Blair (Fortunately) Is No Attlee
By SALIL TRIPATHI
Tony Blair breaks a record this Saturday,
becoming Britain's longest
continuously serving Labour prime minister. He overtakes Clement Attlee, whose
10 Downing Street lasted six years and 92 days, ending in 1951. Opposition
Conservatives, who see Mr. Blair as the usurper who stole their thunder, are not
likely to cheer him. But celebrations seem surprisingly muted within the
Labour Party too.
That may be because of Mr. Blair's recent troubles with his colleagues and
the media over the "sexed-up dodgy dossier" justifying the attack on
Hussein regime. The spin factor has gone out of control, the media has
concluded, particularly after the suicide of a weapons expert.
But even if that tragedy hadn't occurred, many Labour supporters are in no
mood to applaud; they believe Mr. Blair has betrayed the party. This is
remarkable, since Labour is in power mainly because Mr. Blair has made it
moving it to the center -- the very act that has occasioned the cries of
And there is much in Mr. Blair's record that
Labour can be proud of: autonomy
to the Bank of England; a low-inflation, low-interest rate economy; reform of
the House of Lords; power devolution in Scotland and Wales; elected mayors in
British cities and, internationally, making Britain relevant and fighting
tyrants like Slobodan Milosevic, Foday Sankoh and Saddam Hussein. People can
disagree on these measures, but at least nobody can accuse Mr. Blair of doing
In a recent speech at the Fabian
Society, Mr. Blair defiantly invited his
critics to compare this record with that of the Attlee administration, and that
goes to the heart of the matter. For Old Labourites, that's sacrilegious. For
them, the post-war Attlee administration has canonical significance. Winston
Churchill called his successor Attlee a modest man with much to be modest about.
But for socialists, Attlee remains an icon: the 1945 Labour government
established social security through national insurance, nationalized railways,
council houses built, and set up the now-bloated National Health Service.
Attlee assumed power when Britain was a
picture of misery, with food
shortages, devastated and bombarded towns, thousands of soldiers returning home
looking for jobs, and its colonial empire disintegrating. But as Mr. Blair
out, even those who idolize Attlee today were lukewarm about Attlee's record a
mere three years after he left office. In an article in 1954 from the New
Statesman, a magazine founded on socialist principles, Attlee's government was
dismissed as having contributed nothing new or imaginative; the magazine did not
consider even the creation of the NHS as an achievement.
Mr. Blair's point? That history would judge
him more kindly. But nostalgic
Labourites disagree. They accuse him of not rolling back Margaret Thatcher's
privatization, not strengthening the unions, not expanding the state and
too many wars. Attlee's biographer Francis Beckett wrote recently: "People
join the Labour Party . . . not because they think its leaders are efficient
managers, but because they think Labour is instinctively on the side of the poor
and the powerless. New Labour has created nothing new. [Its initiatives]
represent a restless need to take the springs out of the engine and put them in
other way round to see if that makes it go faster. Attlee's was a government
of giants . . . Blair and his ministers know that, which is why they . . .
belittle men whose boots they are not fit to clean."
Such self-righteous sentimentality has been the party's undoing, which is why
it has spent so little time in power in its hundred years. As the columnist
Andrew Rawnsley wrote last week in the Observer, Mr. Blair's main objective has
been "to break out of the pattern set by Attlee, and repeated by [Harold]
Wilson and [James] Callaghan, of surrendering office back to the Conservatives
after a term and a bit."
In his Fabian Society lecture, Mr. Blair
elaborated on this theme: "For much
of the 20th century, left of center governments have agonized over a series of
false choices: To be principled and unelectable or electable but
unprincipled? To honor our past or shape the future? To champion the state or
market? To tackle poverty, or support aspiration? [S]ome . . . think that power
for the left is a luxury item -- worth indulging in once in a while but not
for too long in case we get a taste for it. For it comes with too much unwanted
baggage -- compromise, pragmatism, patience. . . .
"New Labour, and other (similar) parties
round the world, are attempting to
break out. . . . The point of our politics is to exercise power for the good of
the people -- not to protest from the sidelines. New Labour has shown it is
possible to be principled and win elections -- even with big majorities and big
tents -- but it does require some pragmatism."
That pragmatism has made the party attractive in the leafy
its traditional support base of unions, blue-collar work force, and urban
socialists. The new supporters like the new fiscal discipline that has made the
economy stable, as Britain has not spent beyond its means as earlier Labour
administrations would have done, and Britain currently enjoys the lowest
unemployment in decades.
Despite his domestic reforms, Mr. Blair may be better known to posterity for
his foreign interventions. He championed the victims of the Balkan wars,
arguing passionately for taking on Serbia and deploying NATO troops. Britain
peacekeepers to Sierra Leone. And he worked hard trying to get consensus at the
United Nations that would have allowed the use of force against Saddam
Hussein with international approval. Nondiscovery of weapons of mass destruction
Iraq remains a major problem for Mr. Blair, but the removal of Saddam Hussein
is an achievement.
Mr. Blair still faces challenges. His personal credibility
because his government is seen as "spinning" the news too much. And
there is work
to be done. Reforming the public sector is not glamorous, but that's next on
the agenda. This will pit him against entrenched interests, including the core
of old Labour's support base. In his Fabian Society lecture he revealed the
options: to defend Attlee's model in all its forms, throw money at problems, and
champion public servants against change. Or, to meet the rising expectations
of a modern consumer society. The essence of progressive politics, Mr. Blair
said, is "fighting for change, not defending the status quo." No
Labour yearns for the past.