Wilson, Benn and Blair and the narrative of technological change

Image by byronv2

Image by byronv2

This is one of a short series of posts based on papers that will be presented to a conference to be held on 5th July, organised by the People’s History Museum and our Centre for British Politics  to mark the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s iconic  ‘white heat’ speech. If you want to read the speech in full, it can be downloaded here.

In October 1963 Harold Wilson opened a debate on science at the Labour Party conference by warning that Britain was experiencing a period of unprecedented technological change. Already many people were ‘accepting as part of their everyday life things which would have been dismissed as science fiction a few years ago’, and Wilson predicted that this ‘scientific revolution’ would continue apace through the 1960s and 1970s.

This was, however, a revolution for which Britain was manifestly ill-prepared, having produced too few scientists and invested too little in technological innovation. Wilson demanded a crash programme of university expansion to boost the numbers of technically skilled workers, and called for the creation of a ‘University of the Air’ to allow those excluded from higher education the opportunity to update or upgrade their skills. And he also pledged that a future Labour government would establish a Ministry of Technology, which would coordinate research and development activities and provide scientists with promising ideas the opportunity to develop their projects using public money. These innovations, Wilson insisted, would help to forge a ‘new Britain’ in the ‘white heat’ of the ‘scientific revolution’.

This evocation of the ‘scientific revolution’ was, as David Edgerton has pointed out, in many respects something of a red herring. Far from being hamstrung by its technological backwardness, by the early 1960s Britain was producing more scientists and investing more in research and development than almost any other advanced capitalist nation. Moreover, once in office Wilson and his colleagues demonstrated a healthy scepticism about the economic value of technological investments (particularly in the defence industries), and cancelled a number of large projects initiated by their Conservative predecessors. But, despite the fact that the promised ‘revolution’ was something of an illusion, Wilson would be far from the last prominent socialist to develop a political narrative around the theme of technological change.

Among the politicians who revived this narrative was one of Wilson’s chief lieutenants, and onetime Minister of Technology, Tony Benn. Often lampooned for his enthusiasm for science – Private Eye once portrayed him as a robot with an unhealthy interest in traffic lights – over the course of the 1970s Benn developed a narrative of technological change that was very different from the story Wilson had outlined in 1963.

For Benn the true significance of the ‘technological revolution’ lay in its potential implications for the future of the state, and the contradictory trends it had unleashed in the economy and society. On the one hand technology had contributed to the growth of ever more complex and more powerful transnational corporations; on the other the affluence and instantaneous communications, both made possible by technology, had created a more demanding ‘new citizen’. This left the state facing ‘political obsolescence’ – too small to resist the manoeuvrings of transnational corporations, too big to respond effectively to the demands of its citizens – and Benn argued that it would be unable to survive in its present form. Power needed to be dispersed both ‘beyond and within the nation state’ if it was to withstand the challenges of technological change.

Many of these themes were revived by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s, at a time when rapid advances in computing and telecommunications (and particularly the advent of the internet) meant that the world was being haunted by ‘the spectre of technological revolution’. This latest ‘revolution’ had accelerated the process of economic globalisation – as if ‘someone had pressed the fast-forward button on the video’ – and as a result had left states more vulnerable than ever to the whims of capital. The introduction of electronic trading on global currency markets, combined with the deregulation of the 1980s, had increased the liquidity of capital and thus increased the power of financial speculators at the expense of the state. Governments therefore had relatively little leeway to control their external economic environments, and were, as Colin Hay put it, reduced to ‘studiously courting capital’ if they wished to prosper.

This was, nevertheless, a revolution from which the nation could benefit. Though the rise of China and India meant there was little future for British manufacturing industries, Blair argued that the qualities required to thrive in the information age – ingenuity, inventiveness, flexibility – were qualities that the British possessed in abundance. For all the challenges that the ‘information revolution’ posed, the transition to an economy in which knowledge and skills mattered more than plant and capital would allow Britain to ‘rise again as the electronic workshop of the world’.

