Understanding Tony Blair, as explained by Tony Blair

There is a fascinating article in the Spectator today: In defence of Blairism, by Tony Blair. As I started reading it, I was sceptical, but in the end I found it enlightening, and even in places inspiring.


Not that there wasn’t lots to object to, as well, but it’s a genuinely fascinating read. It’s interesting to understand why he thought that the things his government was doing were good things.

It doesn’t start promisingly:

When I became the Opposition spokesman on law and order in 1992, following our fourth election defeat, I consciously moved us away from a ‘civil liberties’ paramount approach …

It’s telling that isn’t something that Blair admits shamefacedly, but actively boasts about. Even accepting that Labour is not, like the Liberal Democrats, a party established primarily on the idea of liberty, this is still not something I would have expected — far less welcomed.

The heart of Blair’s piece comes with his explanation of how Labour policy changed between the first and subsequent terms of government, which I shall quote in full:

Often in the first term, though we remained politically popular, we were not taking brave decisions; we were content to manage the existing system, albeit with rhetoric which reflected our different values. Some reforms like the minimum wage, introduced in the UK for the first time and done with the support of business, really did change lives. Bank of England independence, devolution and the first London Mayor, peace in Northern Ireland, civil partnerships – all of these represented major change; and progress.

But in public services, welfare, crime and pensions, we were at first timid. With experience in governing and with an attitude which was open to change irrespective of ideology, we then began to make change which was much more radical. Hence the drive for health and education reform, culminating in the opening up of the health service providers to competition, including provision in the private sector and the Academy schools; Public Private Partnerships for the renewal of the nation’s infrastructure; the anti-social behaviour legislation; and even ID cards to control illegal immigration. We spearheaded inner city regeneration; mounted what was an audacious bid to host the Olympics; targeted socially excluded families who were causing community problems; in short, we pushed the frontier of what the Labour Party was supposed to be about. We were proud of our iconoclasm.

Now here is my very obvious problem with all this. Most of the things mentioned from the first term — pretty much all of them — are obviously good, progressive changes with positive impacts for people’s lives. And most of the things from the subsequent terms are not. Opening up privatisation of the NHS has been disastrous (for everyone except the private companies making money from it). The drive towards making every school an Academy is very far from universally welcomed. Public-private partnerships do not in general seem to work out well for the public — though they do for the private, suggesting this is where Blair’s priorities may have lain. Anti-social behaviour legislation is the thin end of fascism, ID cards are a mainstream state-controls-individuals move, and the Olympics bid has not worked out at all well for the country. As for the ambiguous language of “targeting socially excluded families who were causing community problems” … that is open to some extremely worrying interpretations.

In short, what Blair seems to be saying here is that he lacked the courage to be evil in first term, so cowardice required that he be good instead; but then he became braver, hurrah for him, and started doing all the bad things he’d wanted to do all along.


There’s also a pervasive failure to accept responsibility. Blair does not mention that he deliberately started an illegal and disastrous war in Iraq — the closest he comes to this is the following passage:

Post 9/11 I became convinced that Islamist extremism was the security issue of our time. People can agree or disagree with the decisions which I took and the emphasis I put on the partnership with the USA, but I took them not in defiance of progressive politics but in furtherance of them.

I think it would take a very charitable interpreter to read the Iraq War as being in furtherance of progressive politics. Perhaps equally alarmingly, Blair writes:

We didn’t spot the financial crisis – along with the rest of the world. It was more an absence of understanding than an absence of a will to regulate which was the issue.

But Blair’s government did much more than fail to increase regulation of the banks — it actively deregulated them. It’s to Gordon Brown’s credit that he recognises this; it’s not to Tony Blair’s that he tries to blur the issue.


Here, though, is the heart of the issue:

Infrastructure, housing, social exclusion – all these challenges require more modernising and less ideological thinking.

