Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair Seeks la Troisieme Voie, but There Are Only Two Directions

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair Seeks la Troisieme Voie, but There Are Only Two Directions

Article excerpt

Tony Blair's Francophilia does not extend to itics. Last 2 Mav. a French politician telephoned Labour HQ at Millbank. He asked to be put through to Mr Blair; he wanted to offer his congratulations. But when that request was passed up the hierarchy, there was a firm veto; why should Mr Blair begin his premiership by talking to losers?

The Blairites can be forgiven for making that assessment of the would-be caller, one Lionel Jospin. At that stage, hardly anyone - including M. Jospin himself -- expected him to win the French election. That is one reason why it is so difficult for the Jospin government to handle the economy; it is stuck with the election pledges M. Jospin made on the assumption that he would remain in opposition.

Even though M. Jospin won, Mr Blair does not believe that he has anything to learn from the French Left, whom he regards as hopelessly old Labour. He was also infuriated by the French government's behaviour over Iraq, and their pleasure in every difficulty that the American-British alliance encountered. The French were not interested in diminishing Saddam Hussein's influence, but in enhancing their own. During the crisis, Mr Blair established strong personal relations with Romano Prodi; he has much more in common with an Italian centre-left technocrat than with a French socialist. More recently, Messrs Blair and Brown were grinding their teeth over claims by the French finance minister that Britain would be excluded from inner ring discussions on EMU. They concluded rightly - that the French were not just making technical points about the way EMU will operate; once again, they were gloating over a rebuff to the rosbifs. Mr Blair was also vexed at the thought of a row which might overshadow his visit to Paris.

But he need not have worried; he got his standing ovation in the National Assembly, and the speech lived up to its billing. It was indeed the most extensive statement of views that Mr Blair has given since the general election, and it revealed just how shallow those views are.

We now have a European troisieme voie as well as a domestic third way. But there is a crucial difference. In domestic terms, it was profoundly cunning of Mr Blair to antithesise traditional socialism, which wanted the state to do everything, and Thatcherism, which wanted to abolish the state, and to offer the enabling state as a moderate compromise. It is no use the Tories pointing out that they ran just such a state for 18 years, and spent around 4 trillion at present prices on doing so. After 18 years of believing in the cuts, the electorate is not likely to change now. So Mr Blair's third way gives him infinite scope for dressing up timid, marginal policy changes as dramatic innovations.

But that will not work in Europe. When Mr Blair spoke of `the deep concern among our peoples as to how they relate to the new Europe', he was choosing his words carefully for their domestic impact, and to judge by the Telegraph headline `Blair calls for curbs on Europe' he succeeded. But sophisticated Continental Europhiles would have interpreted the speech in a quite different way. They would share Mr Blair's anxieties as to whether the peoples of Europe will accept its institutions; in Brussels and Strasbourg these days, there is a lot of talk about the `democratic deficit'. So when Mr Blair says that `the next step for Europe is to match its vision of its economic role with its political and social role'. he is preaching to the converted, at least in Europe. …

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