Blair’s “New” Britain?

© Terry Boardman  May 1997

After 18 long years it seems difficult to believe that the Conservative Party no longer rules Britain. It has been swept into the ‘wilderness’ by the Labour Party’s ‘historic’ general election victory on May 1st. There has been no government collapse on this scale since the (Iron) Duke of Wellington’s defeat in 1830. In the 20th century only the Tory defeat in 1906, again to a reforming Liberal Party, and Winston Churchill’s defeat in 1945, to a Labour Party that seemed set on the construction of a New Jerusalem, come anywhere near the magnitude of Labour’s victory in 1997. Many had expected the Tories to lose – after 18 years they were an exhausted, cynical, and corruption-afflicted party – but few thought that their collapse would be so colossal. Labour’s majority in the House of Commons, at 179, is now greater than the total number of Conservative MPs (160)! There are now no Tory MPs left in Scotland or Wales, a fact which is bound to have an incisive effect on the issue for devolution in those areas. The Tories have become essentially the party of rural England. Six Cabinet Ministers were defeated, including the Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind. The nation seemed thoroughly sick of the Conservatives and determined to rid itself of them; voters up and down the country ensured their defeat by large-scale tactical voting – Labour voters would vote for the Liberal Democrats in a town where Labour was not strong, for instance, and vice versa: anything to get the Tories out.

The Baby Boom Government

The hippy generation (born 1937-54), sometimes referred to as ‘baby boomers’ (after the post-World War II baby boom) are now in power, led by a man who dreamed of emulating his hero Mick Jagger and becoming a rock star. The young Tony Blair led an amateur  rock band called The Ugly Rumours. 313 of the 419 new Labour MPs are aged between 41 and 60. Tony Blair himself is only 43, the youngest Prime Minister since William Pitt, 200 years ago. The number of women MPs has doubled to 116 (there are 659 MPs in total). Liberals and left-wingers of most shades, especially in the media, are ecstatic: “A Nation Reborn”, “The New Era” were typical liberal media headlines. Does this mean we are now going to get some of the radical moral incisiveness and thoughtfulness of a Vaclav Havel or even a Nelson Mandela? Or are we more likely in for Britain’s very own version of the  virtual reality Administration of Bill Clinton,  strong on empty rhetoric but weak in substance? Clinton’s electoral strategies and tactics were closely followed by Labour in the election campaign. After Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s own colourful, fierce and primitive radical rightist, its own Annie Oakley to Reagan’s Wild Bill Hickock, it had John Major, its own grey colourless rightist to partner the grey colourless George Bush. Bush wanted to build a “gentler, kinder America” after Reagan’s cowboy antics. Instead, he produced a Hollywood war movie called “Desert Storm”. Major called for a “back-to-basics” morality and spoke of an England where grannies rode bicycles to Church and people drank warm beer again. What he gave the country was recession and humiliation when Britain was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. Now the British have their very own Bill-and-Hilary Show. Cherie Blair, like Hilary, is also a high-powered lawyer. Maybe Bill and Tony will be able to get the other members of the G7 grooving to sax and guitar duets!

So desperate were Labour for victory that they made sure the Party’s more outspoken members received little or no media coverage during the campaign; they all played follow-my-leader. Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army would have been proud of Labour parliamentarians’ iron self-discipline, as again and again they assured the voters that they would do nothing essentially to change the fundamental policies imposed on the country during 18 years of Thatcherism and then crypto-Thatcherism. The hippy generation politicians have cut their hair, creased their trousers and play their Fender Stratocasters only at weekends -  over headphones; they’re all responsible middle Englanders now. They don’t intend to rock or roll the boat; they’ll just redress its balance a little. Margaret Thatcher said in the early 1980s that one of her ultimate aims was to ensure that both parties in Britain were firmly behind free market economics. She has succeeded magnificently. Britain now has its own version of the Democrats and the Republicans. Both the UK and the USA are now effectively one party states; each country is governed by a Big Bird with two wings – the ostrich, which keeps its feet firmly on the ground and its head mostly under it.

Plus ça change…..

No, this is not going to be any New Jerusalem, and the voters know it. Only the media indulged in over-enthusiasm after the victory. Media folk had been so bored writing and chattering about the same old faces for so long, they were desperate for a change. The people too badly wanted new faces, new voices, but the day after the election there was no dancing in the streets. If you were lucky enough to have a job in the new hard-working Thatcherite Britain, it was back to work as usual the next morning. The people have become far too cynical to expect much from the new government. Despite the historic dimensions of Labour’s victory, there is little of the national sense of hope and genuine idealism that arose so spontaneously in 1945.

