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?
The importance of that last question has frequently eluded American commentators who write about Blair. That is because unlike America's Democrats, the British Labour Party was genuinely socialist. Its members believed in a planned economy and nationalized industry, preferred state housing projects to private developments, and thought a "fair" society could be created with taxes as high as 90 percent of income. Many of them, including some of the party's leaders, still think that way. A member of the Labour Party's shadow cabinet once told me that the privatization of British industry in the 1980s was only a phase: "There are fashions for these things. At the moment, nationalization is out of fashion. Who knows, 20 years from now, it might come back in again." It is precisely because the Labour Party's belief in socialist economic solutions has long been so strong that any attempt to alter it must have an equal intellectual force. Since he became his party's leader -- indeed, since long before he became its leader -- Blair has tried to muster that intellectual force, both to exorcise Labour's socialist instincts and to replace them with something new.
Although he is frequently compared with Bill Clinton, Tony Blair's political position is different from Clinton's in that the first of his tasks -- transforming his party -- was a genuine struggle. Clinton easily reinvented the Democrats as a centrist party: they were centrists already. But Blair has had to reassure Conservative voters that the Labour Party is no longer "dangerous" to the British economy while simultaneously preserving his base among Labour socialists. He began by demonstrating that his personal break with socialism is complete. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper historically linked to the Conservative Party, Blair declared that he admires Margaret Thatcher for her reinvention of the right nearly 15 years ago, an unthinkable sentiment for any previous Labour leader. During his first year in office Blair waged a surprisingly hard-fought campaign to rid the Labour constitution of its notorious "Clause 4," which proclaimed the goal of "securing for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange." Although he replaced it with a somewhat anodyne call for "a dynamic economy . . . a just society . . . an open democracy . . . a healthy environment," he made his point: the Labour Party has changed.
Still, when the history of Britain's Labour Party is written, the real break from socialism will probably be dated from January 20, 1997, the day that Gordon Brown, Labour's shadow chancellor of the exchequer, announced that a future Labour government would not raise personal income taxes during its first term in office -- and would not increase public spending for its first two years in office. With that statement, which took most of the Labour Party by surprise, nearly two decades of Labour attacks on "Tory cuts" and the "unfair Tory tax system" fell by the wayside, along with more than four decades of socialist assumptions: Brown was telling not only the voters, but the nursing, teaching, and public sector unions who support the Labour Party that a Labour government's top priority would not be spending. Hardly surprising, then, that last year, when their own polling revealed that most voters do indeed believe Tony Blair is different from his predecessors, even Tories gave up trying to identify him with his party's socialist past. They instead invented a new slogan: "New Labour, New Danger."
Nevertheless, the more important part of Blair's mission -- explaining what will replace socialism -- remains unfulfilled. If opinion polls register opposition to the Tories, they also register quite a bit of confusion about what the Labour Party now believes. Worse, many people still think that Blair is untrustworthy or insincere, or that he stands for nothing at all. British tabloids describe him as "smarmy," and the label has stuck.
Some of this confusion would have arisen with any effort to change the left. On one hand, Blair has discarded his party's belief in managed markets and nationalized industry, and even some aspects of the welfare state previously considered sacrosanct, including the absolute right to public housing; even his pledge to restrict spending would have been unthinkable in the past. On the other hand, he continues to reject British right-wing philosophies of individualism and what he describes as "unfettered" capitalism. What he is left with is a firm but ill-defined belief in the power of the state not only to regulate society but to improve it -- albeit without spending any money. As Blair himself said in an article in the Sunday Mirror in 1994: "Labour's vision is of a Britain that is not just a collection of individuals but a society where a decent community backs up the efforts of individuals within it. That change can't come through market forces. It needs active government, local and national."
But "belief in the state" or in "active government" does not by itself provide enough definition to satisfy most voters, particularly those accustomed to the partisan gunfight that is British politics. To some, Blair's talk of community and society still sounds like the language of the old Labour Party. When he throws around words like "responsibility" and "entrepreneurship," on the other hand, he appears to others to have borrowed Tory language wholesale. The truth is that Blair and his colleagues have advocated a strikingly wide range of policies. Some grossly contradict one another, some complement one another, and some appear to have been floated simply to gauge public reaction before being discarded. On rare occasions one set of ideas appears to dominate and is hailed as the philosophy designated to replace socialism.