What all three of these narratives had in common was a vision of technology as a distinct force in history, acting independently of other economic or social processes. There was little nations could do in the face of such forces except adapt as best they could, in the hope that they could benefit from (rather than being left behind by) technological change. If this meant that the modernisation programmes that Wilson, Benn, and Blair tied to their narratives of ‘scientific revolution’ carried an aura of necessity, it also leant their arguments a certain power. When socialists allied their cause to the ‘scientific revolution’, they were also allying themselves with the forces of history.

Matthew Francis

Picturing Politics: the 1997 Labour manifesto

In the third post in the Picturing Politics series Prof. Steven Fielding discusses the rise of the party leader and the influence party leaders now hold over their party’s fate. Prof. Fielding examines this phenomenon using the example of the 1997 Labour manifesto – which featured a close-up of Tony Blair’s face on its cover – and looks at the effect this focus on Blair had on the Labour Party. 

new Labour because Britain deserves better 1997

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/91084725″ params=”” width=” 100%” iframe=”true” /]

 

Can’t view the audio player above? Listen to the file here.

You can also download a written version.

Picturing Politics is a series of audio and video clips featuring academics commenting on the political significance of a diverse range of images. The series is intended to offer an invaluable insight into the many ways in which politics has been imagined – quite literally – throughout history, and also the ways in which images have been used to shape and influence our understanding of politics.

Tony Blair’s tribute to the ‘Spirit of ’45’ was a skillful rewriting of history

Spirit of '45 This post originally appeared on Emily Robinson’s personal blog.  

Ken Loach’s new documentary The Spirit of ’45 is a romantic tribute to the achievements and ideals of the 1945 Labour government, with a clear political message. It cuts from an idealised social democratic nation celebrating the Festival of Britain (with no mention that within months Churchill would be back in power), straight to the dismantling of the welfare state, nationalised utilities and the ethos of community, first by Thatcher and then by Blair. Loach is famously no fan of New Labour, and recently called for a populist party to do for the Left what UKIP has done for the Right.

It is surprising then to note that Tony Blair produced his own tribute to the Spirit of ’45, in this case a national roadshow, marking the 50th anniversary of Attlee’s victory. The accompanying souvenir brochure is unashamedly sepia-tinted and like Loach’s film includes features on the health service, employment, education and housing, extracts from the 1945 Manifesto and reminiscences from those who helped elect Labour. It was also similarly keen to contrast the politics of 1945, with those of the 1980s and ’90s, under columns headed ‘1995: The rich get richer and the poor get forgotten’, ‘Cash before care – and the sick are stranded in the middle’ and ‘Two million jobless pay price for enterprise culture’.

Of course, the omissions are as striking as the inclusions – there is no eulogy to nationalised industry here. That this was no accident was made explicit in Blair’s speech to the Fabian Society on the fiftieth anniversary of 1945, in which he explained that socialism (or ‘social-ism’ as he put it) needed to be ‘liberated’ from the question of ownership and ‘economic dogma’. He also made clear that his narrative of British democratic socialism included ‘Lloyd George, Beveridge and Keynes and not just Attlee, Bevan or Crosland.’ Blair was not straightforwardly ahistorical or iconoclastic, as many have believed. Instead, he skilfully used different interpretations of the party’s and the country’s past, honouring and rewriting them at the same time.

The attraction of 1945 for Blair was the way in which ‘Labour spoke for the national interest and offered hope for the future while the Tories spoke for sectional interest and represented the past.’ He ‘passionately want[ed] to lead a party which once again embodies and leads the national mood for change and renewal.’ Well, who wouldn’t? But this emphasis on the future, on change and renewal also allowed Blair to distance himself from the specific policies and ideals of 1945: ‘It was a government for its time. Our challenge is not to return to the 1940s but instead to apply them afresh to our time.’

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can be used to open up questions and to close them down. Steven Fielding has pointed out that the history and politics of 1945 were far more complicated than Loach allows, noting that the film might be better titled The Myth of ’45. But even myths are complicated and slippery. With its ‘One Nation’ message, Labour is again trying both to unite the country behind a shared vision for renewal, and to invoke particular memories of British history. Again, the message is open to radically different interpretations.

