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‘When the kissing had to stop’: British politics     after Blair

Nicholas Deakin
p. 259-278


Tony Blair’s attitude to the task of winning power owed much to the approach of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. By building on the policies of her government and through heavy reliance on his own personal style of campaigning he succeeded in persuading the British electorate that New Labour would make a decisive break with the past. In practice, despite a number of significant achievements, Labour in power did not take advantage of the opportunity provided by three full terms of government. Such achievements as were secured were largely those of Gordon Brown as Chancellor. His apparent success in delivering stable economic growth and his takeover of key areas of social policy meant that he was largely responsible for New Labour’s domestic record in power. Blair’s personal reputation did not fully recover from the Iraq episode and when Brown finally secured the Prime Ministership his own reputation for prudent financial management was seriously damaged by the banking crisis of 2008. His attempts to set a distinctive approach were handicapped by his poor image among the British electorate and the appearance of a convincing leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron, whose own approach was modelled in many responses on that of the earlier Blair. The paper concludes with brief discussion of the third party, the Liberal Democrats and some speculation about the likely outcome of the general election to be held in 2010.

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1In his important recent study of British politics over the last century, David Marquand – the contemporary historian and politician – distinguishes four different types of political leadership. He calls them: whig imperialist, tory nationalist, democratic collectivist and democratic republican.

  • 1    Marquand, D. Britain Since 1918, p. 360

2All the leaders with whom he deals fall more or less neatly into one or other of those categories, until he comes to Tony Blair. Then, after attempting a systematic analysis of Blair’s belief and qualities, Marquand is reduced simply to saying that  ‘trying to understand Blair is like trying to catch a moonbeam’ – he is ‘protean’, ‘a bewildering mass of contradictions’1.

3Yet this is the man who dominated the British political scene for over a decade and still exerts an enormous influence, even after his departure from front line politics. In seeking to explain him perhaps we should start, as Marquand does, with the New Dawn of May 1997, as Blair assumed power for the first time.

4The religious parallel is difficult to escape – here is the Messiah, the saviour (a sensation felt across politics and even by those with no political loyalties). Witness the scenes in Downing Street on the day Blair assumed office and at the Festival Hall the night before.

5But who, exactly – and what – had the country chosen? What did the bundle of concepts and precepts that he and his advisors marketed with such initial success as “New Labour” consist of? Where did they come from? And what remains of them now that Blair has departed the scene? And what of Blair himself?

6His personality is a crucial element in my account, because that is an essential part of the legacy – his huge personal impact on British politics and the lessons learned from him by other politicians and parties, which have helped to shape the situation we find ourselves in today. Here’s a man who is apparently classless, comfortable in his skin, adept at small social exchanges and also a confident communicator on the wider stage, able – with his natural skills honed by a lawyer’s training – to present a convincing case on platforms and in the press and television. But a talent to communicate what, exactly?

7To understand that, we first have to look back and establish where he and New Labour came from. What we do notneed to do is to examine the history and previous ideology of the party to which he belonged.  From his first appearance on the national scene as a by-election candidate in 1982 there is no evidence that any items in the party’s current policy platform commanded more than his token assent.  What he did have, however, was a close knowledge of the electoral record of the party he had joined – and a determination not to allow a repetition of the disasters of the 70s and 80s. However, for ideas we need to go elsewhere and in particular to his Conservative predecessors in office and first to John Major – John the Baptist?

  • 2    For which see Fons, J.P. (dir.), Les annees John Major, 1990-1997, Observatoire de la Société Br (...)

8One claim that Major made after leaving office was to have ‘civilised the Labour party’ and thereby ensured that the gains of the Thatcher years would not be lost. I believe this claim to be broadly true. When he became leader in 1994 after John Smith’s death, Blair and his advisors on The Project (as it came to be called among them) decided that any attempt to roll back the frontiers of the Thatcher settlement would be electorally disastrous2.

9Instead, there should be triangulation Clinton-style (mapping the supposed extremes and aiming to locate midway between them) and an emphasis on reassurance – especially of middle-class voters. Policies would be chosen for their appeal to the material interests of these voters, sliced and diced in different combinations.

10All this meant that, as many observers have pointed out, New Labour had a healthy dose of Thatcherism in its genetic makeup. Especially significant has been the enthronement of finance capital as the centrepiece of the nation’s economic recovery; acceptance by New Labour of the drastic curtailing of trades union power and status imposed by the Conservatives and sealed by defeat of the Miners in 1984 and commitment to Atlanticism in foreign policy, reinforced by the Thatcher-Reagan relationship and its perceived importance in bringing the Cold War to a triumphant conclusion – triumphant at least for the West.

  • 3    See his collected speeches, New Britain: my Vision of a Young Country 1996.