Over time, however, the dust has settled. It now seems as if it is precisely the contests and contrasts between policies and philosophies that define both "new Labour" and the reinvention of the left. There is no ideology or framework, or even a big idea. There is only a list of perceived problems -- the damage that globalization supposedly inflicts on British communities, the need to reverse the "short-termist" instincts of British capitalism and transform corporate culture, the need for welfare reform, "modernization," and radical constitutional reform -- and an elaborate rhetoric that describes a modest set of proposed solutions.
STAKING THE LEFT'S CLAIM
Perhaps the most interesting of those solutions is Blair's stakeholder economy. Blair first used the term "stakeholder" in a speech before an audience of businesspeople in Singapore in January 1996. He began by voicing his admiration for the achievements of the "Asian tigers," then said he wanted the same thing in Britain: "The creation of an economy where we are inventing and producing goods and services of quality needs the engagement of the whole country. It must be a matter of national purpose and national pride . . . The economics of the center and center-left today should be geared to the creation of the stakeholder economy which involves all our people, not a privileged few."
In Britain the speech was acclaimed by Blair's friends in the media as the philosophical breakthrough the Labour leader had been groping for. Andrew Marr, now editor of The Independent, wrote that Blair had started to "turn the intellectual tide." Not only had he found a credible new role for the state, but he was "able to distinguish new Labour's program from the Tories in ways that made sense." Stakeholding was hailed as Blair's new response to the shortcomings of free-market capitalism. Socialism was to be replaced by Asian-style corporatism -- or, to put it differently, Anglo-Saxon free-market capitalism was to be replaced with something more controlled, more continental.
There was one small difficulty: the term "stakeholding" was not new. A number of left-leaning economists and journalists had used it before, and all of them leaped to take credit for Blair's Singapore speech. Many thought stakeholding implied reforming the composition of company boards and the laws governing them, a change that would ensure that the many different groups who have a stake in a company's operations -- investors, workers, consumers, suppliers -- are properly represented. The British journalist Will Hutton, whose best-selling book The State We're In contained a chapter entitled "A Stakeholder Economy," had called, for example, for state involvement in pension fund investments, the incorporation of trade unions and banks into the constitution of a firm, and regulations forcing banks to make more long-term loans.
Stakeholding policies also have a price tag. Immediately after Blair's Singapore speech, the Tories issued a press release in which they claimed that his proposals would place more financial burdens on employers and businesses. People demanded an explanation of what exactly Blair meant by a stakeholder economy. Would he change corporate law? Would he change trade union law? As soon as the questions became penetrating, Blair backed off, claiming that his ideas were far more general. Since then he has been cautious about how he uses the word. In a speech that he delivered at a public meeting in Derby only ten days after the Singapore speech, the stakeholder economy was variously defined as "giving power to you, the individual," as "giving you the chances to get on and so help Britain get on too," and as "giving opportunities for all." No specific policies were mentioned.
Blair insists that he stands by the speech, but when pressed he confesses only to a belief that companies ought to be asked to do more, voluntarily, for their workers. The word "stakeholding" has also faded from his vocabulary. It was absent altogether from his speech at the Labour Party convention in October, traditionally the Labour leader's most important speech of the year.
CAUTIOUS OR VACUOUS?
The "stakeholding" episode revealed a pattern in Blair's pre-election politics: make strong proposals, allow them to be picked up and mulled over by the press, retreat if the criticism is too harsh. The charitable explanation for such behavior is that Blair fears his ideas will be twisted and exaggerated during the traditionally nasty campaign season leading up to the general election. Given that Labour has lost four elections running, the last thing he wants to do is frighten voters. The less charitable explanation is that Blair doesn't really know what he believes -- or that he claims to believe different things at different times, depending on his audience.
The latter explanation has certainly been applied to another strand of Blairism, his tendency toward what Americans might recognize as communitarian thinking. Some might also call it paternalism; the unsympathetic would call it authoritarianism. Asked directly, Blair will agree that he is interested in communitarianism and has read communitarian writings, but shies away from plainly identifying himself with the philosophy -- just as he shies away from plainly identifying himself with any philosophy. Nevertheless, he has employed the language of communitarianism in his speeches. "For myself," he said in a speech at Southwark Cathedral in January 1996, "I start from a simple belief that people are not separate economic actors competing in the marketplace of life. They are citizens of a community. We are social beings, nurtured in families and communities and human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other." What made that speech interesting was that Blair did not then continue (as his predecessors would have) by describing what the rich owe the poor, or what the state owes its citizens.
