There are few feuds as destructive as the squabble over a legacy. In Bleak House, the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce provides Charles Dickens with one of fiction’s most debilitating contests — a battle over an inheritance which blights all those involved. But Westminster is still, nevertheless, absorbed by the struggle to lay claim to a legacy.
The inheritance which is the object of so much attention is the right to be recognised as the ‘heir to Blair’. When the former prime minister left office the general consensus among commentators was that he had overstayed his welcome. Those of us writing in 2003 that he was, at last, proving himself a proper reformer were a small band. Those of us still arguing, as of 2006, that he was now at his best and Labour would be mad to get rid of him were roundly ridiculed.
But nevertheless, in the last few weeks, Blair has become the new black. The new Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell has anointed himself heir presumptive to the Blair crown, while those around Gordon Brown are briefing that he is now, in thought, word and deed, a born-again Blairite. Yet, on the backbenches, Charles Clarke regularly mounts critiques of the Brown style of government which compare the Prime Minister very unfavourably with his predecessor. It’s clear that for Charles, and others like John Reid and Alan Milburn, the idea that Gordon is a continuation of Blairism by other means strains credibility.
While this squabble within Labour ranks may be every bit as harmful for all those involved as Jarndyce vs Jarndyce there are reasons why the rest of us should still take notice. Tony Blair’s experiences in government provide us with a lesson in how real reform requires a movement with the times much more profound than anything Gordon Brown is attempting.
Modernisation is not so much a set of positions as an attitude. The positions taken by Labour in the mid-1990s were appropriate for an opposition trying to shed its past, but aren’t right for a government facing today’s different challenges. Brown’s problem is that his idea of being modern ten years on means simply doing what seemed modern a long time ago. In that respect he’s a Kraftwerk Prime Minister — once upon a time quite cutting edge, now rather touchingly retro.
What marked Blair out as a genuine moderniser was that, unlike Brown, he changed his positions as the world changed around him. He changed his position on public sector reform, perhaps most crucially on education, because he saw the limitations in government of trying to improve results by simply providing more resources and ever more assertive central control, the formula by which Brown still swears.
As Blair explained in November 2006, ‘I have also learnt from experience. At first, we put a lot of faith in centrally driven improvements in performance…. But over time, I shifted from saying “It’s standards not structures” to realising that school structures could affect standards.’
And on the back of that realisation came the drive to introduce greater choice, competition and contestability in education. The preface Blair wrote to the 2005 education White Paper praised the school choice reforms of Sweden and Florida, and enraged the Labour backbenches, including Ed Balls, in the process. Ed gave an interview in the New Statesman pouring scorn on the Blair approach and asking to get back to ‘clear dividing lines’ with the Right on education. But Blair wasn’t interested in sowing division, he was determined to entrench progress.
As Anthony Seldon records in his book Blair Unbound, ‘Blair and Adonis wanted autonomous schools everywhere. Neither wanted local authorities to have any real control.’ The White Paper preface confirmed that local authorities were to play a humbler role. Blair believed that the only way education would improve is if the existing local authority structures were forced to raise their game by the presence of new, wholly autonomous providers showing them up in their locality.
But that’s a model the Brownites still reject. On their watch, the autonomy of academies has been progressively eroded in every area from the curriculum to who they can hire as builders. Far from local authorities being challenged to improve by academies, many councils have been allowed to reject them. Other local authorities have effectively neutered the capacity of new entrants to provide competition by setting up their own academies, answerable to town hall bureaucrats, not parents. It is directly contrary to the path Blair envisaged.
It’s not just on education, however, that Brown’s approach is a rejection of Blair’s own pattern of modernisation. In the fight against extremism, Blair also evolved a stronger position over time. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 prompted Blair to examine the Islamist ideology behind the terror threat. In March 2006 Blair was explicit in locating the threat we faced in ‘an ideology exported around the world’ which could be traced to ‘offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, supported by Wahabi extremists’.
But where Blair was explicit, and right, Brown has been opaque and weak. He has deliberately avoided making any reference to the ideological roots of the threat we face. Only a couple of weeks ago the Guardian reported how Brown had effectively censored his own government in this struggle, banning ministers from identifying the specific dangers in Islamism.
These retreats that Brown has authorised — in education and the fight against extremism — are not marginal adjustments. They are reversals on two of the central issues which defined Blairism, particularly in its high modernising phase after 2001.
Alongside these retreats must be counted the failure to press ahead properly with more diverse provision in the NHS, as Blair’s own reform guru Professor Julian Le Grand has lamented, and the junking of plans to devolve real power over policing to local communities.
What Blair came to recognise, and what Brown still rejects, is that reform requires a constant application of pressure to the accelerator. The sheer power of inertia, the accumulated strength of special interests, the resistance from producer forces and trade union voices, all mean that to coast or slow down on reform is to lose the momentum necessary to effect change. Under Blair, opponents of reform came to know his velocity. Under Brown, they know they won’t be challenged by the Man Who Came to Dither.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 23, 2008