11So the New Labour project, as set out by Blair in his speeches as Leader of the Opposition3 involved a stress on prudent financial management resting on the importance of growth through market-friendly policies  and a commitment to low taxes and light regulation and no concessions to the Unions on Thatcher’s legislation. There was to be reform of Labour party’s constitution, repeal of the commitment to public ownership in Clause 4 and a diminished role for conference and National Executive. This would be an essential part of the search for a progressive  middle ground, with frequent references to the importance of the Liberal tradition. New Labour was presented as a party of the centre as well as the centre-left. This process was helped by the absence of any serious challenge from the left, still traumatised by the 1992 election defeat.

12This programme involved a commitment to modest reform, centering on the issue calculated  above all to engage the middle class voter – education. There was to be a willingness to contemplate constitutional reform in the name of “modernisation”, including a commitment to devolution of power to the other countries of the UK and a careful fudging of the issue of Europe, which was even then tearing the Conservative party apart. All this to be promoted through systematic engagement with powerful figures in the press and media – Rupert Murdoch in particular – to persuade them to adopt and disseminate the New Labour message, served up in a rhetorical sauce of  references to Modern, New, Young (society, labour, country permutated ad lib). And, as Blair put it

  • 4    Blair, T. (1995) speech The Radical Coalition, in New Britain, p. 5

13‘I am not interested in governing for a single term – I want to rebuild this party from its foundations..’4

The Blair record – and the legacy

14And after the epiphany of 1997 and ten years in office, what is the record?

15There were three successive election victories, not as many as Harold Wilson but all with ample working majorities – the essential precondition for implementation of the New Labour programme.

16There was no effective opposition either from the Conservative (their long dark night was spent regularly changing leaders and tacking to and fro on policies) or within his own party. Tony Benn was speedily sidelined as a “national treasure” and until the final stage policy challenges from within Cabinet were seen off with ease.

17And the press and television were kept on side, though the tremendous energies visibly devoted to planting and spinning news items and panicking at imagined dangers eventually led to considerable loss of credibility.

18So there is no possibility of an alibi – the ten years after 1997 provided a unique opportunity to make fundamental political and social changes.

19And there have indeed been some positive outcomes in domestic policy. After the initial period of extreme caution in public spending there was substantial investment in public infrastructure and services (the National Health Service and education in particular). There was promotion of social inclusion through measures like the introduction of a minimum wage; and a systematic attempt to end child poverty, as in the Surestart scheme for preschool care. And, rather less publicised, there was a stress on equal opportunities through new measures on race, gender and sexuality. Many of these policies were implemented through partnership (a favourite New Labour buzzword) with business and industry (as in the Private Finance Initiative) and also, though less prominently, with civil society.

20All this was made possible by the NICE decade, as the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, called it – meaning by that steady economic growth, low inflation and low unemployment. Taken together, this appeared to mean an end to the “boom and bust” of the post-war era. The holy grail of successful economic policy had been found, only to be cruelly snatched away by the events of 2008.

21But this is not Blair’s own legacy, although some elements of it reflect his personal commitments. It’s Blair-Brown – TB-GB as the civil servants used to say – and any successes were in large measure the outcome of that increasingly uneasy partnership. This became steadily more frayed as it strayed beyond the terms agreed at the Granita meeting in 1994, when Brown agreed to surrender his chance of the leadership in exchange for control first over the economic agenda – and then, once in power, increasingly the social agenda as well.

22That control was exercised, often ruthlessly, by Brown as Chancellor. His achievements at the Treasury were substantial, starting from the independence given to the Bank of England and the tripartite system set up to manage the economy. In a largely admiring interview in 2007 in the Financial Times, Lord Turnbull, who had been his permanent secretary for four years before going on to become Cabinet secretary, singled out Brown’s decision to use the Treasury to drive social policy. As Turnbull said:

  • 5    Financial Times 20.3.2007

‘The Treasury ceased to be neutral over public expenditure. It has become the guardian of certain programmes.. That’s been impressive, but in a sense reprehensible… (and)..  There has been the absolute ruthlessness with which Gordon has played the denial of information as an instrument of power. He has maintained an iron grip on spending and on the distribution to departments’.5

23Apart from this control of the content and level of public expenditure over longer time horizons than before, Brown also used the tax system to deliver his programme of redistribution, through tax credits and adjusting levels of taxation – like the eventually ill-fated 10p tax rate. These devices were complex in concept, sometimes stealthy in execution.  Derek Scott, an advisor in the Prime Minister’s office during this period, provides a rather different view:

  • 6    Scott, D. (2004), Off Whitehall: a view from Downing Street, p. 29

Gordon saw tax as something that could be altered or tweaked to meet other objectives that he, or the Government, thought desirable and, moreover, he thought that the British electorate had been brainwashed into thinking that a rising burden of tax is a bad thing. Tony knew that Gordon was further complicating the tax system, but he didn’t really resist it.6

24Chris Mullin’s entertaining diary provides a glimpse of Brown in full flow before the Parliamentary Labour party.

