Beneath the surface of the BBC’s Blair & Brown series
Posted on 03/11/2021
Michael Rustin discusses the deeper context of the New Labour story
This is a remarkable and evocative series.1 It is moving and thought-provoking, especially for those who lived through and were engaged with what happened during those years. This was between 1992, when Blair and Brown first shared an office in the Houses of Parliament, and 2010, when Brown walked away from 10 Downing Street after his election defeat.
The human dimension
The film combines fine archive material, showing the central characters and those around them in their impressive prime years, together with recent interview footage in which most of the main players convey their memories and understanding of what took place. The film tells the story of a political tragedy. Blair and Brown’s project of New Labour – to establish a durable progressive hegemony in Britain – failed. Instead of Labour becoming the long-term majority party, New Labour’s failure led first to the destructive austerity years of the Coalition government of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, then to the disaster of Brexit, and now to the worthless opportunist government of Boris Johnson, a self-seeking narcissist, seemingly with no goals other than the achievement of power and prominence for himself.
The tragedy has of course a powerful human dimension, in that it displays its two central characters laid low through combinations of their own personal weaknesses and limitations, adverse circumstances, and the deeper problems and contradictions which underlay these. The tragic qualities of the two leading figures have a different form. In Tony Blair’s case, we witness a descent into a manic defence, a state of disavowal, as he becomes caught up in the project of the Iraq War, following 9/11. He himself acknowledges its fundamentally mistaken nature at the end of Episode 3, when he admits how little he and the Americans understood of the country of Iraq they had invaded and occupied. When you remove a dictator from a society such as this, Blair observes, the existing religious and sectarian differences, already exacerbated by dictatorship, intensify, and tear the society to pieces. This is an admission of a more fundamental error than insufficient practical preparation for the invasion. It acknowledges that the invading allies did not understand the society they were invading at all, a condition which is the case for the entire Middle Eastern policy of the West since the Iranian Revolution of 1981, and indeed long before.
After his third election victory of 2005, Blair sets off in a defiant pursuit of what he sees as his distinctively modernising agenda (including partial privatisation of the NHS and the destruction of local authority management of schools), and seeks to hold on to office as long as he can. It now seems clear that the Blair-Brown project of achieving a lasting New Labour hegemony, comparable to that of Thatcherism from 1979 to 1997, and equally irreversible in its effects, would have had a much greater likelihood of success if Blair had instead worked with Brown after his successful election of 2005, to bring about an agreed and ordered succession, rather than waiting to be forced out of office by a revolt of MPs, just as had happened to Thatcher. It was necessary for the ‘New’ and ‘Labour’ elements of New Labour to hold together, with all their unavoidable tensions, but instead they split apart, with a disastrous outcome.
In the case of Gordon Brown, the series displays the contrast between his quite exceptional capacities for political leadership at some points, and the limitations and flaws of character which were revealed during his deep conflict with Blair over the succession. It seems that these disrupted his capacity to function effectively when he became prime minister. This tragic drama comes to a climax when we observe Brown’s outstanding achievement in bringing many of the world’s heads of government together in London in the midst of the financial crisis of 2007-8, and persuading them to commit the huge funds necessary to prevent a global financial collapse. This achievement is incapsulated in the report of an exchange at one of the leaders’ meetings. ‘We have no plan’, Sarkozy the French President declared in despair. President Obama then tapped his wine glass to gain attention, and is heard to have said, ‘Gordon has a plan’ – which indeed he did have.
In many moments of this film series, one is impressed by the quality of understanding and sympathy which the members of the New Labour circle have for one another, despite their often deep differences and enmities. Douglas Alexander, like Ed Balls among Brown’s close associates, displays considerable affection for his leader; and he makes the striking observation that the financial crisis ‘saved Brown’s premiership’, noting the contrast between Brown’s mastery of events during this nearly catastrophic crisis, and his initial period in the prime ministerial role, when he seemed overwhelmed – particularly following his misjudgement in backing away from calling a general election in 2007, which he was likely to have won. Another memorable moment comes when Brown has recalled back into office, at a time of crisis, his former enemy Peter Mandelson. Mandelson describes how at their first meeting, after they have discussed more formal matters, Brown turns to him, and asks ‘Peter, will you help me?’. It is not clear whether Mandelson was able to do this or not, although the party was able to gather itself together in 2010 to fight a fairly effective election campaign, which was only a little short of winning the number of seats it needed to form a Coalition.
