Photo by Dan Kitwood
Artillery Row

Dr Labourstein’s monster

Knighthood or no knighthood, Tony Blair will never be re-habilitated

It’s a strange, and many might say futile, project. But across the media, and the Establishment, and even some corners of the Labour Party, a bizarre operation is afoot: an attempt, as weird and wonderful as any steampunk experiment to turn lead into gold or drill a tunnel to the Earth’s core, that will chisel itself a position in infamy if successful. Like wild-haired Victorian scientists pulsing electricity into a desiccated cadaver, convinced one last white-hot shock will jolt it back into life, a brave subset of deluded political occultists are hellbent on the impossible. Yes: they are trying to rehabilitate Tony Blair.

These devilish diviners may have swapped the crypt of a jagged, windswept citadel for the wine bars of SW1, but the central aim is just as wild. Because Tony — or “Tonty”, as the Daily Mail-inspired meme facetiously re-christened him — is loathed.

Blair in his pomp cut a presentable figure

Of course, I understand what’s driving them. Part of it is an alchemist’s desire to hit the jackpot, to somehow recapture the magic that swept New Labour to victory. Part of it is simple nostalgia: “Cool Britannia” is when they came of age, when life was redolent with spring fever and promise, and Peter Mandelson mistook mushy peas for guacamole, and John Prescott shagged his secretary and punched that bloke’s lights out. Part of it is revenge: on the working-class people who gave two fingers to their sleek, glass-fronted internationalist dream, and swapped Tonty for Farage and Johnson.

Blair in his pomp cut a presentable figure. An everyman, smart, always a bit slippery, but basically normal — a persuasive contrast to John Major, with his pursed expression and his underpants on over his trousers. It hasn’t helped the Labour Party that every leader since has been, well… strange. Gordon Brown, with the goldfish breathing and the sudden rictus grin: like gloom in a suit. Ed Miliband, a nerdy extra from an Aardman animation. Jeremy Corbyn: the least said the better, but I imagine you’d need to Febreze your sofa after he sat on it. Keir Starmer is an improvement, but still the political equivalent of a clammy handshake (and I’m afraid he does look like a “Keith”). Blair is or at least, was a giant in comparison to all of them.

I’ve always resisted the allure of New Labour. Some of this is temperamental. The jury’s out on whether we are born Conservatives, or made them. New Labour’s “values” were never mine: even as a teenager, mercifully cocooned from the fiercest exigences of “progress” in a cosy, cricket-playing independent school, my roots were in the post-war settlement, and the culture that bloomed from it. The United Kingdom always felt to me like something worth preserving, and insulating from radical change. Labour were not contenders in the constituency where I grew up: it was the Tories versus the Liberals. If anything, New Labour were treated like a passing fad. I remember a Great Uncle, a cheerful, pink-cheeked yeomen of England, who had been reduced by dementia to a handful of phrases. Whenever the Prime Minister popped up he’d say, “You know, I can’t stand that bugger Blair.” It was funny at the time, but I’ve begun to think that, through the fog, he saw the light.

Virtually all our problems can be traced back to Blair’s government

Virtually all our problems can be traced back to Blair’s government. There was the financial mismanagement, of course: in-work welfarism, PFI, selling off the gold. There was the ludicrous over expansion of the university sector: debasing academia, inflating employment requirements, professionalising vocations, and lumbering both graduates and the country with frustration and debt. There was the baffling refusal to build any council houses (an average of 562 a year under New Labour, compared to over 41,000 a year under Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives). There was the madness of devolution: creating a Scottish Parliament, and a chunk of Scottish MPs, in conflict with the rest of the UK, detached from rather than absorbed into — and engaged in — our main parties and our collective interest.

There was the gutting of the House of Lords, at the time a seemingly rational and democratic project, but implemented without working out what came next. There was the creation of the Supreme Court, semi-castrating the Lord Chancellor, unravelling an effective and historic constitutional arrangement, and fuelling the rise of an activist judiciary, and activist lawyers. The result has been a legal system not less political, but more so, as like the media, our public sector and our cultural institutions it fills with recruits hot-housed in our ideologically homogenous (and increasingly intolerant) higher education system. I shall spare your blood pressure and draw a discreet veil over Tonty’s foreign policy ventures.

I fully appreciate the Conservatives have done nothing to ameliorate any of this: a product, perhaps, of the pitiful belief in the higher echelons of the party that Blair was “the master” and rehashing his approach represents the “centre ground” where elections are won. It does not: the Tories swept the board in 2019 because they represented the antidote to, rather than the continuation of, Blairism. Johnson’s failure to recognise this, and his metamorphosis (encouraged by an intimate circle also weaned on the slick candy floss of Cool Britannia) into yet another progressive apparatchik, albeit a staggeringly incompetent one, is the real reason he is in such crisis. Just as they became sick of Thatcherism, the British public are sick of Blairism.

The 1997-2010 revolution makes Mrs Thatcher look like a continuity managerialist

But the breadth, and the under-the-radar depth, of the revolution between 1997 and 2010 makes Mrs Thatcher look like a continuity managerialist. Perhaps that is why Blair’s ideological offspring are so keen to reboot him: so, like a true revolutionary, he can bask in his success, and protect his legacy. The fact the British public keep trying to unpick it, via Brexit and successive Conservative leaders, is by-the-by. As the continued un-mandated and piss-boiling ideological assaults on everything from biology to Winston Churchill to pieces of art to silly, harmless, lovely sitcoms have shown, the British public’s say in this venture is proving frustratingly limited.

Knighthood or no knighthood, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair will never be re-habilitated. He is doomed to moralise on BBC podcasts, whilst his Institute trousers millions from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and he enriches himself in a manner which would make a third world dictator blush. But he is Frankenstein, not the monster. And progressivism, his most horrific creation, rampages on.

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