  • 7    Mullin, C. (2009) A view from the Foothills p. 264

This was Gordon the Great Redistributor. He talked of integrating tax and benefits.. Tax credits, he said, were the central building block of our strategy to eliminate child poverty and low pay. He spoke with passion. A man with a plan, operating on a plane far above the petty wrangling that consumes lesser mortals. He was impressive’7

25Along with this goes the target regime, the public service agreements entered into first by spending departments and later by other agencies, determining what the Treasury expects to get as outcomes from its investment of public funds. For Lord Turnbull these have been ‘a net strong plus’ but others would take a different view.

26Brown’s record of centralising power in the Treasury and exercising it with what amounted at times to contempt for his colleagues in spending departments was compounded by his “celebrity reviews”, in which decisions in key policy areas were pre-empted by ad hoc examinations undertaken by Brown’s nominees.

  • 8     This is what Lord Turnbull calls Brown’s  “Macavity” quality – for which see T.S.Eliot and Old (...)

27However, there is also evidence that at the broader level Brown developed some doubts about the role of government and its limits – an important theme, which he shared with Blair. In sum, Gordon Brown shares full responsibility for the successes of  New Labour but also for many of the failures, to  which he has not always been prepared to own up 8.

28Some of the most important of the negative outcomes of the economic policies of the past twelve years  have been the house price bubble, which lies at the heart of the accumulation of personal debt; housing policy generally and the collapse of house building, especially in the social housing sector and the increase in inequality and its social consequences. Peter

  • 9    Quoted by John Hills in the Guardian, 25.2.2009

29Mandelson, who has been at the heart of the New Labour project throughout, said at the outset: ‘Judge us after 10 years of success in office. For one of the fruits of that success will be that Britain has become a more equal society’9

30It has not. Wilkinson and Pickett  in their important text The Spirit Level have shown both that UK has become more unequal under Labour and that rates of inequality here are  among the highest in the developed world (bar US and Portugal). They also draw attention to some of the social effects of inequality – higher rates of illiteracy, mental illness, prisoners in gaol.

31These are the fruits of Treasury social policy, so ultimately Gordon Brown’s responsibility. Other issues that proved to be problematic for New Labour over Blair’s term of office as Prime Minister included devolution and constitutional reform, relations with the European Union and foreign policy, in particular Blair’s  policy of “liberal interventionism”.

32Devolution of power within the United Kingdom is now often seen as  Tony Blair’s main achievement, especially in the Northern Ireland case – the forging of the Good Friday agreement when in Blair’s much-quoted phrase, ‘the hand of history was on our shoulders’ was largely his doing.  But the devolution settlement was eventually inherited by Gordon Brown and become increasingly awkward to handle.

33On Europe, Tony Blair’s approach both generally and on possible entry to the Eurozone was driven mainly by anxiety about the political implications – the likely response of the media and the consequences of losing their support. Gordon Brown’s role was to devise so-called “tests” of convergence and economic advantage that were never met and never intended to be met. Again, there have been some awkward consequences – and not only for Brown.

34Liberal interventionism internationallyis the Blair signature policy. He was lucky with earlier attempts, in Sierra Leone and then Kosovo, where he was personally hailed as a hero. The Afghanistan intervention after 9/11 appeared at first to have passed off well. But with Iraq and his commitment to George Bush’s invasion, despite lack of a UN resolution, his luck ran out.

35What is the explanation for this rashness, which contrasts so strongly with his caution on domestic policies? Here we may come to the missing piece of the jigsaw. For there is often an engaging simplicity and straightforwardness in Tony Blair’s desire to “do good”. His Africa Commission is one example; his social liberalism in the contested areas of race, gender and sexuality is another.   Much of that side of him seems to derive from his religious beliefs and perhaps to be further enhanced by them.

36His partner in Iraq, George W. Bush, has been quite straightforward in acknowledging his religious motivation. Tony Blair was more circumspect while still in Downing Street – his chief of staff, Alastair Campbell, famously pronouncing that ‘we don’t do God’. (In part, this also illustrates a basic difference in national political styles).  But now Blair has converted to his wife’s Catholicism and set up a Faith Foundation to explore relations between the major world religions and their role in the public policy arena.

  • 10    This was a conclusion also reached by David Marquand in his Britain since 1918

37So how has that desire to ‘do good’ been expressed? The Iraq war is of course a defining moment and to many of Tony Blair’s critics exposes his weaknesses – of personality as well as analytical capacity.  Many of those who marched against the Iraq war in ’03 thought that this episode exposed some hankerings after the old whig imperialist role, doing good with gunboats, like a latterday Palmerston10. The episode can also be seen as the moment when his much remarked upon informal style of  “sofa government” let him down and from inability or unwillingness to listen to alternative arguments he allowed himself to led astray by the neo-Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic – some disguised as left-wing toughies. Seen from that perspective, the Iraq episode is a story of good intentions perverted and manipulated. Perhaps more important, Blair never got from Bush the quid pro quo of serious engagement with the Middle East.

