The British neoconservatives

John Kampfner on a new alliance, comparable to Bush's backers in the US. Many are from the left; oth

An intriguing new alliance is forming in British politics. It lies beyond conventional party structures. It is based mainly in the media, but is being watched approvingly by the government. It is a coalition between conservative thinkers and their pro-war, pro-intervention counterparts who hailed from the left. This new breed of militarist Blairites believes it is in the vanguard of a progressive new foreign policy. They are disdainful of their critics. They see the future as theirs. Together with their new allies of the right, they form a first generation of British neoconservatives.

Downing Street is comfortable with these people. Many are friends. Together, they define themselves and their politics against the left and against much of the Labour Party. Iraq was the catalyst for this merger. But its roots were established long ago - in the electoral hegemony of Tony Blair, in the lack of parliamentary opposition from the right, in the failure of the Third Way to establish an ideology closer to European social democracy, and in the phenomenon that is George W Bush.

These neo-cons share much common ground with their more confident counterparts in the US. There is one essential difference, however. In America the Republicans are riding high, with the presidency and both houses of Congress firmly in their control. The economy could be their undoing over the next 18 months, but the Democrats remain in poor shape. Plans are being laid for four more years of Bush.

In Britain, there is no political delivery vehicle of the right. Even the most ardent Tory supporter would acknowledge that, barring a catastrophe of untold proportions, Blair is guaranteed another eight years in office if he wants them. The smarter policy-makers and thinkers of the right in the UK have given up on the Conservative Party. They have invested their hopes in a Labour Prime Minister.

As in the US, many of the prominent political operators began at opposite ends of the spectrum. Now they have converged. They agree on a range of policies.

First, they agree on the use of force to depose dictators and impose democracy. Blair first outlined his interpretation of "liberal interventionism" in a speech in Chicago in 1999 which set benchmarks for military action. He was strongly influenced by academics such as Michael Walzer and Lawrence Freedman and by organisations such as the international contact group on intervention, a collection of the global great and good whose report in 2001, The Responsibility to Protect, set out the occasions on which national sovereignty should be overridden. The main advocate of this course of action has long been John Lloyd, formerly of the New Statesman (where he set out some of the early thinking) and now back at the Financial Times.

This originally leftish view of military action found a harder edge and a willing match in the primacy and pre-emption doctrine of the Bush administration and its leading thinker, Paul Wolfowitz. Both groups have united around their abhorrence of the centre-right and centre-left mainstream of the early 1990s - the likes of John Major, Douglas Hurd and the early Bill Clinton - citing inaction over Bosnia as their main crime.

The alliance of Blairites and Bushites goes further than that. Both groups are ardent Atlanticists; they believe in the fundamental goodness of the US and of any pax Americana. They look back with pride to American power in the Second World War and particularly to the US imposition of peace and democracy in Germany and Japan following the Allied victory. They regard subsequent failures such as Vietnam as unfortunate, and US support for dictatorships in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere during the cold war as regrettable but incidental.

They share a strong sense of patriotism and admiration for the nation state. They feel a visceral suspicion of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and something between disappointment and animosity towards individual countries in Continental Europe. (On the European Union, they are somewhat confused.) They feel a sense of identity with "strong leaders", and hope to see in Blair a continuum in the Churchill-Thatcher mould. They liken any form of doubt or hesitation about military intervention to appeasement in the 1930s. They are comfortable with citing evil as a pretext for policy.

This kind of approach unites commentators who originate from the left, such as the Guardian's David Aaronovitch, and those who have stayed on the right but who praise Blair from this standpoint, such as Matthew d'Ancona of the Sunday Telegraph.

The neo-cons of Britain and the US share an adoration of the free market. They see the Anglo-Saxon economic model of low-wage labour costs and flexibility as an international paradigm. They harbour an instinctive fondness for large corporations - their moral and economic beneficence - and hold in disdain or contempt European-style collectivism and trade union rights. They have given up on European politicians and thinkers who shun Blair's recipe of economic liberalism.

Finally, both groups also converge in large measure in their approach to Israel. Unlike the neo-cons in the US, there is little appetite on the right in the UK for an Israel beyond the 1967 borders. Yet they are impatient with Palestinian grievances, seeing the Palestinians as the authors of their own misfortune. And they share a deep-rooted conviction that virtually all criticism of Israel must, by definition, be inspired by anti-Semitism.

