Tony Blair's Victorian values

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Try to sum up what new Labour stand for, in a sentence. You can't. Tony Blair's politics, at once conservative and radical, pragmatic in purpose yet moral in tone, defy easy summation. Conservatives allege that this is a ploy to throw us off the scent; old Labour will soon emerge from beneath the smart disguise. The traditional left believes it already knows what Blair stands for: abject surrender to a conservative consensus.

Yet if new Labour were already fixed in stone, like a monument, it would be a political disaster in the making. New Labour's politics is confusing because it is still developing and learning, borrowing and stealing. It does not obey the laws of the old politics of left and right; it is happy to take from both.

That elusiveness is a sign of its strength, but also a weakness, for it worries people who want to know where new Labour stands on vital issues such tax and Europe.

This week, the Independent will subject new Labour to a thorough political audit. Our aim is not to work out what the party will do in detail in each area of policy. We want to uncover the values and the tensions that lie at the heart of Tony Blair's political ambitions. Andrew Marr's placement of new Labour within British political traditions today will be followed tomorrow by Polly Toynbee questioning the party's new social conservatism. On Wednesday, Hamish McRae will examine its conversion to capitalism, and on Thursday Yvette Cooper will ask whether Labour still believes in making society more equal. On Friday, we will deliver the Independent's judgement of new Labour.

The effect of new Labour on old Britain is most odd, like a gold- digging starlet latching on to a decrepit, suspicious old gentleman. The country is flattered by the young thing's attention, impressed despite itself. But under the flush of pleasure, there remains a leathery cynicism about what is coming next. We suspect it will end in tears and maybe betrayal. We think it will cost us. Yet the flirtation is fun and glamorous and a change from our weary marriage to the Tories - so what the hell!

Just using the word ``glamorous'' about Labour, without it seeming ridiculous, is a measure of how far Tony Blair has brought the party. To a degree which is both impressive and dangerous, new Labour is Tony Blair. He is not only the party leader but its spirit, its momentum, its public identity. His internal reshaping of Labour has smashed through the organisational barriers between the leader and the led. Looking ridiculously young, he gleams with self-confidence so brightly that everyone around him fades.

And if speeches brought enlightenment, Tony Blair would also be the best- understood politician of modern times. Explanation gushes from his office in an unstoppable flow. There are the speeches: Blair in New York, Blair in Tokyo, Blair in Singapore, Blair in the Savoy Hotel, and in Glasgow, and in Derby. There are the interviews: Blair on Frost, Blair on ITN, Blair in the Sun, Blair in the Telegraph ... More remarkable still, almost every outing makes headlines. We get Blair on the middle classes; Blair on religion; Blair on morality; Blair on globalisation; Blair on Thatcher.

And yet, despite all this prose, the essence of Blair's new Labour remains hard to grasp. What, finally, is the party for? What would it really do? Everywhere we turn, it stands before us, hand outstretched, a brightly smiling enigma. We see him here, we read him there - but he's still that damn'd elusive Mr Blair.

The reason for his elusiveness is that new Labour is sending out different signals. Sometimes it seems that Blair is simply a conservative; that the Tories may be doing disastrously in the polls, but that Tory ideas are now utterly triumphant. Blair, after all, is a public school product, with traditionalist views on morality, education and the family. His political language adds to the impression. He uses old Tory slogans such as One Nation. Recently he said: ``I am a politician who works by instinct. I believe in enlightened self-interest ...''

On policy, too, he speaks in a way that would quite recently have been regarded as Conservative. Let's rehearse some of the most important. Macro- economics? Speaking recently in New York, Blair was wholly orthodox, arguing that errors such as borrowing too much or allowing inflation to recur ``will be punished rapidly and without mercy". Indeed, in some ways, the Tories are now marginally less orthodox on monetary policy than Labour, being hostile to giving the Bank of England entrenched independence and much more hostile to British membership of a single European currency, with all the rigid discipline that would involve.

What about the great issue of globalisation, a prime source of the economic and social insecurity which Blair complains of? No, he is ``passionately pro-free trade and anti-protectionist''. In America, as in France and many other countries, there is now a strong protectionist backlash, composed of trade unionists, environmentalists, supporters of local development and some isolationists and nationalists. It is one of the oddities of British politics that it is not represented here at all. New Labour is a leading part of the dominant free trade consensus.