38This, then, was the moment when the kissing had to stop.

39There was still the 2005 election victory to come. That offered some sort of absolution; there were mumbled half apologies, a recognition that the Hutton Inquiry’s favourable verdict on the war had not been sufficient and some expression of responsibility for Labour’s election losses.

40But (to quote Browning once more) it was “never glad confident morning again” – either with the Electorate or the Party he had aspired to ‘rebuild from its foundations’.

Blair’s record

41Le style, c’est l’homme. What was attractive about him, which seduced the British electorate and briefly the wider world was precisely the lack of any depth, of ideological commitments and policy “red lines”.

  • 11    Kendall, J. The Third Sector and Political Ideologies Paper prepared for CINEFOGO symposium, Uni (...)

42New Labour was never an intellectually coherent programme – once past the basics of spending the dividend of financial market driven economic growth on socially progressive causes. Jeremy Kendall has provided a helpful analysis of different New Labour positions on social policy, dividing politicians into “choicists”, “civic renewers” and “democratic revivalists” 11. But although there are undoubtedly significant differences in the approach adopted by individual Labour ministers these are ultimately matters of style and tactics rather than deep ideological differences.

  • 12    See generally Deakin, N and Parry R. (2000) The Treasury and Social Policy

43So Blair travelled hopefully with the rhetorical wind in his sails – but reaching his destination became steadily more problematic. Implementation was always an issue, mainly because, in Peter Hennessy’s analysis, Ten Downing Street gathered power to itself without knowing how to use the machinery of government to make anything happen – unlike Gordon Brown’s approach at number Eleven, in the Treasury12.

  • 13    As exemplified in the joint evidence given by four former permanent secretaries to the Public Ad (...)

44Blair wanted to engage the public, favoured the third sector as a means of promoting engagement and securing consent for government programmes through sharing responsibility in partnerships. But in pursuit of his own policy goals Blair descended rapidly into command and control, a regime of setting targets and bypassing of official structures  - the Cabinet, the civil service, local government and public agencies of all kinds. There was no room on the sofa on which Blair’s decisions were made for the traditional public sector hierarchs – an exclusion they bitterly resented.13

  • 14    Guardian 5.5.2007

45And so the reform of public services, his own preferred key to achieving lasting social change, became progressively harder to achieve as initiative followed initiative without any sense of an overall strategic direction. As Peter Wilby put it: ‘It was precisely because Blair tried to run so much that he achieved so little’14

46And internationally, the Third Way, for all Tony Giddens’ efforts and the labours of left-wing think tanks, was almost equally null – a discussion group of centre-left European political parties now almost all out of power and likely to remain so.

47Finally, by lingering in office after 2005 Blair damaged, probably fatally and perhaps deliberately , his designated successor’s chances of making a distinctive contribution of his own…

Gordon Brown as Prime Minister

48By contrast with Blair, Brown is a man whose social origins and intellectual background are very clear – not just the Church of Scotland Presbyterian manse and its associated lifestyle (of which we may perhaps have heard too much) but also the Scottish Labour world – the smoke filled rooms, stitch ups and personality wars. That culture is “Labourist” in its high valuation of working class culture and the heavy industry that sustained it and came under assault in the 80s under Thatcher. Brown himself is respectful of the party’s pioneers – after all, his Edinburgh PhD thesis was on the ILP leader James Maxton, one of the Scottish left’s totem figures. So he is first of all a party man.

49This background has also provided Brown with a “moral compass” though it’s not always clear what direction it will point him in. Trying to allocate Brown to one of the four types of political leader he has identified, David Marquand categorises him, after some reflection, as… ‘a democratic republican’.

50His Treasury years, as already indicated, were a time of command and control, seeing off Tory shadows, riding on the back of what was generally perceived at the time when he succeeded unopposed to Number Ten as successful management of an economy delivering sustained growth.

51But there were unresolved personality issues here too – intolerance of opposition extending even to discussion (Derek Scott, the No 10 advisor, comments drily that ‘contrary opinions, particularly if forcefully expressed, were not welcome’). Dissent was crushed with what came to be generally known as the “big clunking fist”. Even Lord Turnbull, generally speaking a supporter, described his Treasury style as “quasi-Stalinist”. And his relationship with the Prime Minister, never easy, degenerated at times into open warfare after Blair’s departure continued to be postponed.

