Peter mair has put all New Labour watchers in his debt. His contribution to the continuing debate on the ‘Blair paradox’ is illuminating and thought-provoking, and I have learned a lot from it.footnote1 In essence, he argues that the so-called paradox is not a paradox at all. In seeking to concentrate power within the Labour party while at the same time devolving power within the state, Blair and his associates are being perfectly consistent. Their aim is to eviscerate—or at least to by-pass—party altogether. The Prussian discipline they have imposed on their own followers represents one path to the ultimate goal of a ‘partyless democracy’; their experiments in constitutional pluralism represent a parallel and complementary path. When I accused them of failing to understand what they were doing, I was not just mistaken; I had grasped precisely the wrong end of the stick. They know perfectly well what they are doing. They are trying to dismantle the structure of majoritarian democracy which has been fundamental to British politics for more than a century, in order to de-politicize the whole process of government.
I agree with much of this. Blair’s disdain for party—and, on a deeper level, for the differences of ideology and interest which have sustained party in this and other European democracies—is almost palpable. He dreams of a united and homogeneous people, undifferentiated by class or locality, with which he, as leader, can communicate directly, without benefit of intermediaries. In his vision of it, at least, New Labour’s vocation is to mobilize the suburbs as well as the inner cities; rich as well as poor; old as well as young; Christians as well as unbelievers; hunters as well as animal-rights activists; believers in family values as well as opponents of Clause 28. Its warm embrace covers all men and women of goodwill, provided only that they are prepared to enlist in the relentless, never-ending crusade for modernization which he and his colleagues have set in motion. The ‘progressive century’, the lineaments of which have been sketched out by his polling guru, Philip Gould,footnote2 and which, presumably, has now begun, will be made in that same inclusive image. Only traditionalists will be excluded—Conservatives, whether with a big or small ‘c’; and, of course, the still not-quite-vanquished mastodons of Old Labour.
There is no doubt that this marks a departure from the post-war norms of British majoritarian democracy. All prime ministers like to believe that they speak for the nation and many have become exasperated with their own followers, but no post-war prime minister has sought to transcend party in the way that Blair has done. There were premonitions of his statecraft in that of Mrs Thatcher, but the differences between them are more striking than the similarities. Like Thatcher, Blair is a populist, determined to communicate directly with an imaginary ‘people’, over the heads of his colleagues. But he is a healer where she was a warrior. His instinct is to blur sharp edges; hers was to sharpen them. He seeks to include, where she was determined to exclude. And his attempt to construct a vast, all-embracing coalition of what Mair, in a beautiful phrase, calls ‘goo-goos’ has nothing in common with Thatcherism. So far from trying to de-politicize government, Thatcher did her potent best to politicize it. In the end, of course, she was brought down by a party revolt. But during her triumphant heyday, she embodied the culture and instincts of the Conservative rank and file more thoroughly than any other post-war leader. So far from disdaining party, she gloried in her fierce and divisive partisanship.
So far, then, Mair’s analysis seems to me to be on the right lines. But I part company with him on one crucial point. (In fairness I should make it clear that I only became aware of it after reading his piece.) He is right in thinking that Blair has broken with the norms of British party politics as they have operated since 1945. He is wrong in suggesting that these norms were hallowed by time. Majoritarian democracy on the post-war model was a child of the upheavals of the war itself, and in particular of the seismic shift in political allegiances which made it possible for the Labour Party belatedly to become a more-or-less equal player in a new two-party system. In the interwar period, majoritarian democracy on the post-war model did not exist. A vast, hegemonic, Conservative-dominated coalition held power from 1931 to 1940, and the high probability is that if the war had not intervened it would have continued to hold power for a good deal longer. The 1920s were in some respects a different story, but only in some respects. Weak minority Labour governments held office in 1924 and from 1929 to 1931. After the 1924 general election, in which the Liberals’ share of the vote fell from 29.6% to 17.6%, it was clear that the Labour Party had replaced them as the main anti-Conservative party in the state. The fact remains that Conservative or Conservative-dominated governments were in power for ten of the thirteen years from 1918 to 1931, as well as for the whole of the period from 1931 to 1940. The implications are intriguing. In this, as in other spheres, it is unwise to take Blair’s futuristic rhetoric at face value. He is best seen as a Charles II, not as a Cromwell. He seeks a restoration, not a revolution. His true aim is to re-invent the Age of Baldwin, not to stride forward into a hitherto unimagined future.
In saying that, I do not mean that he is himself a second Baldwin. His contempt for tradition and his endlessly re-iterated appeals to novelty, youth and a reified ‘Future’ could hardly be less Baldwinesque. Yet, as Philip Williamson’s distinguished recent study of Baldwin’s rhetoric and statecraft shows,footnote3 the parallels between the two are as striking as they are unexpected. To be sure, Baldwin did not openly disdain party, in the way that Blair does. He went out of his way to pay court to the House of Commons, which Blair treats with lordly indifference. But he was as anxious as Blair to construct an amorphous, broad-based coalition, going well beyond the frontiers of his own party; as eager to transcend the divisions of class and interest reflected in party conflicts; as intent on including all men and women of goodwill in a warm, purportedly non-political embrace; and, above all, as determined to present himself as a friendly, trustworthy, ‘ordinary’ person, unskilled in the arts of professional politics and uncorrupted by them. Again and again, he insisted that he was no orator; in his first broadcast speech, a masterpiece of deft, non-partisan under-statement, he apologized to the listeners for interrupting the ordinary programme.footnote4 As Williamson puts it,
At elections, he focused the issue not so much upon programmes as upon sincerity and trust . . . He also thought that understatement and frankness were the most effective intonations in coping with the principal opposition: ‘his chief asset with Labour was his reputation for plain dealing’. Baldwin’s aim was to invert the style and values which had been widely expected from democratic politicians—to deflate demagogy and establish a different, safer, demotic idiom. Power, strength, public spirit and truth were to be identified with restraint, humility, moderation and common sense. ‘Spell-binders and fire-eaters’ were to be beaten by those able to display ‘seriousness’ and ‘moral goodness’. Public speaking would be valued not for exciting radical demands, but leading ‘men to dwell on the thoughts of service to their country and of help to one another’.footnote5
With the art that concealed art, in short, Baldwin also sought to de-politicize government, to damp down ideological controversy and class conflict, to convince the electorate that common sense pointed in only one direction and to insist that duties came before rights. His reward was nearly twenty years of Conservative hegemony, and a party system closer to the dominant-party model of post-war Japan than to the adversarial model of post-war Britain. The parallels between Baldwin and Blair should not be pushed too far. Blair is reaching out to the middle ground from a party of the left; Baldwin did so from a party of the right. Perhaps because of this, Blair has tried earnestly (if so far fruitlessly) to construct an overt ideological justification for his statecraft. Baldwin’s statecraft needed no ideological cladding, beyond the trusty standbys of fair play and patriotism. And, of course, the conditions of political life in the 1990s and 2000s are almost unimaginably different from what they were in the 1920s and 1930s. What was demotic then would sound almost mandarin now; Baldwin’s nearest equivalent of a spin doctor was the ubiquitous ‘TJ’ (Thomas Jones), a former professor of economics. Mutatis mutandis, however, Blair’s statecraft follows where Baldwin’s led. Like Baldwin, he seeks to de-politicize government, but through party, not against it. If he succeeds, New Labour will be to the 2000s and 2010s what the Conservatives were to the 1920s and 1930s. It will not bear much resemblance to the Labour Party we used to know—not least, because it will dominate the political stage in a way that Old Labour never did—but it will still be unmistakably a political party, and politics will still revolve around the conflict between it and its chief rival.