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The instinctive politician

Blair's achievements as a conventional politician are impressive, but he hasn't marked out the route to a progressive 21st century politics, argues Don Flynn

Even in these final days of government under the leadership of Tony Blair, when the last desperate struggle for a ‘legacy' is endangering the last of the Labour Party's social capital, there are people who tell us that the experiences of the past ten years represent a form of progressive politics which the rest of the world will have to learn to emulate.

Pro-Blair biographers, led by Anthony Seldon, have no difficulty in defining greatness as the ability to work the system. By these standards we have to accept that our man is up there with the younger Pitt and Disraeli. But advocates of progressive democratic politics should operate with other criteria for judging success or failure, such as solid achievements in redistributing of wealth and power across society. Blair's record here is much more ambiguous.

Denis MacShane, a contributor to the pages of Chartist, has argued for an assessment of progressive legacy which acclaims Blair's perspicuity as “the first European politician to grasp, instinctively and intuitively, the historic change”, represented by the movement of global politics to the right after the collapse of state Communism in 1989 . This insight allowed a leap into a realm of freedom unfettered by commitment to class or ideological principle, where, henceforth progressive politics would march under the banner of the “great” Democratic Party, with its exemplars, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton lighting the road ahead.

This is too much. An assessment of the Blair years ought now be possible which allows us to understand, given the hole which British social democracy found itself in from the mid-1980s onwards, something of the inevitability of the man and his project, the contingent character of its extraordinary success, firstly in reforming the Labour Party, and then in attaining three electoral victories in a row, without being gulled into the chiliasm of MacShane's viewpoint.

The argument has been traced out many times in the body of critical leftist analysis which emerged during the 1980s, developed in the Forward March of Labour Halted thesis set out by Hobsbawm and developed in the Marxism Today journal, which in turn helped provoke the often floundering political experimentation of the period as an attempt to develop a localist, municipal socialism, a joining up of the ‘fragments' of progressive politics (feminism, trade union militancy, anti-racism, gay liberation, and other democratic movements). The Labour Coordinating Committee's attempt to define a new Labour left followed, with even this magazine's refusal to walk away from all of these issues even after 20 years of apparent non-achievement.

The essential point was simple: the failure of traditional British social democracy to mount an effective struggle against Thatcherism, finally revealed by the collapse of the year long miners' strike in 1985 had revealed once and for all the limits of the British version of social democracy, rather than the demise of the longer term struggle for the democratisation of society. If the forces of progress could not in future express themselves by following the channels of an inept, bureaucratised labour movement, then they would have to cut other channels. The task for strategic political thinkers was to get a sense of where these might appear, and come up with the means for moving this process along.

Is it true that the Blair phenomenon was at least in part a manifestation of this business of probing for whatever opportunities might lie in the new configuration of real life circumstances? Perhaps it was in its earliest days. After the first election victory in 1997 all of the themes of progressive politics were found in the public proclamations of the leadership – of equality for women, opposition to racism, a fairer distribution of social wealth, a reformed public realm and a clear sense of citizenship, and more just global governance and the elimination of world poverty.

But from that point onwards the New Labour approach demonstrated its belief that advance across all these areas could take place on the basis of the strategic judgment of the leadership as it endeavoured to ‘stay real' with the established order of society, gradually shifting imperial nations and global industrial and financial elites into benign, redistribution modes. The happy coincidence of a liberal moderniser presiding over the affairs of the United States at that time reinforced the belief that sufficient leverage existed for projects which would extract a return of surplus value to some of its creators, and the talk of stakeholder involvement in economic affairs suggested well-considered strategies for struggles over the balance of wealth and power in society.

The problem is that no such strategies existed and the promise that society under New Labour would be fairer in some shape and form was an expression of hope rather than intention. The reason for this extraordinary thinness of perspective comes from the fact that, unlike its predecessor Labour governments in the 20th century, Blair's team had no real economic theory of the conflicts and tensions within modern capitalism, or of its potential to give birth to new forms of commercial rationality. Attlee and Wilson could steer the ship by the star of Keynesian demand-management, but New Labour operated almost entirely without the critique of market-driven capitalism which was fundamental to the older approach. Commentators who might have expected to operate on the inside track when it came to thinking about economic strategy – the vocal Keynesian journalist Will Hutton being one – found themselves on the outside and their places taken by advocates of orthodox fiscal and budgetary management.

