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New Left Review I/223, May-June 1997

Robin Blackburn

Reflections on Blair’s Velvet Revolution

The comprehensive defeat of the Conservatives in the General Election must be a source of satisfaction, indeed jubilation, to the Left everywhere since the administrations of Thatcher and Major were global pioneers of the free market blight and particular foes of social progress in Europe. In the politics of the United Kingdom the Conservative rout constitutes a momentous watershed. With only 32 per cent of the vote it was the worst Tory result since 1832. But this time, rather than setting the seal on an epoch of reform, it signals the beginning of a crisis of regime. Of course Labour’s landslide majority in the House of Commons is quite misleading. While it has over 60 per cent of all MPs it won 44 per cent of the vote, only a whisker ahead of Margaret Thatcher’s best performance and on a lower turnout. But Thatcher’s 43.5 per cent represented the outer limit of support for her politics, with some voting Conservative from habit or fear. In 1997 it is necessary to add to the New Labour score the vote for the Liberal Democrats (at 17 per cent) and for the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists since these three parties have good claim to be socially as well as politically more radical than New Labour. Altogether 64 per cent of the voters supported parties which in one way of another propose measures of democratization, including a referendum in Scotland on a Scottish Parliament, removal of hereditary peers from the second chamber and referenda on electoral reform and Europe. The Liberal Democrats, with their representation doubled to 46 MPs, and the nationalists, with their special contribution on these questions, are likely to be more visible than before. Notwithstanding a certain vagueness, New Labour’s programme—‘modernization’, policies that favour ‘the many not the few’, ‘national renewal’ and so forth—made its own distinctive promise of a ‘Ukanian’ velvet revolution. [1] For the definitive account of the United Kingdom as the land of ‘Ukania’ , see Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass, London 1987.

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Robin Blackburn, ‘Reflections on Blair’s Velvet Revolution’, NLR I/223: £3

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