Emily Robinson 

Ten years ago today: a record-breaking rebellion in the House of Commons over Iraq

revoltstitle2Ten years ago today, a record-breaking rebellion took place in the House of Commons. It was the largest backbench revolt, by members of any political party, on any subject since Sir Robert Peel’s administration repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, at a time when the franchise was enjoyed by just 5% of the population, and before anything which resembled today’s political parties had been formed. In other words, it was the largest rebellion since the beginning of modern British politics.

The subject was Iraq, and the rebellion involved 121 Labour MPs. It held that record for just a under a month, until the (more famous) rebellion on 18 March, when 139 Labour MPs (mostly, but not entirely, the same ones) took part in an even larger rebellion. Whereas we suspect the March rebellion – which triggered British involvement in the war – will be marked with lots of coverage, the rebellion of a month before has been almost entirely overlooked.

But the two rebellions of February 2003 – in addition to the 121 Labour MPs rebelling on an amendment, some 60 also voted against the government motion – deserve remembering. They were not the first rebellions over the issue but they formed the first real indication of the scale of opposition on the Labour benches to the Iraq war.

The debate took place on a government motion. Both the Government’s motion for discussion and the rebel amendment were carefully framed. The government motion supported UN efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein without even mentioning the possibility of war, in order to rally support from as many pro-UN and anti-war MPs. The rebel amendment – moved by the former Labour Cabinet Minister Chris Smith – was deliberately cast in such a way as to generate the maximum possible cross-party support, not just from those opposed to war outright, but also from those in the ‘not yet’ camp; it argued that the case for military action against Iraq was ‘as yet unproven’.

Smith’s amendment was defeated by 393 votes to 199. The Government motion backing UN efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein was then carried by 434 votes to 124.

There was a gasp of disbelief in the Chamber when the result was announced. It was not that the vote was particularly close – the support of the Conservative frontbench meant that the Government won both votes easily – but the size of the Labour rebellion stunned many observers.

In addition to the 121 who voted against the government, just over 20 Labour MPs abstained. Most absented themselves or by ostentatiously remained seated in the chamber during the vote. Andy Reed, the MP for Loughborough, had voted in both lobbies in order to register his abstention. Reed was a Parliamentary Private Secretary and was expected to back the government in the division lobbies. Normally he would have been sacked immediately. It was a sign of the difficulties that the Government were in that he was allowed to remain in post for a few days, before he resigned.

The previous weekend the Chief Whip had warned the Prime Minister that the rebellion over Smith’s amendment could involve as many as 100 Labour MPs. But armed with the amendment, it had taken Peter Kilfoyle, a former Defence Minister, just an hour to gather sixty signatures in support of it. By the Tuesday morning, the day before the vote, more than 116 Labour backbenchers had already signed it, with every indication that the numbers could rise yet further. But up until lunchtime on the day of the vote the Labour whips were still expecting 145 Labour MPs to back Smith’s amendment, and were pleased at having contained it as well as they had done.

The Iraq rebellions – both those in February and those in March – were key moments in the history of the Blair government. Despite their record-breaking size, the real damage caused by Iraq lay not in the numbers. The problem came in the effect that the issue had on the Parliamentary Labour Party. Immediately following March’s record-breaking rebellion, one whip was definite: ‘Once CNN start beaming up the pictures of Saddam’s torture chambers and the stockpiles of chemical weapons that he claims he does not have, you won’t be able to find anyone who remembers voting against Tony Blair’.

Although the torture chambers and mass graves were found, the stockpiles never appeared – and it was because of the stockpiles that many in the Parliamentary Labour Party thought they had voted for war. For some, those who had already been critics of the government before, this was the factor that destroyed their already weakened faith in the Government’s judgement and direction. For others – especially those who had stuck to the party line, in many cases against their better judgement, because they had put their faith in Tony Blair and his arguments – this was a defining moment. They felt let down, betrayed even, by what had happened. As one concerned minister put it immediately after March’s rebellion:

We’re not only facing the danger that Iraq will give some MPs a rebellion habit, it’s also that they are not giving us the benefit of the doubt any more. People are asking us questions about where quite ordinary policies are going as if we have a hidden agenda.

