Blair did not have “ideas”. He did vacuous guff. Will anyone re-read his speeches in 20 or 30 years time ? Now re-read Thatcher’s Bruges speech (widely reviled at the time) and tell me this isn’t a model of clarity and that she wasn’t right about where the EU was heading.
Thatcher was far from perfect. But she did ideas and had at least some grasp of ordinary people’s lives and aspirations.
It is too simplistic to say that Britain has “de-industrialised”. Yes, there are more services and less traditional industry. But much of that is expected long-term change as a country gets wealthier and lower cost foreign competitors emerge. The industry that is left is competitive now. Is that so bad ? I lived through and remember the 1970s. We’re in a far better place today.
Trying to infer some sort of equivalence between Blair and Thatcher just doesn’t cut it for me. Thatcher took the tough decisions needed and didn’t care much about being popular. Blair cruised on Thatcher’s legacy and ducked the important, tough long term decisions.
Thatcher was real. Blair was fake. Thatcher actually solved problems. Blair just talked about solving problems.
Actually, Blair created problems, blinded by his messianic visions.
I hate this series about Tony Blair’s supposed revolution (don’t worry, this comment is going somewhere positive). Blair was a bit player in larger trends sweeping the world and, for me, Unherd’s publication of a series dedicated to his political legacy further confirms its determination to render itself irrelevant at a time when we may be facing the greatest economic catastrophe in a century–btw, Unherd, where’s the series about modern monetary theory and the economic fallout of covid and deficit spending?
But despite my doubtless overwrought hostility to Unherd’s memorial to Blair, I remain dazzled by Mary H.’s contribution to this series. Give her a shopping list and she’ll create a masterpiece. One of the finest journalistic voices out there. Sad that most media outlets will never give her a chance because she doesn’t mindlessly sign up to the progressive agenda. But who knows where journalism is headed. Perhaps she’ll end up on the right side of that part of history.
Every sound man will have his fancy, J. No harm in that – Keeps him young at heart.
Mine is the divine Kate Bush,
“Blair was a bit player ..” I think I agree. And it was literally true of Reagan. Most political leaders aren’t the originators of great new ideas – those are bubbling up from the community (and billionaire funded think tanks). The leaders become leaders because their colleagues see that they suit the times, are good communicators, have a certain charisma. Blair was smug, but so was Clinton, and in Australia, Malcolm Fraser (and certainly our current PM).
Something did start with Reagan, Thatcher/Blair, Hawke/Keating that seems to be now exhausted. I was visiting London in 1973 and was shocked, shocked! Noisy little generators outside shops, rubbish, economic/social decline – it was obviously time for a change. OPEC and the Vietnam War had kind of finished off the post-war model.
The right had been pushing Milton Friedman’s ideas for a while and they were given a go. The new technology of computerisation, and the adoption of globalisation, financialisation and deregulation, got things moving again, but almost inevitably led to the global financial crisis in 2008. We printed money to get out of that hole, and now here we are, waiting for a new model – and appealing leaders to sell it to us.
Yes, please UnHerd- hear his advice!
Mary cannot even pretend to hide her utter contempt for Blair. Neither can I. Thatcher made mistakes I believe. Failing to encourage the development of any replacement industrial work to cater for those left behind following the destruction of trade union power, was the most notable in my eyes.
I avoided a life of manual labour by attending university, so perhaps I am not in an ideal position to comment on this, but seeing steelworkers reduced to call centre operatives, competing for their trashy jobs with cheap imported labour stil angers me. Maybe I suffer from some atavistic attachment to the idea of the dignity of labour, but I cannot be the only one, as I see it reflected in the body language of the children of those who were left behind. The damage was significant, but nonetheless, repairable. Blair and his followers on the other hand, are charlatans who hijacked a working class party, that despite its faults still had some virtues, and destroyed it for their own aggrandisement, and in so doing created a land fit for airheads.
Perhaps Mary is right and what I once would have viewed as merely one possible future, was indeed the only one on offer. As she says, look at the rest of the developed world and see the same themes playing out. But then, if Blair is just the (unnecessarily smug – I agree) plaything of the elites, perhaps Mary shouldn’t be so harsh on a man who is, after all, just an organ grinder’s monkey.
I feel you are over-stating political agency on big economic changes, and on the other hand just engaging in name-calling a particular rather successful politician. Hating Blair is now just so damn fashionable! He was elected on 3 occasions, which was unprecedented for a party of the Left in this country; he is an interesting, if like so many other politicians, flawed figure. They couldn’t just carry on with high rates of tax and nationalisation. The Left of course hate him, so do many on the Right. But where were all those at the time, for example opposing the Iraq war (Tories even more gung ho), or indeed globalisation?