On the domestic agenda there are greater links between Blairism and Bushism, and between their ideologues, than either side might care to admit. They have a shared rights and responsibilities agenda (although phrased differently in the US); a similarly tough approach to crime and imprisonment (although in Britain this stops well short of capital punishment); an increasingly robust approach to immigration; and a preference for the private sector over the public sector wherever possible.

The biggest division between these groups is on the social agenda. Moral majoritarianism in Britain is unfashionable, even among many thinkers on the right. Whatever Blair's personal convictions, he knows religion doesn't play in politics here.

All in all, there are enough concentric circles between the Blairites and the right in the US and UK. To borrow one of Blair's favourite dictums, there is more that unites these people than divides them.

In the US, the nexus revolves around think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, commentators such as Charles Krauthammer, publications such as William Kristol's Weekly Standard, and politicians such as Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams and Douglas Feith who are at the heart of government. They, and they alone, are setting the intellectual agenda for the White House. The post-1968, post-Vietnam, Clintonian "third way" band has gone into hiding.

The US neo-cons are "neo" because many started off as anti-Stalinist leftists or liberals. Some are the offspring of a Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which became purely anti-communist until the 1980s. Since the Reagan era, they have found a new lease of life in the post-cold war and post-9/11 vision of American dominance.

The British neo-cons probably do not acknowledge their own existence. Many of them share a communist heritage that turned itself into Labour, new Labour and now Blair-second-term Labour. They dismiss the right's traditional political instrument, the Conservative Party, as irrelevant but are grateful that the Tories' travails have left them considerable political territory to fill.

In Downing Street very recently, I was struck by a sense of excitement that victory over Iraq had, in the view of several No 10 operatives, "finished off" the left in Britain. This was not crowing, nor was it wishful thinking. This was a passionate conviction that, whatever the problems in the reconstruction of Iraq, whatever the problems with the Middle East and Europe, or the difficulties in explaining away the absence of any chemical or biological weapons, they had secured a vital prize - the dismemberment of their critics on the left.

Blair's battles with the left have been talismanic - from Clause Four and Iraq to foundation hospitals and the reform of public services. He has advertised and relished the fight. His battles with the right - each tax increase, each social reform, each economic concession, from the minimum wage to union recognition - have been cautious, stealthy and uncomfortable.

Now many of Blair's friends in the commentariat - those who have traditionally supported the Conservatives as well as those who have not - seek a final showdown with the left. They share this same excitement at the extinguishing of the last embers of what unfashionably would have been called socialism.

The happiest home for this group, for this merging of left and right, is Rupert Murdoch's empire. Blair and Bush share a respect and admiration for the man from News Corporation. They are prepared to deregulate their media markets for him. They take criticism from him on the chin, knowing that his praise is more plentiful. In the US, Murdoch's Fox network has stolen a march on its rivals with its "patriotic" coverage of Iraq. The other networks are seeking to emulate it. The Pentagon and White House could not be happier.

In Downing Street, Sky is Blair's preferred 24-hour news station. His people like to put it about that Murdoch's network had a much better war than the BBC. Among the newspapers, the Sun does No 10's heavy lifting. Its graphic of Jacques Chirac metamorphosing into Saddam Hussein, and its "worm" headlines, helped Blair to use antipathy towards the French to rally support in his darkest hour. The Times provides the intellectual ballast. Its opinion columns, driven by earnest young men such as Michael Gove and Tim Hames, constantly probe him from the inside right.

Commentators from the Daily Mail such as Melanie Phillips and Janet Daley of the Telegraph are feared, but they are not really embraced, because they have positioned themselves outside the Blair firmament. Other papers such as the Guardian, Observer, FT and Independent have individual members in the "family".

Many of these believers see theirs as a very personal mission. When they have to criticise Blair they ululate and apologise for their disloyalty. They write in often-tortured terms because they - Blairites and Bushites alike - cast themselves in the role of victim. They see themselves as courageous members of a small but moral political cell, fighting the malign and ever-powerful force of the liberal establishment. This is alternately the "Arabist" Foreign Office, the "anti-Semitic" left in the UK, or the irredeemably left-wing BBC. In the US, the equivalents are the "Arabist" State Department, "anti-Semitic" Europe and anything that is East Coast and not conservative.

The terms "left" and "right" have in Blair's world become redundant. He and many of his supporters have found common cause with many of their erstwhile adversaries. It may be an odd marriage, but it is a logical one, and it will last.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The British neoconservatives