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Vanity Blair

The new and improved Clinton.

He's been called Bill Clinton's smarter younger brother. The best Tory tacticians are terrified of him. At lunch-tables round Westminster, the prime minister's allies whisper about the looming electoral slaughter. As business leaders defect and opinion polls give Labour a stratospheric lead, there is now a fixed assumption in Britain that the next prime minister will be Tony Blair.

A young-looking 43, he is a slim but strongly built man whose fast smile and self-deprecating patter convey the impression of relentless, perpetual movement. Talk slowly, or make a point twice, and an impatient glaze comes into his eyes. He is restlessness in a designer suit. But when I talked to him recently in his North London home--a plush and slightly child-scarred Victorian terraced house--Blair was off duty, tousled and denim'd. He has always been a cheery rock-freak, a passionate father and a weekend slob. And he has always been surprising.

His current surprise is his enthusiasm for the new Francis Fukuyama offering, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. It's unexpected because of the disdain on the left for Fukuyama's earlier book, marked down for its enthusiasm for Nietzsche and free-market hubris. But Blair sees in the second book further evidence of a worldwide rethinking of the need for strong social structures to underpin economic success.

Remaking a "stakeholder society" in which revived local government, more investment in education and support for the institutions of civil society give Britons a stronger sense of self-confidence is Blair's project. It distinguishes him from the small-state or neoliberal right, to which Newt Gingrich's name is attached in Britain, too. "The key theme is the One Nation theme [a soft-Tory slogan appropriated by Blair but first minted by Benjamin Disraeli]. Even people like Fukuyama are having to accept that without a strong society in which everyone has a stake and everyone has a responsibility to others, there can be no lasting prosperity."

Talking to Blair you get a strong sense that he feels part of a wider Western conversation about the future of progressive politics. The Labour leader is a keen follower of Washington politics and says "that both the modernizers in the Labour Party and in the Democrats have reached the same conclusions. First, that our political party has to have a broad, mainstream base, not be the Amalgamated Union of Pressure Groups, with every interest group under the sun demanding policies. And second, that we have to reconnect our parties with our aspirational voters, those that were doing OK but wanted to do better, and those who were doing well but who wanted to do better still, as well as those left behind."

Blair's middle-class empathy has inevitably tainted him with the image of a closet conservative--"Tory Blair," as the left has tagged him. His background gives this credence. Blair is the son of a right-wing barrister who went to the upper-crust Scottish private school Fettes before graduating to Oxford and then a coveted training as a barrister in London. To put this in old leftspeak; if he looks and sounds like a member of the ruling class that's because he is.

In fact, each of these facts about Blair's background is enough of a half-truth to be misleading. His father, Leo, was described by his son, with typical candor, as "a gut conservative.... He was keen on the Thatcher revolution." But Leo was also an adopted child, the son of traveling actors (giving Blair an interesting link with John Major, whose parents were also actors), who was taken in by a Glasgow shipyard worker's family and was briefly a Young Communist. More to the point, he was struck down by a stroke when Tony was 10, and the family suffered great insecurity for years afterwards, while Leo was unable to work. Hospitals and money worries loomed large in the future Labour leader's childhood. Tony went to Fettes on a scholarship. There he was a notorious rebel. At Oxford he wanted to be a rock star; and when he got a clerkship with a leading barrister, it was Derry Irvine, a keen Labour supporter who's now tipped as a future Lord Chancellor if Labour wins.

To understand Blair's political character, we learn more from three key crises in recent years than from his earlier background. They are: his selection for his district, which got him into Parliament in 1983; his grab for the Labour leadership after the sudden death of the previous leader, John Smith, in June and July of 1994; and his rush to modernize the party after that, dramatized by his imposition of a new statement of Labour's aims and values earlier this year.

