Is There Life After Tony Blair?
Even by the standards we have come to expect from them, it was an outrageous piece of New Labour spin to tell us that the leadership handover between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would be “smooth and orderly”. For one thing Blair and his cronies must have known that announcing his intention to resign on some unnamed, unpredictable date in the future ensured that the handover would take place after a long period of chaos as a succession of hopefuls – and no-hopers – pushed themselves as potential leaders. We had already had the sly briefing about Gordon Brown’s alleged “psychological flaws” (which must apply to many politicians). The infighting could have been prevented by settling on a firm date but whenever this was raised with Blair he brushed it aside by saying that he would go when he had done his job of clearing up a few trivial matters like crime, the wars in the Middle East and Iraq, the NHS, education, poverty…The very idea is laughable, that there will ever, can ever, be a day when a political leader can pass into well earned retirement because they have succeeded in making all the necessary adjustments and improvements to society, so that from now on all will be smooth and orderly. While there is no evidence that Blair is an avid student of history it is clear that he has absorbed many of its essential lessons in the sleazier arts of politics.
What can be said, on that score, about Gordon Brown? When he made that deal, across the Granita table, with Blair, did he not have an inkling of what he was committing himself to? Was he entirely innocent of any doubts about politicians’ readiness to keep their word? Did he not reflect on the examples of other nominated heirs to a party leadership who had failed miserably to achieve it? When the Attlee government was elected in 1945 the Deputy Leader of the party was Herbert Morrison, a canny, cocky political operator with the common touch. In contrast, Attlee was understated, not to say drab; when he was made Leader in 1935 Hugh Dalton, who was later Chancellor of the Exchequer, bemoaned “…a wretched and disheartening result…And a little mouse shall lead them”. After Labour’s emphatic win Morrison made it clear that he had no intention of agreeing to Attlee as Prime Minister and that, before he accepted he job, Attlee should submit himself to a vote of confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party.
This was the kind of situation which, in recent times, must have provoked an incandescent row between Brown and Blair. Attlee, however, was in a different mode. After his election triumph he went quietly with his wife for tea at the Great Western Hotel in London and it was there, among the delicate china and the scones, he was told that King George VI was anxious to fill the vacancy for a new government for British capitalism and would he please go to Buckingham Palace to set the royal mind at rest. Attlee took the view that the monarch should not be kept waiting while the Parliamentary Labour Party made up its mind so he went at once to the Palace where “without quibbles” as he put it, he accepted the top job. (He got his vote of confidence the next day – as if an hysterically triumphant, desperately ambitious, party would ever have dreamed of denying it to him).
Attlee later described the notion of Morrison being party leader as “fantastic” – seriously out of touch with reality. He continued as leader after his government were defeated in the 1951 election, leaving Morrison to sulk and snipe, fretful in the knowledge that the longer Attlee stayed on the weaker his chances of succeeding. It was clear at that time that if the Labour Party was to have any hope of clawing their way back into government they would need to undertake a comprehensive overhaul of their policies and presentation but Attlee was too weary after his years in government to do anything about it. That was probably the time for him to retire but instead he kept going, which had the effect of stifling Morrison’s leadership chances (Morrison was, of course, convinced that this was the motivation). After Labour was defeated again, in 1955, Attlee carried on for a few months and then suddenly resigned, going to the House of Lords. The delay in his going had had its effect; Hugh Gaitskell had emerged as the likeliest leadership candidate and he won the ballot over both Morrison and Aneurin Bevan, leaving Morrison to nurse his bitter disappointment.
The Tory government which followed had its own inheritance problems for Winston Churchill had always made it clear that he would be succeeded as leader by his Deputy Anthony Eden; for example in 1942 Churchill told the King that if he failed to return from one of his trips abroad Eden should be asked to take his place. In spite of the Tories’ calamitous defeat in the 1945 election Churchill hung on as leader (in any case he never made any secret of his reluctance to take account of his party’s wishes). But he was bored in opposition and he might have resigned then except that his “Iron Curtain” speech seemed to revive his confidence in himself as an historic figure so he stayed, while playing on Eden’s loyalty by throwing out occasional hints that he would hand over in the near future – rather like Tony Blair today. At the same time Churchill made it clear that he would regard any suggestion that he should resign as base treachery. Even when he had a succession of strokes, notably in 1949 and 1953, which progressively disabled him, he kept himself in the job. It seemed as if he would never go.
The grinding pressure of disappointment aggravated Eden’s emotional and medical difficulties; at the time of Churchill’s 1953 stroke Eden was convalescing abroad after an operation, which prevented him taking over. In any case Churchill, in the words of his son Randolph, “fought his way back to health with a Roman mastery of mind over flesh” so that he was still Prime Minister when he turned 80 in November 1954. He resigned in April 1955 and Eden came at last into his inheritance, except that it was a procession of disasters. Under scathing criticism from a normally loyal Tory press – the Daily Telegraph ranted about “changes of mind by the Government; half measures; and the postponement of decisions” – the breaking point for him was his obsessive but doomed attempt to revive the standing of British capitalism in the Middle East by the Suez invasion (his wife later told how at times she had felt as if the Suez Canal was running through their living room). By now a very sick man, virtually living on prescribed drugs, Eden gave up and went to the West Indies to recuperate. After all that waiting, he had been Prime Minister for less than two years.
A common factor in these episodes, as with the present clash between Blair and Brown, is the absence of any differences in policy. The disputes were not about whether to run capitalism but who should be allowed to indulge their ambitions by doing so. From those roots a tangled growth of spite and venom has flourished, in
which Brown abruptly ceased to be the assumed, widely welcomed, successor to Blair and instead became the target of vicious personal attacks, some of which originated from people who were themselves far from blameless. “Compulsive obsessive”, “autistic” and “childish vanity” were among the kinder assessments of Brown.
Perhaps most audacious of all was Charles Clarke’s charge that Brown is a “control freak”, which overlooked the fact that when he was Home Secretary Clarke was a relentless, determined advocate of Identity Cards. The winner of this “smooth and orderly process” among contestants who lay down laws which are designed to instruct us how to behave will be whoever emerges with the least shredded clothing and the fewest wounds.