And there is actually a rather good case against economic autarky that we from time to time to forget. Franco’s Spain was incredibly poor until it opened up to world trade in the 1960s. Do you buy British? I suspect like most of us, not; we are remarkably ‘unpatriotic’ when it comes to our pockets. “Buy British steel..”, even though perhaps it costs twice as much as imported (and hence your car costs more as well).
Perhaps there is a strategic case to not follow the market in some industries, though you can easily end up making such a case about almost any part of the economy – why not a British-only internet?. The government can’t just magic jobs of equal worth and status into being, when costs in the West are so much higher. A directly favoured policy of globalisation or not, it was inevitable Britain and many other western countries were going to come under intense competition from developing economies at some point, and at least people like Blair attempted to wake us up to the fact.
I’m also not sure why working in a factory or down a mine is intrinsically more noble than working in a call centre. How many would volunteer today to work long shifts down a mine I wonder if they had the opportunity? But it was a big sudden change, and it is certainly arguable that governments did not do anything enough to smooth the transition.
Tony Blair still has his apologists, I know. I am just not one of them. I called him a charlatan, not because I am name-calling, but because that is my honest assessment of him.
Problem is that there are many options between Spanish autarky and full on globalisation.
I am all for trading on equal terms.
Are you suggesting that is what China is doing?
When I trained Indian people in IT they were surprised that I walked from the station to the office and that I did not have full time housekeeper.
We are not talking about high end jobs.
About 40k in UK in 2010s.
So anyone claiming that globalisation is beneficial to the West (apart from top 10%) should explain how we create level playing field.
More manufacturing industry closed in Blair’s years than in Thatcher’s.
I am past 60 but I am amazed how some people can not accept that technology changes mean that certain jobs are not viable anymore.
So, as an example, BT telephone exchanges had about 40 plus engineers in mid 80s.
In 2000s there was no permanent staff.
I worked in IT for over 30 years and had to (wanted to) change jobs every 5 years or so.
Automation and AI is coming in big wave in about 10 to 15 years.
Are we supposed to keep Uber, Underground and other drivers employed for ever?
That is why mass immigration of low IQ labour into West is so mad.
It solves immediate problems but burdens us with resentful, useless people who don’t even appreciate the opportunity they were given.
” I am amazed how some people can not accept that technology changes mean that certain jobs are not viable anymore.”
I am even more amazed, as I didn’t say they were.
Britishness as a gym membership: nail on head. Beautiful. The best and saddest laugh I’ve had all day.
Telling, though, that it had to be “Britishness”. Irishness, Welshness, Scottishness: none of these would serve the Blairite cause. Nor would Englishness, come to that. Always salt to the slug of the Westminster and Shepherd’s Bush elites, the existence of the English. Too close to home. Dangerous, handle with tongs. Deny, deny, deny.
But Britishness was always a fluffy, an essentially jejune confection and readily repurposed to be flogged back to a public desperate for some good news, any good news. God knows, I needed some in the mid nineties, I think we all did.
Now, I don’t think anyone with a life in any way grounded in grubby reality buys into “Britishness” any more, if indeed anyone ever really did, ideal fodder though it is for carnival barkers like Tony Bliar to turn into a platform for the furtherance of insatiable ambition. But we all went along with it back then. Desperation does that. It’s embarrassing to recall how we were had. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I could never vote labour again. The selling out of my national identity for a Ponzi investment “deal” under Blair, then Starmer lecturing me about why I should just shrivel up and wink out of existence because my continued presence is intersectionally oppressive. Though it transpires that I’m imagining all this, as Starmer and Rayner bolster their right-on position at the expense of all I hold dear. Apparently that makes me a bigot. Oh the unconscious irony of the accusation.
Okay. Rant over. Go well everyone.
Blair was a cipher for a political/media/academic/managerial class who could neither accept nor understand why the Conservatives won 4 times in a row. Blair is long gone, but the type of people who put him there continue to reign supreme.
Absolutely. The Times is still resolutely Blairite. It has never recovered from Blair. Matthew Paris’ notorious column about Southend tells you everything you need to know about their contempt for ordinary people doing “hands dirty” jobs.
“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.”
I nearly stopped there because Thatcher was never “callous”, but I decided to carry on and am glad I did, even if in parts it got worse. How could Mary Harrington write a whole article on the Thatcher years and reforms without once mentioning the Enterprise Zones that she set up, largely in the NE and Wales, that attracted huge inward investment and skilled jobs from which Britain still benefits?
There is no comparison between the ideologies of Thatcher and Blair. Even if she made mistakes as everyone does, she always had the best interests of Britain in view, including the working classes. Blair always had the best interests of Blair at heart, and still does. If Blair can be compared to any Tory PM it is to David Cameron.