On Europe, British relations with the US, nuclear weaponry and diplomacy generally, Blair sounds far more like a traditional centrist Tory of the Douglas Hurd type than like Labour in the Eighties. Crime and family values? There, of course, his instincts are celebratedly traditional. Tax, too: unlike earlier Labour leaders and some current frontbenchers, such as Clare Short, he doesn't make the case for taxation as a force for civilisation; he apologises for it, and promises restraint. One could go on: it isn't surprising that some people, from the Tory right to the Labour left, have simply concluded that if Blair so often speaks like a conservative, looks like a conservative and argues like a conservative, then that is what he is.

Others, though, hear a different tune. Here is a man who has committed himself to the most dramatic programme of political reform undertaken by any mainstream party leader. He calls himself a radical. His party's promises on lifting the tax burden on lower-income workers imply, though they don't yet say so, higher taxes for wealthier employees. He is committed to a minimum wage and to social protection of a kind that the Conservatives are hostile to. He promises investment, notably in lower class sizes and an expansion both of nursery and of higher education; this must be funded somehow.

His Shadow Cabinet contains many more traditionalist Labour figures, and on the Labour backbenches there remain examples of - drop your voice - actual, real-life socialists. Abroad, though conservative in some ways, Blair's new Labour is much closer to the mainstream of European integrationist politics than real Conservatives. So others see Blair not as a conservative, but as the front-man for a subversive new leftism, the leader of a party that in power would put up taxes, re-regulate and go further in dismantling the old British constitution than any radical party has before.

It isn't surprising that voters are confused. Part of the problem, though, is that we are still asking the wrong questions. We are still influenced by the great struggle between socialism and capitalism which endured through most of this century. It made politics - at least in theory - a fight between competing absolutisms, a confrontation of almost religious fervour. Politics went beyond competing vested interests; it was about utter right and complete wrong, a system of belief that stretched from individual behaviour to global destiny. In such a struggle, someone who seems conservative in some ways and radical in others will inevitably be regarded with bemusement and suspicion - if he isn't one thing, he must be the other.

But today we are in a new world in which the difference between parties may be much less, but will still matter. Political choices didn't disappear with the old Soviet Union. Blair has put it this way: ``The era of the all-encompassing ideologies in battle to the death - a feature of at least the first part of the 20th century - has ended. It is a common non sequitur to believe that this diminishes political choice and renders all political alternatives the same. It doesn't. There will still be significant differences between political parties in values and priorities ... But the pot of specific policy prescriptions will be more often held in common. They may be used for different purposes and drawn by different motives, but the right and left hand will sometimes be dipping into the same pot.''

Blair concluded that part of the disaffection from modern politics came from a failure to understand that the 20th-century clash of ideologies may have been the historic exception, not the rule: ``Nineteenth-century politicians, curiously, would understand our developing political world more clearly.''

About that, at any rate, he is surely right. A comparison with 19th-century politics is a useful perspective on new Labour. From Chartism to Gladstone's last administration, Victorian reformers had seen the old British constitution as one of their prime targets for change - just like new Labour. On economics, they also tended to sound fairly orthodox: pre-Keynesians and post-Keynesians sing the same song. Like Blair's, the Victorian radicalism of Bright or even Gladstone was a high-minded affair, moralistic and evangelical about education and self-improvement. If, as it sometimes seems, new Labour has reduced almost all economic policy to education policy, this is an outcome that would have been readily understood by the Liberals of high Victorian Britain.

They were even conducting their politics against a backdrop of freer trade and global transfers of capital and labour, worried about the efficiency of Germany and America, struggling with the social implications of new technologies, but rejecting protectionist answers. They would have recognised what Blair called in New York ``a new age of anxiety, of insecurity, that is social and economic''. The big difference, of course, was that Britain under Victoria was the world's dominant imperial power, infinitely stronger than she is under the second Elizabeth. That is a huge gap; but a politics that isn't based on huge ideological conflict, but on arguments about national modernisation, links the two periods.

That sort of perspective is needed to even begin making sense of new Labour. But it is only a start. It doesn't answer the biggest question of all about Blair, which is whether a politician committed to all the great forces of modern times, including liberalisation and globalisation, can find local British answers for the age of anxiety. Can a better education and training system, funded without new borrowing and much higher taxes, bring two million people back into work? Is Labour's new radicalism on political reform strong enough to empower local authorities and communities, reviving some of the provincial enterprise that made Victorian Britain? Will it really help the poor, or turn its back on them? Is this now a disciplined party capable of winning and holding power for more than a few years before crumbling?

These are the important, down-to-earth questions. But they can only be answered by experiencing Labour in power. If Blair's flirtation with Britain is consummated, perhaps this year, perhaps next, then our confusion about new Labour may quickly evaporate. We won't need to ask whether he is really a conservative or really a radical; by his works will we know him.