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 changes 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 closes 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 fair 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.