Tony Blair understood more quickly than most national leaders the degree to which, as he put it in Brighton yesterday, the global "kaleidoscope has been shaken" by the mass murder of 11 September. His speech to the Labour Party conference, the most statesmanlike and mature he has delivered in seven years as leader, provided a clear and often inspiring vision of how the pieces can be rearranged.
Sensibly, Tony Blair did not use the phrase "new world order", but that is what he was describing by giving the imminent military action in Afghanistan a context in which nations, recognising their interdependence, will act together for common security: a moral agenda, but also one of mutual and enlightened self interest.
Having urged restraint and focus in Washington, he empathised with widespread fears of more unnecessary civilian casualties without pretending that they could be wholly ruled out. In a speech admirably free of rhetorical bellicosity, he nevertheless left his audience in no doubt that British forces would soon be risking their lives in the effort to prevent more outrages like those in New York and Washington, and – unless they had a last-minute change of heart and handed over Osama bin Laden – to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. His vivid depiction of the repressive Taliban regime was – like most of the speech – received with great warmth in the hall.
Given that he was speaking to three separate audiences – party, national and international – he was deft in linking his assertion of international solidarity with the more mundane and domestic issue of service reform. Both, he insisted, were functions of the same democratic belief that – in the words of Clause 4 – "by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we can alone". There will be fierce arguments in the future about his pledge – which was bluntly reiterated yesterday – to use the private sector in reforming public services, but yesterday his audience was impressively prepared to subordinate those concerns to the international crisis. It is a sign of how far Mr Blair has changed the Labour party that his reception was little short of ecstatic.
Nor – given that he was stressing that the more nations work closely together, the more they can achieve – did the way he gave Britain a further significant nudge towards entry into the euro seem out of place.
There may be criticisms that he was attempting to adopt a more forward position on the single currency under cover of impending war. But his remarks were at one with those he would have delivered at the TUC, had it not been for the attacks on New York and Washington.
The real meaning for the euro may be that as his authority – which was markedly evident in Brighton yesterday – strengthens in the aftermath of the international crisis, so he may be able to use it to convert the country and perhaps his own Chancellor to entry in this, rather than the next, parliament.
He went to great lengths to reassure his Brighton audience that he was seeking to build "a coalition of compassion", as well as one of force, to bring desperately-needed aid to the people of Afghanistan. But he made few, if any, concessions to his critics on the left. His one joke – a recognition of his own relationship with the less revisionist elements of his party – was to remind them that he actually believed in New Labour.
He did not shrink from criticising the United States for its rejection of Kyoto, but his defence of what makes the US a great nation was among the most affecting passages in his speech – even for the most diehard old Labour opponents of perceived American imperialism. It is indeed worth wondering if Colin Powell – "a black man born in poverty" and now one of the firmest and most famous voices in Washington – could have become chief of the armed forces and Secretary of State in Britain.
Although intellectually coherent, the speech left some unanswered questions. He said less than might have been hoped about how world financial institutions can be mobilised to start narrowing the gap between the richest and the poorest countries.
He did not mention that some of the potential allies Britain is helping to assemble against terrorism – Saudi Arabia, China and some of the Gulf states among them – are scarcely models of democracy and human rights. He did not say much about the regime in which the allies intend to replace the Taliban.
And there will also be criticism that his vision, however commendable, is impossibly ambitious: the eradication of poverty and disease in Africa, a solution for the Middle East, tempering globalisation with justice, creating a new order of peaceful coexistence between Islam and the West, making dictatorships more democratic across the world.
In the end, however, this last criticism is surely misplaced. All too often, the Blairite political vision has seemed to elevate pragmatism to a form of high art. The idealism with which this speech, by contrast, was infused was all the more welcome because it was convincing. The Prime Minister's message that politics is now international could not have been made more persuasively. Politicians can never achieve as much as they want. They achieve little or nothing at all unless they can articulate a vision and a direction in which they want to go. With great clarity, this was what Tony Blair finally did in Brighton yesterday.Reuse content