  • 15    A judgment based on my own experience

52But when Gordon Brown thinks it necessary to be so he is also an adept communicator. The speeches he delivered while Chancellor are indubitably his own work and taken on their own terms they are impressive, in that they have intellectual substance – another contrast with Blair’s orations, brilliantly delivered but when reread devoid of any real content.15Brown comes across as confident, well read, making rigorous use of evidence, with informed references to historical background and his party’s history and values (yet another contrast with Blair).

53His themes of rights and responsibilities are not original in themselves but the development is. Responsibilities are not presented as not just individual but collective, especially the duty of care for the less fortunate: child poverty is the signal issue because it offends our sense of fairness.

  • 16    Advancing the Public Interest: speech to the Social Market Foundation, 18 May 2004.

54Fair is essential – but it is also Efficient (the title of his Fabian pamphlet in opposition) and ‘promoting the market economy helps us achieve our goals of a stronger society and a fairer society’16

  • 17    Civic Renewal In Britain: Speech to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations 18 February (...)

55The public sector has a role – it can be both equitable and efficient and provide personalized services as well. However, this does not imply a centralized public sector; rather, what is needed is a two fold approach. Here is where Gordon Brown begins to diverge from the traditional Labour categories – the ‘democratic collectivism’ of Marquand’s four categories of political leadership, where you might expect to find him, and moves him towards ‘democratic republicanism’. He argues first, for a new localism, with a prominent role for voluntary and community groups, though...The voluntary sector must never be seen as a cut-price alternative to statutory provision, never seen as a way of ducking the responsibilities of family and society’17 And, second, for a revisiting of the concept of British identity, which he sees as founded on local initiative and mutual responsibility – and the constitutional arrangements that sustain it.

56Coming at last to power in 2007, with (as it turned out) only a brief opportunity to set a new agenda, Gordon Brown proposed at the outset constitutional reform as a major theme for action coupled with reconciliation with past opponents – symbolized in his invitation to  Margaret Thatcher (whom he had once castigated in his polemic ‘Where There is Greed’) to call on him in Downing Street -  and the appointment of outsiders from other parties and none, the so-called GoATs, to government posts.

57The rhetoric in the first phase was about powersharing, partnership and devolution that works. But the Green Paper he produced, The Governance of Britain, now provides only a  glimpse of what might have been. David Marquand comments:

  • 18    Marquand, D. p. 405

More than any previous Labour leader, (Brown) had come to feel that democratic collectivist etatisme had become self-stultifying; that its blindness to the ultimate political questions of identity and allegiance had become a threatto the survival of the union state; and that the times called for a ‘thicker’ and richer conception of democracy than that of the democratic collectivist leaders of the past’..The logic implicit in his constitutional initiatives was democratic republican. In an important speech on the British tradition of liberty, he evoked the memory of Milton, Mill, Tawney and Orwell, stressing that liberty as they envisaged it was more than laissez-faire or hyper-individualism, and linking ‘ the reinforcement of civic responsibility’ to the ‘empowerment of the individual’. Yet he said little about the dream at the heart of the democratic republican story – the dream of free citizens, governing themselves through dialogue and debate and empowering themselves in doing so’18

58Then, as  in Harold Macmillan’s famous warning, “events, dear boy” intervened – the collapse of financial markets in 2008 swept all that away and damaged, perhaps fatally, the economic strategy on which the Brown Chancellorship and its supposed achievement (“an end to boom and bust”)  had been based.

59Yet, paradoxically, those events didn’t deliver a fatal blow to Gordon Brown as a politician. Rather, he seized the moment and the opportunity that it provided - and for all the embarrassment of his past commitments to light touch regulation and his praise of the ingenuity of the financial markets – and perhaps more intellectually damaging, his repudiation of Keynesianism (described in his Social Market Foundation speech as outdated and bracketed with “Old Labour shibboleths”)  - Brown  emerged metamorphosed into a statesman and one widely admired across the world.

60But that has done him little good in domestic politics. The superficial reason for his continued unpopularity is personality related – he’s not the emollient Tony but widely seen as a dour figure (some anti-Scottish prejudice may linger here). His face in cartoons wears a perpetual frowns – no allowance made for the loss of one eye in a sports injury. Insinuations are made about his mental equilibrium. And he has added to his problems by his ludicrously misconceived attempts to court popular approval –  commentaries on popular culture, a speech on You Tube. Slightly more successful have been his wife Sarah’s interventions and the attempt to portray a sensitive “real Gordon” .

61But there are substantive reasons for his unpopularity, as well, outside the loss of credibility of his general economic strategy:  there have been policy failures: the abolition of the lowest tax bracket; mishandling of proposed privatization of the Post Office, plans to introduce ID cards and the general approach to security and the creation of a “surveillance culture”.

