British politician and Prime Minister Tony Blair (born 1953) ushered a new generation into parliament, and refashioned the Labour Party along the way.
Great Britain's youngest prime minister of the twentieth century, Tony Blair, is leading the charge into the next century. He changed the Labour Party from a backward-looking leftist, socialist, labor-union based political party to a forward-thinking, centrist, free enterprise-friendly organization. He rebranded-a favorite word of "New Labour"-the old Labour Party and, under his leadership, Great Britain is getting a makeover as well. The government tourist agency now touts "Cool Britannia" instead of "Rule Britannia"-a place which is young, arty, technologically advanced, and fun.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 6, 1953, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair learned early on about politics and responsibility. His father, Leo, a successful lawyer and law lecturer, chose to run for parliament as a Tory (conservative) in 1963. He suffered a stroke just before the election, leaving him unable to speak for three years. The three children, Bill the oldest, Tony, and Sarah, the youngest, had to learn to become self-reliant, to be able to cope with the family's financial and emotional stress. His father subsequently transferred his political ambition to his children; and, as Blair said in an interview with Martin Jacques for the London Sunday Times magazine, "It imposed a certain discipline. I felt I couldn't let him down."
But there was another part of the family tree whose genes influenced the young Blair. His natural grandparents (his father was adopted) had been actors and dancers, and Blair followed in their footsteps during his student days. He got rave reviews for his performances at Fettes College, organized gigs for rock groups, and later as a student at St. John's College at Oxford University, he was the lead singer for Ugly Rumors, a rock band playing the music of such groups as Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, and the Doobie Brothers.
In time, however, he followed his father's, not his grandfather's career, and studied law. Upon leaving Oxford, he got an internship with Queen's Counsel (QC) Alexander Irvine. His fellow intern was Cherie Booth, a top graduate of the London School of Economics, a laborite and daughter of actor Tony Booth. Although they were competitors professionally, personal attraction won, and they were married on March 29, 1980. They have three children: Euan, Nicholas, and Kathryn.
Irvine remembered Blair in the New Yorker as being able to absorb difficult issues: "One of his principal skills was absorbing enormously complicated material. Make your best points on the issues-he was very good at that." Blair successfully worked on employment law and commercial cases. This talent to communicate well proved very useful as Blair became involved in local politics.
A Quick Rise Up the Ranks
While Blair's father had been a Tory, Blair joined the Labour Party. In the university days he had read Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky, and even then was exploring how to change the Labour Party. An article in New York Review of Books also claimed, "it is inconceivable that Blair was left untouched" by witnessing the power of the local miners where he grew up. (The Blair family had moved to the industrial city of Durham in northern England after spending several years in Australia.) Nationally, the miners were the main strength of the Labour Party, and the Durham miners were an important political force. In fact, Durham City and County Durham voted labour; only the cathedral, castle and university were Tory.
In 1983 Blair was elected to parliament along with 208 other Labour M.P.s (Members of Parliament), the smallest number since 1935. The Labour Party was in crisis. The crippling public-sector strikes by several unions in the winter of 1978 had contributed to the widespread Tory victory in 1979 because the general populace saw the Labour Party as being controlled by the unions. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's re-election in 1983 was seen as a resounding defeat for the left wing of the Labour Party, and so in October of 1983, Neil Kinnock became the new leader of the party.
Kinnock promoted Blair to opposition spokesperson on treasury and economic affairs (1984-1987), and opposition spokesperson on trade and industry (1987). Blair was then appointed deputy to Bryan Gould, the shadow trade and industry secretary, where he investigated the causes of the October, 1987, stock market crash. In 1988 he made it to the shadow cabinet itself, first as shadow energy secretary, then as shadow employment secretary (1989-1991). After the 1992 election, which brought the Tory John Major to power, Kinnock had to resign, and John Smith, another moderate succeeded him. He appointed Blair shadow home secretary. After Smith's death in 1994, Blair was elected as leader of the Labour Party.
Government and Individual Responsibility
If Labour was going to win the 1997 election, it was going to have to refashion its message. Blair combined the traditional emphasis of Labour on the responsibility of the community with the Conservative's emphasis on the individual. As he said during an interview in January of 1993 on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend, a Labour government would be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime." Blair also called for a nation "where people succeed on the basis of what they give to their country," as noted in Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service.
This philosophy had evolved during his early years. During university he was confirmed in the Church of England and had become committed to social change using Christian values. Family and community values were to be reintroduced into liberal rhetoric, and it was government's job to create the condition in which families could prosper. There was to be social accountability for the community and government as well as the individual. Blair also saw the disintegration of the Soviet Union and knew that the Labour Party could not hope to appeal to voters just using the old ideas of the welfare state with its emphasis on nationalized industry, union privileges, and social entitlements.
Blair was able to push through his ideas because the Labour Party had changed how it elected its leaders. In the past, officials had been elected by a system of block votes, which were divided among special interest groups and leaders-trade unions and M.P.s, for example-rather than by one vote per person. Blair had tried to institute "one person, one vote" at his local party branch in 1980, but failed. However, the system had just been changed with a compromise version of one vote per person when Blair ran for the party leadership in 1994. This worked to his advantage because the new voting method used his skills. According to biographer John Rentoul's Tony Blair, "Blair is a mass politician rather than a club operator. His straightforward, clear-speaking style, combined with his openness to the media, are qualities now needed for both kinds of contest."
