Passion and compassion
Tony Blair is hungry for election victory, but what kind of premier would he make?
Rosie Boycott is a journalist and the first female editor of two national broadsheets. In 1971 she co-founded the influential feminist magazine Spare Rib, from 1992 to 1996 she edited the men's magazine Esquire. She is a former editor of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and the Daily Express.
Sunday 19 January 1997
No smidgen of patrician grandeur carries over to the Opposition's quarters. Suddenly the stairs are steeper and narrower. The corridors go mean and twisty. There is not nearly enough space to contain the energy generated by Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. This is a man in a hurry to leave his unprepossessing panelled office for the broad corridors of power upstairs.
It isn't long since I last met him, but he comes through as a bit older and a lot tougher. Heavier altogether. Face to face he is more formidable and potentially abrasive than on TV. He talks rather fast, and without any qualifications. Blair knows exactly what he wants to say and will be stopped only with difficulty.
Because he talks so fast and precisely, it is all the more refreshing that he manages to be so direct. I am being confronted by great skill, virtuosity even. In the past the Opposition leader's undoubted appeal has been qualified ... all winsomeness and future promise, like an under- 21 striker. But this side has vanished - as if he has had a life and death experience.
His personality has got plainer, it appears, not fancier. I wonder, have I been influenced by the total lack of contrivance, the absence of mise- en-scene marking his below-stairs HQ? Perhaps Cherie Blair dislikes stereotypes, or is just too busy herself, to contribute a wifely touch. Our future leader, if such he is, does not notice that the net-curtains cry out for a miracle detergent, or that there is a patina of dust on the pot plants.
A book next to the lines of Hansard has caught my eye. It is Melvyn Bragg's latest, Credo, in mint condition. He confesses that he has not yet started it. He has begun War and Peace instead, he says. He is on page one.
By the time Blair finishes Tolstoy's epic he will know whether he is to be let loose from the ghosts that have inhabited the shabby offices of the Leader of the Opposition for 17 years.
The current leader's namesake Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, said that he always thought of Britain as a family with the wrong people in charge. In a maximum of 17 weeks from now, Blair will surely prove him wrong.
Rosie Boycott: Are you angry enough about the way we live to push Labour's programme through?
Tony Blair: I'm absolutely passionate about change.
Q The anger ... is it there?
A The passion is there. Anger? Yeah, I get angry about the number of young people without a job.
Q When you look down a road and see someone sleeping in a doorway, do you get angry when you see that?
A Yes, I do.
Q A successful leader needs to be angry. Do you have to sacrifice being nice?
A No. But I didn't spend the last two and a half years transforming the Labour Party in order not to do anything with the country. I transformed the Labour Party as a means to an end.
I am passionate enough, angry about the things which are wrong. I'm not angry in the sense that I stamp around the room, because it doesn't get you anywhere, but you should not have young people sleeping in doorways, there should be no need for that. We've got to do something about that and we will.
Q Frustrated too?
A The Tories have put through the poll tax, dismantled local government in the country, failed the country in Europe, wrecked the health service. All these problems, and we have been able to do nothing about it.
Q So, let's come to education and homework. If you belong to a family that cares about homework, the kids will do homework. But if it's a family that comes home, slumps in front of the television, doesn't care about education - how are you going to get those kids to do their homework?
A I'm not suggesting that you should have government inspectors knocking on the door and asking whether the homework's been done. It's a question of putting forward guidelines at a national level and then ensuring that in the home/school contracts between parents and the school, that there's a homework stipulation so everyone knows what's expected of them.
Q How much homework did you do?
A Probably quite a lot.
Q Do you remember being made to do it?
A Oh yes.
Q You didn't do it voluntarily?
A No, I don't think any child does. There were certainly times when I had to be pushed.
Q Did you have one special teacher who turned you on to learning and to education?
A Eric Anderson, who was my house master and my English teacher had a very big impact on me. He gave me a love of literature.
Q Of Ivanhoe?
A He did introduce me to Walter Scott, though not Ivanhoe. We read Rob Roy. I was intensely irritated by the suggestion that I'd chosen this as my book for Desert Island Discs either because of the BBC series, which I knew absolutely nothing about, or that my spin doctors had chosen it for me.
Q In this country, teachers are demoralised, badly paid and don't feel they're respected members of the community any more. How do you alter that?