  • 19    Mullin, C. p.330

62These are some of the items in what Chris Mullin calls (quoting a Parliamentary colleague) “Gordon’s luggage” : ‘Gordon’s speeches always sound alright until you unpack the case and come across the smelly socks hidden between the clean shorts’19

63But perhaps most of all, his problems relate to the appearance of coherent political opposition, which Tony Blair never had to face. Within the Labour party  this opposition is based in part on policy disputes, but mostly on panic in the ranks, leading to desperate intriguing to stave off  a defeat that’s seen as almost inevitable under his leadership. There is also a challenge (not to be underestimated) from the devolved administration in Scotland, currently popular and threatening to take the opportunity of Brown’s weakness to press the independence agenda.

64But by far the most important has been the threat posed by a revived Conservative party under a credible leader

David Cameron

65If Blair was in many respects a son of Thatcher, Cameron is the direct offspring of Blair, his strategy formed by Blair’s tactics and his approach mediated through Blair’s personal style.

66Having failed to combat Blair by turning right, back to “traditional” Conservative politics (tax cuts, immigration scares, Europhobia) the Conservatives chose to switch to an approach which accepted the premises of the New Labour political analysis and employed them to compete for the centre ground, Blair’s natural terrain. By choosing Cameron over David Davis, the party went for a style of leadership which also reflected the achievements of Blair.

67In one respect, Cameron was a very traditional choice – Eton and Oxford are, after all, the classic qualifications for the Tory leadership. So is inherited wealth.  His class background is impeccable, but his experience of real life outside the media and political bubble has been very limited.

  • 20    Compare Tony Blair’s similar experience with skeptics in the Labour party

68However, the young man in an open necked shirt delivering a conference speech without notes and promising not unqualified opposition to the government but support where the merits of the case justified it was a new kind of Conservative politician. As such, he found it initially difficult to persuade the parity’s traditional cadres that he was even a Conservative at all20 ;  however, the government’s growing unpopularity and his surefootedness in dealing with issues (Europe excepted) gradually won him credibility.

69It is hardly unreasonable to demand detailed policy prescriptions from oppositions – the system demands merely that they should be adequately prepared for government, as New Labour was, not equipped with a suite of fully fledged departmental programmes. Nevertheless, there are some clues to Cameron’s intentions, both in the speeches he has made as Leader of the Opposition and in the reports of the policy review groups that he has established. Stylistically the speeches are early Blair, with the false antitheses of triangulation (calling upon us to reject both Old Left and Old Right) and empty syllogisms (“economic liberalism is necessary – but not sufficient; social welfare is also necessary but not sufficient”).  But some content is discernable.

  • 21    By a melancholy coincidence, both Brown and Cameron have suffered losses of young children. Came (...)

70In social policies education is presented as the main priority exemplified in the Academy programme and unqualified support for the National Health Service21  He has attacked not the substance of Gordon Brown’s anti-poverty policies but their implementation, as unduly complex. His predecessor Ian Duncan Smith used his policy review to lament “Breakdown Britain”; interestingly, this analysis has not been fully endorsed by Cameron, who professes greater optimism about the prospects for society.

71As most politicians in opposition do, Cameron  has called for more local decision making; more elected mayors and police authorities –  and abolition of  regional development agencies. In some ways, the most substantial statement of policy has been the party’s green paper on the third sector (civil society) and Cameron’s preface to that document. However, the views expressed here, once stripped of ritual condemnations of bureaucracy, is not easy to distinguish from that of Gordon Brown.

72Cameron argues that:

  • 22    David Cameron: preface to Conservative party Green Paper on Civil society -  A Stronger Society: (...)

‘The time has come for us to think of the Voluntary sector as the first sector; not just in recognition of the historical origins of the public services and institutions we rely on today – but the first place we should look for the answers that neither the state nor the market can provide.. The delivery of public services has become a pivotal and divisive issue, presenting the sector with enormous risks and opportunities. There are those who say the risk is too great, that charities should keep out or be kept out. Others make an equal and opposite error – believing that the voluntary sector that operates beyond the limits of state action is irrelevant and out-of-date. We reject both arguments, respecting the sheer variety of the sector and seeking to nurture voluntary organisations of all shapes and sizes’22

73Elsewhere Cameron has provided an assurance that Conservatives do not regard state funding as automatically damaging to the voluntary sector and that support for them will not be ‘a cloak for an agenda of spending cuts’. Rather, state support  is premised on evidence that “big society” will be more adept than “big government” in finding solutions for intractable social problems.  And, finally, there has been the commitment to addressing climate change now required of all serious politicians.

74Like Gordon Brown, David Cameron's work on developing his policy agenda was brutally interrupted by the 2008 economic crisis. Whether the Conservatives came out well from that episode is a matter of political debate – certainly the argument that they didn’t will often be heard in the run up to the 2010 Election. Their commitment to drastic cuts in public expenditure as a means of addressing the daunting financial problems left by the crisis will certainly be controversial.

