World

Blair's blowout

BRUCE WALLACE May 12 1997
World

Blair's blowout

BRUCE WALLACE May 12 1997

Blair's blowout

World

BRUCE WALLACE

IN LONDON

From the kitchen window of his home in northeast England’s former coal country, Tony Blair can gaze out over lush green fields to the hills of Trimdon Grange. Once, Trimdon Grange was an enormous heap of rock and coal piled “20 times higher than the hilltops you see now,” says George Elliott, Blair’s neighbor from just down the lane. But all that remains from those days is a single miner’s wheel, left as a memorial to 74 men and boys killed by an explosion in 1882. Blair has represented this constituency for 14 years—living in what was long ago the mine manager’s house—and he has watched the last of its mines close and an old way of life fade away. When he returned to the house last week on the night before the election that would make him Britain’s first Labour prime minister in 18 years, the evening sun slipped behind a Trimdon Grange that has changed completely since he arrived: what was once a landscape

of slag is now covered by grass, young trees and grazing horses.

The constituency Blair represents is much like the Labour Party he leads. Its old vocation is dead, and the future remains mostly uncharted, though it certainly no longer wears a cloth cap or depends on carrying a union card and a chip of class envy on its shoulder. Blair was one of the first Labour members to realize that the party had to throw off its dogmatic socialist baggage if it wanted to win power in the age of global free markets. “It was here in this constituency we created New Labour,” he said to the local supporters who squeezed into the steam-bath atmosphere of the Trimdon Labour Club on the last night of the campaign. “Ours is a philosophy, not of the past, not some relic of a museum, but of the future.” They cheered him lustily in Trimdon that night, before allowing him to slip into the workingman’s club next door for a pint of ale. The next day, enough voters in the rest of the country bought Blair’s pitch to hand him the greatest British electoral triumph this century.

Blair did not just beat a spiritually exhausted Conservative party. He pulverized it. Labour won 43 per cent of the vote and 419 of Westminster’s 659 seats. The 165 Tories who survived the wreck are the fewest the party has had in Parliament since 1906. The defeated included seven cabinet ministers, not least Michael Portillo, who was once favored to be the next leader but lost what was considered the fifth-safest Conservative seat in Britain. Tories tainted by sleaze and sex scandals were crushed. Olympic hero Sebastian Coe fell. The Conservatives no longer hold a single seat in Scotland or Wales, and Labour won seats it had not held since 1922. It even won Margaret Thatcher’s old north London constituency. ‘Tonight, we have been comprehensively defeated,” said outgoing prime minister John Major in conceding to Blair, and it still sounded like he was sugarcoating the message.

The British transfer of power is coup-like in its swiftness. Major handed the Queen his resignation at 11:30 the next morning, before the final votes were even counted, and was watching cricket under the sun at the Oval in Surrey by the afternoon. He announced his intention to resign as Conservative leader, opening the door to what will undoubtedly be a nasty skirmish to rule the residue of the party that revolutionized Britain during its 18-year rule.

moving van to 10 Downing Sfreet. At 43, he is the youngest British prime minister since 1812, and the halls and banisters of 10 Downing will have to handle the

scuff marks of the three children he has with his wife, Cherie, a successful lawyer. The presence of Euan, 13, Nicholas, 11, and Kathryn, 9, was just one sign of the generational change that hit British politics last week. In this campaign, there were people old enough to vote who were not born in 1974, the last time Labour won an election and the year when Blair was an Oxford student dabbling in a rock band called Ugly Rumours. The Tory reign ushered in by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 had threatened, after four straight majorities, to become the natural state of British politics. But Blair broke the Tory grip by modernizing his own party’s policies. And he was aided by the sorry spectacle of a sclerotic Conservative party imploding during its final years in power, morally limp and ravaged by internal rivalries.

To compensate for their own weaknesses, the Tories conducted their campaign as if they were in opposition and it was Blair who had a record to defend. They trundled out his old voting habits from the 1980s when he was a young backbencher following the party line,

Labour roars back in Britain after 18 years in the cold

suggesting it showed his true colors as an old-style socialist. Their clumsy tactic failed, largely because Blair has always been in the vanguard of dissent from Labour’s hardline left. He had long argued that Labour’s former policies rendered it unelectable (the party fought the 1983 election on a platform to nationalize all industries and unilaterally disarm Britain, making easy pickings for Thatcher).

