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New Labour in History

by Frank Bongiorno,
Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London

 

In the build-up to the Iraq War, there was an occasion when the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, turned up for a briefing session with Tony Blair at Number 10, accompanied by one of his officials, Dr Michael Williams. Williams was an expert on the Middle East. He provided the prime minister with a detailed account of religious and ethnic divisions in Iraq, and why the occupiers might not turn out to be terribly popular once they had rid the country of Saddam Hussein. ‘That’s all history, Mike’, replied the up-beat prime minister, ‘This is about the future.’

The story is told in Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party. Rawnsley is the Observer’s chief political commentator; and he has produced an utterly absorbing history of the Labour government since the 2001 election. The book’s dust-jacket, although not its title-page, carries the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of New Labour’. A project distinguished by its claim that it could emancipate the British people from their past — or, at least, from those aspects of their past that were a burden — is now presented as an era in the country’s history with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s rapidly making its way from current affairs to history.

There’s not much ‘rise’ in this account — Rawnsley has previously published a book on this earlier phase in the history of New Labour — but there’s plenty of ‘fall’. In almost painful detail, Rawnsley tells the story of how Blair’s prime ministership was fatally damaged by the Iraq War, and the apparently blank cheque with which he presented the incompetent Bush Administration in its war on terror. He also narrates the increasingly poisonous relations between Blair and Gordon Brown; of Blair’s inability to confront a Chancellor who virtually ran a separate government from the Treasury, one over which the prime minister exercised a negligible influence.

Rawnsley’s account is absorbing because he so successfully evokes the personalities of the major characters and he can tell a story well. He’s remarkably effective in what the Australian historian Peter Cochrane calls ‘argument by stealth’. His analysis is skilfully interwoven with his narrative; indeed, authorial judgement is often quietly conveyed by the astute placement of an anecdote here, a quotation there. The book is much more than a chronicle; it has a great deal to say about the nature of New Labour as a political project.
Brown, no less than Blair, believed that the government was achieving the end of history. He pronounced an end to Tory boom and bust, as if the business cycle had been willed out of existence — the end of economic history. But it was Blair for whom history was truly a dragon to be vanquished by a latter-day St. George. As he said at Stormont in 2007 on the occasion of the inauguration of the remarkable power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party: ‘Look back and we see centuries marked by conflict, hardship, even hatred among the people of these islands. Look forward and we see the chance to shake off those heavy chains of history’

Rawnsley provides a sophisticated account of the eclipse of New Labour. There’s no single cause. Blair’s misjudgements over Iraq; the collapse of the economic boom; the decline of public trust; Brown’s failure to communicate a vision for his prime ministership; the recovery of the Conservative Party under David Cameron; sheer longevity — they all militated against the government.

But when does New Labour become ‘old’ again? Perhaps Labor’s problem was ultimately in imagining a future emancipated from the past. Nothing much that happened to New Labour after 2001 should have been a complete surprise. There were parallels in the decline of Margaret Thatcher. Blair’s increasing inability to see what was plainly obvious even to his most ardent admirers — that his relationship with George Bush was a great benefit to the Republican President but increasingly damaging to Blair and the Labour government and useless to Britain — somewhat resembled Thatcher’s hard line on Europe in the late 1980s. His uncritical attitude to Israel in connection with the 2006 attacks on Lebanon was, for many in the British Labour Party, ‘the last straw’ (p. 407) — their prime minister was no longer operating as a rational actor. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s ill-judged decision as Chancellor to abolish the 10p tax rate, and his later refusal as prime minister to acknowledge the mistake, led to inevitable comparisons with Thatcher’s unpopular poll tax. The Labour Party in decline also lurched into the familiar territory of financial and even sexual scandal, as ministers such as David Blunkett and John Prescott demonstrated that ‘the less a politician resembled George Clooney, the more likely he was to confuse himself with a sex god’

In reality, the New Labour project was obsessed with the past; from the moment, back in 1994, when Blair moved against the party’s socialist Clause IV. Blair didn’t want to be another Harold Wilson who won elections but seemed not to have left any other worthwhile legacy behind him. Nor did he wish to emulate Margaret Thatcher’s undignified exit of 1990. Brown didn’t want to be a Jim Callaghan, occupying office for a few barren years at the end of an extended era of rule by another who had already expended all the political capital offered up by voters. There were more ghosts in Number 10 during the New Labour era than in an episode of Casper.

These men of destiny — Blair and Brown — were in reality obsessed with how history would regard them. And they were guided in this matter by their judgements about the successes and failures of their predecessors. I’m reminded of Australian prime minister Bob Hawke; not surprisingly, perhaps, for his government was an early lodestar for a British Labour Party in opposition seeking a model of a successful party of the centre-left. ‘Fuck the past’, Hawke once told his staff,

Or the past will fuck you. The past is both an inspiration and a dragon to slay. We have been about dragon slaying. No tinkering, no cuddly blankets. We take the best of Labor traditions and we also change tack. We take the best from the past, but if it’s an anchor chain, cut it.

On history’s shadow, Rawnsley is eloquent, if in a more ironic and understated way than Hawke. There are many memorable lines on this book, but I think that my personal favourite is the sentence with which he ends a section explaining that Brown would be given a clear run to the prime ministership on Blair’s retirement: ‘He would be the first person to become Prime Minister without any competition since Winston Churchill was succeeded by Anthony Eden more than half a century previously.’

That’s ‘argument by stealth’; Brown would not have enjoyed the historical parallel! This is a book whose exhaustive detail is matched by an exquisite subtlety and powerful historical sensibility.

The polls in Britain are now showing that Brown and the Labour Party might survive the forthcoming election. But I believe Andrew Rawnsley when he tells me that New Labour is history.

 

Andrew Rawnsley, The End of the Party, is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books (London, 2010).

Citation: Frank Bongiorno, New Labour in History. Australian Policy and History. March 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/new-labour-in-history

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