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 stay at 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 the Saddam 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 electable by moving it to the center -- the very act that has occasioned the cries of betrayal.

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 nothing.

 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, got 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 pointed 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 fighting 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 the 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 accept the 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 suburbs, beyond 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 sent 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 in 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 has suffered 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 wonder old Labour yearns for the past.