UK Politics

We still need Blair

Ok. I don’t support faith schools and I think the ‘parental choice’ agenda in education misses the point spectacularly. I strongly oppose the religious hatred/censorship bill. I cringe every time the government announces some vaguely defined ‘market reform’ for the health service which never seems to happen anyway. My instinct is to oppose most of the government’s increasingly silly lifestyle legislation — in particular the attempt to outlaw the British pub in the name of ‘public health’ and the belief that neighbours grassing up neighbours to magistrates is a better solution to anti-social behaviour than an effective local police force.

I think that shifting the focus of the terrorism debate on to speech crimes such as ‘glorifying terrorism’ was a big mistake. I wish the government had gone on the offensive about its Iraq policy rather than batten down the hatches and hope the Stoppers in the media would see reason or just shut up. And like everyone else on the left I’d like more please – a higher minimum wage, more imaginative investment in the still recovering communities of the North, more de-centralisation, more investment in things like Sure Start, more money for schools and the police and other public services and maybe legislation to allow founder members of the Football League a publicly funded guaranteed place in the Premiership.

So I should really be looking forward to Blair standing down and Gordon Brown taking over the helm. I should really be pleased that Roy Hattersley will finally be able to feel a ‘Labour man’ is in charge of the party again and will be able to write a column about something else.

And given that Blair has already said he is standing down before the next election there really is nothing to discuss is there? He’s on his way.

But something is stopping me from looking forward to the handover with total confidence.

Practical politics suggests that Gordon Brown’s first task will be to ‘heal the wounds’ and open his arms to all in the party and to start his leadership with the broadest possible backing. His appeal is, after all, based on the notion that he will continue the economic successes of the government and the electoral successes of the party while smoothly massaging ‘Old Labour’ with reassuring rhetoric – which is, when all is said and done, all Old Labour, without any analysis or policy of its own, has come to be about.

He’ll be New Labour without saying it all the time. Unlike Blair he won’t wind people up with attacks on the conservatism of the old left – instead he’ll make the oldies feel better by talking their language while delivering policies that are basically unchanged from those of his Chancellor-ship and Blair’s Premiership. And so – everyone’s happy right?

Well, no. Not when it comes to foreign policy anyway. My major fear of a post-Blair Labour Party is that there will be a temptation to use ‘the healing moment’ to appease the liberal consensus on foreign policy. Brown is unlikely to want to alienate the White House but if his predicted general approach to domestic policy is transferred to the international agenda then perhaps we could expect much apparently re-assuringly mushy rhetoric about the UN, the EU, ‘multilateralism’, the search for a global consensus, peace, the rule of international law, constructive engagement etc etc.

As with the domestic deal, this may be merely a camouflage for a continuation of Blair’s policy and indeed there is no evidence that Brown is anything other than a solid Atlanticist. But in the current moment, it actually matters what is said about foreign policy as well as what is done.

The liberal and media consensus over international affairs has been directly challenged by Blair’s stridently pro-democracy and interventionist stance and the main question is whether Labour is prepared to keep on fighting the battle of ideas on that front. The battle needs to be fought because in the long-run the global struggle against tyranny and Islamist terror will require public support from democracies. That cannot be gained by appeasing the Guardian-BBC-Lib Dem-Franco-German consensus but only by challenging it, exposing it and defeating it. I think Blair realises this but we have yet to hear Brown on these issues.

The solution to this situation is staring us in the face – Blair stands down as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party and is replaced by whoever the party elects – most probably Gordon Brown. In return Blair should demand he made Foreign Secretary in the first Brown government and be given a free hand not only in terms of conducting that policy but in leading the war of ideas. Yes, that would leave open one of the wounds – in fact the major one — from the Blair Premiership, yes it would anger and upset those who Gordon Brown will seek to massage back into support for the government but we are talking about the big issue of our day – the differences cannot be brushed under the carpet.

Blair as Foreign Secretary is, sadly, an unlikely prospect. But, whatever happens to Blair himself, the priority of the pro-liberation left should be to fight to make sure that a Labour government, which has played a proud role in the liberation of millions of oppressed people, doesn’t turn its back on a policy of active internationalism.

With or without Blair, Labour needs a Blairite foreign policy.