I Am Still a Blairite, but Is Blair?

By Wright, Tony | New Statesman (1996), June 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

I Am Still a Blairite, but Is Blair?


Wright, Tony, New Statesman (1996)


Tony Wright MP argues that new Labour has lost the big picture and produced a politics for middle managers: timid, vacuous, obsessed with the Daily Mail

I am a Blairite. At least, I always thought I was. It's the description that routinely precedes my name in the newspapers. I did, however, spot a reference to me as a "former Blairite" recently, and a journalist phoned last week to ask if he should include me in his list of assorted Labour malcontents.

I clearly need to work out what is going on, if only because it may have a wider significance for current arguments about the state of the Project. Beyond the lazy journalism, there is a real sense of this being (in Blair-speak) a genuinely defining moment for the new Labour enterprise.

I became a Blairite (even before Blair, I like to think) because I wanted the centre left to become the dominant force in British society, as I believed was possible if Labour was reformed and modernised. Drawing on the rich intellectual resources of the "liberal socialism" that was forged in the early part of the 20th century -- as new liberalism mingled with ethical socialism -- the opportunity existed to put together a powerful, modern progressive movement. This would combine markets with social justice, rights with duties, and subject both state services and market operations to public-int[acute{e}]rest disciplines. A new language of community, emphasising society as a common enterprise in which we all have a stake, would articulate and integrate these arguments into a coherent public philosophy.

Above all others, Tony Blair seemed to have the vision of what was required, and the courage to bring it about. His determination to do battle on Clause Four, when others urged evasion, showed his intent. Labour found a new language and a new audience, confirming that the idea of a progressive majority in Britain was not a chimera.

Where stands all this now? Some of those who supply critical answers may be safely ignored. They never shared the vision in the first place. Others want to play off old Labour against new, the heartlands against middling Britain, already for getting the elementary lesson that a progressive majority requires just that, a majority. Then there are those who give only grudging credit to the government for all the many good things it is doing. Yet, when all this is properly said, something is clearly not right. There is a problem at the centre of the Blair project, which even the ill-mannered ladies of the Women's Institute could not fail to notice. Unless this problem is attended to, there will be tears before bedtime.

Unsure of what it is, Blairism lacks the confidence to become what it might be. Its fuzzy centre leaves the party uncertain and the electorate suspecting hollowness and spinnery. What is lacking is the sense of a central mission or purpose. There is much tacking, but not enough steering. There are policy initiatives galore, but somehow the big picture that would make sense of the various parts never comes into sharp enough focus. The obsession with presentation has been at the expense of theory and strategy. It is ironic that a government that has made, presentation so central should have left people so uncertain as to what, at bottom, it is really about.

Perhaps, as some suggest, a Mark II Blairism has replaced the original. How else to explain the distance between the expansive, risk-taking, realigning, history-shaping instincts of the one, and the cautious, controlling temper of the other? One makes the weather, the other dishes out umbrellas. Or perhaps there was a confusion in the original, which I (and others) did not see at the time. I thought the project was to make our ideas into the dominant ideas of society, in an enterprise of advocacy and persuasion and example, not to take the dominant ideas we found lying around after the Thatcher years and make them into our ideas. …

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