Andrew Rawnsley does a superb job of covering the first term of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” starting with Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 (179 seat majority) and how a group of governmental neophytes got around to the job of forming a new government after years in the political wilderness. We get right to the love/hate relationship of Blair and Gordon Brown, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, his rival and ally. The Blair/Brown relationship dominates the book, as it should. That fabled relationship would likely be able to fill a book all by itself.
Rawnsley gives us some “inside baseball”(gossip) but does not neglect substance. He is not at all reluctant to criticize both Blair and “New Labour” for what he considers to be their shortcomings, but sticks in praise when he feels it warranted. Rawnsley was a skeptic on the so called “third way” politics espoused by Blair, not buying into Blair’s contention that centrist problem solving could produce government that delivers for people. What was Blair’s idea of the “third way?”
“My vision for the twenty-first century is of a popular politics reconciling themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic – patriotism and internationalism; rights and responsibilities; the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination…”
Rawnsley, Andrew. Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour (pp. 311-312). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
We see today how Blair’s prescription has gone off the rails, with “patriotism” seen by so many as irreconcilable with “internationalism,” or globalism. We have heard that directly from Donald Trump at the United Nations in the last week. Rawnsley highlighted prominent critics of the Blair philosophy:
“The attempt at a united field theory of politics pretended that there were never any choices to be made between competing interests and contradictory values. But to govern is always to choose. The interests of business and the requirements of social justice were sometimes reconcilable, but they could also be mutually incompatible. It was a useless compass when confronted with a decision which did not permit of compromise. One of the most acute of liberal critics, the philosopher Ralf Dahrendorf, identified the Third Way as a politics that speaks of the need for hard choices but avoids them by trying to please everyone.”
Rawnsley, Andrew. Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour (p. 312). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Blair’s heavy borrowing from Bill Clinton is highlighted. Blair was always considered a Clinton acolyte, and there is no doubt that New Labour took much of its political philosophy from the Clinton playbook.
“The apparent similarities with Bill Clinton, from whom New Labour had certainly looted much of its rhetoric, many of its techniques and some of its policies, also struck another American. Maureen Dowd accused Blair of ‘cloning himself from a clone’.”
Rawnsley, Andrew. Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour (pp. 5-6). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Rawnsley was not only skeptical on the “third way” philosophy, but manages to weave into the narrative the constant charge that Blair, and New Labour, were more interested in media puffery and spin than on substance. His reference to the very skillful spinmeisters serving New Labour, and the frequent war between the media operations of Blair and Gordon Brown, are interesting and have a ring of truth. Without question Blair got caught up rather early in some party financial chicanery that did not reflect well on him (Ecclestone affair) as well as making a hash out of the Millennium Dome project, and those failures are highlighted prominently. Rawnsley is fair, and covers the achievements as well, including the Good Friday Agreement, the reform ceding interest rate power to the Bank of England, Blair’s determined and principled stand on Kosovo, and some of the progress made, through difficulty, on major domestic issues, like the National Health Service. As a precursor to the Brexit debate raging in Britain today the New Labour government faced the issue of whether to join the single European currency. That controversy, which Blair straddled on, lent some credence to the idea of spin over substance. But Blair was, like Theresa May today, faced with some pretty difficult cross currents to navigate. Blair’s heart was in Europe, but he could never muster the political strength to integrate into the Euro.
I do not agree with Rawnsley entirely on the issue of New Labour being all spin and no substance. Gordon Brown is recognized as having been a person of major substance as Chancellor, and Blair is without question brilliant and articulate. I had the opportunity to watch many segments of Prime Minister’s Questions with Blair fending off William Hague with relative ease. There were major achievements, and principled stands that may have cut against the political grain, (Kosovo) showing that Blair was not “substance free.” The book weaves together the full first term, and is an easy read, especially for those that enjoy government, and British politics.
Blair remains an interesting figure, both brilliant, and at times not so much. His idea that centrist politics would be predominant, that technocrats would find the “best” solutions to governmental issues of the day, has clearly collapsed, along with the political center. Might Blair himself be responsible for some of the wreckage of the “Third Way?” His decisions on British participation in the invasion of Iraq certainly played a role in his decline in popularity in future years, but that did not occur in his first term. He managed to win another landslide victory and become the first Labour Prime Minister to serve two full terms. What happened after the first term? I guess we will have to read Rawnsley’s “The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour” to find out. I highly recommend this first installment.