Tony Blair’s revolution

25 years on, was New Labour worth it?

Other articles in this series >

April 27, 2022

“I have always believed that politics is first and foremost about ideas,” Blair declared in 1998. At the time, it was probably meant as a dig at the grey-toned, sleaze-riddled Tory administration that had clung to power, seemingly without vision or principles, for a full eight years after Thatcher’s defenestration. But Blair’s invocation of “ideas” wasn’t just about sharpening the contrast between him and the stuffy rump Conservative administration.

I was born the year Margaret Thatcher came to power, 1979, and cast my first vote the year the man she called her “greatest success” scored his first landslide victory. Over my lifetime the contours of respectable politics have been defined by the joint trajectory they set. Now, 25 years after Blair’s landslide victory, it’s clear that his legacy is best understood in conjunction with hers.

Like Thatcher, Blair was animated by a powerful vision. His was also, like hers, a politics of the ideal: of elevating the abstract over the material world. And together, they’ve delivered a politics in which the ruling class has withdrawn en masse from engaging with the world as it is, preferring the world as they think it should be. Today, we live with the monstrous offspring of their combined economic and cultural politics of abstraction. Blending Thatcherite callousness for the politically weak with the providential self-righteousness of Blairism, their legacy has fused in a politico-commercial basilisk that proposes to rule us all: woke capital.

Many of those who, unlike me, remember the Seventies will tell you Britain’s economy wasn’t in a happy place back then. Britain was “the sick man of Europe”, all crumbling public services, sclerotic nationalised industries and rolling strikes. Thatcher’s leadership transformed this Britain, forcing the economy kicking and screaming away from earning a living by making stuff toward earning a living by manipulating ideas.

Deindustrialisation was brutally swift: between the second quarter in 1979 and the second quarter in 1981, manufacturing employment fell by 17% and manufacturing output fell by 20%. During her tenure, financial services rose from 15% to 24% of the economy, while manufacturing slumped from 21% to 17%. The impact was, as is now well-documented, not evenly felt. Knowledge-industry hubs such as London, Cambridge and Milton Keynes boomed, while those dependent on manufacturing languished. My childhood in the Home Counties was comfortable; my Liverpool-born husband remembers a graffiti slogan in the Merseyside of “managed decline” that read: “WILL THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS”.

The Old Left served as the political voice of workers in the real economy. But with the unions broken and industries privatised, that Labour Party was permanently crippled as a cultural force. Blair, though, carved out a new role for the Labour Party by transposing the politics of de-materialisation from the economic to the social domain.

Out went unequal power relations grounded in the material dynamics of labour and capital; in came unequal power relations based on abstract identity groups. But Blair’s politics of abstraction went well beyond the newfound emphasis on identities, to suffuse much less obviously political facets of the Nineties and Noughties zeitgeist. Notably, he radically accelerated the transformation Thatcher inaugurated of that quintessential material marker of place and belonging — a home — into an asset class.

When he came to power, the cost of a home was around four times the average salary, where — with a few blips — it had been for the best part of a century. Since then, with only a brief post-crash hiatus, that multiple has rocketed to eight times the average salary and continues to climb. London’s housing stock is now, notoriously, a store of value for the international overclass of oligarchs created by financialisation post-Thatcher, and subsequently courted by Blair.

In this era came, too, a joyful rush to “modernise” all the comforts of home. The ebullient aesthetic of “Cool Britannia” sought to drag everything from food to furniture, interior design and tableware, from the stodgy domains of function and tradition and subject it to the “creative industries”: a sector enthusiastically championed as a core powerhouse for the new, dematerialised, ideas-only Britain.

From the late Nineties through the mid Noughties, an aesthetic tidal wave swept over Britain, replacing anything even faintly suburban or Tory-coded (carpets in pubs, cream leather sofas, anything beige or burgundy for example) with “modern” lines and bright colours. Old things were all very well, but only once they’d been self-consciously “upcycled”: claw-foot bathtubs painted in “quirky” colours, or fish and chips given a Jamie Oliver makeover.

Meanwhile, Old Left rallying terms such as “community” and “solidarity” lost their grounding in physical work or geographies, and became abstractions accessible to all.

Nationhood was yanked free of anything organic, chthonic or — heaven forbid — ethnic, and given a “quirky” makeover so it, too, could serve as an access-all-areas abstraction.

