Blair's liberalism and the toxic Gordon Brown
In the last analysis Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had different political projects, argues Eddie Ford
September 1 saw the publication of Tony Blair’s much anticipated memoirs, A journey. He is now embarked on a lengthy book-signing tour, after managing to avoid becoming the object of a citizen’s arrest in Dublin at the weekend and then cancelling a gig at Waterstone’s Piccadilly on the magnanimous grounds that he did not “want the public to be inconvenienced by the inevitable hassle caused by protesters”. The Stop the War Coalition had been hoping for a “successful” citizen’s arrest for Tony Blair’s “war crimes”.
All the proceeds from the book, for which Blair has already received a princely £4.6 million advance - with translation rights having been sold to over a dozen countries - are going to the British Royal Legion, in recognition of what the former prime minister calls the “enormous sacrifice” that the armed forces have made for the “security of our people and the world”. The fact that all the money made from A journey is going to an officially recognised charity makes a slight nonsense of the accusation from Richard Boyd Barrett of the Irish Anti-War Movement that Blair was making “blood money” from his memoirs. After all, he hardly needs the cash, having earned an estimated £20 million since quitting his day job in May 2007. For a loyal servant of imperialism and the British state like Blair, such services are provided on a pro bono basis.
Unlike most of the political memoirs or autobiographies that have been peddled by mainstream politicians published in recent years, A journey is quite readable - almost racy, perhaps partly explainable by Blair’s confession that “at heart” he has a “rebel soul”. So throughout its 718 self-congratulatory, conceited pages we learn all manner of things. For instance, that Tony Blair warned Diana Spencer - the “people’s princess” as he famously called her - against continuing with the Dodi Fayed relationship. That was just weeks before her sudden and violent death in 1997. He also recounts how Gordon Brown somehow locked himself in a bathroom on one occasion and had to phone Blair on the mobile in order to let him out.
Unsurprisingly, we also learn that Blair - like many previous prime ministers and top bourgeois politicians in general - used alcohol as a “support” or “prop”. Indeed, “you have to be honest”, he writes - “it’s a drug, there’s no getting away from it”. So he admits that he was “clearly at the limit”, maybe a “whisky or a gin and tonic before dinner” - then sometimes “one or two glasses of wine” or “even a half-bottle”. But not “excessively excessive”, he concludes. Absolutely not, Tony.
Naturally, the Iraq war dead caused him “anguish” and “tears” - telling us that he “regrets with every fibre of my being the loss of those who died”. However, predictably, Blair makes no apology or guilty defence for his part in the war - arguing that “on the basis of what we do know now” leaving Saddam Hussein in power was a “bigger risk to our security than removing him” and that the “reality of Saddam and his sons in charge of Iraq would at least arguably be much worse”. Therefore he “can’t regret the decision to go to war”, he writes. Interestingly enough, Blair reveals that he “learned about liberal interventionism from watching Schindler’s list” - an “amazing film”, we are told, and it was from “watching this that I realised we had to invade Iraq”. For good measure, he describes George Bush as a man of “genuine integrity” who possesses “as much political courage as any leader I ever met”. Blair also declares in A journey that he would have “loved” to “get rid” of Robert Mugabe as well, but that it “wasn’t practical” - since, “for reasons I never quite understood”, the “surrounding African nations maintained a lingering support for him and would have opposed any action strenuously”.
Apparently, or so we are led to believe, his “only regrets” were for the fox-hunting ban - much to the delight of reactionary Tory publications like The Daily Telegraph - and the Freedom of Information Act. In other words, quite revealingly, Blair expresses regret or dissatisfaction with two pieces of legislation that actually had at least a hint of progressive content, no matter how flawed or inadequate they might have been. Of course, the virulent, almost seditious, opposition to the fox-hunting ban by the likes of the Countryside Alliance - representing the most reactionary and backward elements of UK society - gave us an intimation of what a real counterrevolutionary or fascistic movement would actually look like in this country.
