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The Blair cult and its acolytes

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Vegetable Man

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This is from a much larger article in the current New Left Review:

The Blair cult and its acolytes

The nature and extent of Thatcher’s hegemony was hotly debated during the 1980s but it was always clear that a majority of the intelligentsia—writers, academics, artistic circles, tv programmers at Channel 4 and bbc2—were intransigently hostile to her government. Though it had powerful support from the Murdoch, Black and Mail media conglomerates, the Conservative regime was always opposed by the Guardian, Observer and Mirror, and had only qualified approval from the Financial Times. The Independent and London Review of Books, both launched in the 1980s, were antagonistic. Yet there was no automatic pole of political attraction for these liberal or mildly social-democratic layers. [27] ‘Independence’, even if it meant isolation, was a declaration of virtue.

Blair, in contrast, has enjoyed the backing of virtually the entire media lobby. [28] The blessings of the Murdoch empire—much courted by New Labour with tv-franchise promises—and of the financial press are logical enough. The Economist has explained with particular clarity why Blair is ‘the best Conservative prime minister’ they could wish for. The adulation he has received from former anti-Thatcherites—while implementing a domestic programme virtually identical to that which they abhorred under her regime, and an overseas one far bloodier—is a more arresting phenomenon. In a crowded market, critical front-page headlines will always sell more papers. But inside, a swathe of centre-left opinion makers have toiled to articulate a Blairite common sense over the last seven years—swinging, sometimes within the same column, from high-church pomposity to louche understanding, in their attempts to square the normal expectations of left-liberal conscience with a policy agenda that systematically overrides them; in the process, saturating the political semiosphere with a fog of apologia.

No postwar prime minister has ever been hailed with the eulogies that greeted Blair after the May 1997 elections. His ‘principles and objectives, a mix of hard-headed idealism, deserve the trust the country has so massively placed in him’, Hugo Young told Guardian readers; Blair had ‘the most personal vision, pursued with the most single-minded courage, that any modern leader has shown’. Polly Toynbee in the Independent described a citizenry ‘bowled over’ by Blair’s speeches on tv: ‘men and women said they’d wept. They believe in his humility, his emotion, his radical passion.’ For Euan Ferguson in the Observer, Blair ‘had pulled off a stunning, apocalyptic victory’; he was ‘the only man with the courage, foresight and determination to bring an end to the most venal and mendacious government this century . . . No cynical opportunist he, no lover of soundbites for their own sake. New Britain? Fairness not favours? These are Blair’s own words, his own beliefs.’ [29]

The Blair cult, replete with talk about ‘grown-up politics’ and ‘Britain being comfortable with itself’, has been a novel departure for London’s liberal intelligentsia, which traditionally prided itself on a certain dryness and distance of tone. From the outset worries about corruption, for which Major’s ministers had been pilloried, were waved aside. Disquiet when Formula One motor racing was exempted from a tobacco-advertising ban—following a £1 million donation to New Labour from the sport’s chairman, Bernie Ecclestone, over which both Brown and Blair lied to the press—was assuaged the instant Blair declared on tv that he was a ‘pretty straight sort of guy’. Peter Mandelson’s six-figure loan from the offshore account of the man about to be appointed Paymaster General evinced from Hugo Young the comment: ‘If moral perfection is the standard, soon there will be no leaders left’. Francis Wheen found it ‘difficult to see what uniquely vile offence Mandelson committed’ in intervening at the Home Office to speed a British passport for Srichand Hinduja—on the run from criminal corruption charges over the Bofors arms deal in India, but nevertheless donor of £3 million to the Millennium Dome’s Faith Zone. Polly Toynbee was driven to demand ‘Who lives without often economizing with the truth?’ as Cherie Blair overrode ministerial regulations on investment, used Downing Street notepaper to secure a property deal and put pressure on the Home Office over the deportation of her personal style-guru’s lover. [30]


The fervour of the Blair cult intensified with the drumbeat of war. In Kosovo, ‘It was a British Christian whom Albanian Muslims thanked for their salvation’, Andrew Rawnsley sermonized for the Observer. While in Afghanistan: ‘The last few weeks have been an opportunity to display many of his best qualities as a man and leader. There’s little question that he has risen to the challenge quite magnificently’. The Economistconcurred: ‘He is grave, not grandiloquent. He is often sincerely moved. This emotional fluency is a wonderful gift in politics, especially at times of war’. [31] ‘Blair’s undeviating allegiance to Washington is justified’, wrote Young, as cluster bombs and daisy-cutters rained down on Afghan villages. For David Marquand, his conduct was ‘impeccable’, showing that ‘a British prime minister with the right mixture of courage, grace and forensic skill could play a significant, outward-looking internationalist geopolitical role’. Neither the extension of American military bases across Central Asia nor the blithe disregard of the un raised a scruple in this instance. In joining the assault on Kabul, the Guardian assured its readers, Blair ‘did something big and right’. [32]

