It’s a little bit more than 20 years on for me. I was one of many who were struck by his dazzling performances against Michael Howard, both as his shadow as Employment Secretary and then Home Secretary. Blair shone against one of the toughest figures in that Conservative team, and presented his case with clarity and authority. I remember saying at a friend’s 18th birthday party (there were a few born political obsessives present) in the summer of 1993 that if Labour ever made Blair leader, even I’d be tempted to vote for him. Nobody at that time expected that it would happen so soon, or in such sad circumstances after the death of John Smith.
I think all of us who ever felt a political attraction to Blair fell for the same thing – his impatience with the reactionary forces holding Labour back. That sense of purpose was attractive even to a Tory. He wanted to get on with things and had an air of common sense about him that is so often lacking in politicians. But of course, I voted Tory in 1997, and he was already starting to lose his lustre. By the time he made his infamous “forces of conservatism” speech in 1999, I already wondered what the hell I’d been thinking six years earlier.
In office he was proving to be just as much of a “big state” PM as any Labour leader before him, yet without the socialist credo. It was to be “the state for the state’s sake”, not because the apparatus of the state was to become a means of furthering democracy. It went beyond a merely managerial approach. A fundamental illiberality, which he had carefully concealed, burst forth into daylight for many of us with that particular speech. The most lasting legacy of it is the national DNA database, which does so much good to catch real criminals and yet lets the state keep the most personal data on those who are found to have done no wrong at all. We ended up responding to terrorism with a sweep of laws and restrictions which go far beyond the tolerable.
As Blair’s time in office wore on, certain vocal tics and an exasperation would creep into his answers in interviews that weren’t there at the beginning. “Look….”, “Y’know….” I never figured out if it was impatience, that he felt people just wouldn’t just accept that he was right; or a growing feeling that time was running away from him and that somehow he wasn’t keeping up with events.
So many of our leaders let us down in the end, unless, like Ken Clarke, they never get to the top job. In hindsight, it would have been so much better for Labour (indeed, for all of us) had John Smith lived on to contest the 1997 election. You could use the term “fundamentally decent” as the defining characteristic of either Major or Smith, and while in my alternative universe I’d hope Major won against him, it wouldn’t have been the disaster it became under Blair and Brown if Smith was the victor. It would have allowed Blair to develop without the aura and arrogance that grew around him; he was young enough that he could have waited a bit for the leadership. He would probably have been a better leader for the wait, and would certainly not have enjoyed such unquestioned ascendancy in the Labour Party.
It’s a sign of how much Blair changed politics that although his election as leader was only separated from the death of John Smith by about ten weeks, the two events feel like they belong to two totally different eras. I mean Smith no unkindness when I say that in a sense an era died with him, that of “Conservatism vs Socialism”. What Blair brought was something totally different, something that completely wrong-footed the Conservative Party because we carried on fighting on the old lines. Blair simply ignored the Left and instead of “Left vs Right” ushered in an era of “State vs Individual”. The state has exploded in impact on our lives, and we haven’t finished mopping up the resulting mess yet.
Blair stood before the electorate and said “New Labour, New Britain”, and people believed him, and swept him to power. But now look at him:
This is what Blair has become – a reclusive millionaire hiding behind bodyguards and aides. He stands there looking pained and haunted, willing the lift doors to hurry up and shut so he can be isolated from the dreadful people outside. This was the last thing we expected in those early months and years when all was glad and confident. His speeches everywhere were met with huge ovations. In his soaring “New Labour, New Britain” speech to the 1995 Labour conference, he said:
“We will be a nation that stands up for the rights of other nations, as we have done in Bosnia; a nation that will stand up for our allies when right and make a stand when they are wrong”
Bosnia, where once they named babies after him! We could be proud of him then, and I was overjoyed that finally someone had got hold of this unspeakably disgusting mess and was doing something about it. He was right to stand up for the US in the immediate aftermath of September 11th 2001, and again I was proud of him then too, emotionally so. But whatever happened to making a stand when our allies are wrong?
Many now seem to think that Blair is an evil man, or a cynic, or someone driven by money after he left office. You could certainly apply those terms to some of his hangers-on. Some people think Blair has a personality disorder. He features as a main case study in Lord David Owen’s book In Sickness and in Power, in which he set out the case for “hubris syndrome”. I read the book with interest, a little amused if anything at the thought that perhaps the author should get himself checked out for it.
I don’t think Blair is evil, or a cynic, or someone driven by money. I’m in no position to comment on his mental state. But oh, Tony, you had the potential to be a great Prime Minister, and you ended up destroying yourself. New Labour, old failings.