Margaret Thatcher and John Major held power for 18 years; Tony Blair and Gordon Brown five fewer. Thatcher and Blair both entered 10 Downing Street with enormous hopes riding on their shoulders: we needed the former to curb the seemingly unfettered power of a few union leaders driving the country to industrial and social ruin; the latter to bring social justice to a country where the gap between the bottom of the pile and the top had widened beyond the acceptable. Both failed in their own ways. Similarly both were replaced by men who had served as their Chancellor (though John Major only lasted a year in that post, in contrast to Gordon Brown’s 10 years), men with very different styles. But while John Major against the odds won a subsequent general election, Gordon Brown did not, hence the difference in longevity of the two parties in power.
It was obvious from the first results on May 1 1997 that New Labour, the creation of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, was heading for an overwhelming victory. The usual early hours tension in the TV studios was replaced by guesses of how big the majority would be: in the end with a gain of 147 seats, and Tory loss of 179, Blair had a majority of more than 170 seats, enough to give him an almost free hand to drive through change; in 2001 that majority was only slightly reduced; even after the 2005 vote New Labour still had a majority above 60.
During the honeymoon period for New Labour in power there were significant reforms: Gordon Brown within days of becoming Chancellor gave control over interest rates to The Bank of England, removing (albeit with caveats) the temptation to create false booms prior to elections (cynics may suggest high-side forecasts of economic growth justifying government spending come in just as handy); on April 1 1999 the government introduced a national minimum wage: contrary to the warnings of the CBI and certain Conservative voices, the economy did not implode, and social justice was served.
When he secured power Tony Blair was 43, the youngest Prime Minister in nearly two centuries; after the archetypal grey man, John Major, seemingly bowed down by struggles within the Conservative Party, he brought a feeling of energy and youth, an image enhanced when his wife Cherie gave birth to their youngest son Leo in 2000. This youthful vigour was further emphasised by the Premier being linked with ‘Cool Britannia’ figures invited to a celebrated social gathering at Number 10 in the early days of the New Labour Government: it is hard to imagine Noel Gallagher and Vivienne Westwood eating canapés with Dennis Thatcher.
Blair more than any other leading British politician had understood the change in presentation skills required in an age dominated by television rather than the press, and with the internet on the rise. His willingness to engage with the media won him friends there; and the control he and his central clique exerted over New Labour fitted with the telecommunications age – MPs controlled by pagers for example. But in that control one of the seeds of future disenchantment was already sown: the language of the time featured words and phrases like ‘spin’; ‘on-message’, and notoriously ‘a good day to bury bad news’, the latter a vivid illustration of how on occasion controlling information overcame common decency, and those at the heart of New Labour seemed to believe that however implausible the slant put on policy failures and similar defeats, the public would be fooled or at least placated.
What began as a disciplined approach eventually evolved into increasing paranoia and control freakery. At the Labour Party Conference in Brighton (such conferences increasingly airbrushed into innocuousness) in 2005 Walter Wolfgang, an 82-year-old activist, was ejected for shouting ‘Nonsense’ during a speech by Jack Straw ; when he attempted to re-enter, he was arrested under terrorism legislation: Blair apologized, but we noted Mr Wolfgang’s re-admittance was on the understanding he did not ‘misbehave’ again. David Cameron , then merely a contender for the Tory leadership, showed he was as adept at sound-bites as Tony Blair, saying the incident demonstrated: “The full absurdity of the Orwellian ‘New Labour Project’.”
As the period in power continued so the drive to central control of many aspects of our lives accelerated, though the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies went against that trend. But teachers found that they faced new and sometimes contradictory ‘initiatives’ daily; headmasters failing to hit their targets were fired, eventually making it hard to find new appointees willing to risk it; hospitals had targets imposed that took some clinical decisions from doctors and passed them to the growing army of managers required to handle the paperwork flowing from Whitehall; the police were tied in red-tape; other areas of public services drafted in consultants to cope with the bidding culture – funding reliant on the acceptance of bids often for exactly what was already being done. Tony Blair’s Third Way was beloved of pen-pushers.
It has to be acknowledged that the NHS , withering on the vine under the previous administration, improved radically under New Labour; but at a massive cost: New Labour ensured general compliance by the medical profession by using Nye Bevan ’s tactic of “stuffing their mouths with gold.”
Tony Blair, as with all political leaders, was at the mercy of events. But he was also hampered by the deal he had done with Gordon Brown (supposedly in the Islington restaurant Granita) in order to win the latter’s support for his candidacy for Labour leader following the untimely death of John Smith . Brown would control economic matters, write the manifesto, and many domestic issues would be in his hands too; Blair would thus focus on international affairs. It has been suggested by some commentators that a man of energy like Blair was thus attracted to the interventionist policies of George Bush following the September 11 2001 attacks on America, within a month of which British planes were involved in sorties into Afghanistan.
