Tony Blair loves to portray himself as an impatient moderniser, keen to transform the “old” Labour movement into a formidable instrument of executive power by abandoning its socialist past. But his own election as party leader in 1994 did not mark Year Zero.
Blair, it seems, carries a Labour history with him as well.
While researching a history of the Parliamentary Labour Party since 1906, I came across an extraordinary, 22-page, handwritten letter from the 29-year-old Blair to the then Labour leader, Michael Foot.
Found among the Foot papers in the Labour Party archive in Manchester, the letter was composed at his chambers, 1 Harcourt Buildings in the Temple, London. It is dated 28 July 1982 – written soon after Margaret Thatcher’s triumph in the Falklands war, although it contains not a mention of that event. It also follows Blair’s humiliating defeat in the Beaconsfield parliamentary by-election, where he came third and lost Labour its deposit.
At that time the party was engulfed in a bitter civil war, exemplified by the entry into its ranks of a bizarre revolutionary Trotskyist sect – the Militant Tendency. It was also the moment when the breakaway Social Democrats under the leadership of Roy Jenkins, in alliance with the Liberals, threatened Labour’s prime position on the centre left of British politics.
Foot never disguised his admiration for the young and ambitious barrister after campaigning for Blair during the Beaconsfield by-election. His warm feelings towards him were reciprocated, as Blair’s letter reveals. It begins: “Dear Michael, Read this in a quiet moment if you have any nowadays. And don’t, for goodness’ sake, bother to reply! I was very hesitant in writing: you might consider it either an impertinence or sycophancy. It isn’t meant to be either.”
Blair claimed he had “just finished reading” Foot’s 1980 collection of biographical essays on writers and politicians, Debts of Honour. He said he had been given the volume by an unnamed Australian friend two years earlier. But it was only in the week before writing his letter that he had begun reading it, “what with one thing or another”.
“It started me thinking in all sorts of different directions,” Blair wrote. “It also provided a further diversion from the heavy tedium of the Bar! My clerk (the one like Jeeves, if you remember) caught me reading it in my room. His eyebrow only rose a fraction but it spoke volumes.”
Foot’s published collection of essays apparently made a huge impression on Blair. “The first thing that struck me about D of H was the prison of ignorance which my generation has constructed for itself. How many of us have read Hazlitt, Paine, Brailsford or even Swift (apart from Gulliver’s Travels) in the original? And it’s not the fault of scholarship or a case of educated one-upmanship.
“What is startling to me, reading D of H, is that your creditors had something so enduring and enriching to say. I actually want to go out and explore these people first hand,” Blair declares. “It has shown me how narrow is our source of modern political inspiration. Look at Thatcher and Tebbit and how they almost take pride in the rigid populism of their political thought. There is a new and profoundly unpleasant Tory abroad – the Tory party is now increasingly given over to the worst of petty bourgeois sentiments – the thought that there is something clever in cynicism; realistic in selfishness; and the granting of legitimacy to the barbaric idea of the survival of the fittest. Even in our own party (though to a much lesser degree) there is a tendency against letting the mind roam free.”
The young Blair continues: “In this I can’t help feeling the continual association of Marxism with Socialism is in part to blame. Like many middle-class people I came to Socialism through Marxism (to be more specific through Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky). The trouble with Marxism is that it is fine if you make it your political servant but terrible if it becomes your political master. I actually did trouble to read Marx first hand. I found it illuminating in so many ways; in particular, my perception of the relationship between people and the society in which they live was irreversibly altered. But ultimately it was stifling because it sought to embrace in its philosophy every facet of existence. That, of course, is its attraction to many. It gives them a total perspective on life. But that can simply become an excuse to stop searching for the truth. Political thought didn’t begin nor should it end with Marx. Yet it is impossible to understand the 20-40 age group in today’s Labour Party without understanding the pervasiveness of Marxist teaching. For me at university, left-wing politics was Marx and the liberal tradition was either scorned or analysed only in terms of its influence on Marx. It is so abundantly plain to me when I read D of H that there is a treasure trove of ideas that I never imagined existed. We need to recover the searching radicalism of these people.”
Blair goes on to praise Tony Benn, the leading voice of the left and thorn in Foot’s side. “In one sense he is quite right in saying that the right wing of the party is politically bankrupt. Socialism ultimately must appeal to the better minds of the people. You cannot do that if you are tainted overmuch with a pragmatic period in power. The phrases that rouse us, or should rouse us, are bound to seem stale in the mouth of anyone who has been too closely intertwined with the establishment. It may not be fair but it is true.”