A New Party Platform
In another move to reform British politics, Blair succeeded in persuading members to have the party's charter rewritten. He specifically targeted the 1918 Clause Four which called for the redistribution of wealth-a "communist equality"-through "common ownership of the means of distribution, production, and exchange." This section was rewritten to reflect modern social democratic aims. A major stumbling block had now been removed as the party could no longer be labeled just the party of the working class. Blair also eliminated planks on full employment, the welfare state, and unilateral nuclear disarmament. New Labour supported European integration and free enterprise while downsizing budget deficits and resisting inflation. It worked. Blair, with no union roots, won the national election in May of 1997, with Labour winning a majority of 179 seats out of 659 in the House of Commons, Labour's biggest majority ever.
That summer, Blair's popularity stood at 82 percent. "His youthful enthusiasm and energy add to his popularity," noted Barry Hillenbrand in Time. Britons liked his style, and as Adam Gopnik put it in his July 7, 1997, article for the New Yorker, they liked New Labour's "desire to end the deference culture." No more looking towards the upper classes, the past, or the nation's history; this was the new generation. As reported in the New Yorker, Blair told the October 1994 Labour Party conference, "I want us to be a young country again. Not resting on past glories. Not fighting old battles…. Not saying, 'This was a great country.' But 'Britain can and will be a great country again."' Blair, with his focus on the future, was able to "make optimism fashionable," according to Gopnik.
"Modernization is the young Prime Minister's mantra," noted Hillenbrand. Blair's proposed reforms to welfare spending and programs were generally well-received. "Blair thinks the government does have a role to play in helping people and assuring social justice," declared Hillenbrand. Blair's $4.33 billion training program for young welfare recipients provided education to expand employment opportunities. He also ended steps to privatize the British National Health Service, thus ensuring that all British citizens had access to health care. One of his more unpopular proposals-decreasing benefits to single parents on welfare-still passed by a large majority in the House of Commons. While Blair has made no move to change the previous administration's anti-union laws, he has managed to lessen the class divisions that separate the nation. If, as some argued, Blair had taken the "labour" out of the party, no one was listening.
Blair has also taken a high profile position on British-Irish relations. In the 30-year war in Northern Ireland between the Catholic minority and the Protestant, British-favoring majority, he has broken with the previous administration's position that all sides must lay down arms before sitting down to talk. Instead, "parallel decommissioning" calls for both sides to gradually lay down arms while talking. Although not handicapped as were his predecessors by a reliance on Northern Ireland's Protestant voters, Blair has been aware of trying to look even handed. In a series of peace talks between the warring factions, Blair has supported a peaceful Northern Ireland. He continually negotiated to keep all the political parties at the table, even those with paramilitary links. In April of 1998, the leaders in Northern Ireland reached agreement, ending three decades of warfare. According to the terms of the agreement, a new Northern Ireland Assembly would be created, giving the Irish Republic (the Southern portion of the island) a say in the affairs of the North. In return, the Irish Republic would cease efforts to reclaim the North. A British-Irish Council would also be created to link Northern Ireland with Wales, Scotland, and England. Blair has received much credit for his diplomatic skills in seeing this peace achieved.
In Europe, Blair has taken a more traditional stand. While his popularity has crossed borders and he has become a well-known and respected politician, he is definitely aware of the resistance to integration at home. While portraying Britain as "a leading player" in Europe, the country is still keeping its right to "opt-out." In his first major meeting with European leaders, he voted to block an enhanced defense role for the European Union, keep passport controls at the borders, and sided with Germany when France's socialist government tried to ease the economic rigor agreed upon to establish a single currency.
Whether or not Great Britain eventually joins the European Union, Blair hopes to turn the country into a leading force. His efforts to modernize both his political party and his country have not gone unnoticed. Hillenbrand noted that contemporary European politicians are imitating his policies, from Gerhard Schroeder in Germany to Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok. As Blair declared in his address to the October 1994 Labour Party conference: "I didn't come into politics to change the Labour Party. I came into politics to change the country."
Further Reading on Tony Blair
Rentoul, John, Tony Blair, Warner Books, 1996.
Economist, May 31, 1979, p. 47-48; June 14, 1997, p. 16; June 21, 1997.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, September 1, 1994; October 7, 1995.
New Statesman, June 20, 1997; June 27, 1997, p. 15.
Newsweek, April 20, 1998, p. 34.
New Yorker, August 22, 1994, p. 66; February 5, 1996, p. 39; July 7, 1997.
New York Review of Books, June 12, 1997, p. 10-11.
Time, May 18, 1998, pp. 60-62.
U.S. News & World Report, May 12, 1997, p. 39.
Village Voice, June 3, 1997, p. 26.
Tony Blair interview with Nick Clarke, The World This Weekend, BBC Radio 4, January 10, 1993.