So, describing the passions aroused by the fox-hunting debate as “primeval”, Blair writes that he supported the ban “without thinking much about it” and without any “feel for those for whom it was a way of life” or “those for whom it was about cruelty”. In his words: “Result? Disaster.” Hence, according to Blair: “If I’d proposed solving the pension problem by compulsory euthanasia for every fifth pensioner I’d have got less trouble for it”. Tony Blair’s volte-face on fox-hunting though did not please John Cooper QC, chairman of the League Against Cruel Sports, who opined that Blair’s admission was “alarming in the extreme”, because instead of “enforcing” laws duly and constitutionally passed by parliament he is “sailing perilously close to perverting the course of justice”. Naturally, the CA and its supporters never dreamed of taking extra-legal or extra-parliamentary measures against the ‘metropolitan elite’ in Westminster who were interfering with their centuries-old tradition of sadistically chasing and killing wild animals.
As for the Freedom of Information Act, designed to introduce a greater degree of transparency to public/governmental institutions? “You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.” Here we have Tony Blair sternly addressing himself in his memoirs. Blair’s retrospective objection to the act is due to the fact, he claims, that it is not being used by “the people”, but rather by journalists who deploy it as a “weapon” against the government. Further outlining his rationale, he explains that such legislation is just “not practical for government”. Hence, for instance, “if you are trying to take a difficult decision” and “you’re weighing up the pros and cons” - then “you have frank conversations”. And, Blair goes on, “if those conversations then are put out in a published form that afterwards are liable to be highlighted in particular ways, you are going to be very cautious” - which is why freedom of information and transparency is “not a sensible thing”.
Curiously enough, the elitist and essentially anti-democratic arguments advanced by Blair in this passage do not sound too unlike those put forward by the Socialist Workers Party and other left organisations as to why important internal political debates and disagreements amongst the leadership or senior members should never be published openly - it will only confuse and disorientate the ordinary membership and the working class as a whole. Poor innocent things. After all, ‘great leaders’ must take great decisions unencumbered by the need for accountability.
Of course, one part of the book that has generated a good deal of comment has been the frank discussion of the thoroughly toxic relationship between him and Gordon Brown - his long-standing rival for the position of prime minister. Indeed, in many respects, A journey could be read as an extended demolition job - or even an act of political revenge - on Gordon Brown and his supporters: targeting both his character and his (short) record as prime minister. This is certainly how infuriated Brownites and ‘centrists’ (ie, those who waver between neo-Brownism and full-blooded, tooth-in-claw Blairism) view the book: as a “sustained attack on Brownite ideology”, to use the words of Julian Glover of The Guardian. In fact, Blair makes it quite explicit himself, declaring: “I am not backing anyone in the leadership election, but I can tell you this: Diane Abbott, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband - they are all wrong.” Most people will be able to work out that the only remaining candidate, David Miliband, has received the official imprimatur of Blairite neoliberalism. Somewhat ungratefully, or so you could argue, Miliband’s response was to state: “I look forward to the day when Tony says he’s a Milibandite, rather than people asking me if I’m a Blairite”.
In his memoirs, Blair variously describes Brown as “maddening”, “strange” and “almost impossible to work alongside”. Yes, quite “brilliant” in many ways but just not “psychologically wired” to be prime minister. He offers the following summary of Gordon Brown: “Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero.” Crushingly, Blair says he strongly suspected before leaving office that Gordon Brown was more than likely to turn out to be a “disaster” as prime minister.
In a particularly purple section - too much liquid lunch perhaps? - he likens their tempestuous 27-year relationship to a love affair and then marriage that went sour, leading to embittered rivalry. So initially he and Brown were “like lovers desperate to get to lovemaking” - indeed, “Gordon was my friend, my rock, my lover” and “I wooed him when I ran for leader”. Back then, in those halcyon days, their relationship had the “closeness and urgency of ‘two lovers”.
But, Blair recounts, “we soon began to have tiffs”. Hardly surprising really, seeing how he openly admits in the book that he had two-timed Brown by reneging twice on ‘agreements’ with him over the Labour leadership succession. Firstly, Blair ran in 1994 after having repeatedly promised in the years before John Smith’s death that he would support Brown. Secondly, after pledging in 2003 to stand down before the next election - which eventually took place in 2005 and saw Blair stubbornly, if not treacherously, hanging on to his post as Labour leader and prime minister. Brown felt cheated.
