It’s funny how the present becomes the used-to-be, how today becomes yesterday, how the life you led is suddenly part of long ago. But that’s what it felt like at times watching Blair & Brown: The Labour Revolution. The TV documentary was a reminder of an age when New Labour wasn’t just the present, it was the future as well. Remarkably though, a quarter of a century has passed since their first election win. It’s a long time ago. The used-to-be.
But we also know, don’t we, that history is a circle and that the same events and trends happen in different clothes and with different faces. It was fascinating to hear, for example, the details of Blair and Brown’s early friendship, how they shared an office and an ideology, and how one looked up to the other. But it was interesting as well to hear how exactly it went wrong, how the relationship soured and the bitterness seeped in. Twenty-five years later, you could make the same documentary about Sturgeon and Salmond.
The rise of Blair – the way he saw the problems, and the opportunity – was also interesting because, in some ways, his story could pre-figure a solution to our current problems. We are stuck, rather like Blair and the rest of us in the 90s, with a Conservative government that’s been in power for a long time. But the difference now is we’re also stuck with a similarly long-serving SNP administration, as angry as it is ineffectual. It is a reminder, an echo of the 90s: change is needed.
The question, of course, is who is going to bring the change about and the example of Blair is instructive. As the documentary made clear, the young Labour MP could see what was wrong: tired government and ineffectual opposition but more than that: opposition that wasn’t tuned in to the values of middle Britain and middle Scotland. Crucially, Blair also realised he was the right person to break through. He wasn’t over-cautious like John Smith, or over-confident like Neil Kinnock, or over the hill like Michael Foot. He had all the right qualities.
You could argue – and it would be a perfectly reasonable argument – that all that early promise was deceptive and that a few years in, Blair was guilty of all the arrogance and hubris and incompetence that he sought to replace. But the fact that the Blair revolution didn’t end particularly well doesn’t change the fact that it was needed in the first place, and that a similar revolution is needed again. Put simply: what Britain and Scotland needs now is another Tony Blair.
I do not mean, of course, that we need another politician who is exactly like Blair – in many ways, Blair was a 90s figure in a 90s world tackling 90s problems – but we do need a politician who has some of the same talent, abilities (and good timing) that Blair had. Specifically, we need a politician who can see what’s wrong, someone who’s in tune with the values of middle Britain, and, most importantly, someone who has the charisma and talent to do something about it.
Sadly, there is no one – currently – who passes that test. The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer certainly holds the kind of reasonable, centre-ground, and also hopeful opinions that could represent an alternative to the nationalism of Johnson and Sturgeon. But he lacks the natural, easy skill Blair had for making conversation, and turning a phrase, and arousing people’s anger and passion. Basically, there’s no point having good ideas if you can’t make people care about them.
In Scotland, there are different but related problems. The Conservatives are the second biggest party, making Douglas Ross the official opposition to Sturgeon, but the problem with Ross is that his opinions don’t have the kind of reach to make progress in the centre ground. He also lacks the more subtle qualities of Blair – yes, Blair could be angry but he could be charming too. Anger is not enough.
Which leaves us with nothing but hope I suppose. The rules of politics tell us that leaders fall and governments end, but what’s missing is a Blair-like figure to bring it about and sadly it may be a while before they show up. They may not be an MP or an MSP yet. They may still be at school or, God help us, not even born. But in the end they will come because they have to. In 1997, we needed Blair and in 2021, we need someone like him.
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