In fact, rather than talking about what the state can give to people, Blair adopts the kind of language that British conservatives normally use, speaking of duties and responsibilities that come with rights and rewards. In the same speech, Blair went on to say that "the key is to recognize that we owe a duty to more than self. Responsibility applies from top to bottom of society, from the responsibility to pay taxes to fund common services, to the responsibility of fathers to their children after a divorce, to the responsibility of people to respect the lives of their neighbors."
That, at any rate, is the theory. In practice, this new emphasis on the needs and duties of community has resulted in a different Labour attitude toward law-and-order issues and some neighborhood and family topics that might once have seemed beneath the dignity of a national politician. Blair first hinted at a change of direction in the annual Spectator magazine lecture, which he delivered in March 1995, an address best described as his "noisy neighbors" speech. Announcing that "duty is the cornerstone of a decent society," he condemned noisy inhabitants of public housing developments, calling for their eviction or the confiscation of their stereos: "Families have the right to be housed but they do not have any right to terrorize those around them, be it with violence, racial abuse, or noise. If tenants do not fulfill their side of the bargain, the contract is broken." Using similar language, Blair has called for curfews for youths, penalties for parents who do not assure that their children attend school, and more homework. In these and other areas, he often sounds a great deal like Bill Clinton, who is also interested in communitarianism and curfews.
In fact, the two men advocate similar causes for similar reasons: both are trying to signal a change of direction, a change of heart in their respective parties. In the past, the Labour Party was not much interested in discussing the unpleasantness of life in Britain's deteriorating public housing developments and state schools, preferring to complain that there were not enough public housing developments and state schools to begin with. In the past, Labour leaders did not interest themselves in noise but in "social justice." In the past, the Labour Party concerned itself with the economic rights of the public, not people's duty to the community.
The noisy neighbors speech was also the first of several in which Blair found new uses for the state in discouraging behavior that is not criminal, but antisocial. Early this year he caused a stir by suggesting that he rarely gave money to beggars, who, he implied, really ought not to be on the streets at all. Jack Straw, his shadow home secretary (in Britain, the home secretary is responsible for crime and immigration policy) is a vocal fan of New York City's crackdown on "squeegee men" and minor vandalism and has discussed the possibility of removing drunks from London parks. Straw has also issued a report on parenting, and muses aloud about the lack of information available to parents from government sources, especially compared with the wealth of information about driving cars.
Unlike stakeholding, these paternalist policies have stuck: his law-and-order speeches have probably been Blair's most popular and successful. The British public is already familiar with such ideas; the right wing of the Conservative Party and parts of the Tory press advocate similar ones. Coming from a Labour leader they seem fresh and original. But Blair's paternalism has not been wholly consistent. He does not always mention his communitarian policies in speeches to Labour audiences and certainly plays them down at party conferences, a habit that contributes to the impression that he is slippery. Pointing out that Blair's noisy neighbors speech was made to a largely Conservative audience, Craig Brown, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, wondered how malleable the Labour leader might be: "What would he have yelled in a speech to the Noisy Neighbors Association Annual Dinner-Dance?"
TONY AND THE TOFFLERS
Even less clear is Blair's commitment to his third and closely related set of ideas. Blair's 1996 party convention speech may sound familiar to the American ear. He told his Labour audience that we live "in an era of extraordinary, revolutionary change. At work. At home. Through technology and the million marvels of modern science. The possibilities are exciting. But its challenge is clear. How do we create, in Britain, a new age of achievement in which all of the people, not just a few, can share?" The line was pure Blair -- and pure Newt Gingrich. Along with the rhetoric of technological, social, and behavioral change come some distinctly Gingrichite inclinations, most notably a radically different approach to traditional entitlements, probably in the form of radical pension and welfare reform. Call it the neo-right-wing line of thinking in the Labour Party. If that sounds contradictory, it is. So contrary is this kind of thinking to the traditional views of the British Labour Party, in fact, that Blair rarely discusses such ideas in public. And so rarely does he discuss them in public that not everyone in British politics is convinced he really means it.
Though mocked by his Tory opponents and treated with suspicion by those who suspect he has no policies to match such language, Blair privately insists that this revolutionary rhetoric will produce revolutionary policy. At off-the-record meetings with journalists, he has insisted on the truly radical nature of his intentions, particularly regarding welfare and pension reform: "I want to be remembered as the prime minister who reforms the welfare state" is how he once put it. He often speaks about welfare reform in the same way he does law-and-order issues, emphasizing the need for people to work in partnership with the state rather than simply depending on it for handouts. As he told the businesspeople in Singapore, "The system will only flourish in its aims of promoting security and opportunity across the life cycle if it holds the commitment of the whole population, rich and poor."
