Tony Blair: Idealist, Liberal or just Confused?



...or liberal?

…or liberal?

People fell in love with Tony Blair when he was elected Labour Prime Minister in May 1997.  Ten years later they hated him. Parliament had been lied to over the Iraq war. There never were convincing reasons to believe Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that could hit the UK in forty minutes.

Blair has tried to ignore his unpopularity. To the present day he persists in commenting on the British political scene. People aren’t interested and the media barely do their duty by a passé VIP. No other major public figure since King Edward VIII in 1936 has been so effectively ostracized,  astonishingly in Blair’s case by the people’s will alone.

In Edinburgh in 2006 I was staying in a hotel with Blair’s old public school Fettes visible from the window. No one on the hotel staff had a kind word for a man who might a few years earlier have helped to keep their rooms full. A biography published in 2016 continued to heap up the charges of mendacity, coupled with a feeling, if you were a Labour stalwart, that the heart of the party had been betrayed. The writer Robert Harris, once a friend, was so incensed that in 2008 he published a novel, The Ghost, in which Blair’s fictional double, a corrupt socialite hiding behind an international reputation for goodwill, met a violent end. The evidence that since leaving office the once socialist Blair has also made a great deal of money out of his worldwide political celebrity has finally trashed his reputation as a decent man.

No doubt he feels hurt. No doubt his wealth is some compensation.

I never voted for him because I couldn’t bear his populism. Who respects a prime minister who only ever listens to pop music? Besides, I’m a Europhile ‘wet’ Tory, with a Green conscience, stuck in the very era, the early 1990s, that Blair surpassed. (The ‘wets’ were the gentler Conservatives sacked by Margaret Thatcher.)

So this isn’t a political defence or even a personal one. It’s just a way of opening up the question. Mendacity is a strong charge. But even in those more kindly disposed to Blair, or even impartial, there is a feeling of a strange incompatibility of ideas in his then outlook. Former Tory ‘Wet’, last Commissioner of Hong Kong and presently Chancellor of the University of Oxford Chris Patten observed, while reviewing a biography of  Henry Kissinger, that the American statesman whose foreign policy views dominated the Cold War wasn’t the pragmatist the world took him for. Often he was guided by ideals. He asked, in passing, was not some similar confusion at stake over Tony Blair? ‘As Tony Blair’s career demonstrated, it is even possible, if confusing, sometimes to be motivated by both sentiments at the same time.’[1]

To that one might say that a whole era was confused, and to glance at Blair’s career is to see it plainly.

It’s problematic to bring in the word ‘liberal’ but it can’t be avoided. It belonged to the age: of Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK, in a world morally uplifted by the demise of Soviet Communism.  The London-based magazine of ideas Prospect was one of its chief mouthpieces.

Just to take an example from domestic politics first. In 2008 the then head of the Demos thinktank Richard Reeves stretched the definition of ‘liberal’ to a new degree of elasticity by suggesting liberals should interfere in problem families and promote ‘good character’ but not oppose the government’s support for casinos. (Prospect August 31 2008)

Wasn’t there, isn’t there, some terrible confusion here?

What these two arguments have in common is that they are both utilitarian. In the first case, society needs protection from minority antisocial elements. Treating them as the victims of their social circumstances hasn’t worked. The state is left with no option but to intervene, whatever that entails. In the second, the utilitarian argument is applied to the freedom of business to make what profit it can from what a socialist would see as the weakness or vulnerability of certain sections of the population, but what a right-liberal would simply see as offering choice. Neither of these arguments seems particularly appealing to me, taken singly, but fudged together and called liberal they become a source of real pain. They further show how by the mid-2000s the word liberal had become almost meaningless in British discourse, except as a kind of password among like-minded friends. Those ‘liberals’ didn’t want to be bossy, but they also didn’t want society to fall apart. (A whole book could be written on how ‘rules’ were made, to look tough, but not implemented, not to hassle anyone, in the Blair era.) The same ‘liberals’ had a social conscience, but with socialism so deeply out of fashion they didn’t dare oppose themselves to the market.

The period up to the financial crash of 2008 looks to have been marked by a distinct bifurcation of the word liberal. There were left-liberals whose platform was social equality and right-liberals who talked about freedom and democracy but mainly proclaimed the freedom to spend money. Then there were the fudge-it liberals, call them proponents of The Third Way, who held both views at the same time.

All this might have been merely irritating if the test of whatever liberalism was hadn’t come with the Iraq War. To intervene in a problem country, or not? To be seen to be doing so on moral grounds while taking a casino-style punt on making a financial profit, or not?

One conclusion about Tony Blair might be that he thought he was a liberal, and the definition as managed by his friends and intellectual sympathizers was so elastic he was fully justified in his self-assessment. It meant he could do anything in the name of freedom and democracy, just like his US counterpart George W. Bush.

But there’s something else.

Here is one of my favourite stories in the history of ideas. A century ago there was a British philosopher who spent his entire life trying to work out what made people moral. At the end of his span he discovered the answer was that nothing necessarily did. No rational or emotional argument sufficed. He hesitated whether to incorporate this conclusion in his life’s work, and decided not to. The fragility of morality was not something, even if true, that he wanted to make public.