Just as with much of the electorate outside the Palace of Westminster, so too inside: Iraq was the moment when many Labour MPs stopped trusting Tony Blair.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The invasion of Iraq did many things, putting young people off politics wasn’t one of them

The forthcoming tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has prompted much debate – including the claim by Sam Parker in the Huffington Post that the invasion of Iraq and Tony Blair’s ‘hubris’ “robbed a generation of their faith in politics”. As a result of the Government’s refusal to change course, he and apparently his generation “don’t trust the political system, and… don’t believe in politicians”.  Owen Jones has similarly recounted his experience of discussing politics with young people: “When I visit schools, students who were six, seven or eight years old when we marched [against the Iraq war] ask how they can change anything if up to two million demonstrators couldn’t”, a sentiment shared by Andrew Murray who argues that the ‘shadow of the largest demonstration in history’ and the fact that it didn’t stop the war constituted a ‘body blow’ for British democracy.

There are good responses, on normative grounds, to both these articles, here and here, but is the claim true empirically?  Thanks to data available from the Audit of Political Engagement, the British Household Panel Survey and Understanding Society surveys, and the British Election Study, we can test the belief that Iraq has destroyed a generation’s faith in British politics.

Let’s start with measures of political efficacy – the perception of how capable people are of influencing political outcomes when they engage with politics. Figure 1 shows the political efficacy of young people (18 – 24 year olds) from the British Election Study (for 2001, 2005 and 2010) and from the Audit of Political Engagement (from 2003 – 2011). It also shows the efficacy of over 25s from the Audit series for comparison.

It is clear that the events of 2003 had virtually no effect on the perceived political effectiveness of young people, or indeed the rest of the electorate. In 2001, according to the British Election Survey just under 20% of 18–24 year olds reported having some feeling of political efficacy. By 2010, this figure had risen to 22%. The Audit of Political Engagement data shows that in 2003, 39% of young people reported some sense of political efficacy. This figure fluctuated slightly in the following 8 years, and was a slightly higher 41% by 2011. The lack of government responsiveness to the protests against the Iraq war therefore did little to disrupt British voters’ belief that they could change political outcomes if they engaged with politics.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Based on data from the British Household Panel Survey (and Understanding Society from 2009) we can also look at interest in politics. Had the Iraq war destroyed people’s faith in politics, we might expect interest in politics to drop from 2004; if people didn’t feel that politicians would listen to them no matter what they did, why be interested in politics?

The British Household Panel Survey shows that in 2002, 60% of 18–24 year olds had at least some interest in politics. This fell to 57% by 2004 immediately after the Iraq war (hardly indicative of a collapse of political interest), and by 2010 had returned to 60%. There was no collapse in the political interest of young people after the invasion of Iraq.

Data from the British Election Study confirms these findings. Figure 2 shows a range of variables measuring the political attitudes of 18-24 year olds. It confirms that there was no sudden drop in their political interest between the 2001 and 2005 general elections. It also shows that whilst young people’s belief that it was their civic duty to vote in general elections did fall (by 6%) between 2001 and 2010, their overall satisfaction with British democracy – perhaps the most direct indicator relating to the argument that  Iraq destroyed faith in British politics –increased in the same period. In 2001, 58% of young people were satisfied with British democracy; by 2005, the election immediately following the Iraq war, this figure rose to 61%, and reached 66% by 2010. By the time of the general election after the Iraq war, young people were more likely to be satisfied with British democracy than they were before it. There is no evidence at all that an entire generation has been politically scarred for life by the invasion of Iraq or the events that surrounded it.

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

We can go further still in this analysis, however, and compare the political attitudes of the 18–24 year old cohort in 2003 with those of the 25–34 year old cohort in 2011. In other words, we can see how the political attitudes of the generation who were aged 18-24 in 2003 have changed as they have aged. Figure 3 below does just this, using data from the Audit of Political Engagement.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

The figures show pretty definitively that the young people of 2003 did not have their confidence destroyed by the invasion of Iraq, or Tony Blair’s refusal to call off the invasion. The proportion who agreed that they could influence politics if they engaged rose by 3% between 2003 and 2011, and their likelihood to say that they will definitely vote in a general election rose by a similar amount. Their interest in politics fell slightly (by 2%), but certainly not to an extent that would suggest a collapse in democratic confidence.