This straw-horse idea of ideology and progress as opposites is one of my pet hates. It is of course completely without foundation once examined. The reality is that unless you start from an ideology, there is nowhere for all your “modernising” to take you, you’re just random-walking. As Chesterton has observed, it’s useless to talk about “progress” unless have first established what you’re progressing towards — in other words, unless you have an ideology. In the absence of ideals, all you have is change: which may be for the better, or for the worse.

So that is my most deeply felt criticism of Tony Blair — and it’s one that his article does nothing to dispel.  It’s that he shows so little evidence of knowing what it was he actually wanted to achieve, beyond being “modern” and making visible changes.

I will give credit for this closing remark, though, which I think is absolutely spot on:

All of it is about applying values with an open mind; not boasting of our values as a way of avoiding the hard thinking the changing world insists upon.

But reading this makes it all the more frustrating that so much of what the Blair government ended up doing flouted this principle. Rather than seeking to apply principles, his government too easily seemed to discard them, or not even be aware of them in the first place, and instead see change in itself as desirable.

And that in the end is what’s so disappointing about the Blair government. It could have been great. It started out so well, in so many ways. But it lost sight of why it existed — or its values. And Blair retro-rationalisation (“With experience in governing and with an attitude which was open to change irrespective of ideology, we then began to make change which was much more radical”) now reads like what it is, an attempt after the event to justify that loss of vision.

Not for nothing does the Bible say “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). Once more I am reminded that before you can meaningfully apply economics, before you can achieve anything worthwhile in politics, you must first have a philosophy.


13 responses to “Understanding Tony Blair, as explained by Tony Blair

  1. Pingback: Interesting Links for 09-12-2015 | Made from Truth and Lies

  2. I don’t know which is funnier, that a defence of Blairism should need to be written by Tony Blair, or that it would appear in the arch-Tory ‘Slag A Scouser.’

  3. The OED saith, for ‘ideological’:

    Of or relating to a political, economic, or other ideology (see ideology n. 4); based on a principle or set of unshakeable beliefs

    It is that second thing he is drawing a contrast with: i.e., he’s claiming (in my view entirely falsely) to have beliefs that were not unshakeable, though I note that he is not claiming to attempt to get any kind of evidence that his policies are good ones before foisting them on the country. Under this definition there definitely is an opposition of sorts. (The current government very much has the same fault. I would be *so* happy to have evidence-based policymaking, but every modern government I can recall outside wartime has been dead set against it, so I suspect the Civil Service to be at fault here — not that reducing their power and increasing the power of spads and career politicians has been a particularly shining success either.)

  4. Nix says: “I note that [Blair] is not claiming to attempt to get any kind of evidence that his policies are good ones before foisting them on the country.”

    I think the problem runs deeper than that. I think that, in the absence of established ideals, Blair doesn’t even have a standard for measuring what a “good” policy would be, what it would look like, what kind of thing it can achieve. In the absence of “good”, he seems to have spent much of his time in power aiming for “modern”; but that simply means whatever other people are doing now. It might be good; it might be bad.

  5. ”I think that, in the absence of established ideals, Blair doesn’t even have a standard for measuring what a “good” policy would be, what it would like, what kind of thing it can achieve.”

    In brief, I think the exact opposite. Pretty much every aspect of Blairism furthered an ideology, the ideology of neoliberalism. And that was precisely the problem with it. Under Blair the rich got still richer and more influential, and the poor poorer and more powerless. After a while you’ve got to stop seeing that as unfortunate happenstance and start to see it as intention.

    If he never said any of this out loud there’s two likely reasons. Firstly, just as he did with the Iraq war he may have honestly meant it. It’s a feature… perhaps the defining feature of ideology that it seems like ‘just solid common sense’ from the inside, with the assumptions that underpin it going unexamined.