Most of all, we can “thank” Blair for the balkanisation of the UK
That was happening long before the Blair government’s time – look at the collapse of the Conservative vote in the 1970’s and 1980 and arguably the Labour design of devolution took a lot of the independence pressure off something that in the long term is inevitable. Whether one likes it or not
I assume you are referring to Scotland?
Most Scots I met in IT work were completely delusional.
They assumed that they would have all the UK government jobs still in Scotland after independence.
The same for financial services.
What about stopping Barnet Formula subsidies to Scotland for five years before they are granted their “independence” referendum, again?
I forgot to add that anyone who believes that “independent” Scotland would have greater say in EU affairs than they have in UK affairs needs their head examined.
Scotland is mickey mouse country on outskirts of Europe.
Can someone explain why anyone would invest there?
The following is a bold prediction on my part, but sometimes you have to stick your neck out.
There is a split in the strata the author terms ‘knowledge workers’ – a split that is set to widen to a chasm, I would guess imminently, as in, over the next half decade. This is the distinction between those who participate in the creation of the technologies of the tech ecosystems, principally STEM + finance + law + high end complex management, and those who use the outputs of those ecosystems to generate and operate subsidiary ecosystems – e.g. the social media spaces, principally humanities people with generalised admin/management skills + the bottom three quarters of the creative industries.
There is an absolutely huge, global, shortage of the first kind of ‘knowledge workers’, versus the second, who have generalised, non-expertise type skills, where there is a surfiet of available resources, and earnings are already under big pressure. I would say the proportional split is as bad as 1:10 in the sizes of the two pools.
When the downturn comes, perhaps 18 months from here before it gets really serious, the demand for the first type of ‘knowledge workers’ ramps whilst that for the second falls off a cliff. So we have a K type profile for what happens to the strata of ‘knowledge workers’ – top end expertise rises to the top and can name it’s price, while the second category prepare to set up tents alongside the homeless winos under southwark bridge. The iron laws of Darwinism are magnified.
I agree on this. In fact in any major layoff it’s always the second type who get shafted. I’ve seen it multiple times from the fortunate position of being in the first type.
The second type don’t get shafted, the company realizes they provide little benefit and are thus expendable.
And yet Blair’s expansion of universities has increased the supply of non-STEM graduates much faster than STEM ones and we are shorter than ever of good STEM graduates. Meanwhile, the debts for all this exccess “education” will never be repaid. Genius !
The biggest problem is that no one says ‘you need to knuckle down to study this, it’s hard but it will pay off’.
Instead there is a culture that says if it doesn’t come easy to you, well it’s just not your thing, move on and study something you enjoy and don’t worry about it.
Undoubtedly only a subset of humanity who can study it. But I fear in the UK a lot of smart people who’d be encouraged to study STEM get pushed into a humanoties stream by well-meaning idiots.
I remember reading somewhere that to study STEM subjects at proper undergraduate level you need IQ of at least 115-120.
So well above average woke idiot.
That is why idea that 50% of people can “study” is so mad.
Unless you mean studying BLM, CRT, gender and other woke rubbish.
That is why the prevailing orthodoxy that we need all this immigrants in the West, who barely fit the second type template is so wrong.
Almost every link in this article takes us to another article where the wrong people are or were doing the wrong things.
Or the results of the wrong people doing the wrong things were entirely predictable but they happened anyway.
Where are all the right people?
Why do they never do anything?
I’m afraid I stopped reading when I reached ‘ Thatcherite callousness for the politically weak … ‘. Nonsense on stilts!
I nearly did too – see my post above!
The Japanese speak of “hollowing out” or “deindustralization” (産業空洞化).
Britain has become hollowed out. So has France, Italy, the United States …
Hollowing out in Japan probably started after the “Plaza Accords” of 1985. The Yen was allowed to float freely against other currencies. The Yen/$ exchange rate sank from about 250 to 125, just like that. The Japanese suddenly found themselves with enormous buying power overseas. But foreign importers found their imports from Japan exorbitantly priced. The race to set up lower-cost supply chains got going. It may have started slowly, but by 1990 Japanese industry had set up production in places like Malaysia. The economic bubble in Japan burst. Japan was not going to take over the world after all.
Since then the West has hollowed itself out. It was all part of the race to tap “emerging markets” — as well as the race to set up production in those emerging markets.
Did Thatcher and Blair really cause all that? No. It is easier to suggest that Britain got swept up in a global process of “hollowing out.”
So, what to do about it 30-40 years late? Let’s talk about that.
“So, what to do about it 30-40 years late? Let’s talk about that.”
Great point. I’d love to read that type of article.
“Did Thatcher and Blair really cause all that?” Agree, it’s not helpful to personify change when it’s real nature is more an evolutionary or cultural effect.
