New Diana, New Danger
The day after Tony Blair's speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, the Sun printed a full-page editorial in praise of 'the People's Prime Minister'. It might have been more appropriate for the new toadies of the ex-Tory press to go the whole hog and proclaim him the People's Prince.
With the spirit of Diana, People's Princess, infusing his conference vision of Britain in the twenty-first century, Blair has now assumed the Di-given authority to impose his new moral order almost by royal decree. Next time the Queen says she feels too tired to rule in the modern world, somebody should tell her that Blair has more or less packed her off to bed already.
After the party political conference season, Blair could claim to command an unheard-of degree of support, or at least acquiescence, across British society. A well-publicised 'private' Labour Party poll gave him an approval rating of 93 per cent. An independent Mori poll put him at 75 per cent - 10 points up in the month since Diana's death, and fully 16 points above the previous highest-recorded approval rating of 59 per cent, for Margaret Thatcher after her victory in the 1982 Falklands War.
Such levels of public support are normally reserved for dictators who stuff ballot boxes and bury their critics. But Blair is no self-serving tyrant. He is a churchy, caring professional filled with all the values of Britain AD (After Diana): compassionate, giving, community-minded and claiming a special feel for the emotional will of 'the People'. And that is what makes his new status so dangerous.
Like Diana did before her death, Blair has ascended into the heavens above the moral high ground, looking down on the insect-life scurrying around in the sordid world of politics below. 'I am not a political figure, I am a humanitarian', Diana would say when cynical Tories accused her of meddling in politics with her campaigns against landmines. That might have sounded fair enough for a fairy tale princess, but Blair has now adopted a similarly high-minded line, giving him the distinction of being the first prime minister effectively to reject party politics.
Blair's great success has been in separating himself from the Labour Party. Despite the feverish media attempts to resurrect the threat from the old, dead left, this year's Labour conference confirmed that Blair is under no pressure from his party. He is not in any sense accountable to the trade unions, the constituency activists, the MPs or even the rest of the New Labour cabinet. He does not need them, so he will not heed them. The threatened conference floor revolts, over issues like fees for unversity students, were not so much crushed as simply waved away with a flick of the leader's regal wrist, while Blair's big speech was clearly directed over the party delegates' heads to the world outside the conference hall.
Having divorced himself from his party, Blair is better able to act as the anointed conscience of the nation, as when he spoke outside his local church on the morning of the princess' death. 'Think of it', says Newsweek, 'as the Dianafication of Tony Blair'. Or the investiture of the People's Prince.
From this elevated position it has been possible for Blair to bring the entire British establishment behind him. With the fear of the left vanquished, Blair can present an image of firm ethical leadership for all those who feel they have been cast adrift by the collapse of the Tory Party, traditional flagship of the British elite. It is the near-universal acceptance which Blair has won from the erstwhile enemy camps of business, the media and the state machine which has allowed a New Labour premier to win public approval ratings that no old Tory could ever dream of.
It is now deemed blasphemous for anybody in Britain to whisper a criticism of Diana. Blair has not quite reached that state of grace, but he is not far short of it judging by the lack of any serious criticism of his actions to date. 'Blair is doing a good job' has become, like 'Diana did so much for people', a mantra of our times, one which you can hear repeated unthinkingly all over the country by people of all persuasions.
And just as every public figure wants to walk in Diana's footsteps or claim some association with her spirit, so the rest of the political world is now desperate to be seen to be emulating the admirable Blair. The political conference season this autumn showed that there are now really three New Labour parties competing in parliament.
First on was the Lib-Dem New Labour Party, with leader Paddy Ashdown acting as Blair's friendly warm-up man. Then came the main act, the New Labour Party itself, whose conference was the sort of slick performance you would expect from the star of the seaside show. Finally came the Tory New Labour Party, with William Hague doing his impression of Tony Blair, and Michael Portillo trying to sound like Peter Mandelson. Hague's fumbling attempt to distance himself from the 'dinosaurs' and blue-rinse brigade of the Tory Party membership, and to speak instead to the new elite in the Blairite language of compassion and 'inclusiveness', paid a big compliment to the way in which the People's Prince has redrawn the political and moral map.
