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Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007

Page 6 of 17

The Monarch of the Den
So we had a monarch in Number 10, and he was constrained on domestic welfare reform not merely by Gordon Brown and the occasional feistiness of the Labour backbenchers. His European dreams were shipwrecked by reality, and by Gordon Brown. It is an important part of my argument to say that Blair was also condemned to failure because he did not realise that the traditional machinery of government could have served him pretty well, if only he hadn't lacked two crucial things. One was an appreciation of the machine at his disposal. The other was consistency and steadiness in the policy platform he would have liked to see implemented. His style of government - his inability to allow ministers and ministries to flourish - made any serious domestic government all but impossible. In some fascinating passages, Lance Price tells us that quite early on it was hard to get ministers to defend the government's policy outside their own bailiwicks. Surely this was their only line of resistance to their exclusion from making wider policy, either within their ministries or Cabinet?

It is very likely the quest for something he could do - and do his way - which led to the particular form of Messiah Politics "Late Blair" embarked on.

Tony Blair hoped to govern by the exercise of a charisma in which virtue and popularity were perfect partners. His greatest difficulty has always been to express and embody the idea and fact of representative democracy. He didn't like Whitehall and Westminster, and hoped instead for some electrical as well as electoral connection between himself and the will of the People. One of his silliest rhetorical flourishes was the remark that New Labour was the political wing of the British people. This was to suggest several things which were nonsensical. Firstly, perhaps: that there was a mass movement of which New Labour was the expression. Secondly, perhaps: that New Labour spelled the end of politics since it was so big a tent that all the others could be folded up.

"A Personal Note", and the Masochism Strategy
There have been several moments at which Tony Blair declared himself willing to listen to the people, but it is a much more recent trope to assert that unpopularity is in a way the point of government. It was an attractive feature of his Masochism Strategy broadcast meetings with members of the public, as I wrote in my account of one such in the 2006 A Personal Note. But it was only in the dying months of his administration that he really squared the circle. In March 2007, he invited sixty citizens to Number 10 and the only interesting part of the exercise is that they were there to hear him lecture them on the difficulty of being in government. As he told the BBC at the time, "Politicians are in the listening business because they end up standing for election, but when they are in government they are also in the deciding business, and that is when life gets more difficult." [Link] He said people needed to understand why politicians pursued a particular policy, and it was important people "didn't end up thinking they [politicians] were doing it for reasons of sort of whimsy or just sheer bloody-mindedness".

Indeed, early 2007 was characterised by an understanding on all sides that public consultation - especially when it is not much more than opinion polling - was not very much like government, and maybe of not much use to it. On road pricing and the future of nuclear power, two very different consultation processes seemed to come unglued. In the first case, an online petition to Number 10's website attracted hundreds of thousands of pricing refuseniks, but can hardly have added much insight. In the second, a High Court judge determined that the consultation process had been flawed because the government had not handed out much information (though oceans of the stuff was available to anyone who cared). The more important truth was probably that serious and useful consultations tend to be exercises for the professional campaigner and other vested interests more than for the public, and that they are important but not popularly democratic.

These were some of the signs that the uniqueness of Tony Blair's government - at once populist and secretive - had been exposed as roundly inadequate.

From Bambi to Messiah Politics: the Blair narrative
It is obvious that Tony Blair always had buckets of charm and possibly of charisma. In religious terms this is the special power that grace gives certain earthlings. Less transcendentally, the idea captures something like magical glamour, a sort of hyper-attractiveness. I think, a little controversially or even weirdly, that Blair was so modern he was post-modern. I explored these ideas in the 2006 chapter From Bambi to Messiah Politics: the Blair narrative.

The essence of the accusation is that Blair was so in love with his role as the source of a narrative - a story, a message - that he thought inventing and delivering these was very like real life. He confused reality and perception, just as his media managers understood that "the People" do. It is quite possible that historians and analysts will regard this as the bit of Blair's politics - his Messiah Politics - which define him. It is also possible that he and his administration will be most famous for the damage they did to public utterance. And they will certainly be remembered for having brought the reputation of government utterance to a new low.

I was in good company in pursuing these themes, with Matthew Parris and Peter Oborne pioneering the way, though I naturally hope to have pressed on further. I mean that Blair wanted to be "transformative" in a way captured by Caspar David Friedrich in his painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog" (used as the cover of the 2006 book).

Modern Messiahs: pop stars, priests and pressure groups
When Clare Short told Michael Cockerell that Blair was "delusional" she was expressing a view which is widely held. I think he was well short of delusional, but that he has always had a tendency to over-reach himself.

Some of it is natural in any politician. The thriller writer Richard North Patterson has a spin doctor assert that all politicians are romantics: "To be a good candidate, a good leader, you have to be. Because then you not only want to make a difference, you imagine that you can." [[4]]

Blair went further. He wanted to be a bit of a Byron, or a Dylan, or a Bono. I explored these themes in the 2006 chapter Modern Messiahs: pop stars, priests and pressure groups. This is merely to say that he was the post-Baby Boomer, post-Beatle, Cosmo, life style magazine Prime Minister. We had it coming.

Blair was a master communicator, and a master of the communications nexus, so his work was a unique mixture of the charismatic and the media-savvy. Naturally, in the way of the post modern, his genius was to convey the possibility of substance when there was often only emptiness. This powerful man with his high ambitions made sure the spotlight stayed on him. He was offering us a series of performances, but when a policy floated by, he wanted to be seen to have been its progenitor. He wanted to rebrand Britain, with himself as representative of the new style.

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