Blair won his seat with a mix of luck, cheek and dissimulation. He had already cut his teeth fighting a hopeless off-year election the year before. As a sharp, fresh-faced 29-year-old lawyer, he was considered an attractive candidate, but at the height of the Falklands War he was badly defeated, taking just 10 percent of the vote and coming third behind the rival Liberal Party. Even so, Blair's campaigning vigor had won him a routine letter of support from the then Labour leader Michael Foot. That proved a vital piece of ammunition when, just a few weeks before the 1983 general election, Blair packed a bag and hurried north to the new safe Labour seat of Sedgefield, old coalmining country near Durham. The nomination was considered to have been "carved up" already by trade union and left-wing networks. But Blair, an outsider, found some party workers to support him and scurried round knocking on doors relentlessly.

Sedgefield was--and is--Labour. But its closely knit communities and villages have never been receptive to the kind of militant leftism that was then sweeping the Labour Party and threatening to sweep it out of mainstream British politics forever. Blair was a fully committed member of the anti-leftist side. His new friends in the constituency used this against his left-wing opponent and then exploited the endorsement from Michael Foot for all it was worth. At a packed and dramatic meeting, Blair did something very rare in the Labour Party. He came from nowhere to win the nomination and a seat in the Commons for life.

The second political crisis involved friendship. He joined the parliamentary Labour Party after the 1983 general election at one of the lowest points in its postwar history. It had crashed to 209 seats and was facing a triumphant Conservative majority of 144. Blair, the youngest Labour MP, gravitated to the moderate reformers who would later be known as Kinnockites, after the new Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, who began Labour's long, slow crawl back to the center of British politics.

Throughout the period, Blair shared a cramped and insanitary Westminster office with another new boy, the Scottish Labour MP Gordon Brown, who had been widely tipped as a future party leader. Brown knew more about the Labour Party than Blair. He was better-read--while Blair had been marrying, enjoying family life and lawyering, Brown was devouring textbooks and spending his holidays in Washington's Library of Congress. Brown took Blair under his wing and Kinnock promoted them both. Peter Mandelson, Kinnock's brilliant spin-doctor, taught both of them the art of soundbite politics. Within a few years they had become the twin golden boys of Kinnock's reformed Labour Party. Night after night, week after week, year after year, they pursued a long conversation about the future of leftist politics. Intellectually, they almost fused. Politically, their intense friendship formed the core of the modernizing Labour camp. And, as they looked to the future, the stated assumption was that Brown, as the senior partner of the two, would one day be the candidate for the leadership of the party. And that Blair would support him.

After Kinnock lost the 1987 and 1992 elections, John Smith, a lovely, heavyweight Scottish lawyer with a formidable appetite for whiskey and social reform, became leader. By the time he dropped dead with his second heart attack, in 1994, Blair had begun to edge ahead of Brown as potential leadership material. Indeed, in the interim, something had happened to Gordon Brown. He had been over-coached in soundbite politics. His obsessive interest in appearing on every radio and television show had become something of a joke. The job of trying to fashion a leftish economic policy that didn't require higher taxes or protectionism took its toll. He became the grinch that stole the left's reflationary Christmas.

Blair, by contrast, had enjoyed a series of political successes. He had impressed the Commons by his handling of the opposition to electricity privatization. He had impressed Kinnock by deftly bringing the trade unions round to accepting a change in party policy that ended the "closed shop," by which certain jobs carried the obligation of union membership. And he had impressed the country with the savagery of his attack on the Conservatives' record on law and order. Blair neatly sidestepped the old division, under which the left agonized about social factors while the Tories demanded retribution. He attacked young thugs and the failure of government policy with equal venom.

The shift seemed more genuine than Clinton's crime-bashing because Blair had long been a traditional moralist. "Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime," was the Blair soundbite, and it did what soundbites hardly ever do. It bit. For the first time, it was the Conservatives who were hobbling in retreat over law and order. All this meant that, by the time the shock of John Smith's death reverberated through the Labour movement, Blair had decided to succeed him, whatever Brown decided to do. He had the looks, the accent, the reputation to woo the English middle classes, who had deserted Labour for over a decade. Brown didn't. So Blair decided that destiny trumped friendship. The party agreed. The message for Brown was brutal: in the interests of the party and its modernizers, he should stand aside. Or Blair would beat him anyway.

