The Great Persuader


It’s been one of the longest goodbyes in politics, but last Thursday Tony Blair finally announced the date on which he will depart Downing Street as British Prime Minister.

Naturally, the British media has since been awash with analysis of Blair’s legacy. But the overall tenor of history’s first draft, far from ambivalent, is uniformly clear: a leader of unmatched eloquence, Blair has dominated the last decade of British politics, yet leaves with a dubious legacy. He may well be Labour’s most successful Prime Minister and retire undefeated at the polls, but ultimately he was a political genius who betrayed his promise at the altar of war.

As Philip Stephens of The Financial Times put it, ‘brilliant performance is not the same as solid achievement.’

There can be no denying Blair’s virtuosity. His farewell speech, delivered at a Labour club packed with loyal supporters in his Sedgefield constituency in northeast England, was another vintage display of rhetoric and showmanship.

‘There is a judgment to be made on my premiership,’ Blair said. ‘And in the end that is for you, the people, to make.’ No hubris, just a humble submission to the people’s verdict. He even apologised for ‘the times I have fallen short.’

But there was also an affirmation of conviction, a statement of leadership, a firm nudge of persuasion. ‘Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right,’ Blair said of his decision to commit troops to Iraq. ‘And in time you realise putting the country first doesn’t mean doing the right thing according to conventional wisdom or the prevailing consensus or the latest snapshot of opinion. It means doing what you genuinely believe to be right. Your duty is to act according to your conviction.’

As the Cambridge political theorist David Runciman illustrated in his book of the same name last year, Blair has always been the master of ‘the politics of good intentions.’ One of his rhetorical skills has been to invoke good intentions to justify controversial policies, knowing full well that a standard of good intentions can never (really) be good enough.

As so often has been the case, the style of Blair’s delivery overshadowed the substance of his emotional farewell. The image was one of a presidential Blair leaving the stage at a time of his own choosing, and according to his own tune. (As we all know, the circumstances were hardly thus: if not for Gordon Brown’s growing impatience to succeed as Prime Minister, Blair would in all likelihood continue in office.)

Image thanks to Alan Moir.

Herein lies the paradox of Tony Blair’s premiership. His greatest strength his ability to persuade was also his downfall. Such was his superiority as a politician, and as a communicator, that his electoral success brought with it expectations of change and progress that could never be fulfilled.

When he entered Downing Street in 1997, there was an air of high expectation that Blair would be a prime minister who would modernise a British society, which (a Thatcherite revolution notwithstanding) continued to resemble a relic from the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet, excitement about a new ‘Third Way‘ a reinvention of government and delivery of public services based on social democratic principles of community and responsibility and an accommodation of market forces inevitably receded in the face of a government driven by media spin. Some would say that the political-philosophical program of the Third Way was entirely that: an exercise in spin. (That all talk about a Third Way was entirely abandoned after Blair’s first term can be understood as supporting this reading.) And then, of course, there was Iraq.

If there is to be a unifying thread in this story, though, it is one of unfulfilled promise and disappointed expectations. The substance of Blair’s Prime Ministership, his critics would say, was never capable of matching his sublime style as a political leader.

This much seems, in a way, fair. This is, after all, a Prime Minister whose defining moment was his response to the death of Princess Diana in August 1997. Blair was arguably the first Prime Minister to govern in an age of celebrity and postmodern culture one who seemed just as comfortable chatting on a talk show side by side with Bob Geldof or mingling with Liam Gallagher at a champagne reception, as he was disposing of Tory Opposition Leaders William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard at the dispatch box in the House of Commons. (His success in seeing off David Cameron in the Commons has been at best marginal.)

If anything, however, Blair was a politician who was simply too slick for his own good. He is the modern archetype of what the sociologist Max Weber referred to as the ‘charismatic’ political leader: a leader whose authority derives from their extraordinary and personal gift of grace.

Such was Blair’s ability to persuade that he could always fall upon ‘the politics of good intentions,’ if only to get a skeptical British public to give him the benefit of the doubt. With time, of course, the gap between what Blair promised and what Blair delivered appeared only to grow larger.

But if Blair was indeed a ‘charismatic’ political leader, he would not have passed Weber’s ethical test of political leadership.

As Weber argued in his famous essay, ‘Politics as a Vocation,’ political leaders properly follow an ethic that is answerable to the ends as well as the means. To plead good intentions, in other words, can never be enough. To exercise an ethic of responsibility is, according to Weber, to be ‘aware of a responsibility for the consequences of [one’s] conduct and really [feel]such responsibility with heart and soul.’

Even so, Blair might find some solace in Weber’s writings. As Weber concludes in his ‘Politics as a Vocation’, politics requires that one:

arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.

The legacy of Iraq might not perhaps amount to a crumbling of all of Blair’s hopes, despite what his critics and there are many, not least within the pages of New Matilda might say. There are real achievements, both domestic and international, of which he can be proud, among them reform of public services, reduction of child poverty, constitutional reform, peace in Northern Ireland, humanitarian intervention in Kosovo and leadership on climate change and international development.

In any case, Blair might take some comfort in the fact that his departure leaves an enormous vacuum in British politics. That his brand of politics has spawned a Tory leader in the mould of David Cameron, doing all he can to appear as Blair’s true heir, is perhaps a legacy enough in spite of all.

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