Several observers have recalled Lord Callaghan saying "Crisis? What crisis?" in January 1979 when he returned home from the Guadaloupe summit to a country where it seemed that civil society was on the verge of breaking down, if it had not broken down already. As some of us mature students of politics know, Jim did not say this. It was the headline in the Sun over a story that included the following exchange at London airport:
Journalist: "What ... of the mounting chaos in the country at the moment?"
Callaghan: "I don't think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos."
In January 1979 the bodies remained unburied owing to the activities of unions such as Nasty and Thuggo. Twenty years later the bodies are in refrigerator lorries rather than in hospital mortuaries on account of ... well, it is difficult to say precisely, but it is certainly something Mr Blair promised to rectify before the last election. As the manifesto puts it: "We will save the NHS." Oddly enough, the observers of whom I speak have drawn the parallel with Lord Callaghan's supposed words rather than with the state of the nation when he too returned to these shores from climes as sunny as those recently enjoyed by Mr Blair.
I take no objection to his having a nice holiday with his family. Nor do I think he was guilty of a sin against the Holy Ghost in delivering his children back to school a day late. Why he and his wife chose that particular school in the first place perplexed a schoolmaster friend of mine who teaches at an independent London boys' school. It was, he considered, "much too disciplined". Admittedly the Blairs had been landed in trouble by Mr David Blunkett, who had made a great song and dance about the responsibility of parents for their children's absences, when he would have been better advised to leave this sort of thing to the schools and instead to concentrate his mind on larger and more general questions.
But the public - by which of course I mean the papers' - response to the holiday and the little Blairs' late arrival was very similar to the response to Mr Mandelson's resignation. It was not one of true puritanism, which believes in the supremacy of the Scriptures and in the possibility of personal communication with the Almighty. It was rather one of what has come to be called puritanism: envious, grudging, it's-all-right-for- some puritanism, displayed daily in different ways in the columns of both the Guardian and the Daily Mail, obsessed as it is by the value of people's houses.
The parallel is not so much with James Callaghan in January 1979 as with Harold Macmillan in January 1958. Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor, and his two junior Treasury ministers, Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch, resigned over Macmillan's indulgent attitude towards public expenditure. Macmillan called their departure "these little local difficulties", much as Mr Blair refers to his own ministerial resignations today. Mr Whelan, though not a minister, was more important to journalists than most real ones. What I should like to know, however, is this: having exposed wrongdoing, why is the leaker of Mr Mandelson's loan, whoever he may have been, not hailed as a constitutional hero rather than reprehended as a party traitor?
Afterwards the parallel breaks down rather. Thorneycroft, Powell and Birch were early supporters of Mr Blair, and of Mr Gordon Brown as well. Indeed, Mr Brown is, in theory anyway, as stern an upholder of financial rectitude as Mr Blair, if not more so. This is where the popular picture - of a Mr Blair supported by a now departed Mr Mandelson against a Mr Brown supported by an also departed Mr Whelan - becomes blurred.
Mr John Prescott, certainly, does not agree with them. He is called a self-confessed Keynesian in rather the same way as someone else might be described as a self-confessed child molester. Brendan Bracken, the confidant of Winston Churchill and Minister of Information in the war, once called the Cambridge economist "the man who made inflation respectable". In fact J M Keynes was highly conscious of inflation and of its adverse consequences for what he called "the rentier class".
Still, one sees what Bracken meant. Keynes is now being used much as Disraeli was used in the Conservative Party of 1979-81, before the Expulsion of the Wets. Then Disraeli was a code-word for being opposed to Mrs Thatcher: today Keynes is a code-word for being opposed to Mr Blair.
The great economist would almost certainly be amused if he knew he had been taken up by Old Labour. For his entire life he was not only a liberal with a small "l" but an active member of the Liberal Party. Though he was approached several times, he refused to join Labour because of its attachment to the trade unions and its basis in the working class. He would have been a most welcome addition to Mr Blair's New Labour.
Mr Blair says that he proposes to go on as he started, with, as he or somebody else at No 10 wrote in Friday's Independent: "Resolve, determination, real grip and a sense of purpose and direction. That is what New Labour offers. That is what I offer. Strong leadership. Real leadership. Leadership the country wants and deserves. Hot air. Sentences without verbs."
The most significant thing Mr Blair has said in the post-resignations period is that the Government was elected as New Labour and intended to carry on as such. Hugh Gaitskell wanted to abolish Clause IV after the 1959 defeat and failed. Mr Blair succeeded. Gaitskell, contrary to the received view today, did not want to change the name. His more spirited ally Douglas Jay did, but not to lose "Labour" completely. Jay suggested "Labour and Radical" or "Labour and Reform". Mr Blair, or somebody else, hit on "New Labour". Whether the party is legally now "New Labour" rather than "Labour" is more doubtful. In view of recent oppressive legislation on the labelling of election candidates, it may turn out to be important. One of the most misleading lines Shakespeare ever wrote was that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Names possess a power of their own. Elizabeth David would not have exerted such a seminal influence as a cookery writer if she had been called Sharon Snooks.
Mr Blair has not only changed the name. He has changed, or is trying to change, the party as well. Gaitskell, Jay and Anthony Crosland - regarded by some as John the Baptist figures - believed in Keynes as an economic guide, in public control of the economy, in national enterprise and in equality. New Labour has dropped all four. Instead the manifesto promised constitutional reform and the rehabilitation of education and the health service. The last promise certainly looks as if it will remain unfulfilled.Reuse content