Napoleon is said to have placed a high value on lucky generals, though no one has succeeded in identifying the source of the quote. Then again, he would hardly have been in favour of unlucky ones. Luck is equally important in politics. For ten years, Margaret Thatcher had it, and exploited it ruthlessly. Her successor, John Major, was less fortunate. Events, and his opponents, seemed determined to give him the doubt of every benefit. He hardly had any luck, and his enemies were also ruthless, in exploiting its absence.
What a contrast with Tony Blair – who celebrates the 25th anniversary of his 1997 election win today. No British politician has ever enjoyed such a cornucopia of good fortune. In his political career, he had started out as Gordon Brown’s younger brother. But after ten years, it had become apparent to most people – though not to Mr Brown – that the younger brother was the star. Then profound sadness gave him his opportunity. Although it was not something the young Mr Blair would ever have wished for, the early death of John Smith, at a time when the Tory party seemed determined to tear itself apart, presented him with a contrast between the two main parties which worked greatly in his favour.
The Tories had grown complacent in office. Many Tory MPs appeared to believe that they were politically immortal. Whatever they did in mid-term, it would all come right on polling day. If they should lose, it would only be a temporary set-back by a narrow margin. Normal service would soon be restored.
Labour had a different view of normal service. By 1994, the party had suffered four successive defeats, the latest a cruel disappointment in the middle of a recession. Many Labour MPs were wondering if they were doomed to failure without end. As a result – a unique event in Labour history – they were ready to do what they were told.
That was not the case on the Tory benches. Loyalty had always been regarded as the Tory party’s secret weapon. By the mid-nineties, the secret formula had been lost. The divisions on Europe were making the Tory party ungovernable, while the exit from the ERM destroyed its reputation for economic competence. From late 1992 onwards, the British economy was steadily improving. But the Tories were unable to win any credit from the voters. A Labour MP, the late Austin Mitchell, said that his party would be able to sleepwalk its way to power. He was right, but there was an unforeseen consequence which did not work in Tony Blair’s favour. Sleepwalking is no way to prepare for government.
A period of hardship is often a helpful part of a senior politician’s training. (Could this prove to be true about Rishi Sunak?) Jim Callaghan had an unhappy time as Chancellor. The same was true of Margaret Thatcher at education. In both cases their ordeals toughened them up. What did not kill them made them stronger.
There was nothing like that in Tony Blair’s early years. No politician had ever enjoyed such an effortless ascent to the summit. But that came at a price. ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity’ says Duke Senior in his travails. Tony Blair had never known travails or adversity. Thanks to the Tory party’s addiction to self-harm, he had found opposition easy. He made the fatal assumption that the same would be true of government.
He also benefited from a big lie. In the run-up to the 1997 election, the Blairites claimed that the Tories had virtually abolished public spending and that if re-elected, they would complete the process. Mr Blair, who knew that this was untrue, thought that all he would have to do was twirl a few knobs, take credit for what was happening anyway, claim to have saved the welfare state and receive the plaudits of a grateful nation. Politically, that worked. The defeated Tories almost disappeared from public debate. But administratively, it was a disaster.
In one respect, the Blairites formed the most successful government in British history. They understood how to exploit the media by coming up with slogans and endlessly repeating them. Twenty-two Tory tax rises: boom and bust: new Labour, new Britain, cool Britannia – much of the electorate was beguiled. So what did it all mean?
Both Margaret Thatcher and John Major had faced the same problem. How can the government ensure that the public receive value for money from the vast sums which the state spends on their behalf. They knew that the system was flawed and required fundamental change. In private, Tony Blair would have agreed. The Tories had made some changes, particularly in education. But instead of moving ahead with sensible measures, Mr Blair contented himself with slogans, and higher spending. ‘Things can only get better’ the Blairites chanted in 1997. Not so: they could just drift along, as high hopes for social policy turned into stale sameness.
That was not true in other areas. There, forget sameness. We ended up with chaos. To be fair to Tony Blair, he was never a passionate supporter of Scottish devolution. But he pressed ahead with it, disregarding all the warnings that it would undermine the unity of the United Kingdom and open the road to Scottish independence.
Constitutional change should never be undertaken slightly. A constitution, after all, is something that helps a country to stand together. The fact that the British constitution is unwritten makes it no less effective. As many countries have discovered over the years, written constitutions, being on paper, are easy to tear up. But the Blairites blundered ahead with basic changes, without having thought them through. They subjected the UK to the European Convention of Human Rights, thus weakening the authority of our courts and our laws – especially the English Common Law – which have protected our rights and freedoms over centuries. They even tried to abolish the great and ancient office of Lord Chancellor, although that breach with history and tradition did, fortunately, prove unsustainable.
Above all, they charged ahead with House of Lords reform, despite the absence of a coherent plan for a post-hereditary Upper House. As in other areas, they were happy to implement a new political principle. Legislate first, think later. Judging by its Latin derivation, ‘Radical’ ought to mean something that comes from the roots. But Tony Blair is best defined as a rootless radical. In crucial areas, he wanted change for change’s sake, with no thought to the long-term consequences.
Above all, that was true over Iraq. There was an argument for invading Iraq. There was no case for doing so without long and careful planning for the post-war settlement. In the US, the neo-Conservatives put far too much faith in democracy as an infallible political anti-biotic. In London, there were plenty of diplomats who knew better and tried to interest the PM in caution and complexity. He was not interested.
Ten years is a long Prime Ministerial innings. Yet longevity is no guarantee of success. Tony Blair was very good at winning power. But there was a problem. He had no idea what to do with it. Think of Margaret Thatcher’s term of office and it will take a long time to summarise her achievements. Tony Blair’s? What achievements. There is an inescapable verdict. When electioneering, he was a genius: when governing, a mediocrity.
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