Tony Blair continues to express an underlying affection for Brown, which he says survived their bitter conflicts. Balls gives an account of the telephone conversation between them when they choreographed Blair’s speech of resignation, and recalled the early days when they shared an office and became close friends. Balls says that the quality of their conversation was ‘tender’. The frequent reference to emotions in what is said in this film suggests that New Labour was a more overtly emotional, or perhaps feminised, environment than has been usual in British political life.
One observes the continuing effectiveness and public spirit of Gordon Brown’s interventions in the years since he left office; Blair’s record is more self-aggrandising, but nevertheless he too continues to demonstrate concern for public goods. One compares this with Cameron, reduced to lobbying government on behalf of a failing company by which he was highly paid, and his Coalition partner Clegg’s role as a senior and well-rewarded executive of Facebook, whose role was to improve its tattered reputation. (John Major appears to have been more public-spirited in his retirement.)
The broader context
At an analytic, explanatory level, there is much to be said about the context of the events described in this film, which the film itself does not encompass. I will draw attention to some of these.
One determining source of New Labour’s ultimate failure seems to me to lie across the Atlantic, in Al Gore’s loss of the 2000 United States election to George W. Bush. (One recalls that this happened despite Gore’s gaining the majority of votes cast, as a result of the Supreme Court’s judgement in his favour on the issue of the disputed election in Florida.) Had Gore become President, would the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq have happened? Would 9/11 even have occurred, given the extreme negligence of US airport security under Bush’s presidency at the time of the attack? Blair notes in the film how different were the circumstances of having now to work with a Republican President, instead of, as previously, with Clinton – who, as Blair put it, belonged to the same ‘family’ as himself. Blair made his decision to go along in full support of the Americans regardless of their neoconservative agenda, and of course he is deeply criticised for this. But might things have been different if the source of the immense pressures on the UK government which always come from the USA had had a different inflection? Was the fate of New Labour in Britain ultimately determined by that of the Democrats in the USA?
This question has its contemporary echoes. How far are the prospects of progressive politics in the UK (and much else worldwide) even now being determined by the success or failure of Biden’s administration in the USA?
A second explanatory dimension lies in the almost wholly mistaken and misjudged reaction to the attacks of 9/11, in the United States, by the British government, and elsewhere. Blair declared 9/11 to have been a transformative event, which changed the world forever. He believed that its meaning and the necessary response to it was obvious and unavoidable: it was a wicked outrage, and it was necessary to attack and destroy those responsible for or complicit with it. Blair did not use Bush’s language of an ‘Axis of Evil’, but his view did not seem significantly to differ from that Manichean view of the world. (Kleinian psychoanalysts refer to this state of mind as a paranoid-schizoid position, in which good and evil are wholly split off from one another) .
But in the response to 9/11, not least by Blair, the correct question was rarely if ever asked. This question is not about how wicked and unforgiveable this act was (it was obviously both of these, but in this respect it was like many acts of mass violence). The important question is, rather, what was its purpose, what did Osama Bin Laden wish to achieve by it? Was this merely a nearly-insane act of destruction, with no political purpose other the enactment of the humiliation of the United States? One must ask what the planners of 9/11 anticipated and desired that the United States would do in response to these spectacular attacks, if their plan succeeded. In going to war, nations should first know their enemy.