There was a notable increase of 8% in the proportion who felt that the British political system needs to be improved, but before we read too much into that we should note that the equivalent figures for the entire electorate are very similar: 63% of Brits felt that the British political system needed to be improved in 2003, and this reached 74% by 2011. The generation of 18–24 year olds in 2003 are certainly not alone in becoming more likely to think that British politics needs reform, and following the expenses scandal of 2009 perhaps this is not surprising.

We can see that the invasion of Iraq, the government’s refusal to call off the war, the accusations that dossiers were ‘sexed up’, and the subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction, actually did very little to undermine the faith in politics of any generation of British voters. These things may well have contributed to a growing feeling that the British political system needs reform, and to the steady decline in political interest over the last decade. But it is clear that there was no collapse of faith in democracy amongst the young people who protested against the invasion of Iraq – or amongst today’s young. People looking to pin the blame for the low political engagement of young people with British politics will have to look beyond Iraq for their explanation.

Stuart Fox

 

Hugh Gaitskell: what is the Labour leader’s legacy?

Hugh Gaitskell by Judy Cassab

Hugh Gaitskell by Judy Cassab

It’s now exactly fifty years since Hugh Gaitskell, Leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963, died of a mysterious illness.

The Labour Party tends to revere those leading lights that have been prematurely taken away from it. Since their respective deaths in 1963 and 1994, both Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith have now almost achieved sainthood. But, fifty years on, what is Gaitskell’s long-term legacy?

Probably Gaitskell’s most important contribution is ‘Butskellism’, a term coined in The Economist in 1956 by merging his name with that of Rab Butler, a leading Conservative. Gaitskell and Butler served as successive Chancellors of the Exchequer in the early 1950s, and both shared similar views on a ‘mixed economy’, a strong welfare state, and maintaining full employment. That post-war consensus would last, more or less until 1979 when Mrs Thatcher came to power.

Throughout his life, Gaitskell remained a committed social democrat. He led an ardent group of followers inside the Labour Party – people like Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – who eventually formed the breakaway SDP in 1981. In 1994, Tony Blair would take up many of the views of Gaitskell’s acolytes in a sort of ‘SDP Mark II’.

Indeed, Gaitskell shared with Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock a certain way of running the Labour Party: all three leaders tended to express their love for it by grabbing it by the scruff of the neck. Such a strident style of leadership is in marked contrast to a host of other Labour leaders – including Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Michael Foot and John Smith – who balanced competing forces, seeking compromise.

Gaitskell was a conviction politician, always prepared to fight for his political beliefs. His brave stand against Anthony Eden’s military intervention in Suez in 1956 because it lacked the support of the United Nations, marked him out early on as a man of principle.

Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gaitskell provoked two great debates – over nuclear disarmament and European integration – both of which showed that he was prepared to take a stand on the key issues of the day, even at the expense of making enemies from within his own party.

‘There are some of us’, he told delegates at the 1960 Labour Conference in Scarborough ‘who will fight, fight and fight again to save the Party we love.’ Gaitskell had the courage to make the pro-nuclear case at the height of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s influence. He lost the vote in 1960, but demonstrated true grit by reversing the decision the following year. Despite the Party’s ‘wobble’ over defence under Michael Foot in the early 1980s, the likelihood of the present Labour frontbench unilaterally renouncing Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is far-fetched. Labour MPs eventually became fed up of being on the ‘wrong’ side of the argument, and Gaitskell showed them the way.

However, Gaitskell parted company with many of his social democratic followers on the issue of Europe. He was wedded to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, famously telling the 1962 Labour Party Conference in Brighton that European integration would mean ‘the end of a thousand years of history’. Today, Labour is much more pro-European in outlook, although Ed Miliband’s advisers are trying to wrestle with the problem that the British people are far less keen on the European project than party activists. As Miliband contemplates whether or not to come out in favour of a referendum on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, perhaps the modern day Labour Party would do well to heed Gaitskell’s words of warning.

Unfortunately, Gaitskell’s legacy was also as a loser. At the 1959 general election, Labour fought a highly professionalized campaign. Gaitskell appeared on television with Tony Benn and Woodrow Wyatt, pioneering the use of party political broadcasts. But, rather like Neil Kinnock, who also fought a media-based campaign in the 1987 general election, Gaitskell went down to a shattering landslide defeat at the hands of the Conservatives. Although he remained as Labour leader, his standing never fully recovered.