On the other hand, Blair claims that Brown “did not support me as he should have” and - most crucially - he “did not really back public sector reform”: namely, Brown was reluctant to embrace a too rapid or sweeping programme of privatisation. His political instincts and predilections clashed with those of Blair’s. We are not substantially dealing here with a case of contrasting or conflicting personalities/egos, however much that may be a factor in the political equation. A journey contains a very revealing passage where Blair bluntly nails down the “significant difference” between himself and Brown: “I understood aspiration. I like people who want to succeed and admire people who do. When I was with a group of entrepreneurs, I felt at home. Gordon was completely different”. Blair further writes that he had a “Cavalier embrace of the middle class”, while Brown had a “Roundhead identification with Labour tradition”.
Or, to put it another way, Blair and Brown had two different projects. So, yes, both were impeccably rightwing Labour politicians - even though Brown had started out political life on the left. Yes, both were the architects of New Labour - complicit with the Murdoch empire and committed to carrying on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher with regards to the anti-trade union laws and the naked turn to finance capital. All very true, of course.
But, no matter how on-message and New Labour he may have been, Brown always identified with and remained loyal to Labourism and never shared Blair’s big project or dream of reuniting the Labour Party with ‘progressive’ Liberalism. Of deLabourising the Labour Party, in every sense of the term, and turning it into the party of ‘middle class aspiration’. In total contrast to Gordon Brown, Blair looks back at history and sees the formation of the Labour Party as an unfortunate historic accident. Tony Blair’s explicitly stated intention was to reconfigure ‘centre-left’ politics and heal the divisions between the anti-Tory parties.
Thus he made his true feelings apparent during the 1997 Labour annual conference, when he expressed his admiration for Keynes, Beveridge and Lloyd George - commenting that “division among radicals almost 100 years ago resulted in a 20th century dominated by Conservatives” - something never to be repeated, presumably. Rather, Blair wanted “the 21st century to be the century of the radicals”. In other words, the split of the trade unions from the old Liberal Party and the establishment of a party representing the independent interests of the working class was a mistake and one that needs to be rectified - as quickly as possible. Instead, Blair wants to recreate the Great Liberal Party of Gladstone, albeit in a modern form, making the Labour Party something akin to the Democratic Party in the United States. A grand ‘progressive coalition’ containing both Labour, now an unfortunate historic reality, and the more enlightened sections of capitalist class and just about everything in between - with the heavily corporatised trade unions acting as loyal, but essentially semi-detached units: not too close, as otherwise they might frighten the bourgeoisie and the bosses, but not to distant so as to become potentially unruly or uncontrollable.
That was Blair’s vision right from the onset and has remained his vision. It was never going to happen, of course, but that was what he was ideologically committed to - surely anathema to someone like Gordon Brown, who believes, no doubt quite sincerely, that “Labour values are the values of the British people” - as he told the 2003 Labour conference in Bournemouth.
Naturally, in A journey Tony Blair goes on to blame Gordon Brown and his followers for Labour’s general election defeat - they deviated from the New Labour message by raising the top rate of tax and convincing themselves that “the state had the answers” in the wake of the global economic crisis. If only the fools had not nationalised Northern Rock and just let the banks and insurance companies go under. Presumably then, the aggressive ‘anti-Keynesianism’ of the coalition government is far more to Tony Blair’s political taste than the statist Brownism of the previous Labour government?
As a sort of conclusion, Blair declares: “Labour won when it was New Labour. It lost because it stopped being New Labour. This is not about Gordon Brown as an individual. Had he pursued New Labour policy, the personal issue would still have made victory tough, but it wouldn’t have been impossible”. As for the future, the “danger” for Labour is that it will “drift off to the left” and if so it “will lose even bigger next time”. Keep turning right, Labour.
The lesson for communists is that the Labour Party is still a bourgeois workers’ party, no matter how distasteful Tony Blair may find that fact. This means that Labour is an absolutely vital site in the fight for the politics of Marxism - as opposed to warmed over left Labourism.
- Belfast Telegraph September 4.
- The Guardian September 1.