I believe we should understand, and should always have understood, 9/11 as an act of terrorism conforming closely to the ‘classic’ attributes of terrorist acts. Their purpose is, by means of a relatively small act of spectacular violence, perpetrated by agents who have little power relative to their adversaries, to provoke a strong response from their enemies, which will have large effects. The intention of such acts is to reveal, through the response of those subject to them, the true oppressive character of the opposed regime, and through this to provoke resistance to it. From this perspective, 9/11 was a terrorist act of extraordinary potency. Its enactment, given the main object of its attack (the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre) and its amplification through its global visibility on live and forever ever-repeated television, had a colossal impact, probably greater than any previous terrorist act. But it also achieved what we may believe to have been its intended, strategic effect. In response to it, the United States launched an invasion of Afghanistan, and a subsequent invasion of Iraq, which have been responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, and for immense destruction (Needless to say, on a far larger scale than 9/11 itself.) The overthrow of regimes in those countries, and the associated conflicts in, for example, Syria and Libya, have given rise to extremist Islamic insurgencies across the entire region. One aspect of this has been the rise of the Islamic State, which at one time controlled large swathes of territory), and which it has taken considerable military effort to suppress. If the purpose of 9/11 was to disclose the real nature of Western power, and to mobilise mass resistance to it, then it had exceptional success.
The failure of the Western project, after the end of Soviet Union, to establish capitalist democracies in the Middle East, in the place of the existing regimes (statist dictatorships like those of Iraq, Libya and Syria, and theocratic regimes such as those of the Taliban and in Iran), has been almost total. It seems likely that the military failure of the Americans and their allies, and the relative decline in America’s global power, will lead to the strengthening of indigenous nations in the Middle East. (This we should see as desirable.) We already see this in the demand of its regional powers to give economic support to the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
In other words, western governments’ failure to understand the realities of this region, and to acknowledge the imperialist character of their prolonged relationship to it, has been, until now, almost complete. This failure of self-understanding is characteristic of the entire imperial mind-set, whether the imperialism is ‘liberal’ or more unambiguously oppressive in its nature. This is the delusional misjudgement which underlay Blair’s endorsement of and participation in American military interventions in this region.
I will now make a further comment about the larger context of Labour’s political history, in which the New Labour project had its important place. The Labour Party’s history in and out of government reveals the repeated recurrence of a particular pattern: a coalition of leftist and centrist forces within the party achieves for a period some fragile cooperation, and through this electoral and governmental success; but this then breaks apart, usually because of the pressure to adapt to conservative economic and political environments. This leads to loss of office.
What usually happens is that Labour governments find themselves succumbing to these conservative pressures, and as a result disenchant and alienate elements of their more radical followings. This sometimes leads to deep divisions within governments – as with the Bevanite rebellion within the Attlee governments in 1950 and 1951. Or to divisions between Labour governments and institutions and followings on which they depend – for example, the strong trade union resistance to incomes policies under the Wilson and especially the Callaghan governments from 1976 to 1979. Or between the New Labour government and the majority of its party members over the Iraq War, which led to a large vote by Labour MPs against that war, and the disagreements which then emerged over the Blair-Brown succession. This revealed the deeper tensions between the ‘New’ and the ‘Labour’ elements of ‘New Labour’. These then condensed into the conflicts between Blair and Brown which this film describes.2
Once the divisions between radical and conservative forces in the party become overt, and uncontainable by compromise, it becomes difficult to sustain public confidence in a government’s capacity, and may indeed undermine its confidence in itself. Electoral defeat has often followed (in 1951, 1979 and 2010) from such breakdowns.
Stuart Hall’s analysis in his 2003 Soundings article, ‘New Labour’s Double Shuffle’, in which he analysed the first new Labour government, is relevant to this recurring situation.3 The New Labour government was supposedly representing the interests and values of those who voted for and supported it, but at the same time – through a double shuffle – it was accommodating to the pressures exerted on it from capital and governmental forces. Disappointment and disillusionment were likely to occur in this situation, as it had sometimes done in the past.
A recurrent outcome of this situation, after election defeats following such conflicts, is the outbreak of mutual blame between party factions. The right blames the left for its disruptiveness and disregard for the limitations of what is politically possible. The left blames the right for its excessive willingness to compromise with establishment power, and for its defection from socialist principles. The leadership of Michael Foot, after Labour’s defeat in 1979, and the rise of the Bennite left within that context, is an example of the left’s response to the perceived failure of the party’s right wing or centrist leadership. Benn, after the 1979 defeat, attacked the record of the government in which he had been a cabinet member. The rise of the Corbynista left followed not so much on the failure of the New Labour government, as on the party’s later failure to effectively oppose the Coalition’s austerity programme – as well as what it saw as the continuing ascendancy of conservative Blairite positions within the party leadership. This ascendancy was manifested in the stances taken by Corbyn’s fellow candidates in the leadership election that followed Ed Miliband’s resignation, which was a large part of the reason for Corbyn’s success.