75And what of the other parties? The European elections showed a flight to the fringes but not to the Liberal Democrats, now solidly entrenched at local government level but still searching for their elusive parliamentary breakthrough, with no proportional representation to help them, despite Blair’s pledge to bring forward electoral reform – now being reexamined by Brown in a kind of deathbed repentance.

76The Liberal Democrats too have had their leadership issues. In opting for Nick Clegg to lead them into the General Election they run the risk of being criticised for installing a clone of a clone – their own David Cameron, rather than a mature politician like Vince Cable – deemed too old after the fiasco of Menzies Campbell’s leadership.

77This should be a third party moment, especially in view of the Liberal Democrats’ relative freedom from the taint of last year’s scandal of MPs’ expenses that severely damaged the standing of mainstream politicians. But the electorate shows no signs of discriminating – the political class as a whole has been judged and found wanting.


78Comparisons between Blair’s position in 1996/7 and Cameron’s situation now, as a potential Prime Minister in waiting, are misleading. Since Blair was first elected there have been substantial changes both positive and negative, material and psychological. The treize glorieuses (1994-2007) of interrupted growth and the expectations they nurtured have now been interrupted by the crash of 2008, whose consequences will blight prospects for the next decade.

79The country has now entered a period of high unemployment and lack of investment in manufacturing industry. And the overhang, notably the vast growth in public debt generated by bailing out the banking system, leads to the inevitable prospect of having to make cuts in public expenditure and calling a halt to investment in public services (reductions in costs can’t all be achieved by reducing backroom staff and “efficiency savings”). How this is to be achieved without substantial disruption will be the immediate challenge for whoever wins the election which must be held in the first half of 2010.

80In the longer term there are the issues around housing - the seizing up of the market and the escalator of rising values, the continued shortage of social housing and residualisation of estates and their inhabitants - and  the toxic consequences of high (and very probably increasing) rates of inequality.

81Taken together these may pose a severe test of the social liberalism now apparently secured by bipartisan agreement but vulnerable to the hostility of a frustrated majority in search of minorities (refugees, visible ethnic minorities, “benefit cheats”, perhaps even gays) to blame for their discontents.

  • 23    For which see, eg Vernon Bogdanor ‘Dying Days of the Big Parties’ (Guardian 23 September 2009) a (...)

82More generally, there is the calvary of the political class after the expenses scandal (which has meant a miraculous deliverance for the bankers, whose period as most unpopular group in British public life was over in less than a year) and a pervasive loss of confidence in the political system and a steep decline in party memberships and commitment of members. Those who put their faith in new information technologies to bridge the gap have yet to demonstrate how these can successfully address the wholesale disengagement of their prime users, the young, from the political process.23

83So for Cameron and his largely untried team, the next contest may be a more difficult election to win than now seems likely and the consequences of winning it could be highly problematic. Boyish charm and a winning appearance of sincerity and fluency on the stump may not be sufficient in themselves, as they were for Blair in 1997, even if the Tories will now have the press and media largely behind them. And the problem of what, if anything, Cameron and his immediate entourage actually stand for, in Marquand’s terms or indeed in any others, is likely to remain unresolved for a while longer.

84But there is no doubt that the scales are heavily weighted against Brown, with incumbency fatigue to add to his other problems. And for the party Blair left behind (in his abrupt and rather graceless exit from British politics), to complete my original Browning quotation..

What of soul is left?

  • 24    ‘The Next New Labour’ in Fabian Review Autumn 2006

85The coming election must be New Labour’s last hurrah.   Tony Giddens as keeper of the Blairite flame asked  ‘what does it mean to govern as New Labour?’  His answer identified five key principles – priority to the economy, hold the political centre, bias to the poor in social policies, invest in public services and ‘do not cede any issues to the right (crime, social disorder, migration and cultural identity). Instead, seek to develop left of centre solutions to them’.24

86But the time is now past when this will suffice as a programme. There have been  more radical offerings from left wing think tanks like Compass: increased taxation of rich (target bankers; a High Pay commission) abandon Post Office privatization, develop new positive discrimination policies, above all defend the gains – investment in the NHS and education. And increasingly there is pressure for the Labour party to change leaders, even at the eleventh hour or to scramble together some sort of deal with the Liberal Democrats.

87But, writing at the beginning of the year, the admittedly still inconclusive evidence seems to suggest that the UK will conform to the currently consistent pattern across Europe and eject their centre-left government – the net result of the crash of 2008 having been to cause electorates to scuttle back to the right (‘keep a tight hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse’). On the other hand, as John Major showed in 1992, there are risks attached to assuming that the pendulum must inevitably swing against long-term incumbents.

