Column

Snoggling in the parks with Tony Blair

Allan Fotheringham May 12 1997
Column

Snoggling in the parks with Tony Blair

Allan Fotheringham May 12 1997

Snoggling in the parks with Tony Blair

Allan Fotheringham

On election day in London, it was the most blissful day in England, the first day of spring when the sun shone and everyone took their clothes off. When the dreadful winter finally ends, when spring and sun suddenly arrive on one day, the natives flee to the famous “lungs of London”—the wonderfully treed, linked parks in the guts of the city: Hyde Park,

Green Park opposite Buckingham Palace, and St. James Park.

There, in the warm sunshine, grown men strip down to their bikini briefs and try to repair their sickly white bodies. Since the priapic young, unlike North Americans, cannot afford cars and have to live with their parents, the only place to snoggle is in public parks. It leads to the celebrated chant: “Hooray, hooray, the first of May. Outdoor snoggling starts today.”

A stroller has to close one’s eyes, such is the embarrassment. It was the day when every young, and not so young, female in London shucked her pantyhose.

This election day, this historic day, coincided with the sun and the advent of spring in appropriate fashion. Old Britain, Great Britain, decided to take a new direction and did it with a vengeance. A wise friend, his lifetime in his country’s politics, mused that there is a time and a tide—to quote someone—in the affairs of a nation.

There was a time when Churchill was the ideal man for the job— whipping the Boche—and when he had done it, the practical British public threw him out of office immediately the war was over in 1945 and installed a Labour government that installed the welfare state. There was a time when Maggie Thatcher, he pointed out, was the right person for her right time.

That’s over, she went too far, and now is the right time for Tony Blair, the Bill Clinton clone who is the youngest prime minister in two centuries and who has humiliated the Tories into their worst result since 1832.

Blair is an interesting case, as charming as Clinton but without the brain power. When he became Labour leader in 1994, a senior Tory allowed: “If he’s as good as he looks then we’ve got trouble.” He’s not as good as he looks, but that doesn’t matter. As the line goes, he’s better grinning than talking. Rather like Jimmy Carter.

It’s why the shrewd Labour spin doctors, defying the by-now standard TV leadership debates in any civilized country, reftised to put the challenger Blair up against the incumbent Major. “Over my dead body,” said his chief flack.

He’s “Phoney Tony.” “Tony Blur.” ‘The sixth Spice Girl.” A bitchy reporter describes him in a quality paper: “From the back, in his well-cut funereal suit, he looked, as he gesticulated vigorously, like an enthusiastic undertaker who’d just been told that he was about to inherit the family business and was eager to introduce innovatory embalming techniques.”

As with Bill, as with Hillary, he’s married to a lawyer who’s tougher and brighter than he is. His No. 2, Gordon Brown, who will be chancellor of the exchequer, is tougher and far brighter than he is. Brown, at 16, topped his class at Edinburgh University. He has a PhD in philosophy. An academic, he honed his communications skills as a TV journalist.

John Smith, the beloved Labour leader before he died too soon of a heart attack, had groomed Brown as his successor. At his death, Blair took Brown to a man-to-man dinner at the Granita restaurant in his north London riding of Islington and told him that he wasn’t going to step aside and would go for the leadership.

Brown, who has the quiet arrogant air of someone who knows how intelligent he is, knew that he didn’t have Blair’s grin, his “Spice Girl” appeal. He sits beside Blair at news conferences, the look of Brutus on his face, knowing he should be where the other guy is. Life is not fair.

What is even more apparent to the 46-year-old Brown—looking at his intellectual inferior, who turns 44 this week—is that his chances of succeeding his boss (barring a car accident) are nil. Those massive 419 seats ensure that Tony Blur can last at least two terms.

The Tory worries are even worse than Brown’s. In the past, Blair has talked about introducing proportional representation— rather than the outmoded first-past-the-post system—for election to the Mother of Parliaments. Britain, Canada and the United States are practically the only modern nations stuck in this mode. The change would mean that it might be virtually impossible for the Tories ever to return to office on their own.

The Conservatives, who campaigned against devolution for antsy Scotland and could never solve the Northern Ireland problem, now don’t have a seat outside England proper—Wales is also hostile voting territory.

Bill and Hillary will be happy. Although Phoney Tony tries to deny it, the Clintonites have sent their operatives here to advise, constructing a slick media-manipulating Labour machine never seen before in British politics. Just as the Republicans taught Conservatives in Canada and Britain fund-raising techniques, the Democrats have instructed the Blair people in the flimflam necessary in tele-politics.