Frank Johnson

Will Europeanism be Blair’s answer to Thatcherism?

Will Europeanism be Blair's answer to Thatcherism?

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At last an opinion poll has suggested that Mr Blair might not remain prime minister for as long as he likes. By the time this appears, another opinion poll might return to what has long been the normal condition: Mr Blair well in the lead, the Conservatives no danger to him. But Mr Blair must be experiencing intimations of mortality. Matters have not been going well for him. He might see the time drawing near when he will no longer be prime minister, voluntarily or involuntarily.

But, for prime ministers, ceasing to be prime minister is not the end of their relationship with the office. Ex-premierships last longer than the longest premierships. This is irrespective of how long the ex-premier lives on after Downing Street. The ex-premiership persists after the departure of the ex-premier from this life. Departed prime ministers, and their premierships, live on in history. History has something to say about the least successful and most obscure of them, let alone ones as prominent and successful as Mr Blair, with his two landslides won before the age of 50.

How to live on successfully, either as an ex-premier still alive, or later in the history books? The more the problem is thought about, the more it seems that, to do so, they need the same as they needed to become and remain prime minister in the first place. They need followers.

They need 'ites' with an 'ism'. Lady Thatcher has Thatcherites and Thatcherism. Her followers give dinners in her honour. Every now and then she explains the relevance of her 'ism' to the events of the day. Often, these feasts and pronouncements take place in the United States or occasionally – with the feasts presumably less sumptious – in eastern Europe. Thus the ism, like Karl Marx's, is suggested as having a universal application.

Certainly, 'Blairism' and 'Blairite' are words that can be heard. But so far Blairism and Blairites are not the same kind of thing as Thatcherism and Thatcherites. Thatcherism, as commonly understood, has roots and antecedents. Or at least Thatcherites claim them. Thatcherism is for the free market. So were Adam Smith and Hayek. Thatcherism was against the Soviet Union. So were Orwell, Popper, Koestler, etc.

When 'Blairite' and 'Blairism' are used, they mean something different. Blairism is – was? – a means of making Labour electable. Blairites are Labour politicians and functionaries who agree – agreed? –about that means, and hoped for office once electability was proved. Some of the more cerebral Blairites occasionally suggest that theirs is an ism like other isms; a set of ideas – in 'Blairism's' case, something to do with the Third Way. But the means of achieving electability seemed rather one-way. The two landslides were won by reassuring the broad middle classes that they would not be taxed in the way that previous Labour governments taxed them. That was a late triumph for the rival – but in fact contiguous ism – of Thatcherism.

It is also true that Blairites sometimes argue that their ism is kinder than Thatcherism because it includes spending more on the social services. But if this government has really spent much more on the social services than the previous Conservative ones, it would have had to tax its middle-class vote more to do so. That was something which it was frightened to do before its second landslide. It has made a start with Mr Brown's higher national-insurance contributions, but only after the second landslide. Mr Brown, however, is not a Blairite, and in any case those increases could well help prevent a third landslide, or even a third comfortable win.

An ism designed to win and retain office at a particular time – in Blairism's case, the late 1990s and early 2000s – is not, then, an ism in the same way that Thatcherism is, or claims to be: an ism for all times and predicaments. When Mr Blair leaves Downing Street, we cannot imagine banquets and foundations dedicated to keeping Blairism alive because, by being out of office, his ism loses its justification. It has no roots in the party. Much of the party either dislikes it or regards it as having been a sad necessity for the attainment of office at that particular time.

But Thatcherism, all these years after Mrs Thatcher left office, is still the dominant ism in the Conservative party. It still looks as if no one can become party leader without the support of the Thatcherite vote. The Thatcherites won the leadership for all three leaders since Mrs Thatcher. Anti-Thatcherites would retort that they therefore have much to answer for. That does not disprove the point.

Perhaps Mr Blair, out of office, will not mind lacking his own ism and his own ites. If he can win a third majority – big enough for a third full term – history might decide that he has done enough to ensure a good place in it. But one of the good things about people who are involved in politics – not necessarily politicians, but including some – is that they are not stirred by the sight of office alone. They need causes. Causes are also liked by historians. They are the constituency which Mr Blair will eventually have to worry about.