One consequence of the post-Diana mood in politics is that Blair can get away with almost anything at the moment, can do pretty much what he likes without facing any oppos-ition. Nobody who hopes to be taken seriously will accuse the worthy Blair of protecting special interests or of selfishly abusing his power. After all he is simply being compassionate, doing what is Right for all of Britain, acting upon the will of the People.
This consensus gives Blair's government apparently limitless opportunities to introduce the kind of measures which, in a different context, might have provoked fierce criticism.
As examined elsewhere in this issue of LM, by presenting his latest law and order campaign in the fashionable packaging of anti-racism, child protection and parental responsibility, Home Secretary Jack Straw can introduce more repressive measures than anything his predecessors tried. And by calling for people to unite in the new Dianaesque spirit of 'a giving age', Blair can get a standing ovation for demanding sacrifices in living standards of a kind which, 20 years ago, got the last Labour chancellor booed at his own party conference.
The long-term trend for political power in Britain to shift from parliament to the cabinet has now taken on a new dimension, as Blair increasingly bypasses the established electoral-political process altogether in favour of running things with a few hand-picked courtiers, even allowing Ashdown of the Liberal Democrats and possibly a Tory like Ken Clarke access to his inner circle.
Yet despite the autocratic fashion in which the Blair regime is pushing through its measures, the prime minister has avoided being held responsible for anything. Instead Blair insists over and again that he is the servant not the master, and that the government is 'yours' not his. Like Diana, his claim to public authority rests upon the notion of a special relationship with those he truly serves, 'the People' - a phrase he used almost 50 times in his conference speech.
Amid the general media euphoria following that speech, some of the more seasoned commentators made the obvious point that, whenever a politician invokes the authority of the people with a capital 'P', something authoritarian is likely to be afoot. Blair is not talking about demos - the concept of the people as the basis of real democracy. His 'People' is a stage army of atomised individuals, constructed and orchestrated by the prime minister and his media managers, which can now be called upon to legitimise just about any measure of regulation or censorship, or to force any dissidents into line - as even the Queen found out when she was made to bow to 'the People's demands' around Diana's funeral. Blair's contract with 'the People' is a blank cheque that his government can fill in as it goes along.
The cult of 'the People' which began with the funeral has since reached some bizarre lengths. When Marcus Harvey's controversial picture of Myra Hindley was attacked, the Blairite Mirror front-paged the story under the headline 'Defaced by the People in the name of Common Decency'. It seems that even an act of petty vandalism - not normally what you associate with Blair's 'Zero Tolerance' of crime - can now be justified, so long as it was the invisible hand of 'the People' which threw the eggs and paint in what is officially deemed a righteous cause. However, if any real people were to take their apparent new power seriously, and demand higher wages, better roads, more adult humour on television, or the right to smoke in public or swear at the football, they are likely to find that they are given short shrift by their self-styled servants in the government.
From his lofty perch above the hoi polloi, the People's Prince can look down upon his New Britain with smug satisfaction. With the holy ghost of Diana at his shoulder, he has already rewritten the rules and language of politics and gone some way towards establishing a new sense of order and authority in society, at a time when the old institutions and values are in disgrace. We can be certain, however, that Blair has only just begun, and that much worse is yet to come: more calls for sacrifice, more moral decrees about how we should live our lives. The 'giving age' is going to cost us plenty.
Everybody agrees that the current state of affairs cannot last forever, that Blair cannot keep riding so high in the popularity stakes once political and economic problems start to mount. But if imitation Blairs like 'Huggy' Hague and 'Tolerant' Portillo are the only alternative on offer, the People's Prince seems set to lord it over us for some time to come.
Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997