Saturday, April 20, 2013

Blair is back, and Miliband will have to deal with it

If being Prime Minister is inevitably the toughest job in British politics, then being a former Prime Minister is surely not that far behind.

Of the three surviving bearers of the title, the only one who has made anything approaching a decent fist of it over the course of recent years is that much under-rated figure, Sir John Major.

I will never forget his quiet dignity in defeat on that bright May morning in 1997 when he spoke of curtains falling and actors leaving the stage before going off to watch some cricket at The Oval.

And he has continued to be dignity personified throughout the ensuing years, never once succumbing to the temptation to criticise any of his many successors as Tory leader and only ever intervening in a way helpful to his own party.

In this, Sir John was determined not to follow the example of his predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who made clear her own intentions shortly after he succeeded her by declaring her skill at back-seat driving.

The Iron Lady, who was finally laid to rest this week, clearly found being an ex-Prime Minister rather harder to come to terms with than the actual job itself.

So, it seems, has Gordon Brown.  When he lost the premiership in 2010, those of us who still counted ourselves among his admirers hoped he would rebuild his reputation by becoming a good constituency MP and backbench elder statesman.

Unfortunately, he has veered off into the biggest political sulk since Edward Heath’s, barely ever turning up at the Commons and, save for a rather self-justificatory attack on Rupert Murdoch, saying almost nothing of any value since leaving Number Ten.

But the former Prime Minister whose post-Downing Street career provides the greatest fascination, for me at any rate, is surely Tony Blair.

Aged just 54 when he left office in 2007, it was never remotely likely that the former Sedgefield MP would go gently into that good night as Sir John had done ten years earlier, and some sort of comeback was always on the cards.

For a time, this looked likely to be at European level, with the presidency of the European Council of Ministers the most obvious potential destination.

But thwarted in that ambition by the surprise elevation of Herman van Rompuy, his attentions have turned back to domestic politics and, specifically, the future of the Labour Party.

Mr Blair took to the pages of Labour house journal The New Statesman to warn party leader Ed Miliband that his opposition to welfare reform and spending cuts risked reducing Labour to a party of protest.

In another recent intervention, he declared that the result of the last election would have been closer had he still been leader, thereby implying that the party’s chances of winning in 2015 depend on the extent to which it stays true to his legacy.

This, incidentally, is poppycock.  Whatever Mr Brown’s failings, had Mr Blair gone on and on and attempted to win a fourth consecutive term in the teeth of a recession,  and with the baggage of Iraq still hung around his shoulders, he would have gone down to a landslide of 1997 proportions.

But no matter.  Blair is back, and it is clear that the younger Miliband had better get used to the fact.

For now, the party leader’s stock response has been to turn Mr Blair’s own revisionist methodology against him, saying:  “Tony Blair taught us the world changes. The world does change and we will learn our lessons."

But while this is undoubtedly true, he will eventually have to explain in much more detail how the Labour Party under his leadership has responded to those changes.

Over the past couple of weeks, Prime Minister David Cameron has had to suffer the inevitable unhelpful comparisons with an illustrious predecessor who won three straight election victories where he could only manage a hung Parliament.

Mr Miliband’s chances of going one better may well depend on how far, if at all, he can escape from Mr Blair’s long shadow.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Thatcher: There WAS an alternative

The first thing I need to say about Margaret Thatcher is that when it comes to the former Prime Minister, I can scarcely be regarded as a disinterested or objective observer.

I spent most of my early adulthood wishing she was no longer in Number Ten, and much of my later journalistic career was spent in areas such as South Wales and the North-East where the impact of her policies had been most adversely felt.

As Journal political editor from 1997-2004, much of my work revolved around the question of how the region should tackle the North-South divide which, if not created by her, was certainly sharply exacerbated during her long premiership.

So in the unlikely event that anyone has come here expecting to read another syrupy paean of praise to the Iron Lady following her death this week, it’s probably best to look away now.

Many millions of words have already been written and spoken about the woman who led Britain for 11 tumultuous years, but ultimately the debate seems to come down to the question of whether she saved the nation, or destroyed it.

Probably the answer is a bit of both.  Looked at in the round, the Thatcher legacy suggests a strange ambivalent power for good and bad which seems to run through most of the policies with which she is most closely associated.

Take the iconic right to buy scheme, for instance.  Yes, it enabled council tenants to buy their own homes, and the dramatic increase in social mobility it fostered helped break down the class barriers which held Britain back in the post-war years.

But the downside was that housing policy ceased to be a debate about who could build the most homes, and became instead a question of who could do most to artificially inflate the value of the increasingly limited number of homes available.

Then there were the employment laws.  It is beyond question that prior to 1979 the power of the union barons had got out of hand and that Mrs Thatcher’s changes helped restore a measure of democracy to a nation in danger of becoming ungovernable.

Yet in smashing the unions, she also ushered in an era of job insecurity which has had a baleful effect on the national psyche.

I could go on.   Deregulation of the City of London made it a world financial centre that spawned untold riches for Britain’s financial services industry, but led directly to the banking crisis that caused the 2008 crash and the subsequent recession.

Even the Falklands War, by rolling back the post-Suez defeatism in which British foreign policy had been enmeshed since 1956, paved the way for Tony Blair’s disastrous intervention in Iraq twenty years later.

When assessing the Thatcher legacy, therefore, the key question becomes could we actually have had the good without the bad?  Was there, despite what the Iron Lady herself said, an alternative?

I would like to think so.   While the challenges of globalisation would eventually have forced British industry to become more competitive, the impact of this would have been slower and less brutal than the wholesale destruction of our manufacturing base in the early 1980s.

It has to be remembered that, far from being an historical inevitability, Mrs Thatcher was in fact a very lucky Prime Minister. 

Labour in 1980 put itself out of serious contention for power by choosing the wrong leader and then splitting, while a couple of Exocet missiles in the wrong place in 1982 might have sunk not just the Falklands task force, but her premiership with it.

For me, the most interesting counterfactual question about Mrs Thatcher is what would the country have been like had she never become Prime Minister or, alternatively, been ousted in 1982-83.

Had a Tory wet like Jim Prior or a Labour moderate like Denis Healey run Britain in the 1980s, and invested the proceeds of North Sea Oil in social reconstruction rather than tax cuts, would we have ended up with Swedish-style social democracy rather than US-style neo-liberalism?

Since those days, we seem to have become a politically more united country, but a much more economically and socially divided one.

And if forced to make a judgement, I think I like the Britain she created rather less than the one which she destroyed.