Tony Blair and the New Left

A NEW DIRECTION FOR BRITAIN?

He has been feted in Britain and abroad; denounced as the Stalin of the British left and hailed as its savior; profiled, interviewed, and investigated by the British press, the foreign press, and the tabloid press. But to my mind the phenomenon of Tony Blair, the man who became leader of the British Labour Party in the spring of 1994 and is now the leading contender to become Britain's next prime minister, is best illuminated by a conversation that took place in the lobby of the German parliament. A member of the Green Party was describing to me the impression Blair had made during his 1996 trip to Germany. Practically the whole of the Bundestag had heard him speak, she said: "What really excited us was this new idea of reinventing the left. Tony Blair is reinventing the left." I asked her what exactly that meant, the reinvention of the left. She winced slightly, and paused. "I don't remember any of the details, exactly," she replied, "but this reinvention of the left is very important."

It would be hard to find a better illustration of the feelings that Blair inspires. He undoubtedly interests people, in Britain and perhaps even more so in the rest of Europe. He even seems to many to be the harbinger of a whole new kind of European politics, a 21st-century politics: he himself speaks frequently of transcending left-right divisions, of leaving old ideas of party loyalty behind. In the three years he has been leader of Britain's opposition, he has galvanized his party, rejuvenated its supporters, and mounted the first serious challenge to the Tories since 1979, something that previous Labour reformers like Neil Kinnock and John Smith never managed. After losing four consecutive general elections over seventeen years, Labour could very well win the next one, which the current Conservative government must call by the end of May. Nevertheless, there are lingering doubts about the details: who is Tony Blair, what exactly would he do if he became prime minister, and what does it mean to reinvent the left in a post-Thatcherite Britain and a post-communist Europe?

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