31 July 2015

The problem with Blairites


Some of my best friends are Blairites. I’ve been there for almost their entire “journey.” On the day in 1994 that John Smith (great man) died I was a young Sunday newspaper reporter covering the Scottish Conservative party conference in Inverness. Fleet Street was there in numbers, as I think the Prime Minister, John Major, was due to speak that day. In those plentiful days very large numbers of journalists flew around all over the place if they fancied it, because X was making a speech and, well, one had to get “the mood,” and gossip, have dinner with contacts, and maybe even write something.

John Smith had friends across the spectrum, and when the news broke the hacks and senior Tories were grief-stricken. Smith had been particularly kind to me, as a student journalist, and I was in quite a spin, watching all these Fleet Street editors and executives (in the age before mobile phones were ubiquitous) get their political editors to call the news desk secretary to try and get them switched by British Airways onto the next available flight back to London where the story now was.

But politics, as Smith knew, is a tough game. Within hours, people were discussing who would be the next Labour leader. Ignore what the Brownites say. There was only one answer, and his initials were TB. Andrew Neil’s Sunday Times had presciently put Blair on the cover of the paper’s magazine, posing moodily underneath Big Ben, with the headline “The leader Labour missed” around the time Smith was crowned in 1992 as leader. Brown didn’t stand a chance and Blair’s first mistake was not forcing Brown to stand so he would be defeated. Brown would then have been Chancellor, then Foreign Secretary, and probably much happier now.

From a Scottish perspective, with regular trips to London, I covered what followed Blair’s election in 1994 and it was an extraordinary story. He mesmerised many people (not me). Yet the party he left behind is a smoking ruin. Although much of the damage was done by Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, the Blairites deserve a large part of the blame for what has happened. They seem oblivious to this, which makes me want to offer a guide, in a spirit of friendship, to their severe political problems.

Here are five problems with Blairites as a breed. Alongside friends, I exclude Liz Kendall from these criticisms. She is doing brave work, trying to talk sense into Labour, while the Blairite label is used as a term of abuse to disguise the reality that she is actually trying to move beyond Blair because the economy and society have changed a great deal in the last twenty years. I exclude a few others too, Pat McFadden for example, on the basis that he talks a lot of sense. John Rentoul is also terrific. Still, here are the five problems.

1) Blairites tended, like the man himself, to be ahistorical. If Blair didn’t say “y’know, look, the problem with history is it’s all in the past” then he should have done. This, their restless progressive obsession with the future, meant that they were (beyond the failure of 1983) largely uninterested in the lessons of history, or respect for institutions and tradition. They upended the constitution and would not listen to warnings. The results in Scotland have been, er, interesting.

2) They paid, and continue to pay, too little attention to economics. My goodness, they subcontracted the economy to Gordon Brown and look what happened. They still seem incapable of computing what went wrong in the Crash and why. Otherwise intelligent people, Labour modernisers, still focus on the alleged Tory myth that New Labour spending caused the crash. No-one says this. Really. The story is much more complex and interesting, and there are lessons for left and right. There was a global financial revolution and it began before Thatcher but was super-charged in the 1980s by deregulation and Thatcher’s ground-breaking reforms. New Labour embraced this settlement, and foolishly saw what flowed as proof of its perpetual genius, when it was down to globalisation, a tsunami of cheap money, a private debt bubble and rocketing banks (feted by New Labour because they paid a lot of tax, until it all blew up). The spending after 2001 did not cause the crash. I repeat, the spending did… not… cause… the crash. But it left the UK badly exposed because of its particularly mad banking boom (much worse than the US, France or Germany). The entire shambles was appalling mismanagement by the government of the day, the economic equivalent of the management not putting sufficient lifeboats on the Titanic. Does any Blairite understand this? When will one of them provide a proper account and tell Labour?

3) The Blairites in their pomp were absolutely insufferable. The strutting around Labour conference in the late 1990s had to be seen to be believed. The arrogant and contemptuous way they talked about Tories, or non-Blairites, would make Jeremy Corbyn blanche. They talked tough, a lot, but when it came to it they (led by Blair) were cowardly about restraining Brown or doing him in.

4) The Iraq War. Having been radicalised as an interventionist by 9/11, and placing too much faith in American power and know-how, I was very much in favour. Lots of us have had anguished dark nights of the soul about backing that war from the comfort of the West, although it is nothing compared to the anguish suffered by the Iraqis and now the Syrians. The Blairites seem to have skipped on, merrily lecturing the rest of us on all manner of subjects without having had a proper reckoning over the biggest foreign policy catastrophe of the last half century.

5) The final problem (which you may not regard as a problem) is that there are not many of them left, really. Despite their claim that they have agents planted in the upper reaches of the Tory party, it is all a bit pathetic. It is left to a handful of commentators (good commentators, able people) to tour the studios explaining why they are right and everyone else is wrong. Unsurprisingly, for reasons related to points 1, 2, 3 and 4, the rest of us do not find a lecture from a Blairite particularly convincing.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.