Meet the new boss...

... Same as the old boss? Or will Tony Blair be the man to drag Britain kicking and screaming into the modern world?


Christopher Hitchens
May 1, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

the most important single person in the lineup of Britain's "New Labour" government is a lord. If all goes according to plan and Tony Blair is invited round to Buckingham Palace on Friday (the absurd first step in the forming of a British government is an "invitation" from the monarch to do so), then his lord chancellor and chief law officer will be the former Alexander Irvine, a k a Lord Irvine.

First, it was he who took the decision to hire both Blair and Cherie Booth as young members of his "Chambers" or London law firm. He thus laid the cornerstone for an enduringly modern political marriage. His judgment on key matters is not only sought, but attended to.

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Second, his portfolio will include the overhauling of Britain's semi-feudal ancien rigime. And that may emerge as the key difference between a New Labor government and an old Conservative one. This is particularly critical for Blair, since electoral prudence has dictated that he promise little else. No new public works, no big spending programs, no re-nationalized industries, no new taxes -- and Tony Blair knows full well how closely people will read his lips on these matters.

But it won't cost anything to abolish the rights of hereditary peers to vote on legislation. And it won't cost much to set up regional parliaments for Scotland and Wales.

It will also, paradoxically, give the lie to the universal notion that Britain, after 18 years of Tory rule, has become a permanently conservative, Thatcherite country. Although it can be said to have moved to the right as an economy in the last two decades, in many ways it has moved to the left as a society. And the election has reflected that. It would once have been inconceivable, for example, to imagine the queen as a campaign issue. As the writer Anthony Sampson once put it, the Conservative Party somehow persuaded everyone that Her Majesty was one of its dues-paying members. This time, thinking they had pulled another masterfully patriotic stroke, the Tories merely looked stupid when they promised to re-equip the royal yacht Britannia at a cost of 60 million pounds. Instead, there was a fresh rain of downward arrows in the opinion polls.

I have met Tony Blair a few times, and interviewed him on the record. Though I am old enough to have been New Left, I found myself impressed by more than his youth and his charm. Since he has never even pretended -- as did his predecessors, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock -- to be a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, he is free of the pressure to tell tactical lies. In the old days, every Labor capitulation or compromise would have to be justified in near-theological tones: "Hold on comrades, the objective situation is against us; these short-term measures are a temporary necessity." Such rolling hypocrisy was not cost-free: It resulted in a long-term moral and intellectual rot.

No such bullshit from Blair. He accepts British society pretty much as he finds it, wishing only for a few minor upgrades to the system. Such limited ambition increases the probability that said upgrades will actually occur. Under the old windbag Utopians there were screw-ups of such Homeric proportions that not even the despised minor ameliorations got made.

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I don't want to seem uncritical. Blair did mislead me on one thing. I had asked him why he never mentioned his "Christian Socialist" convictions in his public speeches. His reply -- "I basically can't stand people who go on about their religion in public" -- was so welcome to me that I fell for it hook, line and sinker. In the recent campaign, however, he started going on about it a lot, and had himself photographed with advisors wearing clerical collars. Oh well. I suppose I have no one to blame but myself.

Still, if he sticks with his constitutional reform proposals, a more modern European state could yet emerge, its feudal and hereditary privileges finally abolished and the "United Kingdom" the more devolved, federal system the term implies. Even though he has given ground to the so-called "Euro-skeptics" (the cuddly title the xenophobic fanatics of the extreme right have annexed for themselves), there is reason to believe that Blair has something like a European soul.

And what of the Tory Party? It has shown itself incapable even of protecting our totemic national nosh, roast beef -- the surest imaginable symptom of lethal incompetence. Worse, it has tried to blame sinister "foreigners" for its own corruption and mendacity. In its efforts to turn the British Isles into a sort of crummy offshore Serbia, brandishing its own past and the decayed symbols of "sovereignty," it has shown itself comprehensively unfit to govern.

This has made things almost too easy for Blair. Does he understand how lucky the British are to have the United States help shoulder the responsibility for Northern Ireland? Or to have such restrained German politicians to deal with in matters European? More important, does he appreciate that there are still British citizens who don't have two cars and a mortgage? It's because I can't wait to find out that I cast my first-ever non-ideological, indeed almost non-political vote.

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Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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