This book surprised me — the reviews I read ranged from mediocre to hostile, but I found Tony Blair in excellent explanatory form, describing his thinking of New Labour, his efforts to get the party to adopt the ideas, and his fights along the way. That this wasn’t simply a PR exercise is demonstrated by the election of a new party leader, Ed Miliband, who promptly announced the end of New Labour.
In chapters on New Labour, Princess Diana, Northern Ireland, government, Kosovo, Iraq and his battle with Gordon Brown, Blair provides his historical account, along with some excellent personality profiles, and then draws some conclusions about the change in English society, why government is slower than the private sector to adapt to change, what makes negotiations work or fail, and the changing role of national leaders in an era of frequent global conferences which leave them far less time to manage politics and parties at home. He is also good on what it takes to be a leader who will go for winning elections rather than persisting in the apparent purity of opposition.
“It’s extraordinary how anyone who opposes the government is principled while anyone who is loyal is just a sycophant…”
Out of office for years, Labour needed to show that it could “cross the class and employment divide, that it could unite the nation. I was the modernizer, in personality, in language, in time, feel and temperament.” Some of his colleagues understood that if they wanted to retake power they had to break from a union past; others argued and resisted and some came along; others never did.
One example of his task — rewriting the party constitution to remove the demands for nationalization and state control, Clause IV, drafted in 1917. No one paid attention to the clause, but no one wanted to make the effort to remove it either. Blair insisted on change, leading some in the party to suggest he enjoyed making enemies within. But his argument is persuasive — years after the Soviet Union and China had moved to market systems and away from nationalization and collective farms, British Labour still had nationalization and collectivism in its goals.
He proposed instead a statement of purpose that stressed the goals of individuals:
“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavor, we achieve more than we achieve alone so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity , tolerance and respect.”
Okay, it might be the English equivalent of American Mom and Apple Pie but it does appear to renounce feudalism while celebrating achievement rather than equal poverty for all. As people become more educated they don’t necessarily want the state making decisions for them, he said. During its years in the wilderness, Labour had become more of a cult than a party, and the Lib Dems even more so — Blair must be watching with great interest their role in government rather than in perpetual opposition.
Blair had a battle, which is apt to continue, to persuade people inside and outside the party that the government and state agencies can become a vested interest. Reforms to health care were battled by physicians who said they would harm health, when the only real threat was to the doctors’ well-being. It is a theme familiar to readers of The Washington Monthly where Charles Peters points out that when budgets are threatened governments invariably explain they will have to lay off firemen and close fire stations. State governments around the US are finding they can’t afford the pension plans which elected officials and unions agreed upon as a way to raise compensation without paying for it.
Part of the problem was that Labour had confused means and ends. It had lost touch with its basic purpose. In Blair’s eyes, political power should be about the individual…a powerful state, unions, social action and, collective bargaining were means to an end — to help the individual gain opportunity. Government failed to recognize that its success had changed the society. By the 1960s, the first generation had been liberated and didn’t want more state help but instead wanted freedom to earn money and spend it. The private sector moved fast with the change, state sector got stuck.
Governments, whether of the right or left, are not naturally inclined to reform the bureaucracy.
“…whereas the market compels change, there is no similar compulsion in the public sector. Left to its own devices, it grows. Governments can change it, but governments use the public sector, depend on it and are part of it…Whatever the enormous impact of the Thatcher reforms had been on the private sector in the 1980s, we had inherited a public sector largely unreformed; and we weren’t instinctively included to reform it.”
Blair is amusing in describing how at the time he was pushing for action against antisocial behavior his son, Euan, was arrested in the middle of London for underage drinking and being drunk in a public place. Police assigned to Number 10 located him and brought home through a back door.
“Around 2:30 a.m., Euan insisted on coming into my bed. Alternately he would go into a mournful tirade of apology and then throw up. I loved him and felt sorry for him, but had a police cell been available I would have been all for moving him there.” Later that morning he had to address the Black Churches conference in Brighton, where all assembled prayed for him, Euan, his family, etc.
“I did, at one moment, want to point that, OK, he was drunk…but all this seemed a little excessive….But I didn’t and it wouldn’t have mattered a jot if I had. To them, the boy was lost and now was found, and that was all that mattered.”
Heading back to London, his party stopped at a pub…”much to the amusement of the locals. They were all thoroughly supportive of Euan and I heard in turn each customer’s tale of a similarly misspent youth. At moments like that, the British are very decent folk.”
A few of my English friends really despise Blair for being all fluff and no substance, but this memoir provides ample evidence to the contrary. Blair really cared about how the government worked. A few minor reforms wouldn’t do; he insisted structural change was required in crime, education, health, welfare and immigration, to start. At the suggestion of Michael Barber, the government established a Delivery Unit to measure the delivery of services, rather than, as governments so often do, discuss the goals. He is frustrated by a newspaper industry that was almost completely uninterested in government and mostly focused on scandals. I have to agree. It may be a function of shortened attention spans and a drive for profits over substance colliding with the increased complexity of modern governments.
Think what you will about him, with Blair Labour won three elections, and as he says the Tories never won a by-election from Labour during his time in office.
Governing is a learning process, writes Blair, as he dissects where he could have done better, lessons learned, mistakes that couldn’t be corrected. His book is a useful and highly readable analysis for anyone interested in government.
Although not all my friends agree. At a wedding dinner recently a friend sitting to my left said Blair and New Labour had wrecked the fabric of England. On my right, a financial technology consultant who is now working with the Tories on policy, described the book as extremely self-aggrandizing and vomit-inducing.
But I enjoyed it and never got sick once.