Alex Massie

Memo to the Left: Blair Won Because He Hated You

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Over at Liberal Conspiracy our old friend Sunny Hundal calls out Tony Blair:

It was always obvious that Tony Blair hated the left. His recently published book said nothing new on that front. What’s staggering is how easily he dismisses even close Labour colleagues and ministers.

[...] What does it say about Tony Blair’s loyalty to the party and the movement? What does it say about his committment to pluralism within the party?

rocket science

Gordon Brown never managed that. Tony Blair did and, to some considerable extent, so has David Cameron. (Hague, IDS & Howard never had a hope of doing so.) The modern leader must stand out from their party if they're to be successful. They cannot seem to be beholden to their colleagues or followers, far less appear held hostage by their base.

This necessarily causes tensions and makes party management a ticklish problem and it risks making a fetish out of political positioning that, in the end, undermines your own seriousness or creates the suspicion that, actually, you don't believe in anything other than power itself. But such are the wages of victory and (for most parties) there's only so much comfort to be drawn from a pure and virtuous life in permanent opposition.

It would have been very odd for either Blair or Cameron to have been on good terms with their base. That would mean accepting it and denying the need for change. But both Labour and then, later, the Tories needed to change. Each eventually found the leader prepared to really challenge their own support; each was in such a desperate place that there were no other attractive options if they wanted to avoid yet another defeat. Something Had To Be Done and Desperation Creates Opportunity. 

That was true of Margaret Thatcher too. Thatcherism was a minority enthusiasm within the Conservative party in 1980 just as Blairites and Cameroons were minorities inside their parties too. Each, in their own way, led an unsurgency designed to shake things up; each wore internal disapproval and opposition with pride.

But there's a danger: political oportunity can evaporate very quickly. It's easy to forget about magnanimuty in defeat and charity in victory. The time it takes to convince the rest of your party that you're right is also roughly the amount of time it takes the country to tire of you. Politically, Blair benefited from being able to run against Brown and the rest of them but in policy terms his failure to get a grip cost him dearly. There were too many wasted years at the beginning. And this, I think, helps explain why the present government is moving so quickly across so many fronts. There's always less time than you think.

UPDATE: I should also say that things such as the underlying state of the economy have a bigger impact than political positioning. But, importantly, positioning and other stuff like it can make it easier to get your voice heard or for you to be taken seriously. Which means it matters too, even if fundamentals outwith your control matter hugely too.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.