Tony Blair’s idol was the working class Mick Jagger, but Blair went to public (i.e. elite private) school. In a country where accent and tone of voice still count for so much, Blair sounds more like a member of the Establishment than John Major did. After the death of Labour leader John Smith in 1993, the Establishment media lost no time in getting behind Blair; it was soon evident that he was “the coming man”. Last summer when he travelled all the way to Australia just to attend an executive meeting of global media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News International, it was clear he was now the Anointed One. As the election campaign got underway, Murdoch’s “Sun” newspaper (daily circulation 4 million plus) quickly announced it was supporting him. This was a coup for Blair. Murdoch’s other popular tabloid “The  News of the World” also came out for Blair, while his quality broadsheets “The Times” and “The Sunday Times” (relatively small circulations both) stuck with the Tories. Former Murdoch editor Andrew Neil said on BBC radio in the autumn that Murdoch would not interfere with the editorial policies of the broadsheets, but that those of the tabloids were “a different matter”.

Last year it also became evident that signficant numbers of Whitehall mandarins, many of them Tory supporters, were queueing up to act as advisers to Blair’s “New Labour”. Luminaries such as Sir Robin Renwick, Margaret Thatcher’s former favourite diplomat and ambassador to Washington, and Sir David Hannay, former ambassador to the UN, have both been briefing and advising Blair. Renwick, now a high-powered investment banker, and Blair were both invited to breakfast with Henry Kissinger. Renwick has worked closely with Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell, brother of Sir Charles Powell, who was Margaret Thatcher’s former closest foreign policy advisor. Jonathan Powell has close links with the Clinton administration, as does Ed Balls, Chancellor Gordon Brown’s key advisor and speechwriter. Another Tory ex-mandarin who has been helping Blair with advice is Lord Gillmore,  head of the Foreign Office until 1994. He now works for BZW, the City arm of Barclays Bank where Blair’s economic advisor Derek Scott is also employed.(1)

A New, New Elite : Eastern Models?

In Japan there was a similar political earthquake in 1993 when the 38-year rule of the conservative Liberal Democrat Party came to an end as a result of a coup within the Party. At that time the USA was seeking to establish NAFTA and consolidate its hold over APEC by closer economic ties with Japan. A faction within the LDP which was led from behind in Japanese fashion by the pro-American powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa broke away to become the nucleus of a new opposition party. An unstoppable  media momentum was created and within three months the new party was in government. They had no real ideas or policies; they called themselves the New Party. Soon a host of smaller parties appeared, all claiming to be “newer than new”; one was even called “The New New Party”! It just so happened that many of the LDP’s traditional supporters were Japan’s inefficient small rice farmers, who opposed opening up the rice market to US imports. Owing to the enormous significance of rice in Japanese culture, for many Japanese this was no mere economic free trade issue, as the Americans protested it was. The New Party government proceeded to take the painful steps needed to open up the market and also apologise to Korea and China for the first time for the sins of the colonisation and wartime periods. Having done these – from the rightwing viewpoint – dastardly deeds, the fall of the New Party government was engineered, and the LDP returned to power, but did not close the rice market again; the Japanese are now eating American rice, and small rice farmers are going to the wall. This was a change as significant as Britain’s opening her corn market to cheap US imports in the 1840s. The arguments over reform of the Corn Laws, reform of Parliament itself and Catholic Emancipation (in effect whether or not to “apologise” to Catholics by granting them civil rights) were raging during the government of the Duke of Wellington (1828-30).

John Major’s government had a “wait and see” policy on the paramount question facing Britain today: the European single currency and European integration. In the name of “pragmatism” they endlessly deferred committing themselves either way on the issue of the single currency. Was it perhaps because they knew that someone else  – “New Labour” – was going to have to shoulder the responsibility for taking Britain into the single currency, so that if and when it failed, the Conservatives could claim to be blameless and seek to lead the country in a different direction in a failing single currency?

Walter Bagehot, the great 19th century commentator on, and even shaper of, the British constitution, and editor of “The Economist”, wrote that to men of affairs, like himself, Britain was already a ‘secret’ republic” which had insinuated itself within the folds of monarchy.

‘The monarchy, he wrote,  acts as a disguise ‘enabling our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. The masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government; if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble.’(2)

This elitist attitude essentially remains that of “The Economist” and the British Establishment today. The British people and those on the Continent who wish them well should avoid false optimism over New Labour’s victory and regard Mr Blair with a calm clear eye.


(1) Sunday Times 26.5.1996
(2) The Economist 22.10.1994 p.42

Terry Boardman May 1997

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