Tony Blair has long claimed to know what is necessary for progressives to become, in his term, “change- makers”. His recent essay for the New Statesman, in which he prescribes how the Labour Party can be resurrected as a progressive force, is no exception. His opponents are always “‘small c’ conservatives”, unable to grasp what the future demands.
Once, it was globalisation that defined the progressive task. Now, it is “the 21st century technological revolution”. This, Blair says, represents the “most far-reaching upheaval since the 19th-century Industrial Revolution”; progressives will succeed if they are the ones who “understand this revolution, [and] show how it can be mastered for the benefit of the people”.
Whatever the structural force for change Blair identifies, the world is always “fast-forwarding to the future at unprecedented speed”, where opportunities only go to those “swift to adapt”, as he told the Labour Party conference in 2005. This is how he believes time works: “of course, history has a direction”, he insisted to Jason Cowley in an interview in 2016. To be a progressive, for Blair, is simply to hitch one’s political commitments to the ride.
In reality, Blair’s rhetoric is an unreliable guide to how New Labour governed during his premiership between 1997 and 2007. New Labour did not succeed by mastering globalisation. Only in finance was Britain aligned with economic globalisation, and here the party merely encouraged the City to continue what it had already been doing since the 1960s. It did not reskill British workers to make them more competitive. While it presided over an expansion of university education, the system failed to produce a vanguard of a new knowledge economy. If a central feature of globalisation in the 2000s was the creation of integrated Atlantic-Eurasian supply chains, British manufacturing firms were a sideshow. Unlike their counterparts in Berlin, for example, Blair’s governments lacked a strategy to build export markets in China. Instead, the growth in UK employment during the New Labour years depended on the domestically focused service sector.
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For all his man-of-the-world presentation, Blair’s rhetoric never really attempts to explain real-world change. In his 2005 conference speech, he claimed that to “stop and debate globalisation” was as pointless as discussing “whether autumn should follow summer”. But whether globalisation is defined as the internationalisation of economic activity that began in the 1970s, or the increase in the movement of people around the globe, it is obviously not a physical force beyond human agency. Before the breakneck ascent that began in the 1990s, a period of globalisation had already risen and fallen between the 1870s and the early 1930s.
In thrall to the idea that the future makes the times “faster, more exciting”, Blair is selective about what change progressives must understand in order to win power. The second age of globalisation is now giving way to trade wars, national industrial strategies that break up international supply chains, and tighter borders. The only sign that Blair acknowledges this is by dropping the word “globalisation” from his vocabulary. Instead, he now insists that it is the technological revolution that divides the world into those who are equipped to adjust and those who, stuck in the past, will fail.
Change that appears, as Blair sees it, historically misdirected does not attract his attention. While Brexit has profoundly altered British politics over the past seven years, his latest intervention on Labour’s mortality crisis bypasses it. This conveniently allows him to ignore the fact that by casting the EU as a symbol of political and economic modernity, Blair and his acolytes downplayed the scenario in which Labour’s anti-EU voters would adjust to the changing times by simply deserting the party.
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Blair’s present story about real-world change is so high on the abstract idea of a new-tech future that it is insensitive to the most monumental specific change now under way. We may be living through something comparable to the start of the Industrial Revolution. But if we are, it is because governments across the world profess a commitment to replacing the energy-basis of most economic activity by 2050 or 2060. “Clean energy” is not one more instance of upheaval, as Blair classes it, in a list that also includes “nutrition, gaming, financial payments, [and] satellite imagery”. Nor does it, where public services are concerned, demand an overhaul of health and education; Blair has been calling for those since he became Labour leader in 1994.
Rather, the principal political question the future is now asking all politicians is whether another energy revolution can be realised without jettisoning the idea of economic and technological progress on which Blair’s world-view depends. In material terms, radically curtailing the use of fossil-fuel energy is not an instance of linear history. Absent an unprecedented expansion of nuclear power, it is a project to reverse the shift from low-density biomass energy to high-density fossil-fuel energy that began the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, by moving back to lower-density energy in the form of renewables. It aims to reset time so that our present civilisation does not meet the same ecological reckoning that has helped end every other civilisation that has existed, including the Roman world.
If this energy revolution is to succeed, it will indeed require a huge technological leap. But it takes an impressive amount of faith that history is unidirectional – a view that is now being put to the test – to think that such an uncertain future is “tailor-made” for any political project, especially a political project like Blair’s: one so ideologically fixed that it is unable to confront the world as it really is.
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy