Not Marx, Hazlitt

Observations on Blair's inspirations

Last week's revelation in this magazine of the young Tony Blair's gushing letter to his party leader, Michael Foot, in July 1982, provoked a shrill cacophony. Anti-Blairites saw it as further proof of the man's intellectual lightness of being, while the dwindling band of spear-carriers saw wisdom and foresight in Blair's willingness to flirt with leftism in order to survive and advance in the party.

Of course Blair was never a Marxist; indeed, what his scribblings really tell us is that the callow, ambitious barrister knew next to nothing about any political thinker. But one remark in that letter seems to point us to an influence of possibly profound importance, and it was missed by the past week's commentators.

Blair was writing after reading Foot's work Debts of Honour, and at one point he referred excitedly to a passage that Foot quoted from the writings of the great essayist William Hazlitt. It is worth reading that passage, which is about what makes a statesman.

"Ambition is in some sort genius. To use means to ends, to set causes in motion, to wield the machine of society, to subject the wills of others to your own, to manage abler men than yourself by means of that which is stronger in them than their wisdom, viz their weakness and their folly, to calculate the resistance of ignorance and prejudice to your designs, and by obviating to turn them to account, to foresee a long, obscure and complicated train of events, of chances and openings of success, to unwind the web of others' policy and weave your own out of it, to judge the effects of things not in the abstract but with reference to all their bearings, ramifications and impediments, to understand character thoroughly, to see latent talent and lurking treachery, to know mankind for what they are and use them as they deserve, to have a purpose steadily in view and to effect it after removing every obstacle, to master others and be true to yourself, asks power and knowledge, both nerves and brain."

How did the young Blair respond to this? "The passage in which Hazlitt defines what it is to be a statesman is quite marvellous." We see here, in fact, the essence of Blairism. Armed with these lines, Blair had no need for Marx or Machiavelli, because they offered him a perfect compass for personal success. So he stands revealed as a Hazlittite, though whether he ever read any of the man's books must be in doubt.

Rereading Debts of Honour today, we can see other possible points of inspiration for the ambitious who like to travel light. Foot's collection of essays covers such figures as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, Randolph Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook - not exactly a pantheon of left-wing heroes.

One other figure discussed by Foot who may have impressed Blair is the Italian writer Ignazio Silone. Foot quotes Silone's contrast between the "ordinary man" and the "born politician", and, as with Hazlitt, the passage seems tailor-made for the prime-minister-to-be.

"This ordinary man is a hotch-potch of desires. He likes eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping, keeping a canary, playing tennis, going to the theatre, being well dressed, having children, stamp collecting, doing his job and many others besides. This is the reason why he remains a nobody; he spreads himself over so many little things. But the born politician wants nothing but power and lives for nothing but power. It is his bread, his meat, his work, his hobby, his lover, his canary, his theatre, his stamp album, his life sentence. The fact that all his powers and energies are concentrated upon one thing makes it easy for him to appear extraordinary in the eyes of the masses and thus become a leader, in the same way as those who really concentrate on God become saints and those who live only for money become millionaires."

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: Better off without us?