Probably the cruellest aspect of Gaitskell’s death in January 1963 is that it paved the way for Harold Wilson – a more ruthless, calculating and ultimately more successful politician – to assume the Labour leadership. Famously, Wilson went on to win four out of the five general elections he fought. Tragically, John Smith’s death in 1994 also paved the way for another more charismatic Labour leader to emerge, Tony Blair becoming the most successful Labour leader in history, winning three successive elections.

Both Gaitskell and Smith’s deaths therefore raise intriguing political ‘what ifs’. Political pundits are left endlessly to speculate whether, had Gaitskell lived, he would have beaten Macmillan in 1964, and had Smith lived, whether he would have defeated John Major in 1997.

The veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, a notable survivor from the Gaitskell era, divides politicians into signposts, who show the way, and weathercocks who are buffeted by events. Whether we agree with Gaitskell’s views or not, he was definitely a signpost. Fifty years on from his death, perhaps his lasting legacy is to encourage other politicians to lead from the front.

Mark Stuart is a Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He has written a number of political biographies, including John Smith: a Life.

Hunting down Tony Blair

Here we go again. Yet another ‘satire’ about Tony Blair. This time from the Comic Strip, those 1980s Alternative Comedians who did so much to stamp out Thatcherism and now spend their time playing benign ogres in Harry Potter films or cheery vicars in winsome sitcoms, endorsing beer or opposing (how ironic) the Alternative Vote.

In The Hunt for Tony Blair  our former Prime Minister is portrayed as a smooth villain taken from a 1950s film noir, one  eager to cite the ‘tough choices’ which lead him to murder his innocent victims.

As Stephen Mangan who plays Blair in the film says, it’s meant to be an ‘out-and-out comedy’ but he hopes it will be controversial because: ‘If you’re being brave and accurate and manage to pinpoint things in a sufficiently sharp way, then, you know, you should upset people’. From the looks of it, however, The Hunt for Tony Blair promises to be irredeemably conformist.

The New Labour government is the most dramatised in history and Tony Blair the most dramatised Prime Minister – certainly no other party or leader has been subject to such extensive fictionalisation on the screen while still in office. To give you an idea, here’s just a few images of the fictionalised Tony Blair. Churchill had to wait until the 1970s.

And how have Blair and colleagues been fictionalised? In one way only: as spin-obsessed power-abusers; liars who are both financially and morally corrupt. Of course there are some who think this just reflects the reality. When I interviewed those writers and directors who have produced some of the best known dramatisations of Blair for a Radio Four documentary last year, they all had serious reasons for showing him up in negative terms – what they saw as his betrayal of the working class and role in taking Britain into Iraq being the most significant.

But there also lazy reasons, including pandering to easy stereotypes and popular prejudices. Many members of the public, certainly those on the left, somehow ‘know’ that Blair was obsessed by spin, was in love with the powerful and lied to us about Iraq. But how do we acquire such ‘knowledge’?  I’ve looked at all the instances in which New Labour and Blair have been depicted on the screen and what I can report is a diminishing of what I call our ‘imagined political capital’ – that is the repertoire of ideas we hold about politicians. In the era of mediated politics this increasingly influences how we see our politicians. For how many of us actually know an MP or meet a councillor and so have direct experience of them? Very few. For the most part we get our knowledge about politics through reading or watching the news (and fewer and fewer of us do that) or watching them depicted on the screen in comedies and dramas. This is ersatz knowledge.

That is not to say that the former Prime Minister was the saintly hero that some Blairite cultists seem to think. But we should be aware of the whys and wherefores of how our politicians are being depicted on the screen and how it is – compared to, say the 1970s – that you can’t find a good politician on the screen any more and why it should be that politics is constantly represented as a moral hazard.

In the 1930s Graham Greene defined ‘a humorist in the modern English sense’, as someone ‘who shares the popular taste and who satirizes only those with whom the majority are already displeased’. This led to what Greene disparaged as ‘safe and acceptable’ comedies, that only reinforced popular opinion.

If the Comic Strip had wanted to be ‘brave’ and ‘controversial’ then it would have produced a version of Tony Blair who was not a murderous, lying swine.

