Whatever the outcome of the police investigation, Blair’s legacy will be deeply tainted – and the party may yet implode
The smell from No 10 increasingly resembles a stench. No one knows whether the cash-for-honours affair will end up with charges, and of what kind, or a decision by the police not to proceed. But even if it is the latter, the stain will remain; the overriding feeling that Tony Blair’s premiership was tainted with wrongdoing will persist. It will be like Harold Wilson’s lavender list, but far, far worse: the whiff of corruption will be manifest, even if the police can’t make charges stick. The chances of any Brown administration lasting very long now surely look even slimmer. The legacy of New Labour, already damaged beyond redemption by the debacle in Iraq, threatens to be defined by malpractice and malfeasance.
We should not be too surprised. There has always been something less than wholesome about New Labour. But Blair for a long time had an easy ride. There was the whopping majority. There was the relief that the Tories were finally gone. There was the grand hyperbole. There was the fact that here was a leader (the first) who was a product of the new educated middle classes and who spoke their language, a modern man no less. There was his militant rejection of all that old cobblers about socialism, ideology and old Labour (by which, of course, he meant the Labour party). There was the fact that he was reassuring, that he believed in the legacy of Thatcherism, that he was never going to threaten the established order. During those rose-tinted years, what passed for analysis of the New Labour phenomenon rarely rose about tree-level.
But from its inception, New Labour contained within it what were profoundly corrosive tendencies. Blair’s election as leader was a coup d’etat conducted with the connivance of the Labour party against itself. The party had lost all self-belief and conviction: it was anybody’s. Blair was neither one of them nor part of it. His was an alien body in a party demoralised by defeat. The anomalous nature of Blair’s position was celebrated by most of the media: but it contained the seeds of disaster. The party felt utterly dependent on him, prepared to do his bidding whatever that might be, while he felt no sense of accountability whatsoever towards it. The party was his punchbag. He was a free agent.
Then there was New Labour in office. From the outset, it invested an extraordinary importance in the media and in the consequent need to control the news agenda. Advisers – which almost invariably meant spinmeisters – were liberally dispersed around the ministries. The civil service, another potential check on overweaning government power, found itself relegated and demeaned by Blair’s political appointees. Figures such as Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, masters of the dark arts, emerged as decisive figures within New Labour. The message was everything, substance a pliant handmaiden, truth the first casualty. Spin, of course, held the people in contempt. If the media could be squared, then so could the public. It was the antithesis of accountability. New Labour was, from the beginning, a control freak. It was true of Blair, as it was true of most of his acolytes and advisers: that was the way they did politics. It all stemmed from a hugely exaggerated belief in the power of the media, in the idea that controlling the media agenda would deliver the country.
Blair, as a political leader, and as a product of the media age and post-60s confessional honesty, traded in trust. He told it like it was, he was one of us, he could be trusted. But trust in the hands of a politician is a double-edged sword. There is a suggestion of affinity, but also the implication that things could safely be left in his hands, that we should not concern ourselves unduly, that we should leave things to him. Blair’s notion of trust is a bespoke product of the era of personal politics, where a sense of emotional authenticity has supplanted older notions of ideology and political principle. Accountability depended on trust rather than policy, on style rather than content. This was the Blair appeal: but in time its vacuous and implicitly authoritarian character came to be exposed, most brutally in his contempt for the public over Iraq. By trust, Blair meant personal empathy, but in practice this was merely a cloak for accentuating his own power: paradoxically, trust implied a growing loss of unaccountability.
Blair is not a loose cannon. His political course has been more or less entirely predictable. He has been a loyal proponent of the neoliberal agenda and a slavish supporter of the US, whatever the hue of the president. What could be more conventional than that? But his style of political leadership has been highly unusual. He has consistently turned on the party that he led, often displaying antagonism bordering on contempt. He has been consumed by a desire to be apart from it, and to be in no way constrained by it. And this served to nurture a lack of accountability, a belief that he could do whatever he wanted. The same went for his relationship with the civil service and the use of his spinmeisters as a praetorian red guard. And, ultimately, it was also true of his relationship with the public. His contempt for them was evident in his belief in the all-consuming power of the media and his own ability to control it. Control freaks never trust the people, nor do they feel properly accountable to them.
Seen in this light, the latest turn of events that has led to more than 90 people being questioned by the police, four of them while under arrest, is not entirely surprising. Blair believed that he could play fast and loose with the Labour party (he didn’t even bother telling its treasurer about the loans) and – to the party’s eternal shame – has got away with it (with barely a whimper of opposition even on Iraq). He believed that he could control the media by playing fast and loose with the truth through spin, and managed to get away with that, at least until some point in his second term. And it would appear that No 10 believed that it could somehow replenish the party’s coffers to fight the last general election by playing fast and loose with the law. It may still get away with whatever it did, but in the mind of the public it will be forever condemned as guilty. There was always something rotten at the heart of New Labour: the police investigation marks the moment of its recognition. It is a sad comment that so many people were taken in by New Labour for so long. And the price? The party could yet implode and find itself condemned to opposition for many years to come.