Unfortunately, as was the case with stakeholding, Blair remains maddeningly vague about what exactly his radical reform of the welfare state might entail. Like the United States, Britain has a state pension system that will, in the next century, run out of money. Blair knows this, and is perfectly happy to concede that pensions will eventually have to be funded through private contributions (although he does not emphasize the point in public, presumably for fear of antagonizing traditional Labour voters). He has promised his party a "review" of pension policy, but has not said publicly what conclusions he believes it will draw. Even more radically, Blair has expressed admiration for Asian approaches to insurance like Singapore's Central Provident Fund, a system of compulsory personal insurance, and has praised the work of Frank Field, a Labour member of Parliament who advocates compulsory unemployment and pension insurance, possibly managed by private or semi-private insurance funds.
Nevertheless, Blair's failure to provide many details on his plans for welfare and pension reform rankles many British political observers. When pressed, Labour politicians will claim -- as Blair has -- that they need to be in office before being certain which promises they can keep, or that they do not want to reveal too much detail before an election for fear of having their words manipulated by their Tory opponents. They may be right -- frightening people about health care reform is easy and effective, as the Democrats' tactics in the 1996 U.S. elections revealed -- but their refusal to give any detail has played, once again, into the suspicion that Blair is a man of profuse rhetoric and few ideas.
DEVOLVING FROM DOWNING STREET
A final way in which Blair wants to use state institutions to new effect is by reorganizing the institutions themselves. The call for constitutional change is not new to British voters. The Labour Party has been talking about it for decades. Still, Blair's talk of constitutional change fits well with his rhetoric about economic and legal change: it is all part of the revolution needed to "modernize" Britain for the 21st century, to sweep the dust out of Britain's supposedly medieval political institutions.
Perhaps the most important and most controversial part of Labour's constitutional reform program is Blair's support for the devolution of power from London to other regional centers in the United Kingdom. Unlike the United States or the Federal Republic of Germany, the United Kingdom is not a federation. There are no regional governments to vie for power with the central government in the way that American states or German LÑnder do. Blair's proposals would reverse that tradition, with power devolving from London to a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly, and other regional English assemblies. He says he also wants to make changes to the British parliament, altering some rules of parliamentary procedure, adopting the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, signing a Freedom of Information Act, increasing the powers of local government, and eliminating the role of hereditary peers, who still sit in Britain's second chamber, the House of Lords, by right of birth. As if that were not enough, the Labour Party has also declared that it will hold a referendum on reform of the first-past-the-post British electoral system, presumably with the aim of replacing it with continental-style proportional representation.
At least on the surface, the logic behind constitutional reform is much the same as that behind Blair's other proposals. Describing the modern disillusionment with politics in a speech in February 1996 in honor of the late Labour leader John Smith, Blair put it this way: "The disaffection is because people feel no ownership, no stake in much of the political process. The citizen feels remote from power." He has issued the same almost revolutionary rhetoric about constitutional change that he has about economic change: "The reforms I have set out will transform our politics. They will redraw the boundary between what is done in the name of the people and the people themselves. They will create a new relationship between government and the people based on trust, freedom, choice, and responsibility."
Naturally, there are a few other reasons as well. Devolution of power from Westminster to Edinburgh might ease the pressure the Labour Party is beginning to feel in Scotland from the Scottish National Party, which advocates Scottish independence from Great Britain. Almost any change in the British electoral system would also give more power to the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party, which wins many local elections and up to a quarter of the votes in national elections, but thanks to the current system holds very few seats in Parliament. Because the Liberal Democrats are now almost entirely in sympathy with Blair's Labour Party, almost any change in the voting system would make it difficult for the Tories to govern Britain again any time soon.
But over time Labour's constitutional reforms have been gradually played down. After the Tories pointed out that a Scottish parliament with powers of taxation would almost certainly result in higher taxes for Scotland (a "tartan tax," as it became known), and after some claimed that a Scottish parliament would mark the beginning of a process that would end in an independent Scotland, if not the dissolution of the United Kingdom, Blair backed away. Instead of creating a Scottish parliament, Blair said, he would hold a referendum in Scotland, on both whether to form such a parliament and whether it should have powers of taxation. His Scottish supporters interpreted this change of policy as a betrayal, but it was in fact consistent with Blair's de facto preelection strategy: propose a radical idea, listen to the criticism, retreat.