    Also, Blair was continuing the project of Neoliberalism from Thatcher. And, ostensibly leading a rival party, he couldn’t make that too obvious. But more significant is that he was continuing Neoliberalism. He had to take it and turn a corner. Thatcher talked of “the enemy within”, but by Blair’s time they’d become “forces of conservatism”. Neoliberalism now had to be portrayed no longer as something bold and new, but as the new consensus. People who still opposed it were just out of date, so last season. He turned it inside out, it was everybody who wasn’t neoliberal who were to be labelled as ideological. Let’s not forget that, asked her greatest achievement, Thatcher replied “New Labour”.

  6. I would be *so* happy to have evidence-based policymaking

    There is no such thing.

    Evidence can only tell you (at most) that if you do A, B will result, and if you do X, Y will result (oft-times, of course, evidence is confused and contradictory and can’t even tell you that, but let’s assume we have the best, most clear-cut evidence).

    Policy-making, on the other hand, is about deciding whether it is better to have B or Y, and that, no amount of evidence can tell you.

    Take, for example, drug policy, about which people often talk about an ‘evidence-based’ approach. Well, it may be that the evidence will show that one policy results in less overall harm, but more people taking drugs, while a different policy results in fewer people trying drugs, but more overall harm (direct and indirect).

    Evidence alone cannot tell which policy should be pursued, because that depends on which you think is more important: harm reduction or stopping people from taking drugs.

    You can have evidence-informed policy-making, but you can’t have evidence-based policy-making, because the basis of policy-making is always, not the evidence, but your values. All evidence can do is tell you by what routes you can best realise your values. It can’t tell you what your values ought to be.

    If you like, evidence is, at best, like a map. It can show you where the road you’re thinking of taking will lead to; but what it cannot ever do is tell you where you ought to be trying to get to.

  7. Well, U, I strongly agree with all of that — except that I think you may have misunderstood what people mean by the phrase “evidence-based policy”, which in my understanding is generally used to mean what you denote by “evidence-informed policy” — something that we both agree is a very good thing. But Absolutely, yes, you must start from a philosophy.

  8. An interestingly different interpretation from Gavin. Actually, I think we are not far apart on this: I would say that neoliberaism is what (at least a certain kind of) politicians default to in the absence of an actual set of ideals. It’s a fallback when you don’t know what to do but feel you need to do something. My sense about Tony Blair is that what he wanted most of all was to be perceived as dynamic and thrusting, to create some kind of legacy — any kind.

  9. ”I would say that neoliberaism is what (at least a certain kind of) politicians default to in the absence of an actual set of ideals.”

    That’s almost certainly true today, neoliberalism is the default setting of politics in almost every Western country. But I think this overlooks the era Blair was in. If you could say neoliberalism was launched in Britain by Thatcher, it was still contenious and not really constituting the political consensus. Labour was simply expected to oppose it. Blair turned Labour round from the ‘managed market’ model to a deregulatory free-for-all through a succession of coups and purges. (Making somewhat ridiculous New Labour MP’s complaining that Corbyn might demand whipped votes at times.) In short, I think the situation you’re describing is the result of Blairism – not the cause of it.

  10. Gavin, that is both insightful and horrifying. It’s very sobering to remember staying up into the small hours with friends, watching the Blair election results rolling in, and thinking how great it was that now everything was going to be different.

  11. Well, everything was going to be different! I think that’s largely how he was able to do it, that he had such a groundswell of support at that time it was easy to ‘carry’ people. Of course the Tories’ popularity was then tanking, which made it easier for him…

  12. And, in fairness, everything was at least a little bit different. Especially near the start of its term (before, as Blair now says, the Labour Party found the courage to be evil) the Labour government did quite a lot of good things.

  13. My disagreement with this isn’t that I don’t think New Labour did any good things. I was as glad as anyone to see the repeal of the infamous Section 28, for example. It’s with the idea that New Labour started in one direction but ended up going in another. Think of how differently we’d see Thatcher if she’d served only one term. Or, to put the same point another way, how few of those “good things” the Tories have subsequently tried to undo. Not only did they not try to bring back Section 28, they brought in gay marriage.

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