A I'm not promising sums of money to anyone, but I think it is extremely important that we value our teachers properly and recognise that the vast majority operate in very difficult circumstances. The only way to build up the standing of teachers is if we really enroll them in the crusade to raise the standards of our education system. They must feel there's a government with a real commitment to education and a real sense of national purpose that's driving through change. A lot of the talk about education last week focused on homework, but we actually proposed a whole series of things. Like, for example, replacing the nursery voucher scheme with proper nursery education; earlier and proper assessment of kids in primary school. Broadening the A-level syllabus so it's not so narrow. Ensuring that we keep the comprehensive principle of all-in schooling, but that we modernise it to take account of the different abilities of children. The proposals that we had for bringing computers and technology into the school and for getting teachers properly trained to use them. Possibly I'm influenced by the fact that I've got children of school age myself, but I really do believe that it's the single most important thing that a Labour government should do.
Q Will you tackle private education? We're always going to have a problem with British education while institutions like Eton continue to flourish.
A Yes, there is a difficulty when you've got what George Walden, in his book We Should Know Better, called the system of educational apartheid. But you are never going to get to deal with that, abolishing private schools.
Q Why not?
A You would end up with the whole of your energy going into that, diverting us from improving the state education system. In the end, the only way you will do this is not to make them a target, but to raise the standards of the state education system. I really believe that.
Q Do you get involved with your own kids' homework?
A Yes, when I can.
Q And do they do it willingly?
A Yes, they know it's important. Look, I'm sure they will be reluctant occasionally, but we've got to see this in the bigger context, which is that systems in other countries are educating more of their children to a higher standard. We are good in Britain at educating an elite. We are bad at educating the whole of the population. We have to change that.
Q How do you reach those children and young adults who have been failed by the current system?
A If they're still at school, there's still time to put things right. If they're just about to leave, it's tragic. That's the reason we made our number one priority for spending a programme for young people who have left school without proper qualifications and who can't get a job. If those kids don't get the chance of some form of skill or help with basic literacy then you will find, in 10 years' time, they've become a lost generation.
Q And how will you deal with drugs in that lost generation? You've always been adamant about not having open debate about marijuana and Ecstasy, but a million tablets are being taken every week and that can't be ignored.
A I'm all in favour of having an open debate about it, though I'm not in favour of legalising it. I had a very close look at the evidence and the evidence actually points to the opposite. Kids are taking drugs for all sorts of reasons, but I'm particularly concerned with those young people who don't feel they've got any hope or opportunity or status in society. I know families in my own constituency where the father's not working, the son isn't working and the son will pretty soon be having children that aren't working as well. So we are perpetuating, call it, in inverted commas, an "underclass", a group of people that is set apart from society's mainstream. We have to tackle that. I know it is difficult, and people are going to attack us for it, but the fairest way to use the money from the excess profits of privatised utilities that made excess profits because of their monopoly position, is to put it in a dedicated fund, and use it for a high-quality programme for young people. It's not just shelling out money to them, it's saying there's a deal - we will provide opportunity, but you've got a responsibility to take it.
Q Much of what New Labour is saying revolves round family values. But only about traditional nuclear families with a mum and dad who do the right thing. Don't you think that makes single parents feel inadequate?
A But single parents care passionately about their families as well. Most single parents are single parents against their will. So to stigmatise them seems to me to be deeply unhelpful. We have to acknowledge that support for family life is important.
Q Do you think a single mother on her own with one child in a small flat is a family?
A Well of course that is a family. But I have always said, all things being equal, that it's best if children can be bought up with their mother and father together. Many single parents can't work because they either can't get the skills they require or the childcare. We are looking at how to help them in that situation, through programmes for women who want to return to work and nursery education. When I say family life is important, I don't mean to preach to people about their private lives at all. No politician is in a position to do that.
Q How far do you think you're going to have to be accessible to the tabloids through the campaign? Will you have to appear on more shows like Des O'Connor? It is hard to imagine Alec Douglas-Home doing something like that. Is it necessary? Do you like it?
A It was a nice and friendly show. People want to know the person who is putting himself forward as the Prime Minister of the country. That's natural and right. They want to know the human side of a person as well. Many more people have talked to me about appearing on the Des O'Connor show than about Labour's latest policy launch or initiative. In one sense it's very frustrating as a politician, but it's where it is.
Q John Major will, no doubt, soon be on Des O'Connor, too. Pundits say it's becoming increasingly hard to tell the two of you apart. How can you prevent the campaign becoming a presidential race based solely on personalities?
A I don't believe it will become a presidential race. The Tories are saying that, but I don't think it will at all. I also don't think it's really about whether our personalities are particularly different or not. They probably are, but so what?
Q Isn't it incredibly annoying to be judged on the quality of your smile, rather than your policies?
A Yes, that's absurd. I think a lot of the so-called imagery and image- making is less relevant than people think. I'm not saying that everyone will analyse every party manifesto, but they ought to get a sense of the direction of priorities and character of the political party that's going to govern them. Our task is to give them a sense of what the Labour Party can achieve and can do. I'm not ignoring the personal side of politics, but I don't believe that it will be a simple presidential campaign. I think that it will actually be about the future of the country.
