Nothing is certain in politics, but three things seem pretty certain about the next general election, whenever it comes. First, Labour’s share of the vote will go down (from just under 41 per cent in 2001). Second, voter turnout will also go down (from 59.4 per cent). Third, Labour will still win with a sizeable majority. Understandably, no one is particularly happy about this, least of all in Downing Street, where there has been talk behind closed doors about a possible crisis of legitimacy. It is this looming crisis, as much as the more immediate struggles he faces in Iraq and with his chancellor, that set the tone for Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party Conference last month. He and his advisers have been searching for a way to reconnect with the electorate, so that their triumph next year will seem like something more than a victory by default. One model to which they have turned in their desperation is the Tory Party’s revival during 1986 from the doldrums of Westland, sealed at their conference that year, when the party is reputed to have rediscovered its radicalism and its nerve after seven years in government.
Having read Thatcher’s speech from 1986 alongside Blair’s, I am struck both by how similar they are, and how different. Part of the similarity derives from their joint deployment of the ubiquitous rhetoric of the conviction politician (‘We do our best for our country when we are true to our convictions,’ Thatcher declares in her peroration, which is more or less exactly what Blair says in his). Part of it from the fact that Labour is still conducting its politics on the terrain Thatcher staked out in the 1980s, so that Blair’s speech reads like a prettified, more nuanced version of the Tory agenda from 1986 (choice, adaptability, standards, opportunity, enterprise and so on). ‘Money by itself will not solve this problem . . . But by giving parents greater freedom to choose; by allowing headteachers greater control in their school; by laying down national standards of syllabus and attainment, I am confident that we can really improve the quality of education.’ This is Thatcher talking, but does Blair disagree? Yet the big difference between the two is that, whatever political folk-memory might suggest, Thatcher’s speech does not contain a torrent of policy announcements, radical ideas, eye-catching initiatives; it has almost none of these. Everything is couched in general terms. Its substance consists of nothing more than a full-frontal attack on the old Labour Party, marked by a bracing mixture of malice, bile and transparent hypocrisy: ‘Labour want sanctions against South Africa. Tens of thousands of people could lose their jobs in Britain – quite apart from the devastating consequences for black South Africans.’ Compared to Blair’s speech, it is breathtakingly partisan.
Blair’s problem is that he has to do something more than point out how useless the opposition are, because that makes him sound as if he is taking victory for granted. Thatcher was happy to announce in the autumn of 1986 that hers ‘was the last government, is the present government and will be the next government’. The best Blair can offer is that Labour is now a party able to ‘compete for government on equal terms’, which is a bit rich, given how heavily the British electoral system is now weighted in Labour’s favour (if Labour polls the same share of the national vote as the Tories, they could end up with over a hundred more seats, because of the way constituency boundaries are currently drawn); if there is going to be any crisis of legitimacy, this will be one of the reasons. The passages in his speech that dealt directly with the opposition parties were pretty feeble, and his delivery of them was half-hearted. His other great difficulty is that the partisan divisions in British politics currently cut across party lines. The vote on top-up fees in January suggests that the House of Commons is evenly split between Blairites and anti-Blairites, but if he were to attack the anti-Blairites in the terms Thatcher deployed against her enemies, his government would fall tomorrow. Instead, his speech offered a choice between a small ‘c’ conservatism and a small ‘p’ progressivism, founded on a commitment to forward-looking values, and a willingness to change. It is on the basis of the gap between these two views of the world that Blair unleashed his torrent of eye-catching domestic policy initiatives, and his defence of the war in Iraq.
Progressivism is a difficult doctrine to pin down. If it means anything, it means a readiness to unshackle the problems of politics from the apparent certainties of the past, in order to identify where change is possible. It is an assault on the conservative assumption that nothing can be made better without making something else worse. Blair’s ten-point plan for Labour’s third term is certainly progressive in this sense, although having disaggregated Labour’s domestic policy agenda into a multitude of problem-solving initiatives, he has still done almost nothing to show how they can be reconnected into a coherent political doctrine.
At the same time as unshackling the government’s domestic policy from the apparent certainties of the past, he wants to shackle the government’s foreign policy to the apparent certainties of the future – the certainty of the future terrorist threat. The central choice Blair offered in his speech was between two views of international terrorism. ‘One view is that there are isolated individuals, extremists, engaged in essentially isolated acts of terrorism . . . If you believe this, we carry on on the same path as before 11 September. We try not to provoke them and hope in time they will wither.’ On the other view, ‘you believe 11 September changed the world; that Bali, Beslan, Madrid and scores of other atrocities that never make the news are part of the same threat and the only path to take is to confront this terrorism, remove it root and branch.’
