The celebrity premier’s successor can become a leader of substance if only he has the political courage to get serious
The imminent passing of Tony Blair will be a welcome relief. It is not a matter of overstaying his time as prime minister, for it was clear well before he became prime minister what he would be like in office; those who failed to see it coming were prey to wishful thinking – not unreasonable after 18 years in the Conservative wilderness – or simply misreading the tea leaves, neatly arranged as they were. Of course, there have been good works: the minimum wage, increased expenditure on public services and the rest of it. But that is small beer compared with what might have been – and whatever good has been done has been drowned out by the catastrophic occupation of Iraq. The question that should occupy us now is: will Gordon Brown be any better?
It is interesting to observe how the bleating from Blairites such as John Hutton, Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke, and their journalist mouthpieces – proclaiming that the Blairite revolution must continue and there could be no retreat from New Labour shibboleths – is almost forgotten. It was nothing more than a rearguard action, a desperate desire to hang on to the past in the name of The Leader, and a not misplaced fear about their own futures. The mood music surrounding the deputy leadership election is already very different.
If Brown was to act on the dire warnings of the Blairite has-beens, there really would be nothing to be optimistic about and his period in office would end in certain electoral defeat. But there is already an obvious change in style. This is usually seen in a negative light: that Brown is not telegenic, does not appeal to middle England, can only talk to the Labour church. But style is not just a matter of presentation, it is also a question of substance, or lack thereof.
For Blair the medium was more or less the message. He was a performer, he prided himself on his ability to emote, to be conversational, to strike the right chord. He was a populist and used that populist touch to disguise the fact that he actually had little original to offer, that he really was Blair lite. Hand in glove with all that, of course, was the total belief in, and commitment to, spin. Fix the media and you could fix the people. Never before has a government been so hooked on, and invested so much in, media management. The result was an abiding ephemerality. Spin substituted for substance. Blair was the first celebrity prime minister.
Brown can hardly be accused of any of the above. Celebrity is as alien to him as substance is to Blair. Lack of interest in presentation allowed the autocue to obscure Brown’s visage in his first setpiece as prime minister-in-formal- waiting. This is seen by much of the media, unsurprisingly, as a weakness. I find it something of a relief. I admired Margaret Thatcher – while abhorring much of what she offered – because she was so clearly a leader of huge substance. Blair was the dismal opposite.
Brown is patently interested in ideas and policies rather than the flotsam and jetsom. Perhaps politics can get serious again. Rather than complementing and encouraging the descent of popular culture into trivia and vacuity – Blair was the mirror image of the celebrity-obsessed culture absorbed by reality TV that we have become – perhaps a Brown premiership, with a politics to match, can help persuade people to take society and life more seriously again.
Of course, we should not forget that Brown has been as much an architect of New Labour as Blair. The politics of both were shaped by the coldest of political climates – the Labour party in the 80s facing the most formidable neoliberal leadership the western world has witnessed. But therein also lies a difference. Blair worshipped Thatcherism, could see little or no wrong in it, believed that that was what the country needed, thought that there was no alternative, regarded it as a legacy that had to be built on rather than rejected. Blair – except at the edges – was a Thatcherite. Brown, in contrast, regarded Thatcherism as something that had to be taken on board while at the same time seeking to retain as much as possible of the Labour legacy, or Labour values as he would put it. This never troubled Blair because he was never of the party, regarding it as an alien object, at best a neutral vehicle for his own ambitions. Blair was never a social democrat; Brown is.
On that basis, a Brown premiership is likely to major on the public services. The fact that on the health service the Conservatives now lead Labour, despite the enormous sums the latter has spent, is an indictment of the New Labour “reforms” and a sobering challenge for Brown. Unless he can reverse that state of affairs, he will be destined for electoral defeat. For both electoral and ideological reasons he will surely be less attached to the market philosophy and the overwhelming obsession with choice that have underpinned the Blair reforms. But how far he will go in a different direction remains an open question.
Brown is a deeply cautious politician; the redistributive aspects of the Blair years were his work, but their intent was carefully masked by their complexity and they entered the statute book by stealth. We can also expect much greater attention to poverty and inequality. Such questions animate Brown in a way that barely registered on Blair’s radar screen, but again it is unclear what Brown will do and how far he will go.
The great imponderable, of course, is Iraq. But don’t hold your breath. If anything, Brown is more oriented towards the other side of the Atlantic than Blair. Most of his reforming ideas and intellectual influences seem to come from the United States, and in a recent speech he went to great lengths to emphasise the historical affinity and shared characteristics of the UK and the US.
It is high time that some section of our establishment started to do some serious rethinking about Britain’s relationship with the US; never before has Britain’s intimacy with, and obsequiousness towards, the US proved such a catastrophe. Yet our establishment seems incapable of plotting a new and different course, or even having a debate about the matter. Decades of dependency have blocked the intellectual arteries. Of course, Brown must do something. Iraq has sunk Blair and it could yet sink Labour. But has he got the intellectual verve and political courage to wave the flag of independence?