If New Labour had anything resembling a guru during these early years it was probably supplied by sociology rather than political economy. Anthony Giddens's tracts on the third way, underpinned by his more abstract thinking on reflexive modernity, marked out the course along which Blair wanted to move. The attraction here for a politician intent to scattering to the winds the remnants of the sort of social democratic principles the Labour Party still theoretically embodied, was its assurance that the optimistic hope that human society could be improved through the practice of politics had collapsed beyond the point of recovery. Blair celebrated the end of aspirations of epic proportion, associated in the past with the belief that the working class could manage and control the economy. Politics organised as a social movement, involving people in their hundreds and thousands in running society, was anathema to a politician who wanted the space to do the deals he thought necessary for the efficient organisation of things. Henceforth the good politician would be judged good because he could be accepted as a ‘pretty straight sort of guy' without obvious malevolent intent.

The gaining of trust, in the past a subordinate element in a strategy which first of all worked to get the politics right, would in future be the sole end of action in the public realm. As the catastrophe of the Iraq war unfolded, the claim to having the trust of the people would count even more than operating correct, or at least sensible, policies. If the people had given you their trust you could at least claim that they were fully implicated in the damnation you'd brought down on everyone's heads.

John Kampfner makes essentially the same point as Denis MacShane, about the ‘instinctive and intuitive' character of Blair the politician when he describes him in the pages of Blair's Wars as a man poorly informed about world events, an indifferent reader, but with immense confidence in his ability to get to the nub of issues and persuade others of the course of action he had decided upon. This set of ‘qualities' is also regarded as characteristic of the most successful United States presidents. But it would be a mistake to view this as a function of politics well-adapted to modernity. It should more properly be seen as what we get when the complex task of representing conflicting interests has been excluded from politics, and all that remains is deciding which of the differing programmes advanced by the power elites should be acted upon. Political principle plays little or no role in such decisions, and the higher functions of mental cogitation are excluded from a process which actually does place its highest value on the intuition and instinct of its chief executive.

The American political system acknowledged this fact decades ago, which is why incisive intellect is not considered a sine qua non for the holder of the post of president, as opposed to the basic skills expected of a company head, of adequate overview, capacity to delegate, and of authoritative final decision-making.

There are many reasons for actively working against a Blair legacy which leads British politics in the direction of its American counter-part. The apparent freedom from ideology enjoyed by the US president and liberty to act at his or her discretion has been purchased by the good fortune of the New World republic and its ability to overcome any obstacle to its prosperity and growth often by the exercise of physical force or manipulative chic. It is not for nothing that, after lawyers, soldiers have been the profession providing the largest number of US presidents.

In other parts of the world the messy business of nationalist rivalries melded together with subaltern class conscious opposition to the unfettered power of the wealthy elites has, in the past, closed off the option for the sort of pro-capitalist boosterism which characterises the American version of progressive politics. Blair's vaunted intuitive and instinctive approach to politics pushed against the barriers which divided the old world from the new, in the belief that dumb populism and the myth of meritocracy could vanquish the sort of issues that Europe, and Asia and Africa, have always found so problematic. If there is anything to learn from this experience it is that a new progressive politics, if it is ever to come into existence, will need to address the realities of nationalism and class, rather than simply stop thinking about them.

The ineptitude of Blair is currently being gauged by the Iraq debacle, with his record on Europe and domestic policies generally regarded not so much a great success, but at least evidence of a good heart and the best intentions. In reality their bankruptcy is all of a piece – driven by the facile belief the world can be divided into the good and the bad guys, and that the leadership of a straightforward, personally charming sort of bloke is all that's needed to get everyone pulling together. The extent of the wreckage left behind by the Blair experiment will be seen over the course of the next few years. Whether sufficient can be learnt from the experience to allow the rebuilding of the left is another matter entirely.