For days, Brown was in agony. Blair was concerned, even solicitous. But he was implacable. At a now-famous dinner for two at Granita, one of North London's trendier eateries, Brown conceded to Blair. He had decided that to fight his friend would involve calling down "dark and awful forces"--accusations that would divide the modernizers and damage the party. A few weeks later, Blair was elected leader with 57 percent of the total vote, against 24 percent for his nearest, leftist rival.

If Blair's first moment of truth had occurred in the cottages and village halls of a Northern constituency and his second over rocket salad in North London, his third occurred fully in the public gaze, at party conferences in 1994 and 1995. Part four of Clause IV of the 1918 Labour Party constitution had, for generations, been regarded as the party's soul. It was drafted by a middle-class intellectual and a trade union leader during the Russian Revolution, and it committed the Labour Party "to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of distribution, production and exchange...."

Those are fine, biblical cadences; but they committed Labour to the awkward goal of communist equality. At various times Labour leaders had made tentative attempts to revise the words but had drawn back when faced by the ire of party activists who found commitment to socialism on paper a perfectly acceptable alternative to achieving it in practice. Britain is, after all, a nation of antiquarians. But Blair decided to kill off the 1918 commitment and replace it with a modern statement of social-democratic aims. This was an argument he didn't need to have; not many voters had ever heard of Clause IV, never mind being put off by it. But Blair believed it represented a wider dishonesty, the gap between what his party claimed it stood for and what it really stood for.

This goal was revealed in the final passage of Blair's 1994 conference speech. The relevant pages were held back as the rest of the text was circulated to journalists. When the new leader explained what he intended, many of those in the huge hall didn't grasp what was happening. But within minutes Labour's hard-line socialists were furiously denouncing him. For the next six months, a battle took place throughout the party as new wording that explicitly recognized the importance of market economics and competition was slowly digested. Then, in the same ornate Westminster Methodist hall where the original 1918 wording had been voted through, Labour voted earlier this year to approve the new wording by 65 percent. Except, by now, hardly anyone was describing the party as Labour. Blair's preferred party label, New Labour, was being used, proudly or derisively, unthinkingly or satirically, by almost everyone.

The three acts that have done most to shape Blair's political career tell us a lot about Britain's likely next prime minister. He is a ruthless, anti-leftist opportunist who can move at lightning speed: the most formidable attacking politician Labour has had in a generation. But what, to ask a Clintonian question, does he actually believe? Sprawled on a sofa in his jeans, Blair makes no bones about the death of the old left: "There's a sense in which politics has definitively changed, because the era of the great ideology which imposes a solution to every problem in the world has gone. The right has been driven to accept the need for social provision, and the left has been driven to accept the need for a market economy which is not prey to special interest groups of every kind. But the value system that influences policy choices ... is very different [between the parties] and that can lead to different policy outcomes. It's the left, for instance, which is tackling problems of education, welfare-to-work and technological change, far better than the right."

Well, maybe. But whose value systems? Blair has distinguished himself on the left by his unequivocal use of traditional moral language. And unlike Clinton, he carries credibility. Blair is a devout Christian, which is far rarer in Britain than in the United States. He sent his eldest child to a disciplinarian and independent Roman Catholic school. At this year's Labour conference, Blair described the coming general election as nothing less than "a battle for the soul of our nation." He said his generation had enjoyed a thousand material advantages over any previous one but suffered "a depth of insecurity and spiritual doubt they never knew ... frightened for our future and unsure of our soul." He wanted, he said, to make Britain a young country again, a "country reborn." This is the language of evangelism and nearly unheard of in the pragmatic, understated atmosphere of Westminster. While one old salt from the party's left wing left the hall muttering sourly, "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam," Blair's ethical language is touching a chord in the country--among Labour's traditional enemies, too.

That moralism has attracted the admiration of some of the most reactionary commentators in British journalism (and life on earth hasn't evolved anything as reactionary as a right-wing British journalist). Blair even writes ferocious articles for conservative newspapers. A recent op-ed about a 14-year-old hoodlum was titled, "let's teach these `devils' british values." It ended with a call to "Use our British common sense, rediscover our traditional British values, and start to do something about it."