There are two things to say about this choice. First, it is clearly nonsensical. It does not follow, from your believing that separate acts of terrorism can be isolated, that you must also believe either that they are the work of ‘isolated individuals’, or that the only thing to do is to avoid provoking the terrorists. You might equally believe that having isolated the causes of terrorism in different parts of the world, the only thing to do is to address them, as forcefully as possible. Second, it is a bizarre inversion of progressivism. Blair’s view of what he calls ‘the reality of the future’ is that it is a place where everything is connected in a great chain of being, where it is not possible to sever the links between separate political challenges in order to identify what can be changed, and what our priorities should therefore be. In the United States, this version of politics, in which conservative certainties are simply annexed from the past so that they can be played out at whim across the vast, uncharted terrain of the future, isn’t called progressivism, or even neo-progressivism. It’s called neo-conservatism.
Blair didn’t offer in his speech any good reasons why this view of the future should be true. What, for example, does he mean when he says 11 September changed the world? If it is the case that terrorism is an all-or-nothing struggle between order and chaos, then no single event, however dramatic, can have made the difference. But if what he means is that 11 September gave huge impetus to worldwide terrorism, and inspired terrorists across the globe to raise the stakes and seek to link their disparate activities in a common cause, then why on earth should the enemies of terrorism acquiesce in their collective struggle? Better surely to attempt to disaggregate global terrorism, and to sever the links, than to build them up at every opportunity. It is true that Iraq is now an excellent place for any terrorist with global ambitions to further the common cause of chaos. But the people who made it such a good location for global terrorism can hardly use the fact of global terrorism to justify what they are doing there.
If Saddam had had weapons of mass destruction, and if the war had successfully disarmed him of those weapons, Blair’s speech might have made some sense. He could then have argued that Saddam’s regime presented a particular problem, which had to be resolved in its own terms, unpleasant as the resolution might be. It would, at least, have been of a piece with the ‘summary powers’ for dealing with binge-drinkers and organised criminals that Blair promises in his ten-point plan. But in the absence of those weapons, Iraq can be justified only as part of a struggle in which nothing makes sense in its own terms, and everything is of a piece with everything else. The hypocrisy, if not quite as transparent as Thatcher’s, is, because of the circumlocutions in which it is dressed up, just as stomach churning. ‘The irony for me,’ Blair declares, ‘is that I, as a progressive politician, know that despite the opposition of so much of progressive politics to what I’ve done the only lasting way to defeat this terrorism is through progressive politics.’ And how does he, as a progressive politician, characterise this multi-faceted endeavour? As ‘the oldest struggle humankind knows, between liberty or oppression, tolerance or hate; between government by terror or by the rule of law’. The proper antitheses of progressivism are between truth and prejudice, knowledge and ignorance, common sense and ancestor-worship. Blair’s are the antitheses of neo-conservatism.
If it is going to reconnect with the voters, Labour’s version of progressivism needs to reverse the emphasis Blair has given it, whereby domestic policy is a grab-bag of eye-catching initiatives and foreign affairs an all-or-nothing struggle to the death. It has the politicians to do this. Gordon Brown’s conference speech was also a clarion call for progressive politics, but the inflexibility was all in his defence of the public services, and the adaptability was in his programme for African debt relief, where it must be possible to make real progress (more progress than Blair has achieved, for all his big talk). Robin Cook’s careful, persistent unpicking of the government’s Iraq policy also offers a way out of the Manichean nightmare of the war on terror. Of course, a Labour government led by Brown, with Cook as foreign secretary, would offer the Tory Party a much clearer target, which might do something to revive its fortunes. Blair joked in his speech that he hadn’t realised that an article accusing him of having marginalised the Tories could possibly be intended as a criticism. But if Brown were to fight and win the next election, there would at least be no talk of a crisis of legitimacy after it.
Blair has decided this is not the way out. He has persuaded himself that he needs to carry on for another term, in order to finish the job he has started. Nothing in his lamentable conference speech serves to justify this decision, beyond the fact that he seems to have got away with it. If he carries on, it is simply because he can. When he wins the next election, on the votes of little more than a third of a little more than half the national electorate, there won’t really be a crisis of legitimacy. Some people, like the fox-hunters, will doubtless take to the streets refusing to acknowledge the authority of the government, but the government will still have its authority, and most people will still abide by the decisions that it takes, and obey the laws that it makes. He will find himself under more pressure from the Liberal Democrats to consider the introduction of proportional representation, though the better they do, particularly if it is at the expense of the Tories, the greater will be the temptation to temper their demands. Anyway, Blair, with another Commons majority, can do what he likes. But there is nothing he can do between now and the election that will prevent his from being a victory by default.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.