Wednesday, 19 January 2011

How Blairite is the Coalition?

Back in the heady days of 2002 when Tony Blair had just won a second term in office and life was good for the New Labour project Peter Mandelson, that chief ideologue and behind the scenes man of the New Labour project made a somewhat provocative statement: “We are all Thatcherites now”. Indeed, there was something to his case. For Labour had come to accept much of the Thatcherite policy settlement. Indeed, in 2002 Margaret Thatcher herself declared that her greatest achievement was “Tony Blair and New Labour.”

The government of Margaret Thatcher, whether you love it or hate it, changed Britain for good. Never again would British life ever be the same again. Undoubtedly a keen mind Thatcher did not just change government policy but our very culture. For example, one of her most famous moves was ‘right to buy’, which allowed council house tenants the right to buy their own homes at knock down prices. This not only gave into Thatcherite sentiments of social mobility, and self-reliance but also created a new class of capitalists. For property is but a form of capital, and so once the poor council house tenants owned their new homes they had something to protect from redistributive policies.

Of course Blair never fully accepted the full Thatcherite policy agenda. He was a Thatcherite with a small t, not a large one. While yes, he accepted much of Thatcher’s agenda he also crafted his own ideology, Blairism. Free markets were tied into a framework designed to create socially just outcomes. What Blair did, in doing so, was change our society again. Tax credits, and expanded public services, but public services were also reformed along pro-market lines.

The Conservatives tried, for a long time, to counter this with traditional Thatcherite policies, but what they did not realise was that the general public backed Thatcherism because it improved their lives, not because they were foaming at the mouth converts. Blair, by accepting the Thatcherite consensus but explaining how, in combination, he could create social justice, created a new appeal. It was only with Cameron’s election in 2005 that the Tories bounced back, but in doing so they appeared to accept Blairism. It was put around at the time of Cameron’s election that he was “the heir to Blair” and it showed. While Cameron is undoubtedly a Conservative, he has talked about social justice and the environment and sought to explain a vision for how Conservatism can create these things. Amongst Cameron’s group of backers was Michael Gove, a former journalist turned Conservative MP who in his former role wrote in 2003 “I can’t fight my feelings anymore: I love Tony.” It is often commented that the top Conservative strategists are all ‘students of Blair’ learning from his successes, and his failures. Cameron is even said to have read his autobiography on his summer holiday this year.

At the same time the Orange Book Liberals were taking power in the Liberal Democrats. Many, both inside and out of the Lib Dems have sought to misrepresent the Orange Book as a centre-right book. Yes the Orange Book talks about free-market solutions, a lot, but throughout it also talks about social justice, about how free markets and social justice can be combined. Rather than a nascent right-wing takeover of the Liberal Democrats it is perhaps better to describe the Orange Book Liberals as “More Blairite than Blair”. Rather than a classical or market liberal takeover of a social liberal party it is perhaps more accurate to describe Orange Book Liberalism as Social Liberal ends by Market Liberal means.

We are all Blairites now, it might be said; for all three parties have sought to identify themselves as the party of social justice, while maintaining a consensus around a post-Thatcherite agenda of flexibility, free markets and moderate-to-low taxation. No policy is put into place, no idea deployed without an argument about how ‘fair’ it is, how ‘progressive’. The Institute for Fiscal Studies runs the numbers and we all sit back to see whether they declare a policy as ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’ and then boo or cheer suitably. The Coalition does not accept every single part of Blair’s legacy of course. On the Conservative side his pro-Europeanism and relatively liberal views on immigration are particularly controversial. Mr. Blair would not be found happy here. On the Liberal Democrat side his views on crime and particularly his foreign policy legacy are particularly hated. Uniting both parties together is a mutual dislike of his civil liberties policies and his tendency to centralise power.

Those who question me on this would perhaps best listen to Tony himself: “In my view” he wrote in his 2010 autobiography My Journey. “we should have taken a New Labour way out of the economic crisis: kept direct tax rates competitive, had a gradual rise in VAT and other indirect taxes to close the deficit, and used the crisis to push further and faster on reform.” Quite frankly that sounds a lot to me like what the Coalition is already doing.

Blair will always be a controversial figure thanks to the whole fallout from Iraq, but he changed our society and changed us. In doing so he changed the way we do politics and our political culture. After Mrs. Thatcher no party would be elected again that did not accept the basic tenets of economic liberalism. After Blair no one will be elected again who does not explain how their government will increase social justice. If Thatcher’s greatest legacy is New Labour, Blair’s greatest legacy is the Coalition.

And just to close, just because I kind of love this video:


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