Then Blair attacks the other wing. “Our left is in danger of falling prey to its perennial fault: introspection. There are many of us who were highly critical of the last Labour government who are tired now of retracing incessantly that same old ground. There is an arrogance and self-righteousness about many of the groups on the far left which is deeply unattractive to the ordinary would-be member and a truly absurd gulf between the subject matter and language of the legion of pamphlets [sic] they write and the people for whom the pamphlets are supposed to be written. There is too much mixing only with people with whom they agree. I wonder sometimes whether they would prefer to address a meeting of the converted than the unconverted. I can honestly say that I am at my happiest addressing people that don’t necessarily agree but are willing to listen. That’s important inside and outside of the Party. Democracy isn’t just about the right to express your views but the right also to have them listened to. It’s not as if there were not still great causes to fight: poverty, sickness, ignorance, poor housing – they are far from being part of history. And in nuclear war we face a greater threat than any of our ancestors.”
Debts of Honour brought socialism alive through descriptions of different people, “not least of all, your father [Foot’s father, Isaac, was in fact a staunch Liberal]. It was as much about your politics as theirs. There was hope and vig-our and something irrepressibly optimistic that struck a deep chord in me.” Blair tells Foot that it is the “spirit of D of H” that the Labour Party of 1982 needs. Then his letter changes gear. “I’ve no right whatever to do this, but if you’ve struggled this far, I don’t suppose you’ll mind! If I were writing your speech at conference this year I would make the following points.”
Blair’s suggests first that Militant be driven out. “No one has an inalienable right, irrespective of their political views or actions, to belong to the Labour Party. We have a constitution and we have firm principles upon which that constitution is founded. Those principles are the achievement of socialism and the achievement of it by the Party through Parliament . . . There should not be a party within a party.”
Blair lays out his own left-wing alternative by attacking the “old” Labour right. “Partly because of the battle over Militant and partly to allay the fears of the legitimate left that you are a ‘prisoner of the right’ etc, I would indicate firmly that you believe the party needs radical, socialist policies; that the scale of the problems we face as a nation in 1982 means a different approach to previous years.
“It is not to demean the achievements of past Labour governments but in 1964 or 1974 we didn’t have 3½ million unemployed, virtually nil growth and a pillaged manufacturing sector. Each decade . . . requires its own perspective. The job of reconstruction, particularly against a background that includes new technology and a USA in the grip of the same economic madness Mrs Thatcher visits upon us, is mammoth. Profound problems require profound remedies.”
Blair urges Foot to appeal “to a sense of purpose in the party. We have a sense of duty much higher than the duty to any grouping or tendency or section of opinion within the party. It is a duty we owe to the people in our country, to save them from a cruel and bigoted government that has made disaster and despair a part of their every day lives.”
Labour now had “a programme for jobs” and a policy for “the lifting of the threat of nuclear annihilation” which was “realistic, radical and profoundly relevant to the needs of the people”. (That same year, Labour had promised to ban British nuclear weapons and to remove all US nuclear bases from the country.) In a typically zealous passage, Blair suggests the party leader should argue that each member must seek “the conversion of the British people to the Labour programme” by talking to them, going on canvassing drives and holding socials “of an outward and healing kind”.
Blair concludes that Foot should make clear there was not “any doubt” that he would lead the party into the next election and win it. “There, I have finally finished!” exclaims Blair. “A close friend (I don’t recall his name) wrote to Gerard Manley Hopkins, when the latter was depressed, ‘If I were not your friend, then I should wish to be the friend of the man who wrote your poetry.’ I feel the same about D of H. Anyhow many apologies for going on at such length. I expect I will reconsider sending this on rereading it. With best wishes, Tony Blair.”
Despite his hesitation, Blair did send Foot the letter. It shows a rather gauche, excitable young man on the brink of what was to be a stellar political career. Critics might also argue that it exposes an empty mind, rather than an open spirit in search of knowledge of socialism and the Labour Party. It shows just how late Blair came to an understanding of politics. There is a strangely adolescent feeling to what he writes, suggesting a man who wants desperately to impress his leader.
The letter indicates that Blair travelled lightly but also cautiously. He did not shy away from flattery or loyalty to a man who was to lead the Labour Party to one of its worst election defeats less than 12 months later, fighting on what came to be called “the longest suicide note in history”. Perhaps the letter confirmed Foot’s admiration for the young man. He went on to win the nomination for the safe seat of Sedgefield in April 1983 and he was elected its MP just over a month later.
The letter brings back not only a nostalgic reminder of that unlamented lost world of Labour, but why so many people found Tony Blair so attractive, electing him their leader in 1994. In 1982, in that remarkable letter, he spelled out a credible vision for the British left. It is his personal tragedy, as well as the tragedy of the Labour Party, that the ambitious idealist was transformed into an authoritarian and hubristic machine that destroyed the ethical values of a Labour movement he once claimed to hold so dear.
Robert Taylor is writing a history of the Parliamentary Labour Party since 1906