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The Project, Phase 2

29 Apr 2007 - Bruno Prior

Forget the legacy and the lecture circuit. Tony Blair has no intention of retiring from the front-line, nor even of being a good back-seat driver. He is preparing for the next phase of his political career, not for life after politics. How else are we to interpret his article in yesterday's Telegraph?

Mr Blair is positioning himself as the voice of wizened authority, of hardbitten realism, of painful lessons learned through bitter experience. Even the picture accompanying the article displays a harder-nosed Blair, staring out from the paper with a look of contempt that seems strangely familiar.

    <img style="margin: 0px 1em" src="/files/u2/blair.png" border="0" alt="Anthony Blair" title="Anthony Blair" hspace="2" vspace="2" width="230" height="281" />

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    Anthony Blair<br />
    Alan B'Stard<br />
Alan B'Stard

The Telegraph interpreted Mr Blair's article as an admission that he "got it wrong on problem families". But that was merely a tasty morsel offered out to a right-wing journal. It was not the main message. The main message was that you need experience to understand the real causes and solutions to social problems, experience that Blair has and Cameron does not.

Why was he writing in the Telegraph? This is in the run-up to some important local elections, yet very few Telegraph readers will be potential Labour voters. The topic he chose (anti-social behaviour and legislation) is not one of the front-line topics in those elections. This was about Blair, not the Labour party and its immediate future.

Nor was this a retrospective, looking at the success of his measures in this field. The tone was very much one of unfinished business. If he is intending to call it a day shortly after the local elections, as many pundits assume, he has a funny way of showing it.

So what was the point of the article? It is clearly addressed to a right-of-centre audience. It is making a case for going well beyond the current policy of any mainstream political party, in terms of authoritarian social engineering (intervening, before any offence has been committed, in the upbringing of children identified as being likely to become troublesome).

Is he trying to undermine David Cameron's support amongst the discontented hard-right wing of his party by implying that Cameron is too wet to adopt crypto-fascist measures like the one suggested? It would be unlike Mr Blair to make such a crass political mis-judgment.

Or is he positioning himself for the medium-term, in the expectation that Gordon Brown's tenure will see the New Labour project unwind disastrously? Is he getting his line ready that the cause of that failure was not the inate incoherence of the Third Way philosophy, but the naivety and cowardice of the Brown government in failing to learn the lessons of government and take things to their final solution? That way, he can defend himself against accusations that he had sowed the seeds of Labour's downfall and prepare the ground for the battle for Labour's heart following a Brown defeat. And while Labour re-group following that defeat, he can play the part of elder statesman providing the conciliatory voice of experience to a new Conservative administration.

Arrogant and authoritarian as it is, we can learn something from his article. Not about how to deal with anti-social behaviour. On that, he has veered from "naive" to "dangerously cynical" without stopping at "realistic" en route (typical for a disillusioned socialist, about which more another time).

What we can learn from the article is the genesis of political thought amongst career politicians. Their understanding of society, economics, politics and, above all, human motivation, is formed not in the crucible of human experience, but from the books and speeches of political idols who appealed to their adolescent prejudices and presumptions. Until they achieve power, their objective is not to test, through experiencing the world, whether those pre-formed but ill-founded beliefs are based in reality, but to try to explain the world according to the image they have constructed in their mind, and to persuade others that the world is as they see it, not as it is. Only when they achieve power can they no longer avoid the challenge of testing whether the world works as they have always assumed it does. And only when it inevitably fails to conform conveniently to their illusions will they eventually (after many legislative attempts to fit the square peg into the round hole) concede that their model may have been wrong.

Of course, very few get, like Tony Blair, to test their image of the world to destruction and admit graciously (as the rest of us pick up the pieces) that some bits of that image were wrong. Which is why most ancient politicians are still clinging, if somewhat more resignedly and good-humouredly than in their youth, to their cherished illusions. Abandoning those illusions would mean having to admit to yourself that your career had been a farce.

But the real question is why do we want 650 fantasists (or even one) with minimal experience of life running our lives? Wouldn't it be a good idea if our representatives made their mistakes and gained a real understanding of the world before they came to represent us? A year or two working for the party machine, or in PR, or in the civil service, or in local government doesn't count as real experience. They should learn how the world works completely away from politics and the bureaucracy, and for at least a decade, not just a couple of token years. Then maybe we would have a chance that a real understanding of the world would be the basis of our leadership and legislation, rather than the grudging and belated result.

Organisations: UK Labour

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