A Big Idea to Suit the Nation's Grumpy Mood

By Marr, Andrew | The Independent (London, England), January 9, 1996 | Go to article overview
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A Big Idea to Suit the Nation's Grumpy Mood

Marr, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)

Tony Blair is finding his true voice. Catapulted unexpectedly into the Labour leadership and learning on the job, he has spent many months publicly refining his message, sharpening his ideas, searching for words that will really hit home. Now, far from home, in Japan and Singapore, he has started to come up with the language for his election campaign.

Politics is about philosophy and the big picture, as well as detailed policy and crisis management. If voters have no sense of where a government is headed, or how it thinks about the world, then their interest in its legislation will be pretty limited. In Labour's case, it has had a huge historical weight to dislodge before Britain takes it fully seriously.

Since Labour was last in power the state has been largely discredited as a means of social advance. It has been edged aside by the market and by globalisation. It has had its nose rubbed in its own failures to run industries efficiently or to raise up a welfarist New Jerusalem without modernist slums.

Faced with this the centre-left, which had been the state's central nervous system in the post-war world, was defeated not only at the ballot box but in the battle of ideas, too. Socialism became terminally unfashionable, except among a thinning fringe of optimistic revolutionaries and academic has-beens.

So to declare that Blair is starting to turn the intellectual tide is a very big claim indeed. It would mean not only that he had found a credible new role for the state, but that he was able to distinguish new Labour's programme from the Tories in ways that made sense, without denying the facts of the new economic order. Yet this is what seems to be happening.

His first technique is to change the terms of intellectual trade. In his speech to Japanese business leaders last Friday, he accepted that in the global market, deregulation and financial orthodoxy were essential: "Some of the changes made by the Conservatives in the 1980s were inevitable and are here to stay."

But he immediately went on to argue that they were only the beginning, "the first era of response to globalisation . . . The next era will be the creative age, where the economics of the 21st century will be dominated by those countries that save, invest, innovate and . . . develop the potential of the one resource that will be exclusively theirs: their people." And in this second era, he argues, Labour is naturally placed as the best party to take up the baton of economic advance.

Thus, in a few sentences, the historic failure of state socialism is admitted and swiftly relegated as wholly irrelevant to contemporary politics. The Thatcher revolution is patted on the head and dismissed. Labour's mistakes are acknowledged and airily discarded as old stuff, fit for student debating clubs and history books, rather than live general election ammunition.

This is cheeky but shrewd. Point-scoring politicians endlessly look back over one another's records. But to the voters, being thought right matters much more than being thought original or consistent: it did not damage Churchill, Eden or Macmillan in the Fifties that they were running on tracks laid down by Attlee's exhausted administration. Similarly, if Labour has converted to the current economic consensus, middle Britain is likely to be reassured rather than contemptuous.

So now Blair proposes Labour and the "stakeholder economy" as the next step for British modernisation, an advance on the Tory past, rather than a break with it. But where does that leave the state, whose past failures destroyed the previous model of socialism and which most Conservatives regard more as problem than solution?

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