Nor has the Labour Party been particularly clear about the consequences and implications of some of the proposed changes. How would the delicate balance between the House of Commons and the decidedly inferior House of Lords be altered by the absence of hereditary peers? How would the Labour Party compensate English members of Parliament for the fact that their Scottish counterparts could vote on legislation affecting England, whereas they could not vote on legislation affecting Scotland? How would electoral reform change British politics -- and, indeed, what kind of electoral reform might occur? As the general election approaches, these issues remain shrouded in mystery.
CLOSER TO EUROPE
Like Conservative Prime Minister John Major, Blair has also been less than clear about another potentially enormous change: whether Britain should join a single European currency, possibly the largest constitutional and political issue Britain now faces. To be frank, his silence on the subject is probably politically wise. The Conservatives are tearing themselves apart over Europe. If the Labour Party says nothing whatsoever about the topic, it will appear to have a much stronger, more consistent policy. But Blair's silence also masks strains within Labour. A solid group of about 50 Labour members of Parliament consistently opposes greater European integration, not so much out of concern for British sovereignty -- as is the case with the Tories -- but because of the strict budgetary and monetary criteria that members of the single currency will have to meet. Blair is eager to play down these strains and stress the enormous difference that having a Labour prime minister will make in Britain's difficult relationship with Europe. As always, his rhetoric emphasizes the revolutionary impact of Labour leadership in Europe. As he put it in his 1996 party convention speech, "Leading Britain into an age of achievement means Britain leading in Europe . . . for business and for Britain we will build a new relationship with Europe."
The Labour Party is certainly closer to the European mainstream than the Conservatives on some issues, notably the Social Chapter, the social legislation that all European countries except Britain have pledged to adopt. Falling in step with the rest of Europe, Blair has also agreed to adopt a minimum wage and says he will relinquish the British veto in certain areas of health and social legislation, pleasing other European countries that want to reduce veto power over European policy. But Blair vigorously denies any desire to relinquish the veto on defense and foreign policy issues, and claims he does not mind being "isolated" in Europe if it is in the British national interest. That, of course, is precisely the view that has got the Conservative Party into so much trouble in Europe.
In fact, on the single currency, Blair's position remains virtually identical to John Major's. The Labour Party promised only that the decision to enter a single currency would be made "after an election." After sustained media pressure, however, Blair, like Major, promised a national referendum on a single currency. Like Major, he claims that "our options on a single currency should remain open, to be determined according to our national interest." Privately, he describes himself as agnostic on the issue. He says he has no ideological commitment to the single currency but could be convinced of its merits -- which is fair enough, except that if progress toward the single currency continues on schedule, and if the Labour Party wins the next election, Blair would have to decide almost immediately whether or not Britain joined European Monetary Union as part of its first wave. A referendum would have to be prepared, the economic criteria would have to be met, and bills on a wide range of issues -- including one establishing the independence of the Bank of England -- would have to be approved by the House of Commons. Embarking on such a venture would require enormous political will. But if Blair does not attempt it, Britain's relations with Europe will hardly be "radically" transformed. On the major issues the United Kingdom will simply stand, as it does now, in opposition to France and Germany. On the questions of European integration, as so many other issues, British voters will simply have to wait and see what Labour Party policy turns out to be.
VACILLATION AS VIRTUE
In the end, it is the fantastic gap between his almost messianic rhetoric and his actual policy proposals that most frustrates Blair watchers. Most have now resigned themselves to the assumption that there is no single ideology, that different strands run through the party's rhetoric, and that Labour Party policy will mold itself to fit the times. Nevertheless, Blair constantly seems to be promising something more. "Let us call our nation to its destiny," he said at the Labour Party convention in 1996. "Let us lead it to a new age of achievement and build for us, our children, and their children, a Britain united to win in the new millennium." In the same speech, he repeated the term "a new age of achievement" several times -- much as Bill Clinton spoke of "a bridge to the 21st century" -- and said Britain had only a few years to prepare for the next millennium: "A thousand days to prepare for a thousand years."
The combination of constitutional change, electoral change, welfare and pension reform, and modifications of corporate and criminal law that Blair sometimes prescribes would, for better or for worse, have a revolutionary impact on Britain. These measures would certainly win him allies and opponents across Europe's broad political spectrum, and might well change the traditional party structure in Britain, as Blair has suggested. The privatization of pensions alone would put him at risk of being unseated by a revolution in his own party -- although it would also win him support among some conservatives.