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No Such Thing as Blairism

04/25/2007 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We are to be overwhelmed. A tidal wave of epitaphs, eulogies and obsequies
of Tony Blair is upon us. His era will crave definition. The flesh must be
made word, and the word is Blairism. It hangs on the lips of friend and foe
alike.

Let us get one thing straight. Blairism does not exist and never has. It is
all froth and miasma. It consists in throwing a packet of words such as
change, community, renewal, partnership, social and reform into the air and
watching them twinkle to the ground like blossom until the body politic is
carpeted in sweet-smelling bloom. An -ism implies a coherent set of ideas,
an ideology capable of driving a programme in a particular direction. In
plumbing the shallows of Blair's ideas, even his guru, Raymond Plant, was
reduced to taking refuge in Daniel Bell's End of Ideology. Like most
British prime ministers -- whatever they proclaim -- Blair in office has
taken things as he found them, tootling along until the dying fall of his
departure.

That is not to say that Britain under Blair and Gordon Brown has lacked a
guiding light, but that light has been Thatcherism. This reality has been
obscured by the congenital bipolarity of British politics and the
bifocalism of the Westminster media, in which protocol requires that
everything is expressed in terms of government-and-opposition. Hence
Blairism cannot be Thatcherism because Blair is Labour and Margaret
Thatcher Tory. For a decade British politics has, quite simply, been
wrongly described.

Blair and Brown became Thatcherites by conviction in the early 1990s and
have never deserted the faith. They tore up Labour's pledges to raise
income tax, restore trade union rights, renationalise utilities, keep the
NHS in public hands and pursue nuclear disarmament. Blair never criticised
Thatcher, indeed he adored her and boasted her praise for him (in the Sun)
before the 1997 election. Since then he regularly sought her advice on
foreign policy, above all in "hugging close" each incumbent of the White
House. He professed friendship with George Bush and has preferred the right
to the left among fellow European leaders.

Meanwhile Brown at the Treasury renationalised nothing and privatised
anything that moved, including much of public administration. Brown's
emblem has been the soaring wealth of the City of London, grown fat on his
fees. He has displayed to a fault Thatcherism's Achilles Heel, a disbelief
in the public service ethos. The greatest of all privatisations, of the
bulk of public sector investment, would have made even Thatcher blanch. And
she never dared his assault on unemployment, single parent and disability
benefits.

Blair's apologists cite a few items with which to clothe his -ism, such as
the minimum wage, tax credits (invented by Geoffrey Howe), a gesture
against foxhunting and the odd inner city initiative. There has been modest
progress on child poverty and waiting lists (if you believe them), though
the poor appear to have grown poorer under Blair, and the rich far richer.
Europe's social chapter was signed but not implemented. Taxes have risen
but chiefly on expenditure, as Thatcherism ordains. Any government in power
for a decade and consuming 40 per cent of the national product could hardly
fail to show some improved public welfare.

A leader shows his ideological bias when faced with real choices. In
Blair's case these have included whether to ally himself with Europe or
America, renew Trident, pursue comprehensive as opposed to selective
schools, keep the private sector out of the NHS, privatise London's tube
and use consultants rather than civil servants to cure administrative
evils. On each occasion Blair has opted for the prevailing Thatcherite
orthodoxy inherited from John Major.

The public sector may not have shrunk drastically under Blair, but then it
did not do so under the Tories, nor has it in any other modern state.
Thatcherism was never anti-statist, rather a different way of ordering the
state. It is one that Blair has never renounced, nor sought to replace. To
him and to Brown the path to delivery of public services lies through
private money and the private sector. That is Thatcherism.

Lexicographers will seek other definitions of Blairism. One might be the
manner by which he attained power in 1993-7. This was his "project" to
hijack the Labour party and turn it into an electoral machine for his own
brand of charismatic leadership. The neutering of the unions, the
humiliation of the national executive and annual conference, the rewriting
of Clause Four and the concentration of power on the leader's office
constituted a coup on a scale not seen since the growth of modern parties
in the 19th century. The coup was brilliant, but it did not usher in
"Blairism," rather make Britain safe for Thatcherism for another decade. It
was a project for winning power, not for using it. Blair captured Labour
much as Napoleon captured the French revolution. It was his finest hour,
but it was no ideological innovation.

Another definition of Blairism to break surface is as a description of a
style of rule. Here Blair is in line of descent from such 19th-century
exponents of messianic authority as Nietzsche and Max Weber. Like their
"ideal leader," he is never politically specific, always visionary, never
partisan, always charming and disarming, a "friend to the people." Such
qualities are quasi-religious, those of exposition rather than decision.
They are what we now call spin not substance. Blair's 1995 conference
speech, an hour-long confection of pure verbal candyfloss, was a classic of
the genre. He has been a remarkable exponent of this style, but it remains
a style, a technique of public relations, not an -ism.

The word Blairism reflects a yearning to fit politics into a conceptual
straitjacket, but it is a misnomer resulting from Britain's archaic
political conversation. Blair's term in Downing Street has been the
continuance of an ideological narrative that began in 1979, not 1997. The
old saw, that a government that lacks an anchor in ideology will founder on
the rock of personality, would certainly apply to Blair were it not for the
fact that he has had a rock, he has had an ideology. It was Thatcherism.