Anxious Anatomists of Blair's Britain

By Berry, Neil | Contemporary Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Anxious Anatomists of Blair's Britain


Berry, Neil, Contemporary Review


THE days when Tony Blair was Britain's darling, basking in endlessly flattering opinion polls, have begun to seem like some episode of mass hallucination. Against a background of mounting public cynicism about politicians as a breed, the New Labour politician who made much of being different from the rest, imploring people to trust him, is now widely seen as being exactly like the rest. The disgrace and resignation of his closest cabinet colleague, Peter Mandelson, in January, has damaged Blair. If 2001 sees him elected anew for a second term as British Prime Minister, it will scarcely be because he is much loved, or even much respected.

Not that Blair's popularity was ever universal. One of his most trenchant critics, the retired Welsh Labour MP, Leo Abse, went to the length of writing a book, The Man behind the Smile (1996), warning of the threat posed by Blair both to what remains of British socialism and to the well-being of British people in general. Maintaining that Blair's penchant for the 'Third Way', for purging politics of conflict, sprang from traumatic personal experience, Abse portrayed him as the kind of politician whose hunger for power and publicity is overwhelmingly pathological. Certainly, Tony Blair has known his fair share of private anguish. He was eleven when his father, until then a thriving lecturer in law, was incapacitated by a stroke. And he was barely out of his teens, years much taken up with hospital visits, when his mother died an untimely death. Abse's intuition was that Blair's stagey persona masked profound self-estrangement, denial of monumental proportions. And he suggested that his peculiar psychology had more than a little to do with his original appeal to the present-day British, a tormented post-imperial people anxious to turn a blind eye to their country's chronic malaise. Cranky stuff maybe -- but by now there must be more than a few who share Abse's sense that there is something odd about Tony Blair's furious show of normality.

Blair will go down as the British Prime Minister who devolved metropolitan power to Scotland and Wales. But he will surely be remembered not least for his voluble commitment to the 'Millennium Dome' in south east London (see Contemporary Review, March 2000). The potential of this oversold extravaganza as a metaphor for 'Blairism', a brand of Americanised politics apt to elevate image over substance, 'spin' over deeds, has already been the subject of much caustic comment. (Mandelson was the chief 'spin doctor' for all of this.) And the fact is that, for all the New Labour talk of making a fresh national start, Britain under Blair is a society plagued by problems, from family breakdown to rising crime, from decaying public services to dysfunctional roads and railways. It is also a place where the very national future has become an increasing preoccupation among writers and journalists, if not among the populace as a whole. In the period since Tony Blair took office in May 1997, anatomies of Britain have been t umbling from the presses in dizzying profusion.

What is the relationship between England and Britain and/or the United Kingdom, the old British state made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and effectively dominated by England? And what, at this hour of the day, do Englishness and Britishness actually mean? During imperial times, that archetypal native, John Bull, was swaggeringly sure of himself: common sense told this true-born Englishman that he was also a Briton and as such the representative of an empire that straddled the globe. What, though, does common sense tell him now at a time when Britain often seems like a mere appendage of the United States; when, 30 years after joining it, the British are still agonising over membership of the European Union; and when, with growing numbers of Scottish and Welsh people loath to be thought British at all, the very survival of the United Kingdom has begun to appear problematic? …

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