There were Union Jack flags on everything, from cushions to Mini Coopers and Geri Halliwell, while “Britishness” was retooled so its previous connotations were recast as repellently “nativist” and low-status. A new vision of “Britishness” was promulgated in its place: more like a gym membership (or indeed a de-materialised asset class), compatible with free movement in the expanded European Union, and acquired simply by moving to Britain and paying your taxes.

Blair even incubated today’s ideas-only art world. Number 10 saw visits from the Young British Artists, whose controversy-courting works comprised nothing figurative or traditional, but artfully-titled pickled sharks and unmade beds: works of pure idea.

Thatcher shifted us irrevocably toward rule by abstraction when she broke the unions and permanently disabled the Old Left’s industrial-worker power-base. And Blair, too, made his contributions to the politics of abstraction permanent — by restructuring Britain’s economy again, toward the over-production of knowledge workers.

He did this first by shifting university funding onto a loan model, then replacing the cap on student numbers with a target of 50% of young people attaining a degree. The entirely foreseeable effects of this policy have been much discussed since, and include grade inflation, credentialism, regional “brain drain”, and a proliferation of resentful, underpaid and increasingly radical young progressives, among many others.

On occasion, Tories in the current administration will gesture at fixing one of these problems. But just as Blair had no option but a leftism of abstractions, so the Tory administration that succeeded him is stuck with the machine that overproduces the unreality class. For the student loan machine serves a secondary function, as an off-the-books subsidy to areas devastated by Thatcher’s economic de-materialisation. And this is of such structural importance to the British economy that neither party can afford to turn off the spigot.

A second-order effect of this quandary is to entrench the mass immigration that accompanied Blair’s “gym membership” version of national identity. This policy is so unpopular among Britain’s rump of real-economy workers that it made a significant contribution to perhaps the strongest protest we’ve seen against the politics of abstraction to date: Brexit. But when status, funding, voice and other perks overwhelmingly accrue to the unreality class, who can blame young people from seeking the credentials to join it? And this in turn leaves a slew of vacancies in real-economy work, such as care and agriculture, that must be filled from somewhere.

Meanwhile, few among the elite retain enough of a foothold in the real economy to resist the now well-embedded cross-party domination by denizens of this world of pure idea. So, unsurprisingly, we find all manner of issues now split along the reality/unreality axis.

Lockdowns, for example, were experienced quite differently by those with knowledge-based jobs and those whose daily activities take place in the material world. Elsewhere, it’s hard to reconcile views on transgender rights between those who experience sex dimorphism as materially significant, and those who see it as a set of abstract social constructions.

Was Blair the architect of the burgeoning 21st-century elite war on reality, though, or just the avatar for a larger trend? Similar patterns can be seen across many developed economies: across the pond, for example, America had Reaganism and Clintonism. And recent debates in countries such as France and America suggest a similar divergence between a tone-deaf elite bedazzled by abstractions, and a resentfully subaltern class that still inhabits the much-deprecated real economy.

But even if Blair didn’t force this on Britain out of nowhere, so much as steer the country according to prevailing winds, he still made a unique contribution: a distinctively Blairish sense of providential moral certainty that now overlays growing swathes of the economic individualism Thatcher inaugurated.

For if Thatcher believed markets and privatisation would deliver improved services for the British public across the board, it was under Blair that the corporate world embraced the idea that commercial and moral incentives could be aligned, for the benefit of all. The “Third Way” didn’t just involve sweet-talking oligarchs for a bit more tax take, or a slew of costly and ineffective “market” mechanisms in the NHS, but also a full-bore drive to fuse morality and profit via “social enterprise” policy, a move that tilled crucial soil for what we now know as “woke capital”.

And of course what this means in practice is less businesses doing good, than vast corporations hectoring us about abstract things that don’t impact their profits (such as pronouns) while remaining as avaricious as ever about material things that do (such as the housing crisis).

So it was Maggie and Tony together who created the conditions for the 21st-century war on reality we’re all now enjoying — a war now exacerbated by the onrushing digitisation of everything. We can thank him, too, for a set of perverse political incentives that condemn half of Britain’s youth (more, if policymakers are daft enough to listen to him today) to perpetual indebtedness and a credentialist Ponzi scheme, while stranding the other half in a grim and prospectless gig economy.

But if there’s one achievement for which his name must be cursed down the ages, it’s for that air of ineffable smugness that drifts from those getting filthy stinking rich while claiming to make the world a better place. We can thank Tony, above all, for the fusion of self-dealing and self-righteousness that now hovers over the war on reality, and deafens the unreality class to the increasingly mutinous mutterings from below.