging in some half-baked privatisation – Major’s shambolic reorganisation of the railways has its parallels in the widely disputed sales of air traffic control and the London Underground. But, because of Blairjorism’s attachment to regulation and suspicion of the free market, such schemes rarely work.

As examples of their resolution overseas, Major and Blair might point to the remarkably similar wars over which they have presided, in the Gulf and the Balkans. But, in reality, both of these conflicts were won by American firepower. The Blairjorite success on Northern Ireland is undoubtedly an achievement – though it owes more to the willingness to compromise of David Trimble and Gerry Adams than to the negotiating skills of our jet-commuting premiers.

The emptiness of the Blairjorite project is partly a reflection of the men themselves. Both Blair and Major lack a clear narrative about their lives and their political motivations – unlike Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham. With Blair and Major, we are never quite certain where they are from, either geographically or socially. So John Major can be the lad from Brixton or the failed bus conductor or the grammar-school-educated son of an entrepreneur from Surrey. Tony Blair can be the Scottish-born northern MP or the Newcastle United fan or the Tory lawyer’s son or the Islington left-winger.

Blair and Major share two intriguing points about their backgrounds. First, both had familial connections to music-hall entertainment: Major through his father’s circus act and Blair through his paternal grandfather’s vaudeville performances. Second, their families were both thrown into turmoil during their adolescence, when their fathers were hit by serious ill-health and, in Major’s case, by business failure. Their enthusiasm for politics may well be rooted in an inherited love of performance and a desire for approval, stemming from this familial insecurity.

What really seems to have driven them, however, is a ferocious sense of ambition; each holds the record of being the youngest prime minister for his party of the 20th century. But holding office is not commensurate with achievement, as they have so spectacularly shown.

As Blair sinks in a morass of his own making, his administration increasingly resembles the one whose failures brought him to power.