Blair was always a bit of an unlikely Labourite: a private-school boy whose Scottish father, Leo, was a self-made man and barrister in northeast England with political ambitions of his own—for the Tories. A stroke when he was in his early 40s ended those hopes, but Leo Blair remained a card-carrying Conservative until 1995, when he finally switched to his son’s party. His Oxford-educated son was steered into Labour politics by prominent London lawyer Derry Irvine and, in 1983, Blair fought off five competitors for the safe Labour seat he still holds today. But he always chafed at the slow pace of party reforms. When Labour Leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack in May, 1994, Blair seized the moment to run for the top job as the candidate from the party’s so-called modernizing wing.

By July, Blair was leader, and he quickly showed his own party what they were in for. In a well-plotted strike, he won a party-wide referendum to overturn Clause IV of the Labour constitution, which committed it to secure for workers “the full fruits of their labour on the basis of common ownership.”

“It was a democratic process every step of the way, so no one can say that the Labour rank and file haven’t changed,” says Colin Thompson, a former radical socialist in Blair’s riding, who says his own politics evolved “as I got older.” A few disgruntled old socialists remain in the ranks, still available to reporters for what Thompson describes as “that old moan and groan.” Many others quit the

party—all to Blair’s barely concealed delight. Labour’s elder statesman, Roy Hattersley, complains that the party is “perilously near to regarding conflict with long-serving activists as a public relations bonus.” But Blair remains unmoved, last week mocking any nostalgic Labourites for “trumpeting that old music-hall tune from 50, 60 years ago.”

Blair said scrapping Clause IV “showed me what I intuitively thought but wasn’t sure of: that the party was actually be5 hind change”—and a rev1 olution followed. Over

the next three years, he moved its positions until there was no daylight between Labour and the Tories on two issues where Labour had always been most vulnerable: economics and crime. The new Labour embraces free markets and sips scotch with business leaders. And there was not a draconian law and order measure the Tories could introduce that did not enjoy Blair’s support.

The Labour makeover opened Blair to accusations that he was a political chameleon with no core beliefs, comparable to U.S. President Bill Clinton. Blair counters that he is merely a realist, who believes in a new path to a just society. “The principles of the Labour Party are its values: the belief in a fair deal for ordinary people, social justice, progress,” he told interviewer David Frost late in the campaign. “But the way to do that is not to tax a few more people at the top and give a few more pounds in benefit to people at the bottom.” The answer, Blair believes, lies in increasing opportunities for all by improving educational standards, which conveniently was the issue that ranked among the highest in voter concerns. While the Tories were running a smear campaign trying to stain Blair as a prisoner of the unions—which polls showed worried only a small percentage of voters—the Labour leader focused on the importance of providing people with good schools and hospitals.

And those who know him say Blair does have core beliefs: they

are rooted in his religious faith. He is an Anglican, though he attends services with Cherie and the children, who are Roman Catholics. “You can’t live with a devout Catholic woman without it rubbing off on you,” says Father John Caden of St. John Fisher Church in Blair’s constituency, where the family worships and the Blair children were baptized. “He is a very committed Christian whose religious values are part of his personality.” They are also part of his political philosophy. Blair has often pointed to Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, a 1930s-era Christian socialist,

as the source of his strong belief that politics should be a vehicle to build a “sense of community.” The notion of community peppers Blair’s political speeches, a perfect counterpoint for Labour to Thatcher’s famous individualist declaration that “there is no such thing as society.”

The pitch to family and community gives Blair a softer political edge than the Tories ever had, even if there is little to choose between them on economic grounds. Not that Blair’s first term is guaranteed to be

THE NEW INNER CIRCLE

a love affair. He, too, will quickly face sensitive questions about how much British sovereignty to surrender to the cause of an integrated Europe. Other European governments welcomed the respite Blair is expected to provide from the hostility Britain displayed under Major. But Labour has its own collection of “Euroskeptics.”

It also remains to be seen whether the top Labour brass will be able to get along any better than their Tory counterparts did. His new chancellor of the exchequer, Scotland-born Gordon Brown, clashes

openly with Peter Mandelson, the party’s brilliant political strategist, and carries on a 20year feud with Robin Cook, another Scottish Labourite whom Blair appointed foreign secretary. Those who doubt the strength of Blair’s freemarket convictions will be watching to see how much leash he gives Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, the grammatically challenged but street-smart link to the party’s left wing. Prescott frightens businessmen almost as much as Brown soothes them.

But it seems unlikely that Blair would have dragged Labour so far and to such heights only to watch it fall back on bad old habits once in power. For all his obvious charm, Blair knows that politics is about votes and how to get them. “He was a very, very chivalrous tennis player, indeed,” says Father Caden, who has played weekend doubles with Blair since 1983. The friendly, 73-year-old priest remembers how they used to play for the “fresh air and the laughs.” But Father Caden has noticed something new about Blair since the early days. “A certain amount of steel came into his game,” says the priest. “He likes to win.” □