88And Blair himself? There is a telling vignette in Chris Mullin’s book, when Blair addressed the parliamentary party after it had suffered a severe setback in mid-term elections, describing how he reanimated a depressed gathering. Many of those he led with such verve   for more than a decade may now be wishing that he could, after all, be persuaded to return. But given that Blair is reliably estimated to have earned £16mn from public speaking engagements since leaving office a Second Coming of the Messiah of 1997 would indeed be a miracle.

89What he leaves behind him is a series of lessons, not just in how to win elections – the essential precondition for any political success – but also in deciding what to do with power, once secured. Here style alone is not enough – there has to be substance, an understanding of how lasting change can be delivered. Whatever you think about the consequences of many of her policies, that was a lesson that Margaret Thatcher did not need to be taught: it is one that David Cameron might do well to learn.

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Blair, Tony, New Britain: my vision of a Young Country London, Fourth estate 1996

Bogdanor, Vernon, ‘Dying days of the Big Parties’ Guardian 23.9.2009

Brown, Gordon, Moving Britain Forward London, Bloomsbury 2006

Cameron, David, preface to Conservative Party Green Paper on Civil society A stronger society: voluntary action in the 21st Century London, Conservative Party (2008)

Deakin, N. and Parry, R. The Treasury and Social Policy: the Contest for Control of the Welfare Agenda London, Macmillan 2000

Fons, Jean-Philippe (ed.) Les Annees Major 1990-1997, Observatoire de la Société Britannique, No 7 Mars 2009

Giddens, Tony, ‘The Next New Labour’ Fabian Review Autumn 2006,

Kendall, J. ‘The Third sector and Political Ideologies’, paper prepared for the CINEFOGO Symposium University of Kent April 2008

Major, John, The Autobiography Harper Collins 2000

Marquand, David, Britain since 1918: the strange career of British Democracy Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2008

Mullin, Chris,A View from the Foothills: the diaries of Chris Mullin London, Profile Books 2009

O’Hara, K. After Blair: David Cameron and the Conservative tradition Cambridge, Icon Books 2007

Scott, Derek, Off Whitehall: A view from Downing Street London I.B.Tauris 2004

Turnbull, Lord Interview in Financial Times 20.3.2007

Vinen, Richard, Thatcher’s Britain: The politics of Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era London Simon and Schuster 2009

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1    Marquand, D. Britain Since 1918, p. 360

2    For which see Fons, J.P. (dir.), Les annees John Major, 1990-1997, Observatoire de la Société Britannique, No 7 Mars 2009.

3    See his collected speeches, New Britain: my Vision of a Young Country 1996.

4    Blair, T. (1995) speech The Radical Coalition, in New Britain, p. 5

5    Financial Times 20.3.2007

6    Scott, D. (2004), Off Whitehall: a view from Downing Street, p. 29

7    Mullin, C. (2009) A view from the Foothills p. 264

8     This is what Lord Turnbull calls Brown’s  “Macavity” quality – for which see T.S.Eliot and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

9    Quoted by John Hills in the Guardian, 25.2.2009

10    This was a conclusion also reached by David Marquand in his Britain since 1918

11    Kendall, J. The Third Sector and Political Ideologies Paper prepared for CINEFOGO symposium, University of Kent, April 2008

12    See generally Deakin, N and Parry R. (2000) The Treasury and Social Policy

13    As exemplified in the joint evidence given by four former permanent secretaries to the Public Administration Select Committee.

14    Guardian 5.5.2007

15    A judgment based on my own experience

16    Advancing the Public Interest: speech to the Social Market Foundation, 18 May 2004.

17    Civic Renewal In Britain: Speech to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations 18 February 2004

18    Marquand, D. p. 405

19    Mullin, C. p.330

20    Compare Tony Blair’s similar experience with skeptics in the Labour party

21    By a melancholy coincidence, both Brown and Cameron have suffered losses of young children. Cameron’s strongly expressed support for the NHS at the time of the health care debates in the US is related to the quality of care his young son received before his death.

22    David Cameron: preface to Conservative party Green Paper on Civil society -  A Stronger Society: Voluntary Action in the 21st Century (2008) p. 4

23    For which see, eg Vernon Bogdanor ‘Dying Days of the Big Parties’ (Guardian 23 September 2009) and Ferdinand Mount: ‘The Power inquiry: making politics breathe’ (Open Democracy February 2006)

24    ‘The Next New Labour’ in Fabian Review Autumn 2006

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Nicholas Deakin, « ‘When the kissing had to stop’: British politics     after Blair », Observatoire de la société britannique, 9 | 2010, 259-278.

Référence électronique

Nicholas Deakin, « ‘When the kissing had to stop’: British politics     after Blair », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 9 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2011, consulté le 24 juin 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1050

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Nicholas Deakin

Professeur à la London School of Economics and Political Science

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