Dr Britain

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

William Empson, ‘Missing dates’ (1937) in Complete Poems (2000)

During the 2001 electoral campaign (as for years before) political journalists puzzled over the personality of Tony Blair. The American observer Joe Klein, for example, commented after a day on the campaign trail:

Blair does have a rather synthetic quality, ‘A man without a hinterland’ Roderick Nye, the policy director for the Tories, says. And there is an indescribable something missing from his public persona … He recently acknowledged enjoying The Simpsons. But he always leaves one wondering if moments like The Simpsons revelation are, somehow, tactical — the latest planned attempt at humanization. (New Yorker, 4 June 2001)

He compares Blair to President Clinton in this respect. However comparable in policy terms, he says, the two remain oceans apart as public personae. On election day itself the Guardian published another attempt by Klein at reading the oracle:

Even now, as he approaches a likely second landslide, no-one seems to know how Tony Blair feels as a person or, more to the point, who he is. This is both extraordinary and mystifying. He is about as familiar as a public figure can be. We know that he is religious … But there remains an ineffable something missing. There is an antiseptic, impenetrable, stainless-steel brightness to Blair. There are no rough edges, few edges of any sort …

These are very perceptive comments, but they may also be out of focus. The absence of a readable ‘hinterland’ and of ‘rough edges’, spontaneity somehow rendered contrived or deliberate, a somewhat super-human demeanour salted by affectations of impulse or immediacy: these are indeed enigmatic as individual traits. However, they are also perfect descriptions of Britishness. They seem to delineate a social, collective ethos rather than personal idiosyncracies.

The identity which they replicate is also rather out-dated: a ‘Britishness’ which was — rather than the confusion of the present. But there may be good reasons for this. Like Blair’s increasingly prominent religiosity, it may be felt as a necessary condition of acceptability. After all, we know political parties are among the most conservative of social bodies, and in this case they live in the most profoundly conservative of states. These frameworks compel the present to embody the past — however much ‘radicalism’ is spouted at the same time.

The effect is indeed that of a magician who has made a compact with a ghost — the haunting presence of a spirit, ‘elusive’ mainly in the sense of significantly detached from interlocutors and the contemporary public. Yet the detachment gives him a certain leverage over his audience. The mixture of phlegm and steeliness which Klein noted creates a space of surmise. Beholders are usually tempted to think that if they behave correctly, then he might still produce what they want out of the enigmatic hat. Blair never quite escapes the suspicion of not quite being himself — as distinct from pretending to be his own self. But this edgelessness can also be interpreted as a constantly moving promise. Liberal commentators who on 6 and 7 June ended up urging readers to vote New Labour after all (‘critically’, in spite of blatant failure, etc.) did so entirely in those terms: ‘He may yet still … ‘ (and so forth).

‘Identity’ in this sense is a fusion of the personal and the social, which also means ‘national’. Nobody ever doubted for a second that Mrs Thatcher or John Major were English, however loudly they orated in the name of Britain. No one would see Gordon Brown as other than Scottish, however hard he fights for the Union. The Welshness of former party leader Neil Kinnock was legendary, even though he opposed Welsh devolution as expensive parochialism. But Tony Blair? The absent or fog-shrouded hinterland means that he is somehow just ‘British’, or possibly English-British — enough of the former to reassure, but with the emphasis strongly on the latter. This is surely the source of that ‘synthetic’ dimension Klein identifies.

‘Britain’ is of course by definition a nationless identity. Different components of it tend to project on to it what they wish or need to see. Immigrants hope ‘nationless’ means (or can be made to mean) ‘multi-national’, or ‘multi-cultural’. Fascists hope it means ‘racial’, the figurative common blood of Aryanism. Middle-Englanders trust it will go on just meaning what it used to mean, ‘for all practical purposes’. The Scottish, Welsh and Ulster-Unionist servants of synthetic statehood want it to go on including them — which it can now do only if everybody is kept in line and forcibly restored to British belief and traditions.