Two years after 9/11 Blair used much of his political capital in securing British participation in the second Iraq War. Attempted justifications for the war shifted over time: the so-called dodgy dossier detailed the threat of Iraq’s (as it turned out non-existent) weapons of mass destruction; links to terrorism were cited, though given little credibility; political matters and human rights violations joined the list; opponents of the war suggested that controlling Iraq’s oil resources may have lain beneath the move. Tony Blair’s earlier promise of an ethical foreign policy rang very hollow.
Opposition to what many saw as unjustified foreign adventures led to mass demonstrations throughout Britain; politicians tended to be more circumspect, following the convention that our armed forces be supported during conflicts. Robin Cook was the only senior Labour politician to resign in protest at the Iraq war; his honourable action contrasting with more recent positions taken by figures of similar status declaring they were less-than-willing participants in the action. Doubtless they will have similar memories of their part in the drive to greater state control of our lives – the ID card campaign, longer periods of arrest without charge, and so on.
After the departure of John Major following his 1997 defeat, the Conservative Party was in shock and had many senior figures out of Parliament ( Michael Portillo memorably amongst them). William Hague , a brilliant debater in Parliament if a less brilliant public speaker, was elected leader of the Conservatives when John Major vacated the post; it would have been a good election to lose, the Tories in disarray. He was followed by Iain Duncan Smith , ‘the quiet man’ who lasted two undistinguished years before being put out of the party’s misery. Incredibly to impartial observers the Tories then appointed Michael Howard , not an easy man to warm to, and with weights around his neck like Ann Widdecombe ’s “Something of the night about him” comment; and his famous grilling on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman . In 2005 the rather inexperienced David Cameron won the leadership, and slowly began building a credible opposition again. In sum, for much of New Labour’s 13 years in power it faced weak opposition. And only those inclined to cruelty would want to dig into the Liberal Democrats’ choices of Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, and even Nick Clegg.
On July 7 2005 London was targeted by four suicide-bombers who detonated explosive devices on the transport system during rush-hour, claiming 52 fatalities and many more injured. Whether the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan prompted the attack, or had delayed it, is hotly debated. The timing of this tragic day had a certain irony too: the situation in Northern Ireland was slowly heading towards effective peace; indeed the Provisional IRA declared three weeks after the 7/7 bombs that its own paramilitary campaign was over. One conflict dying as another took root.
New Labour’s interventions in national life had at best mixed receptions: the 2005 ban on fox hunting served to highlight how urban the party was – indeed how London-centric, seen for example in the new national stadium going again to Wembley ( Diane Abbot memorably saying on the Simon Mayo show that Birmingham was: “Too far away”). The smoking ban while welcomed in some respects felt like another step towards state control of our lives; and the policy of allowing 24-hour drinking has not led to a cafe society. Hundreds of thousands of Eastern European immigrants changed the face of many British towns, improving the availability of plumbers but putting pressure on some services.
On 27 June 2007 Tony Blair - now detested by large sections of the electorate - gave way to Gordon Brown , as their apparently vague agreement of 1992 had planned. Three days into the new PM’s tenure an attempted terror-attack – on Glasgow Airport – hit the headlines. Soon the economic situation, including the near collapse of the banking system perhaps partly engendered by a relaxation of regulation gave Gordon Brown the chance to shine on the world stage. His skill undoubtedly helped avert worse problems – perhaps as per his slip-of-the-tongue phrase saved the world; but as became increasingly clear the country had slipped deep into massive debt. His decision to bring Peter Mandelson back into government smacked of desperation: it brought some control back to cabinet, but Mandelson, regularly seen on TV frightening interviewers, was arguably as inadequately equipped as Brown himself to reassure the public. Briefings against ministers reduced in number, but the impression of cliques, cabals and chaos in cabinet remained.
The economic crisis coincided with the revelations by The Daily Telegraph and others about abuses of the Parliamentary expenses system by MPs. The ‘errors’ made by hundreds of MPs would have seen them dismissed instantly were they working in most companies in this country.
When in the 2010 election the country was asked which route out of the crisis it thought more credible, it chose, not entirely unequivocally, the strong medicine of cuts and austerity of Cameron’s Conservatives rather than the wait-and-see-if-it-gets-better proffered by New Labour; perhaps too the sometimes brutal and usually rapid reaction by David Cameron to expenses scandals in his own party compared with the Margaret Beckett : “Stop fussing, we’re busy people,” approach on Question Time a year before the election. Some of her comments had echoes of the Tory MP Lady Olga Maitland saying after the 1997 election that the electorate got it wrong. Just as we knew the sleaze-ridden Tories had to go in 1997, however, so most felt it was high time to remove New Labour, tired and tainted, in 2010. So we did.
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