It was only with the approach of a full-scale Anglo-American invasion of Iraq that Blair’s liberal following began to baulk. Many rediscovered their admiration for the sanctions-and-bombing regime of Operation Desert Fox as the countdown to war began, and peace demonstrations filled the streets of Europe and the us. Nevertheless—even as she lamented his alliance with the unsuitable Bush—Toynbee in the Guardian could declare Blair’s presentation of the confected dossier on wmd to the House of Commons, in September 2002, ‘a bravura performance, spellbinding in its quiet solemnity, reasoning the arguments one by one’. In general, the more unconvinced liberal commentators pronounced themselves by Blair’s case, the more adulatory they became. ‘An impassioned and impressive speech which may give future generations an inkling of how, when so many of his own party opposed his policy, Tony Blair nevertheless managed to retain their respect and support’, was the Guardian’s editorial opinion on 19 March 2003; adding, on 14 April, ‘In ways that Bush never could, he provided a high-minded tone to the drive to war’.

Critics of his Iraq policy in the London Review of Bookscould still find Blair ‘the most successful politician of his generation’, ‘unusually and sincerely devoted to international law’, ‘the democratic statesman par excellence’, endowed with a ‘very attractive’ bonhomie, who had done ‘the right thing’ in Yugoslavia, and showed ‘real passion’ on Iraq, ‘performing well’ in a ‘plausible’, even if—in the final resort—wrong-headed cause: ‘au fond a good thing’. [33] Even the Independent, by far the most critical of the broadsheets on Iraq, swung round on the eve of invasion: ‘Blair has shown himself in the past few days to be at once the most formidable politician in the country and the right national leader for these deeply uncertain times’. On his death-bed, Hugo Young, after bitterly reproaching the leader he loved for a mistake in Iraq—it was ‘time for him to make way for Brown’—still saw the sub-contractor of Basra swathed in mists of greatness:

Tony Blair had such potential. He was a strong leader, a visionary in his way, a figure surpassing all around him. His rhetorical power was unsurpassed, as was the readiness of people to listen to him. He had their trust. He brought credibility back to the political art. [34].


[27] If anything, the majority were closest in outlook to the pro-Europe, anti-union sdp, which split from the right of Labour in the early 1980s and ended up in alliance with the Liberal Democrats.

[28] In the 2001 election this included the whole Murdoch stable: The Times, Sun and their Sunday editions; the Economist and Financial Times (which had switched, somewhat gingerly, as early as 1992); Independent, Guardian, Express and Mirror. The Daily Mail stayed silent. Only the Telegraph supported the Conservatives.

[29] Young, Guardian, 2 May 1997; Toynbee, Independent, 3 May 1997; Ferguson, Observer, 4 May 1997. The ft confined itself to an editorial purr over the rise of uk gilts and equities with the election results.

[30] Respectively: On the Record, bbc 1, 16 November 1997; Guardian, 29 December 1998; Guardian, 30 and 31 January 2001.

[31] Rawnsley, Servants of the People, p. 291; Rawnsley, Observer, 7 October 2001; Economist, 20 September 2001.

[32] Marquand, ‘The Liberal Nation’, Prospect, March 2002. Guardian, 30 October 2001; the Daily Telegraph hailed ‘Blair’s finest hour’.

[33] Respectively, Conor Gearty, ‘Blair’s Folly’, 20 February 2003; Ross McKibbin, ‘Why Did He Risk It?’, 3 April 2003; John Lanchester, ‘Unbelievable Blair’, 10 July 2003. For a tougher approach see ‘Short Cuts’ by the paper’s consulting editor, John Sturrock: 19 June 2003.

[34] Guardian, 16 September 2003. A striking exception to all the above was Andreas Whittam Smith in the Independent: ‘Iraq is Tony Blair’s war. He should now do the honourable thing and resign’: 29 September 2003.

The full article "A WEIGHTLESS HEGEMONY: New Labour’s Role in the Neoliberal Order" by Susan Watkins can be found at:
Sun Jan 18, 2004 2:26 pm
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