Steven Fielding

Yes, ex-Prime Minister

The Independent’s Steve Richards recently highlighted the existence of an ‘informal alliance’ between David Cameron and Tony Blair. Richards suggested that this ‘alliance’ is based on a policy agenda embraced by many of those who worked closest with Blair in government as well as some of Cameron’s most trusted Cabinet colleagues.

I reflected on the significance of this ‘alliance’ for Liberal Conspiracy – the UK’s most popular left-of-centre politics blog. I offered some thoughts about what it says both about Blair’s relationship with Labour; and, more generally, about the reasons why certain ex-Prime Ministers now allow themselves to be appropriated by their former rivals.

Steven Fielding

Tony Blair: five things we know

Whenever Tony Blair returns to Britain and is interviewed by journalists the blogosphere and Twitter explode with fury, vengeance and vituperation: it’s like Middlesbrough on a Friday night.

The former Prime Minister has recently come back to the UK to publicise the publication of the paperback version of his autobiography. This is a fascinating document – if you want to understand Blair’s perspective then it is a must-read.

When it comes to Blair, however, empathy is in short supply. Reaction to his latest visit has been predictable. Those who think of themselves as being on the left condemn Blair for his role in the Iraq War; others, some of whom might also think of themselves as being on the left – but a very different kind of left – counter by pointing out his sheer political ‘class’.

As this nerdy version of a stare-out contest rages on, I thought it useful to outline what a more sober eye might see in Blair’s record. I’ve written about New Labour over the years, teach undergraduates at Nottingham about its rise and (maybe?) fall and will be producing a second edition of this book in the fullness of time. I can’t claim to be objective – nobody is by the way – but this is my take.

1. Tony Blair won three general elections in a row. This is a unique achievement for a Labour leader – the first two by landslides. Some claim that 1997 was in the bag as Major’s Conservatives had imploded by 1994 but that’s a moot point. What must be admitted is that Blair gave Labour such a boost before 1997 he made the 2001 victory almost inevitable. For a time he talked to the kind of voter who had once seen Labour as beyond the pale.

2. Tony Blair was a social democrat; but a very neo-liberal one. He believed that market mechanisms were generally better at providing public services than the state. That did not make him a Thatcherite: plenty of social democrats across Europe had embraced the market before her as they looked for credible ways of making society more equal.

3. Tony Blair helped improve public services and stopped inequality getting (much) worse. Public spending increased: new hospitals and schools were built, more teachers, nurses and doctors employed. Under Blair the public sector made up for the neglect that had begun under the last Labour government. His record on equality was more mixed – the super-rich got richer while some of the poorest (pensioners; those in work with children) did relatively well. But could Blair have done more in the midst of unprecedented economic growth? Probably.

4. When Tony Blair left office he was deeply unpopular. It is often forgotten that during the 2005 election Blair had to call in Gordon Brown to give him credibility. Blair also had been forced to state that he wouldn’t contest another election. If Brown went on to make matters worse when he finally became Prime Minister, things had already gone badly awry for Labour by the end of Blair’s tenure. He had lost his touch.

5. Tony Blair could not have stopped the Iraq War.  But Blair believed he might and, if not, by being inside the tent he could ameliorate mistakes that President Bush on his own would have made. In other words Blair seriously over-estimated his ability to influence the White House – a mistake other Prime Ministers have made in the past.

This is not, I suspect, the time for many people to embrace a balanced view of Tony Blair. There is a process in Britain which means that electorally successful politicians are generally loathed for decades after they have left office. But at some point – when they are dead, dying or ga-ga, Britons begin to realize that they were not all bad: look at the fall and then rise in the reputations of MacDonald, Baldwin and Thatcher.

It’s ironic that Harold Wilson was often cited against Blair. For the former Labour Prime Minister had not allowed British involvement in the Vietnam War despite US pressure. Yet, for much of the 1970s and 1980s Wilson had been a by-word for lack of principle, love of capitalism and even corruption. By the 1990s, after nearly two decades of a Conservative government, historians (myself included) finally began to reassess his record.

I wonder how long Blair will have to wait for rehabilitation?

Steven Fielding