None of which is--how shall we put this?--the quintessence of liberalism. Blair is a moral politician who both by instinct and for calculating electoral reasons will have little truck with relativism. This makes him, however, no different from the pre-Marxist and pre-'60s generations of British radicals, from the Christian Socialists, the high-minded early feminists, the austere Liberal reformers and the working-class stalwarts of the Friendly Societies. And it envelops other, more liberal projects. On home rule for Scotland, the abolition of hereditary peers' voting rights in the House of Lords, the introduction of a British Bill of Rights and a national referendum on a change to the voting system, Blair is more radical than any Labour leader this century. The blend of high-minded Christian rhetoric and ambitious reform is one that Gladstone would have recognized and approved.

Where Blair argues that he differs entirely from today's right is in his commitment to strong social structures. He has been claimed by the communitarian Amitai Etzioni (and he isn't, God knows, alone in that). But if Blair is a communitarian it is something that has grown from his childhood religion and then from his reading of leftish and Christian philosophers like the Scot John Macmurray. It has always been there. Talking about this, again, he conveys a strong belief that these are basic ideas whose time has come: "I think that what the work of Etzioni and people like Anthony Giddens [the British political philosopher] illustrates is that there is a spiritual yearning, not for a return to the past, but for a spirit of community and partnership between people to be more strongly present, and not just the competitive urge. It's only by combining those two impulses of human nature that you get anywhere near the truth."

Perhaps all that's happening is a swing of the social pendulum back from some of the neoliberal instincts of the Reagan-Thatcher years and that Blair, like Clinton, embodies this. But with the Republican surge still flowing in the U.S. and populism resurgent across the West, isn't it naive to argue that a leftish, moral communitarianism is on the march? Blair demurs: "What is fascinating to me now, having traveled more widely, is the similar definitions of the left of center, which return to the ideas of community and solidarity, a strong and decent society backing up the individual, which takes that spirit and reapplies it across the agenda. It's as true whether you are talking to the president of Finland or the president of the United States."

But without hard policies, clear targets and a readiness to take on the big-business interest groups, does any of this actually translate into radical policy? Isn't that part of the lesson of the failures of the Clinton presidency? "I think a lot about the experience of President Clinton. In a sense, the right was in power for so long and had the initiative for so long that the left of center and particular commentators and political acolytes around it lost confidence, and, even when Clinton was doing things that really the left should have been applauding, he never got much credit. I'm talking about government employment programs, and the encouragement of small businesses, and welfare into work. It's only three or four years on from this time, perhaps when you have got other governments in other parts of the world doing similar things, that the character of the new left of center will become clear."

He argues that both he and Clinton suffer from old thinking among the intelligentsia, who remain polarized between new right and old left: "I am constantly struck, both in the U.S. and here, by the degree to which there are a lot of commentators and writers on the left who don't seem to have moved beyond the '60s and '70s and therefore that the sense of an intellectual movement behind the new left today isn't as strong as it should be." What Blair is articulating is not paranoia toward the press but a sense of the isolation of leftish leaders who are trying to negotiate the new reefs and sandbanks of '90s politics, without the old socialist and intellectual cheerleaders. That has meant an unforgiving focus on the character of those politicians themselves. This is an age of political cynicism, and politicians who consciously raise moral hopes are in a peculiarly vulnerable position.

In this area the difference between Clinton and Blair is wide. Thus far, the younger man seems squeaky-clean, one of those '70s students who never took drugs, one of the rare attractive male politicians who has never been accused of taking lovers, a genuine family man. Conservatives find it all too good to be true, and perhaps it is. Perhaps, if he makes it to office, Tony Blair will disappoint his supporters as Clinton has.

But for now, no one will bet on that. For now, he remains the focus for all hope of reform and the first Labour leader for thirty years to be courted by business and the establishment as prime minister-elect. I was ruminating on all this with a senior Tory minister in a Commons lobby when he suddenly sighed and said: "You know, I wish this stuff was football, not politics." I asked why. "Because," said the minister, "if this was football, there would be transfer deals. The Conservative Party could just raise a couple of million and buy bloody Tony Blair." Impeccable though Blair's market credentials now are, that would probably be going too far even for him. When I told him the story, he flashed his now-famous smile. "But it isn't football," he said, "It's much more interesting than that."