No doubt much in Blair’s personal story contributed to today’s persona: the Scottish and North-Eastern background, formation at Fettes Public School, on the ‘outer ring’ of the old indoctrination system; an ideologically salient environment (Communism to Thatcherism); ‘finishing’ in Oxford, where with a rock band he underwent a famous Zeitgeist moment of adaptation; and then his legal training with Lord Irvine of Lairg. A leader persona is formed by the synthesis of such factors with institutional constraints — in this case, the ultra-Great-Brit Labour Party, which just as Blair joined up was discovering that it could lose its Socialism a lot more easily than its Britishness. It needed a figurehead shaped for the latter, and relatively uncontaminated by the former. And in Tony Blair, it found (so to speak) Dr Jekyll without Mr Hyde: a rare hybrid capable of ‘fronting’’the Movement’s transformation into the neo-liberal world bequeathed by Mrs Thatcher.

The factors making Blair ideal for ‘New Labour’ also help to dispel worry about what he may turn into. After the election, for example, we find one of Scotland’s finest political analysts still perplexed by the problem. ‘Will the Real Tony Blair Stand Up?’ Iain Macwhirter asked in the Sunday Herald (10 June 2001). ‘It is strange and a little scary, that we know so little about the Prime Minister’, he comments, even after electing him with two landslides:

In the past, Tony Blair perhaps felt that he had to be all things to all men — and women. That to make Labour electable it had to win Sun readers as well as the Guardian’s. But after Landslide 2 he has no longer any excuse for ideological evasion (and) … can no longer allow his party and personality to look as if they are a media creation. He now has to walk the walk. And this he intends to do.

Labour is going to get much tougher, he concludes. I’m sure this is right. But I doubt if it will be because the ‘real’ Blair finally emerges. What we have seen so far is what we are likely to get. No alter ego is waiting to pounce. But there is a seriously threatened Britishness, which New Labour’s leader is bound to take ‘personally’. Quite apart from the vexing dilemma of the Euro-currency referendum (which will have to be won in all four countries of the United Kingdom), there is the question of the Barnett Formula and winning the next elections in Scotland and Wales — while keeping the Northern Ireland Agreement alive. All these will require a sustained barrage of no-nonsense Union triumphalism from the Prime Minister and his watchdogs (primarily the Scottish contingent).

Tony Blair is essentially a vehicle of ‘transformism’ — trasformismo as it was once called in Italy — the mechanism of theft and adaptation by which Left becomes Right, or vice-versa, always in the name of the State. No longer possible without devolution, New Labourite transformation demanded in compensation an ultra-British accentuation of the dominant climate, and a corresponding change in popular attitudes — precisely what the aggravated, even hysterical, populism of the first New Labour government has been seeking to achieve. The Greenwich Dome was intended to be a mighty landmark for that direction in affairs — the enduring symbol of a United Kingdom reborn and ready for another century. As the whole world knows, it was a farce. There was nothing — or nothing suitable — to fill it with. Like ‘Britain’, its historic contents and purpose had been lost, and no amount of money and cultural striving could put them back again. So it turned almost at once into a poison sac, an abscess of miserable disputes and corrupt hand-outs which was miraculously kept more or less out of view during the recent electoral campaign. ‘Dr Britain’ was triumphantly reinstalled on a quarter of the votes. Now the poison will have at least four more years, and quite possibly nine or ten, to slowly fill the whole bloodstream of the British state-nation.

In retrospect one may also see the sense of the Blair-Brown conundrum more clearly. Whether or not, as was rumoured, they arrived at some kind of compact about leadership after John Smith’s death, the choice was never between ‘England’ and Scotland. Labour may indeed have been chary about another Scottish leader, but the quandary was in any case resolved by Blair’s Britishness. It is doubtful if many wanted an English captain in any emphatic or ethnic sense. Absence of ‘hinterland’ and cloudy religiosity were much safer, and made up for suspicions of shallowness or brashness.

What was safer then is probably even more necessary now. ‘England’ has become more politically salient since 1995, and the Scottish Parliament is likely to challenge the economic basis of the 1998 Scotland Act — the fiscal dependency of the block grant. However, these and other problems seem likely to underwrite Tony Blair’s leadership rather than demolish it. Who else in the ranks of New Labour can ‘speak for Britain’ in just his easy fashion? None of the Westminster Scots, for sure. Soon, they will all be preoccupied with ‘saving the Union’, a project even more hopeless than the Millennium Dome.

Tom Nairn is Professorial Fellow in Politics at Monash University

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