We shall miss him when he is gone. It has become the fashion, both at Westminster and in what used to be known as Fleet Street, to assume that Tony Blair has entered the twilight of his premiership. One of the most promising of the younger Labour backbenchers, who would like a job in government but has failed to show the unremitting servility which would have enabled him to obtain one, remarked this week that ‘not having been promoted towards the end of the discredited Blair regime’ could well prove, in careerist terms, a blessing in disguise. Meanwhile the most highminded of the Guardian’s columnists had already detected, in Mr Blair, ‘a tipping point from leader-as-navigator to leader-as-man-of-self-pleasuring-hubris’. The phrase conjured up a picture of Hugo Young patrolling the dormitories at night with a flashlight, determined to detect any boy who might be giving way to self-pleasuring hubris, and finding to his horror that Blair of all people — Blair who used to set an example to the whole school — had succumbed to this revolting vice.
But it was also a phrase which illustrates the extraordinary condescension with which the Left regards Mr Blair. A great part of the Labour party actually hates him. This feeling goes far beyond the normal, healthy desire of the free-born Englishman to bring a successful man down a peg or two. There is a widespread belief that Mr Blair is an alien interloper who has betrayed the party and is every bit as bad as Margaret Thatcher, whose legacy he preserved. Hence the collapse in Labour membership, and the capture by the extreme Left of one trade union after another.
As a Tory, who wanted Mrs Thatcher’s legacy to be preserved, one is forced to congratulate Mr Blair on his tight control of his own party. It may all end in tears; he will perhaps leave Labour as exhausted and divided as she left the Conservative party, and with as small and elderly a membership. But to achieve as much as he has while leading such a shower is a remarkable achievement. Since last August, when I moved to Gospel Oak, just south of Hampstead Heath, I have gained a closer acquaintance with Labour’s middle-class supporters than I have ever had before. Many of them are delightful people, public-spirited, devoted to high culture and pleasantly aware that the point of life is not to grind the faces of the poor or to accumulate riches beyond the dreams of avarice.
But great was their fury when a friend of mine, Don Guttenplan, published an article in the Guardian in which he explained why, despite being a convinced socialist, he is going to remove his daughter from one of the local state primary schools and send her to a private school. My opinion was that Guttenplan was wrong to be opposed in principle to private education, so had no need to suffer agonies of conscience when he decided to make use of it. But this was not the reaction of the terrifyingly energetic women who wanted to tear Guttenplan limb from limb. To these old-style socialists he was a traitor to the cause of state education, in which they believe with a passion, while also worrying desperately whether it is good enough for their own dear children.
Guttenplan is an American, and though he is a very good writer, there was a certain innocent tactlessness in the way he exposed the dilemma that faces socialists like him who believe in equality but also in high culture. English socialists talk endlessly about this dilemma, but few of them care to write about it. They are divided people, their egalitarianism at war with their desire to get the best possible education for their children. They send their children to the best possible state schools, and hope that this will amount to the same thing, which sometimes it does. Certainly the state school which Guttenplan’s daughter attended is excellent; I got to know him because my elder daughter goes there too.
But leaving on one side the relative merits of various schools in north London, what struck me was the ferocious small-c conservatism of my socialist friends. The strength of their determination to go on doing things in the same old state-socialist way, only better, cannot be overstated. They are certainly not prepared to entertain the idea, which to me seems obvious, that the state has no business running schools or hospitals in the first place. Research published at the start of this week by the think-tank Reform confirms this middle-class resistance to change: it shows that voters on lower incomes are more willing than those from the so-called ‘decision-making’ classes to support such ideas as education vouchers and private health insurance.
As the Labour MP Frank Field points out, the middle classes know that in the last resort they can opt out of state education and state health. They are much more successful than the working class at getting what they want from the state, but they also know they can go private if they need to. They therefore have no pressing interest in reform, and are natural allies of those who oppose change in the public sector.
It did not take Mr Blair long to discover the ferocity of that resistance to change: as he remarked on 6 July 1999, ‘You try getting change in the public sector and public services — I bear the scars on my back after two years in government.’ Mr Blair is blamed by petulant commentators for failing after six years in power to give us the excellent public services which we demand. But what is really astonishing, given the Stalinist manner in which they are run, is that our public services work as well as they do.
If you want to see the Labour party being true to itself, look at the way it is trying to ensure equality for the fox. Its policy of banning foxhunting, which combines vicious class prejudice with wilful and sentimental ignorance about country life, will have the effect of making life much worse for foxes, but what a warm glow of satisfaction it will give to hundreds of middle-class Labour MPs. These are the kind of people Mr Blair has to deal with, and for the most part he has done it brilliantly. He has joined George Bush’s hunt for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein — an extraordinary thing for a leader of the British Labour party, and one who until 1997 lived and moved among north London socialists, to have managed to do. When Mr Blair goes, we shall look back on him as a man whose words carried far more weight in Washington than those of his successors will. As I said, we shall miss him.
Peter Oborne is away.