These continuing factional disputes doomed the Corbyn project: in part through the refusal of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party to accept the decision of party members in electing him; and in part through the sectarianism of parts of the Corbyn movement; though there were other factors, including the destructive consequences of the Brexit issue for progressive politics, which diverted grievances among some of Labour’s traditional voters into English-nationalist antagonism to the European Union.
One should note that while left insurgencies are usually blamed for the conflicts of this familiar kind in the Labour Party, they have nearly always taken place as reactions to the perceived capitulations of Labour governments to the hostile pressures placed upon them. One needs to understand the entire cycle in which such conflicts emerge.
What is important about the New Labour project is that it did for a time represent a workable and progressive compromise between these substantially different tendencies within the Labour Party. The Blair and Brown films valuably demonstrate how different the agendas and guiding assumptions of the two main protagonists were, even though they agreed on a great deal and especially on the need to formulate Labour policies in a way that would gain public acceptance. One could wish that Brown had made his egalitarian purposes more explicit, and not sought to disguise them in arcane measures of taxation. One thought at the time that the goals of greater social justice and equality might not be best achieved ‘by stealth’. Nevertheless, until the disastrous events and divisions of the Iraq War, New Labour had real achievements to its credit. The longer duration in office which was its aim would in all likelihood have achieved more.
The need for a different economic model
There is, however, one further and deeper weakness in the New Labour (and indeed Old Labour) project, which is wholly unrecognised in the film, and in the words of its participants. This weakness lies in the long-standing social-democratic belief that social justice is to be achieved through redistribution made via the tax and welfare systems, and not through changes to systems of production themselves. Blair wanted to ‘modernise’ (which meant marketise and centralise through regulations, targets and measures) health, welfare and education systems, while Brown wanted primarily to extend and devote more resources to them. But why was the focus of change only in the sphere of society devoted to its ‘social reproduction’, rather than to the domain of production, on which much wealth generation depends? Where was Labour’s ‘industrial plan’ to remedy the effects of Thatcher’s deindustrialisation of much of Britain? It barely existed, and the collapse of the ‘Red Wall’ and Labour’s support in Scotland are an outcome of this lack. It is certainly true – as Labour rightly declared after 2008, but with great feebleness – that ‘overspending’ on public goods was not,, as the Tories falsely alleged, the cause of the financial crisis. But failures of the banks and other financial institutions were its cause, and this sector had also been its responsibility as a government. Labour had the opportunity to follow a different blueprint for economic reconstruction when it came to power in 1997, as set out for example in Will Hutton’s ‘stakeholder’ model of corporate governance. , But it refused to do so. Thereafter it had no industrial strategy worth the name. Its reliance on the returns which its globalised financial industry could provide to finance its social goals followed the economic script of Thatcherism, even though it had different, though not entirely transparent, social purposes for the expenditure of these resources.
This economic model is now being revealed to be wholly inadequate, partly through the comparative success of the more fully planned economy of China, but also through the enhanced role of the state which both Covid-19 and the crisis of climate change are showing to be necessary. It seems that the Conservatives under Johnson and Sunak may have recognised the need for an enhanced economic role for government in regard to its ‘levelling up’ agenda and in its response to climate change. But it remains to be seen how far these purposes will be reconciled with the inegalitarian and market-dominated traditions of the Tory party.
Sitting in their shared office in the 1990s, Blair and Brown seem to have devised an innovative conception of how their political project was to be constructed, and what its aims were to be. Can one yet say the same of the political project – whatever that may be – of Keir Starmer?
Michael Rustin is a founding editor of Soundings and a member of the Soundings collective
21 October 2021
- BBC 2, Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution.
- Clare Short observed in the film that the Iraq intervention could probably have been prevented had she, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown together stood out against it. Morally, they should have done so, but there may be a question whether the New Labour government would have survived such a split within its leadership.
- New Labour’s Double Shuffle, Stuart Hall, 2003