Blair was always the cynical grit in Labour’s oyster – which we still need, says Kevin Meagher

“A cynic”, the American critic Ambrose Bierce noted, “is a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”

Tony Blair has been called a lot worse than a blackguard. He may well be a ‘faulty visionary’. He is, however, certainly a cynic; a 100% signed-up viewer of the motives of men as inherently base and self-interested.

As he briefly floated in and out of our parochial little orbit last week, our emeritus PM, now peacemaker-at-large and aspirant bookseller, had no shortage of cynical observations to dispense.

In his new memoir, A Journey, he breezily trashes signature Labour policies like the ban on fox-hunting and the freedom of information act. The former, in his view, unworkable, the latter too unpredictable. In a familiar riff on the obsolescence of ‘left’ and ‘right’ he even concedes that he does not consider himself on the left any more. He goes on to warn that voters do not want the state becoming a “major player” in the economy and that a drift leftwards will consign Labour to two terms in opposition.

And with the cynic’s eye for engaging with the world as it is rather than as we would want it to be, he warns about the risks of not facing up to the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Yes, that other four-letter Middle Eastern country beginning with ‘I’.

To some, Blair’s latest admissions are yet further heresy, providing proof positive that he was a cuckoo in Labour’s nest from the start. But we should not condemn too hastily.

It is a considerable understatement to point out that Mr Blair is rather out of step with mainstream Labour opinion in both his casual dismissal of the fox-hunting ban and his query of the value of freedom of information legislation. Both spring from the idealist’s desire to end senseless cruelty to animals and to better hold government to account. Fine sentiments both.

But perhaps he has a point about the way they were executed. Like the curate’s egg, both policies are excellent in part. But the effort to ban fox-hunting devoured parliamentary time like no other issue, only to arrive at a situation where the ‘sport’ is effectively still practised, if more surreptitiously.

Similarly, the law of unintended consequences means that freedom of information – as well as having many useful applications – is responsible for the publication of MPs’ expenses, a move that, at a stroke, has dragged the already mangy reputation of British politics from the gutter into the sewer.

Of course, the FoI act is not responsible for the largesse of our legislators, but the high ideal of reflecting sunlight onto the murky recesses of our corridors of power is more often used to titillate than to inform. More risk-averse decisions rather than better ones get made. It takes a cynic like Blair to pose the question whether either were worth a candle knowing what we know now.

He’s wrong, I would happily maintain; but, again, only in part. Where he is right, in a way, is in having the cool detachment necessary to critique the left’s cherished icons. The left’s self-absorption is a curse. Blair’s value has always been in supplying the cynical yin to Labour’s idealistic yang to keep the party focused on what needed to be done to win.

His cynical view of human nature fed his intuitive sense of electoral positioning.  Blair knew what voters would swallow and what they would not. He understood the electorate’s hypocrisy in wanting social democratic public services with free market levels of taxation. His strength was that he was comfortable with one foot permanently outside the Labour tent.

To some effect. Whatever is said about Tony Blair you cannot really argue with his record at winning elections. None of his 19 predecessors as Labour leader (or indeed his successor) managed to secure two full terms in office for the party. He managed three.

Principle and idealism may be the cornerstones of political belief. But realpolitik or “harsh necessity” as Machiavelli put it, should not be dismissed by those in the party keen to insulate themselves in the certainties of Labour’s ‘values’ following the party’s bruising final few years in office.  Cynicism – engaging with the world as we find it, in all its ignobility, is as vital a part of the alchemy of winning power as the idealism that motivates people to get involved in politics in the first place.

“You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” was former New York governor Mario Cuomo’s variation on the theme. But Labour needs to be wary of poetic licence. The left has no shortage of high ideals or of the idealists to promulgate them. But it does have a deficit when it comes to self-awareness; a shortfall which fails to recognise that most people are not committed to changing the world in the way that we on the left are. We need to talk the voters’ language, not simply our own. Pursue their concerns, not our hobby horses.

Last month’s research from Demos on the attitudes of Labour’s lost voters spelled that out starkly. The party’s election message about the danger of ‘reckless cuts’ to public services simply did not float their boats. 27% of the voters that Labour shed since 2005 said that they saw government as ‘part of the problem not the solution.’ Labour needs to be prepared to listen to what does motivate them in future and respond.

Just as Labour needs its idealists, it needs to hear cynical voices too. Tony Blair always represented the grit in Labour’s oyster. His was always a voice calling for rooting left-of-centre politics in self-disciplined, hard-nosed, uncompromising realism – that essential, but not necessarily attractive, quality which is, however, vital to Labour’s chances of returning to power. In this regard, cynicism is the sister of credibility.

Tony Blair’s currency may have been devalued in recent times; in many cases, justly. But we would be foolish to dismiss the insight of our very own master of electoral alchemy.

Of course, the true cynics were Hellenistic ascetics who rejected all conventions, possessions and status to commune with nature. The word has been corrupted in the succeeding two millennia to become pejorative.

But as he is donating the money from his book to the Royal British Legion – no doubt through his famously gritted teeth (especially given the brisk trade it is doing at 25 quid a pop) – Tony Blair is finally confirmed as an ancient as well as a modern cynic.

Kevin Meagher is a former ministerial special adviser

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2 Responses to “Blair was always the cynical grit in Labour’s oyster – which we still need, says Kevin Meagher”

  1. Mark Carrigan says:

    “Cynicism – engaging with the world as we find it, in all its ignobility, is as vital a part of the alchemy of winning power as the idealism that motivates people to get involved in politics in the first place.”

    Surely the relentless ‘reform’ that Blair embraced as a self-confirmed ‘modernizer’ – which he has been lauded for by Cameron and his inner circle with an increasing brazenness – suggests that this is far from true? Such people exhibit a profoundly ideological creed which happens to be cloaked in the post-political theories of Giddens et al. Yet if you go back and read the work of Tony Giddens on the Third Way it’s striking quite how much it was a product of a very particular period of world history: in essence it represented a liberal articulation of Fukayama’s ‘end of history’ thesis.

    History is back with a vengeance and I’m sure I’m not alone in being a new member of the party who has joined precisely for this reason, as an attempt to help resist the nakedly radical agenda of the coalition government. We don’t need this sort of cynicism: not least of all because it’s profoundly chimerical. Blair was, in his own way, a radical who hollowed out the internal democracy of the Labour party and made it an inhospitable home to an idea emerging generation of left-wingers. Now what’s needed is leadership to build a coalition around shared values in pursuit of collective ends.

  2. Tom Bage says:

    What a good article. I particularly agree that with this point:

    “We need to talk the voters’ language, not simply our own. Pursue their concerns, not our hobby horses.”

    Whatever your views of Blair, I think it’s vital that our next leader posseses at least some of his undoubted flair for communicating effectively with ordinary people.

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