Well, haven't you heard? New Labour really is new Britain
`The voters will re-elect the Government with their heads rather than with their hearts'
Thursday 30 September 1999
The Government has become an uncontroversial, wholly settled fact of life. Before 1 May 1997, it charmed us by its Pygmalion transformation from the gutter of Old Labour failure. Since then it has groomed and regroomed itself until its vowels and deportment are flawless. It rarely disgraces us in public. Henry Higgins would be impressed. Its joys, its woes, its highs and lows, are second nature to us now. We've grown accustomed to its face.
Tony Blair leader has firmly anchored New Labour as the rightful, successful party of government. I watched his conference performance flanked by a couple of delegates who had taken their seats with all the anticipatory verve of people facing an imminent appointment with one of those NHS dentists we are all supposed to be able to find from now on.
By the time Tony was promising to free us all from the chains of a Conservative century's oppression, they were flushed and applauding. The man on my right, a trade unionist of 30 years' striking, told me he didn't like the boss and his team - his exact words were, "they think they're the dog's bollocks". Yet he liked having Labour in power because that meant that "we" were in charge. I asked who "we" were, given that he thought Mr Blair was in a very different political tribe to his own. He thought for a few seconds and said, "Anything that's not the Tories, really."
Anything that's not the Tories is what we've got. A recent Gallup poll records that a majority of people thought that the Prime Minister was "nothing special", but that the Government was competent. In the politics of a post-ideological age, "nothing special" is a strength, not a weakness. Mr Blair is the modern British Everyman, a seamless blend of visionary change and a pragmatic sense of the limits of what politicians can achieve in the era of global capital.
He is also a weaver of spells, a spinner of dreams. Some of the passages in his speech rose to absurd heights of rhetorical extravagance. As long as a single child lived in poverty in Britain, he said, Labour's mission would not be completed. The Utopian streak and the confidence in the intervention of government would have been familiar to Keir Hardie and the party's founders a century ago. Does Mr Blair ever believe that there will come a day when no child at all, anywhere in the UK, will be so afflicted? Of course not. But he knows that the party will hear his words one way: as a continuation of the culture and instinct that made Hardie describe it as "a religion".
The voters will take the flights of rhetoric with a pinch of salt and re-elect the Government, as Mr Blair predicted, with their heads rather than their hearts. New Labour does nothing without strategic intent and Mr Blair's purpose this year was straightforward, namely to identify New Labour as intimately as possible with the attitudes and aspirations of mainstream Britain, and to portray any dissenters as outre and marginal. The Addams Family Tories are "weird, weird weird", and the "forces of Conservatism", including Martin Luther King's assassins, fox-hunters, people who harbour doubts about the wisdom of Britain joining Emu and opponents of changing Clause 4, were checked in on the side of the balance sheet marked "bad, mad and dangerous to know". All good Blairites line up in serene unanimity on the other, the good side of the line.
The shift from party political and ideological loyalties into a far more diffuse cultural divisions has profound implications for the way we are treated by government. Not all of them are nice. In an episode of Seinfeld, the luckless character named Kramer set off on an anti-Aids march but refused to wear the standard issue looped red ribbon. He ended up shinning up a lamp-post to escape the fury of the illiberal mob of liberals.
The flaw and strength in the Blairite project is the harsh majoritarianism on which it is built. "For the many, not the few" is a highly effective slogan, because it encapsulates the determination of this Government to widen access to society's goods and opportunities. But it neglects the necessity of protecting those who fall outside its random definition of whose rights are inalienable. Today, it may be people you don't like very much: the pro-hunt lobby, hereditary peers, General Pinochet, noisy neighbours.
But how do we feel about the sweeping anti-terrorist legislation, about Jack Straw's attacks on travellers and whoever the next target on the radar screen should happen to be? Mr Blair has defended DNA testing of suspects on the hoary old grounds that it is worth trading one teeny-weeny right to ensure that kids aren't sold drugs at school.
Doubtless Salem didn't have much of a teen drug problem, either, but that doesn't mean it should be a model for New Britain. Beware politicians of whatever colour who seek to trade away freedom on the promise that this one-off curtailment of liberty is the essential precursor to curing a social ill.
This Government is a supremely strategic political force with the potential to eclipse all challenges for a very long time to come. It is constructing a new paradigm of British politics that moves beyond the traditional American and European democratic models of one block of opinion on the moderate left and one on the moderate right, between which voters shuttle from time to time, depending on their mood, the economic conditions and the Government's competence in office.
New Labour intends to become identical with the mainstream of national life: to establish an eclectic clutch of its orthodoxies as the norm, to which all alternatives are wacky and suspect. After only a couple of years back in power after a long absence, it has already eclipsed Conservatism as the party expected to govern Britain for the foreseeable future. For its beginnings as a protest movement 100 years ago, that is a long way to have come. Tony Blair, the man who made the Labour Party normal, deserves a hearty salute for this achievement. It should be followed by a memo to self from all half-way alert citizens of the New Britain: remember that it is your right and duty to be just a little awkward now and then.
elephant appealPrince William signs up for our charity appeal
elephant appealSo says man jailed for cutting off dead elephant's tusks
booksWe examine the best titles for teens
scienceResearchers teach border collie to understand sentences using more than 1,000 words
booksA Christmas story in six parts
travelWill high-value tourism help the workshops of this Renaissance city?
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Arts & Ents blogs
Heavy rain and years of 'benign neglect' may have caused Apollo Theatre roof collapse
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
Justin Bieber isn't retiring from music after all
Nymphomaniac, film review: 'Despite the surreal sex scenes this is a serious drama'
The publisher who played with fire: the battle for control of Larsson's £30m legacy
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
David Cameron takes his biggest gamble yet as he gets tough on Europe over immigration
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
Scientists ‘incredibly concerned’ for fate of banana as plagues and fungus infections spread across world’s supplies
- 1 Top PR exec Justine Sacco under fire for sending racist tweet before flying to Africa
- 2 French pub fined €9,000 after customers returned empties to bar - because it's 'undeclared labour'
- 3 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 4 The publisher who played with fire: the battle for control of Larsson's £30m legacy
- 5 Police seize possessions of rough sleepers in crackdown on homelessness
- < Previous
- Next >