You can question Blair's judgement. But you can't question his integrity

The same issue of trust tormented Labour's only previous leader with a knack of winning elections
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The Independent Online

Why is it that potentially fatal questions relating to trust have whirled around Labour's two longest serving prime ministers? On this page yesterday Andreas Whittam Smith listed the damning reasons why he no longer trusted Blair. He is not alone. Polls suggest that a significant number of voters do not trust Blair either.

Why is it that potentially fatal questions relating to trust have whirled around Labour's two longest serving prime ministers? On this page yesterday Andreas Whittam Smith listed the damning reasons why he no longer trusted Blair. He is not alone. Polls suggest that a significant number of voters do not trust Blair either.

The same dark perceptions tormented Labour's only previous leader who had a knack of winning elections. The diaries of Harold Wilson's cabinet ministers are punctuated with angry cries about his slippery manoeuvrings. During the February 1974 election Barbara Castle noted in her diary that "No one seems to trust Harold anymore". Castle was one of Wilson's more loyal admirers. Is it just a coincidence that Labour's two most successful vote winners ended their careers not being trusted by a significant section of their own party, media and electorate?

There is an important twist that makes this question much more complicated. Close friends and colleagues of Blair proclaim his personal integrity and good-humoured decency. I know of no one who has worked with him in Downing Street who does not remain devoted to him. They like him as a person and rate him as a leader. Blair is also a devout Christian and a caring father even in his eccentrically demanding working environment.

As a human being Wilson was widely liked and not regarded as unusually slippery and devious. He lived a relatively simple life, reading the occasional Agatha Christie and taking breaks in the Isles of Scilly with his wife, kids and Labrador.

More importantly the memoirs of Wilson's political colleagues are very different from the ministerial diaries written in the heat of political battles. In his astutely perceptive autobiography Roy Jenkins wrote that he had greatly underestimated Wilson. Only retrospectively did he recognise Wilson's decency, talents as a leader and the horrendous problems he faced.

Similarly Tony Benn now hails "Harold" as a leader who recognised that a political party needs "two wings to fly". From the left and right, in their calm reflections they acknowledge Wilson's skills in keeping them both on board. As a personality Blair is not unusually untrustworthy. Nor was Wilson. Indeed Blair's speeches delivered 10 years ago show the degree to which he has followed his publicly stated political path. The two Labour prime ministers were no more untrustworthy than Thatcher, Macmillan and Major, three of the longer serving Conservative leaders, none of whom were undermined in the same way by questions about their personal integrity. So what happened to Wilson and what is happening to Blair? In different ways both of them tried to make Labour what Wilson called "the natural party of government". When they first arrived in Downing Street they felt like impostors disturbing the natural order in which the Conservatives ruled Britain most of the time.

Wilson became prime minister after 13 years of Conservative rule. Blair took over after Labour had been out of power for 18 years. Both of them asked: Above all, what do I need to do to keep Labour in power?

Wilson sought to keep the Labour Party united. He regarded this strategic assignment as his overwhelming duty, working on the assumption that a united Labour Party could win elections. During much of his leadership Labour was divided over all the most fundamental issues, from the importance of state ownership to Britain's role in Europe. Wilson felt he had no choice but to find ways to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Blair will not like any hint of comparison with Wilson. He believes that there are two types of leaders, Wilsonian pragmatists and Thatcher-style figures who lead from the front. Blair has always liked to regard himself in the latter category. In one way he is wholly different from Wilson. He has never manoeuvred to appease his party and certainly not the left of his party. Blair has said that he "hugs the centre ground" an uncharacteristically intense metaphor. Occasionally he has amplified his political purpose with other more familiar metaphors. During the first term he declared that the "entire country is our core constituency". Blair has felt the need often to take policy decisions that placed him almost outside his own party as he sought broader approval from what he sees as a conservative electorate and powerful right-wing newspapers.

Neither Blair nor Wilson had ignoble objectives. In the 1980s and 1990s Labour lost four elections in a row as a result of being too inward-looking, ignoring the political mood in much of the country. Blair has sought to win elections and retain power by reaching outwards. Wilson knew divided parties were doomed to eternal opposition.

Before taking policy decisions Wilson asked: "Will this split the party?" Blair asks: "Will this jeopardise the support of Rupert Murdoch, business leaders and parts of middle England?"

But as a result of their fearful timidity two decent and talented political leaders found themselves in impossibly contorted positions. In the early 1970s Wilson confided despairingly to Barbara Castle: "I've waded through shit keeping the party united over Europe." He changed his public position on whether Britain should join the EU on three occasions although his private position is now clearer. He wanted to join but in a way that did not fatally split Labour.

Blair has waded through shit over Iraq. On GMTV last week he put it more politely and more revealingly: "Sometimes an issue lands on your desk that will be a nightmare whichever decision you take." If he had not supported President Bush he would have lost a significant section of support from his big tent. As he saw it, Labour would not have looked like a party of government if it had stood on the sidelines as Saddam Hussein was removed.

Instead Blair sought a third way by seeking a route through the UN that would have commanded the approval of most of his party. He failed and admitted to the failure. He stated at last year's Labour's conference: "There was no third way on Iraq. Believe me I tried to find one."

Blair has tried to keep his big tent intact although the inhabitants disagree with each other. There is a limit to how long a left of centre Labour Party can unite with parts of right-wing Britain. Similarly Wilson became increasingly vulnerable as the divisions within his "broad church" became too extreme even for his wily grasp.

Conservative prime ministers tend to be more secure and less defensive. They belong to a party that was born to rule. It is a bleak irony that in trying to prove their fitness to govern Labour prime ministers become more precarious. Blair acts on the assumption that he is a Labour prime minister in a conservative country. Question his judgement, but not his integrity.