Sir Tony embraces the old

Blair delights in the honours conferred by a traditional Britain he held in open contempt


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On Monday, 13 June 2022 the Rt Hon Anthony Charles Lynton Blair PC was installed as (on one reckoning) the 10,017th Knight of the Garter. The Garter, founded in 1348, is the oldest Order of chivalry in the world. Windsor Castle, where the Order is based and where Blair’s investiture took place, is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world. And the Sovereign of the Order, Queen Elizabeth II, who conferred the honour, is the world’s oldest and longest reigning monarch and the current incumbent of the world’s second oldest monarchy.

Quite where all this oldness leaves the “vision of a new Britain: a nation reborn, prosperous, secure, united”, which Sir Tony (as I suppose we must now call him) aimed to fashion as Her Majesty’s eleventh Prime Minister, is anyone’s guess.

Blair’s supposed ideology of the Third Way is a dead-end

Did the paradox of old and new strike Blair as he was driven into the Castle ward through the twin-towered gateway, built by and named after Henry VIII and unaltered ever since? And what thoughts passed through his head as he was administered the oath, likewise rewritten by Henry VIII: “be courageous, and having undertaken a just war … stand firm, valiantly fight, courageously and successfully conquer”?

Iraq, perhaps?

Probably not. Because Blair seems to be protected against self-doubt by an armour of invincible, messianic self-righteousness (something else which he shares with Henry VIII). For the rest of us, however, the questions are insistent. This is because we need not only to understand what Blair did. We need desperately to undo as much of it as we can as well.

But where to begin? Blair’s supposed ideology of the Third Way is a dead-end, since it is as incoherent and intellectually insubstantial as its principal formulator, “Lord” Tony Giddens. If you don’t believe me, read the 2007 article in the Guardian in which, after a desert safari lavishly funded by his host, Colonel Gaddafi (whose The Green Book also purveyed a Third Way), Giddens forecasts a future for Libya as the “Norway of North Africa”. Nor does debating the connection (or lack of it) between “Old” and “New” Labour get us any further. 

More promising, however, is another phrase from Blair’s second Labour conference speech as party leader. “I want us to be a young country again,” he declared, “not say, ‘This was a great country’, but ‘Britain can and will be a great country again’.” At first sight, this seems as vapid as the “vision of a new Britain” which I’ve already quoted from the same speech. But “young” in this context has interesting historical antecedents. Think the “Young Turks” of the early 1900s. Or the “Young Italy” of the 1830s. 

The strikingly ideological nature of the Blair government also establishes its antecedents

The former wished to reshape the moribund Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe”, into a shiny, new, model liberal state on the latest approved principles, with a powerful national identity, the rule of law, the separation of powers, a liberalised economy and a reformed educational system. While “Young Italy” under Mazzini aspired to do much the same to an Italy that was contemptuously but accurately described by Prince Metternich, who as Habsburg chancellor had ruled a large chunk of it for decades, as “only a geographical expression”.

But what on earth does all this have to do with Britain in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries? A glance at the domestic record of the Blair government suggests a great deal. 

In its early days it passed the Human Rights Act and Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1998; while towards its end, in the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, it demoted (after originally intending to abolish) the ancient office of Lord Chancellor and set up the bizarre curiosity (for a constitution whose activating principle is or was parliamentary sovereignty) of the Supreme Court. 

In other words and doing what the Young Turks and Young Italians had only dreamed of, the Blair administration reworked British government into a passable incarnation of the universalist Enlightenment principles most nearly realised in the American constitution. 

These were the latest thing in the late eighteenth century and, in the context of the establishment of the new American republic, produced a viable and enduring constitutional settlement. Unthinkingly applied in the utterly different and historically specific circumstances of Britain, they were wildly — indeed laughably if the consequences had not been so harmful — anomalous.

But the very absurdity and extremism of its actions enables us to characterise the Blair government firmly at last. It was neither Third Way nor New Labour. Instead it was a classic Liberal government. And a singularly doctrinaire, ideologically driven one at that. 

Forget all the talk of pragmatism and “what works”. That was pap for a commentariat shallow enough to believe it. The Lord Chancellorship worked. And a thousand times better than its dog’s breakfast of successor. 

Blair had loathed this Anglocentric Britain

So did the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. But that did not save them, since they offended against the so-called universal principle of the Separation of Powers which — as I showed in a Critic article back in November 2019 — never applied in Britain and would indeed make our system of government, with the executive necessarily rooted in the legislature, impossible. The strikingly ideological nature of the Blair government also establishes its antecedents. It was, as both prime ministers blatantly acknowledged, a direct continuation of the Thatcher government which had come to adopt, in economic policy at least, an equally doctrinaire Manchester School liberalism.

But there was one “young” movement that the Blair government shunned. That was “Young England”. “Young England” was, like “Young Italy”, a product of the 1830s. But it aimed to do the opposite. It rejected, rather than embraced, the liberal middle class and envisaged instead an alliance between the aristocracy and the working class, grounded in their common conservatism, patriotism and rootedness in England and England’s history. 

Its leading light was Benjamin Disraeli, whose political novels set out its ideals most clearly. At the time, they were a romantic failure. Indeed the 1832 Reform Act, which extended the franchise to the urban middle class, threatened to reduce the Tory party into a permanent opposition. 

But Disraeli’s own Reform Act of 1867, which further extended the franchise to the skilled working class, translated his “Young England” dream of the 1830s into the sober reality of the modern Conservative Party and its winning electoral coalition of the comfortable south with the patriotic working class of the North. A coalition which was, of course, renewed in Boris Johnson’s stunning general election victory of 2019.

This Conservatism was not, as Blair caricatured it, rigidly opposed to change. On the contrary it embraced it. Providing it was done in the right way. “In a progressive country,” Disraeli declared in 1867, “change is constant.” The question was how you brought change about: in accordance with “the laws and traditions of the people”; or in accordance with “abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines”. The former was the Conservative way; the latter the Liberal, and — when it was done on steroids — the Blairite one.

All this enables us to resolve the paradox of old and new. The Blair years left us with two countries: the one old and the other new; the one real, the other imaginary. 

At Windsor, Blair was inducted into the real Britain, centred on the ancient institutions, traditions and territorial integrity of England. But in government Blair had loathed this Anglocentric Britain and tried to replace it with “a new Britain — a nation reborn”.

Actually, since there has never been a “British nation”, this was an exercise in nation-building as fantastic and quixotic as anything Blair’s liberal interventionist foreign policy led him to try in Iraq or Afghanistan. And in Brexit, where the old Britain triumphed over the new, it met the same fate.

The story of the would-be Blairite invention of the “British nation”, and the part played in it by a cabal of my fellow historians, has never been told. I aim to address it in my next column.

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