Did the great Victorian moral philosopher Henry Sidgewick do the right thing?

Henry Sidgwick 1838-1900

Henry Sidgwick 1838-1900

Bernard Williams, the greatest moral liberal in British philosophy of the twentieth century, was scathing. Henry Sidgwick, he said, had a’Government House’ mentality which was itself mendacious, because it placed ‘moral truth’ in the hands of the few, and held back the actual ‘truth’ from the many. It was a kind of imperialism of the mind, suited to a heirarchical, unequal country. It meant esoteric knowledge for the initiated and exoteric pap for the plebs.

Bernard Williams 1929-2003

Bernard Williams 1929-2003

But Williams’ contemporary Alasdair MacIntyre, a lifelong Communist and latter-day Communitarian, found that Sidgewick’s failure to find a fundamental source in human nature for morality was a tragedy.

Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre

If Williams was a liberal, and MacIntyre an idealist, whose side would you have been on? There was something definitive about these positions.

And yet in each case there was more to say about them. For Williams’s liberalism rested on a mixture of uncertainty and hope as to how human beings could arrange their affairs in a spirit of mutual tolerance, openness and non-interference, while MacIntyre, who had recently exchanged his Marxism for Roman Catholicism, believed in a guiding idea to shape the communal life. The fact that these positions appear to be irreconcilable opposites, and yet both aspire to a left-wing politics, may help us understand how confusion over what was liberal was put to the test of war in 2003.

The factor present in the Blair era but which went unspoken was MacIntyre-ish idealism. Idealist is just as unserviceable a word as liberal. But let’s say idealists are people who have a certain idea of what they want society to be like. Idea in the sense of an ideal pattern they’ve dreamed up in their heads, usually conforming to a vision of reason or of the good life. Idealists, said Patten, are ‘those whose ideals shape and infuse their actions.’ In these senses idealism contains a strong element of social construction, quite likes rules and is generally opposed to deregulation and laissez-faire. It’s a mentality that can come from the left – old-style socialism was idealist in this sense, or from the old-style paternalist right. But what idealism is not is liberal, neither economically nor socially.

What would you say? That Tony Blair went to war in Iraq because of a moral idea? I think so. Like a liberal government intervening in problem families for the sake of promoting good character, there he was, eventually allowing Saddam’s head to be used as a football, in the name of freedom and democracy. Unfortunately the idea was in its first assumption of justified interventionism shaky. Also the moral content it supposed itself to be carrying was empty. Deregulation and laissez-faire couldn’t give any guidance on how to live. They just made money for the post-war invasion of foreign contractors seeking a profit from rebuilding.

Freedom was another awkward word, and behind it lurked exactly the liberal/idealist dichotomy that in my view characterized the Blair era unbeknown to it. Negative freedom is leaving people to do their own thing. That is liberal. That is a la Bernard Williams and Isaiah Berlin. Positive freedom is putting ideals out there and encouraging others to aspire to them. That is idealist. That is MacIntyre. And yet it was the liberals in Blair’s sense who were interventionist in foreign policy, and yet in the name of an ideal.

In fact this same tension between letting people get on with their own lives and giving them an idea how to go about it lies at the heart of Britain’s current problems with Europe, and Europe’s own with the so-called anglo-saxon market model. The French ideal for two centuries has been to build society on certain secular, rationally determined principles. That rationalism includes a vision of how humanity ought to be, and unchecked liberalism puts a strain on the vision. The same is true of contemporary Germany. It’s why Chancellor Angela Merkel, nominally on the political right, seems to belong in British terms to the caring left. The EU is the ultimate moral-political idea of her time, and Francois Hollande’s. Brits are encouraged to think about whether to stay in or leave the EU purely in selfish economic terms, but the result of the June 23 2016 referendum will also be about their intellectual and moral future.

So it wasn’t just a confusion of the Blair era. In British domestic politics the liberal/idealist distinction – at least as I’ve set it out here – continues to polarize all of us. Economic liberals love choice. Idealists hate it as the supreme evasion of government and market responsibility. Idealists like the Welfare State. Liberals don’t, to judge by those militant Americans, incomprehensible in Europe, who blocked President Obama’s Health Care bill. Education equally tears us apart. On Grammar Schools, say, what once seemed an instrument of the good life stopped serving its purpose and academies were introduced, but they are suspected of being half a government Idea and half a market opportunity. Idealists on the left in education keep searching for a new political Idea acceptable to them ie. non-selective, and refuse to leave the market to sort things out. But they, the teachers, very often exercise a conservative effect.

New Labour, Blair’s party, rose and fell on the strength of getting rid of its idealism, the old Labour idea of defending the workers against the market.

Blair rose and fell because he was an idealist who thought he was a liberal. I wonder what he calls himself now?

For myself I’ll settle for idealist.

[1] Niall Furguson Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist reviewed in the Financial Times Sept 18, 2015


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