Q Does the extent of Rupert Murdoch's power over our airwaves worry you?
A No. I think the important thing is that people are subject to a proper regulatory framework. As for newspaper proprietors, all I ask from the press is that the Labour Party gets a fair crack at the whip.
Q Do you get a fair crack of the whip out of the media in Britain now?
A Fairer than it was.
Q What's changed?
A Partly the Labour Party and partly the media. They've seen how disastrous the Tories have been and it's quite difficult for them, with their readership, to give them slavish support. I still think that, had any Labour government behaved as the Tory government has over the past five years then we would have been drummed out of office by now. I mean they would have had people out on the streets for the incompetence with which they've governed and, to put it bluntly, for the lies we were told at the last election. So I think, in that sense, the Tories still get away with a lot, but, there's no doubt at all, it is better than it was. It will be interesting to see whether that rotates itself in the run up to the election.
Q How much does Mr Murdoch's ambivalent stance matter to you?
A It certainly matters that we get a fair hearing. That's always what I've asked for. It's not a question of wanting them to support one particular political party or another, it's the news coverage that's important - that your policies, when you're putting them forward, are properly covered.
Q And will abortion be an election issue?
A I think it's very unfortunate if issues like abortion become great matters of party politics. It's a matter of conscience to people in the Labour Party. I've always stood in the same place, personally. I don't know anyone who finds the idea of abortion attractive.
Q No, and there's no woman in the world who wants to have one.
A My own view has always been that that the criminal law is not the proper way to resolve it. This is an intensely difficult and often stressing situation for a woman to be in, and obviously I hope that people feel able not to have abortions in certain circumstances. It's very difficult, but it has to be a decision that ultimately they have to take. So I say what I've always said: that personally I'm not "pro-abortion". That's ridiculous. I don't know anyone who is, but the question is whether it's right for society to criminalise a woman in very agonising circumstances - where, for example, she may have a child that is severely disabled. I don't believe that it's my role to legislate to make that decision.
Q How are you personally going to handle the next 12 weeks or so? John Major, we gather, is going to go to bed at half past nine, How about you?
A We must see if we can find ways of keeping him up later.
Q What are you doing to keep fit, to keep alert?
A I feel better than I've actually been since I was at college because I play tennis and I work out occasionally. I am trying to keep myself physically fit because it's very, very important.
Q And how will it be for your kids when you move to Downing Street?
A I always think about these questions, Rosie, that we will resolve them if, and when, it happens.
Q Will your wife be able to go on working?
A I see no reason why she shouldn't work, at all. Do you?
Q I just wondered whether being Prime Minister was one of the jobs in the world where it was tricky for a wife to have a separate career.
A Hopefully, we are a bit more mature about these things. After all, no one said to Denis Thatcher that he should stop work. Why should it be different for a woman? She's got her own career, she's very successful, she's very good at it. I think it would be wrong if she stopped doing it.
Q What do you do to relax? What was the last film you saw?
A A video with my kids, I think. Christmas on 34th Street I think it's called, which I watched with the kids over Christmas. I don't actually go to the cinema that often.
Q Do you have time to read?
Q What are you reading?
A I'm reading a book by a man called George Dangerfield about the death of the Liberal party in the early part of the century. And I've just started War and Peace actually.
Q One last thing ... [but before I had asked the question, Blair answered the one he evidently wished to hear]
A I think the important thing about this campaign is that is doesn't revolve around presidential image and that it goes straight to the heart of the future. That's what it should really be about.
Q If the worst happened, and you lost, what would you do and what would happen to the Labour Party?
A We'll cross that bridge if we come to it.
Q But you must, sometimes, lie awake at night. Something must keep you awake.
A The only thing that really makes me lie awake is the thought that something is happening to the kids, that distresses me. With the politics, I know what I want to do, I think I've got something to offer, I think I can actually do it and in effect change this country.
Q Are the kids dead proud of you?
A Yeah, I think they are quite proud. I've never actually asked them, funnily enough.
Q They don't resent you not being around?
A No, and I do try and make time for them. The reason I don't lie awake at night worrying about political questions is that, in the end, I do know what I want to do. I think I can make a change to this country for the better and if people want that, they can have it, and if they don't, well that's up to them. I have got such a clear view in my own mind of how this country could be better - if it had a government that was actually focused on a limited number of objectives, and got down to them with a different set of values. My basic view of society is that everybody has an ambition and aspiration. They want to do well, they want to get on, they want to succeed, but you can only do that within a society which is compassionate, with a sense of decency and obligation to others. That is the reason for being in the Labour Party and not the Tory party. It's pretty simple really.
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