the antinomies of blairism

Earlier today Tony Blair gave a speech in which he finally took the gloves off. As someone with a growing interest in theorising post-democracy, I found it oddly intriguing. To anyone acquainted with the writing Anthony Giddens was spewing out in the 1990s, it was familiar stuff. Despite the fact his politics would long since have placed him in the centre of the Conservative party, Blair’s position is  framed in terms of social democratic politics:

Social democratic politics in the early 21st century has one great advantage; and one large millstone.

The advantage is that the values of our age are essentially those fashioned by social democracy. We live today in a society that by and large has left behind deference, believes that merit not background should determine success; is inclined to equality of opportunity and equal treatment across gender and race; and believes in the NHS and the notion at least of the welfare state. This doesn’t mean to say this is the reality. But even the Tories, in the open, have to acknowledge the zeitgeist.

What should give the Labour party enormous hope and pride is that we have helped achieve all this.

However, the large millstone is that perennially, at times congenitally, we confuse values with the manner of their application in a changing world. This gives us a weakness when it comes to policy which perpetually disorients us and makes us mistake defending outdated policy with defending timeless values

This has always been the premise of Blarism. It started off as a psephological position (the changing composition of the electorate necessitates a recognition of the newfound ‘aspiration’ of swing voters) which grew into a pragmatist’s analysis of media power, in which winning over print media came to be seen as an unavoidably necessary step which only the truly idiotic would fail to recognise. Giddens codefied these intellectual tendencies and gave them the air of historical inevitability, claiming to illuminate the unfolding of social change while nonetheless seeking to bring it about through his energetic search for intellectual sponsorship amongst the ranks of the powerful.

Nonetheless, Blarism effects to be a pragmatic concession to a changing world. A reinterpretation of social democratic values for late modern times. Its ethical theory, in so far as it has one, rests on those values for its moral force: “if you really care about social democracy, you’ll support new labour because we’re the only way you’ll be able to put those values into practice”. This leaves it caught uneasily between the affirmation of values and embrace of pragmatism. It affirms both yet in doing so empties the former of substantive content to the gain of the latter. It’s axiomatic that ‘social democratic values’ are shared yet the intellectual framework is setup in a way which obscures questions of exactly what these values are and how they might change after 13 years of power. ‘Values’ becomes a cypher for the ends to which we will exercise power, invoked to silence dissent in a way that becomes ever more meaningless with each iteration, while the constitutive pragmatism disposes the cohort of Blairite politicans to a form of moral agency which we might charitably  describe as elastic. The ‘social democratic values’ become a vanishing point, a pole of identification which retreats further into the distance the more concrete decision-making becomes, with tactics, triaging and triviality rushing in to fill the void.

But this means Blairite critique can get really weird. As Blair put it today,

We then misunderstand the difference between radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary, and radical social democracy, which is all about ensuring that the values are put to work in the most effective way not for the world of yesterday but for today and the future.

This assumes those ‘values’ are static. It assumes that the question is merely one of how best to implement them in a changing world. The case for Blairism is that its sensitivity to the reality of this changing world, its commitment to ‘modernisation’, means it is (down to its very core) better able to enact these values than is ‘radical leftism’, with its ‘reactionary’ character. But by taking ‘social democratic values’ as axiomatic, it’s left rhetorically shackled to something the adherents of Blarisim viscerally oppose as people. This becomes clear when Blair says that “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”

But I thought the point of Blairism was that it was a way of winning elections, recognising late modernity in a way that left it able to ensure that the values ‘we’ all share find a place in an out of control world? It turns out there are more values, other values, which don’t enter into the rhetoric of Blairism. Values which are what motivate the Blairites. But what are these? Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear. The speech ends with some fascinatingly banal tactical considerations (Labour should “work out what a political organisation looks like today”) and then this gloriously vacuous passage:

We won elections when we had an agenda that was driven by values, but informed by modernity; when we had strength and clarity of purpose; when we were reformers not just investors in public services; when we gave working people rights at work including the right to join a union, but refused unions a veto over policy; when we understood businesses created jobs not governments; and where we were the change-makers, not the small -c conservatives of the left.

Even read charitably, the status of these claims is unclear. Are they statements of strategy and tactics, to be evaluated on their success in winning elections? Are they statements of principle, to be argued for on their own basis or as straight-forward assertions of ‘social democratic values’ to which we are all assumed to assent? Or are they something else entirely? History whispers in Blair’s ears, it always has. Unfortunately, its message has been to trust his instincts, giving expression to those deeply held beliefs which would have led him to join Cameron’s Conservative party if he had entered political life twenty five years later.