Tony Blair's new moral imperative

Can the Labour leader make the right judgements on what the party's values should be?
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair lectures the readers of the right-wing Mail on Sunday about the need to ``rediscover our traditional British values''. Jack Straw shakes his fist at our disorderly street-culture and warns that he's going to get tough on truants' parents. David Blunkett unveils plans to give alienated inner-city kids moral role-models. Hardly a day passes without more evidence of this new tone from Labour - not so much straws in the wind as whole haystacks in a hurricane.

In his biography of Blair, my colleague John Rentoul describes the Labour leader's philosophy as social moralism. Some Labour MPs and left-wing opinion-formers have ruder epithets for what they regard as a wild and worrying lurch into moral-majority populism. But it's impossible to judge Labour's new value-loaded language without looking backwards. For it is at least arguable that Blair is returning to the origins of progressive politics, not breaking away from them.

In its heyday, the socialist project promised to swamp ``bourgeois morality''. Individuals were all actors in aclass drama, helpless agents of History. Left-wing politicians didn't discuss the behaviour of people, particularly poorer people; that was strictly for the priests and the reactionaries. In this way, the left found itself speaking a different language from voters. Fixated by the moral grandeur of its vision, its values and the ordinary, workaday values of the people it hoped to represent drifted steadily apart.

Now that the millenarial vision has collapsed, the whole structure of left-of-centre thought is changing, too. The disappearance of the Marxist and socialist interpretation of history has returned the left to common Western values - Judaeo-Christian values, intermingled with liberal values. In one way, this is a harsher world; one in which there are fewer excuses.

But the idea that to use traditional moral language makes you a right- winger would have startled every pre-Marxist generation of radicals. The puritanism of early trade unionists and socialists, the high moral tone of the first generations of feminists; the cross-over between the temperance movement and socialism; the championing of thrift and hard work among the self-organised working class friendly societies; the austere Liberal moralism still present in Beveridge's blueprints for post-1945 Britain - all these are reminders of the way in which personal morality and politics used to mingle for the left.

This doesn't mean that we are inevitably returning to Victorian values because they are essential, unalterable truths. Morality is as fluid as anything else in human society. Our codes are vastly different from those of the 19th century. They would be horrified by our sex-obsession and by our puritanism about food, tobacco and health. Tony Blair regards homophobes with the same disdain his predecessors would have reserved for homosexuals. When Enoch Powell asks, as he did in a weekend television portrait, ``what's wrong with racism?'' he makes a value-judgement which was near-universal in 1890, unexceptional in 1930 and is unacceptable today. And so on.

Each moralism has its excesses - moral codes always do - but they are enormously far apart. The Victorians hid table-legs; we consider it polite to keep an expression of pleased interest in place as we inspect colour photo-images of human turds on display in an art gallery. Different times, different quirks.

What unites them, however, is a similar array of problems caused by technological and economic change - and a similar underlying assumption that these cannot be solved by political change alone. Carlyle's ``Condition of England question'' is back; huge disparities of wealth, ghetto poverty, delinquency, illiteracy, addiction and violent crime stalk our country too, if not on a 19th-century scale.

A political language that didn't involve moral judgements about individual behaviour would not begin to address this. But that doesn't imply an ethical consensus, any more than it did when Gladstone was outraged about Disraeli and vice-versa. Blair's moral language, however harshly it reverberates in the ears of middle-class intelligentsia, is distinctively different from Tory moral populism. It offers a choice.

First, that there is still a values gap between the parties about sex and race. Politicians on the right say things, though mostly in private, about gays and about blacks, that would be taboo on the left. The left is far less ready to blame people or abuse them for things they cannot help. The only recent change is that, with Blair, the definition of what people ``cannot help'' is narrowing.

Second, Labour moralism claims to have no favourites - to be genuinely One Nation. There is nothing more damaging to the authority of Tory ministers than the belief that strictures about dependency or the virtue of family life are intended for you down there but not for us up here - that, to put it brutally, morals are for losers.

Here is where Blairites need to be particularly careful. It isn't only that they need to embody some of the self-restraint and decent austerity they speak for. It's also that their version of social morality, if it means anything, applies to some powerful forces in this country.

Take yesterday's encounter with the Confederation of British Industry. That the Labour leader is wooing the CBI is neither surprising nor shocking. That he is not to begin a fiscal assault on wealth-generators is mere economic realism. And that British industry itself is now studying the short-termism which the left has criticised for so long confirms it believes that Blair will soon be in power.

But there is a hidden argument to be had between new Labour and the CBI, and both know it perfectly well. Business still gives the impression of wanting a one-way deal with government: ``Tax us less, regulate us less and then leave us alone. We don't want to talk about a minimum wage or employees' rights or overwork or training.''

To any new Labour moralist, that must be an unsustainable position. It isn't compatible with the secure, well-educated and confident ``stakeholder'' society which Blair wants, and in which individuals all play their part. It is an attitude that would have strangled the Factory Acts at birth.

A country divided between the poor and workless and a driven, exhausted class of workers too tired to be active citizens, or to talk to their children, or to upgrade their skills after work - that is not a plausible tomorrow. One day, if Labour is to exploit the moral authority it has been painfully accumulating, it has to start saying so. For the left, going ``back to basics'' also means this.

I think Blair is only beginning to find his true voice, that his radical ambition is still quietly uncoiling. For he knows that you can be a moralistic reformer - indeed, throughout most of human history reform and moral passion have been inseparable. But he also knows you cannot be a moralist who only looks downwards. The proper word for that is a bully. And you cannot be a moralist who is fierce only with the powerless. That would make you a coward. And whatever Blair is, or will become, he is neither of those.