The shift from material to abstract concerns in mainstream political currents is a good analysis for why they do not address the issues felt by many. It is a parallel to the anywhere vs somewhere divide. Whichever party sincerely takes hold of the somewhere/material concerns will rule for a while. The Tories are give that impression. Probably just that: an impression.
To Tony Blair, history was an endless parade, with himself taking the salute.
A very stimulating article, and timely as Labour tussles with what it needs to be to gain power. Both Thatcher and Blair set out to “lliberate” individuals from the expectations of their “class” without thinking through the reality of them then achieving the new expectations or the new glue needed to hold society together when class strutures are dismantled. The article very neatly addresses the consequent floating of ideas that are not thought through.
Although people with higher IQ have always have always tried to escape the escape the working class if circumstances permitted it and hide their background in it since at least the industrial revolution.
Actually student loans started even under Thatcher, for maintenance payments. Blair extended it to cover ruition fees. In 1980 the student numbers were 15% by 1997 they were 30% accelerating rapidly in the early 90s before Blair. I think he was just riding on the coattails of what the post-industrial economy and culture was pushing at the time rather than being an active agent in the rise. In fact there was little of what Blair did that wasn’t like this – the Iraq war included.
On a seperate note when did leather sofas become a Tory signifier? I always assumed they reeked nouveau riche Mondeo Man vulgarity as opposed to say soberly coloured fabric sofas.
This is not about Blair or Thatcher per se. They were specifically principal actors on the British stage and the force of their legacy has not decreased in power over the years, rather the opposite in fact. We are living with it now. Bull***t jobs, student loans, service industries that do not provide a “service”. The truth is that the same can be said across Western civilisation particularly in the case of our Anglo-Saxon buddy across the water. How did the world of “ideas” usurp the “real” world? The answer is to be found in Financialization, or rather the Financialization of Everything. Material economies, even extraction economies cannot compete against economies that can print money almost indefinitely in a game of global Beggar-my-Neighbour. The dominoes of the material world have fallen one after the other, the producer nations catching the infection early like Japan and Germany. Only when the financial house of cards collapses will we have a sea change, but that could wash away everything.
“This is not about Blair or Thatcher per se.” Agreed. Personification not helpful.
While all the points you make are good, Mary, you make the fundamental error of attributing these to individuals: Blair/Thatcher.
Elected politicians are not so much those driving the change, but rather those who ride it.
The major driving force during this period is the change from Empiricism (using facts to work out what’s happening) to Post-Modernism (dividing society into competing identity-groups and then constructing facts to redress the inequality).
It is this that has created the rift with reality. Blair just rode the wave.
For the last 300 years, most people were not themselves Empiricists, but simply benefited from the engineering, medical, agricultural, communications revolutions it created. Now that Empiricism is under threat, almost no-one recognises what is happening. The natural scientists are cocooned in their empirical sup-world, while the social sciences/journalism/politics has lost contact with reality.
In this respect we are reverting to a Medieval mindset which had the same characteristics. The spirits and ghosts of the medieval mindset have simply been replaced with conspiracy theories and victim hierarchies.
Reality checkpoint needed..
This is maybe giving TB too much “credit”. Our trend towards excessive abstraction probably began in the 17th century. And according to Spengler it commonly arises in older late stage civilisations. An example he gives is speculators cornering the wheat market in Ancient Rome with futures, causing a famine for the proles. (Not that abstraction / virtualisation is always bad, modern life & tech near totally depends on it, but it has a huge and mostly unexplored dark side.) Likewise the smug, self righteous rich are perennial figures in literature, and appear several times in the Bible, the story of Lazurus & the rich man is maybe the most famous example.
This said, criticism seems valid even as a fan of TB, maybe he really did create his own brand of “ineffable” smugness. I just find this way below the brilliance Mary often delivers. I hope there is more to come on the abstraction /de-materialisation problem, Mary’s “Curse of sliced bread” article was a real gem.
I hope someone can be found to write a positive take before this Blair series end. That’s more the unherd view. Just as much hate towards TB in Labour party circles as among conservatives, especially since the influx of new members we had after JC took over.
Blair’s worst act was the creation of Scots and Welsh Devolution. What did he think two new rebel ‘Governments’ were going to do to the UK in the long run?
Usury. There’s a reason religious and wisdom traditions tried to keep a cap on it. Only gods can make something out of nothing.
Seems when it comes to Tony Blair, Unherd is pretty much a herd.
It’s almost impossible to enumerate the wounds inflicted on this country and the world at large by Blair. The only question is how many can be healed, and how many are fatal. One wonders the extend to which Blair’s illegal war on Iraq is being used by Putin to evidence that NATO is an agent of unlawful aggression, and not simply the defensive force it purports to be.
“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”
I remember it a bit better than you. We certainly were not the sick man of Europe, that was a term applied to the nation by people who didn’t like Unions.
It felt pretty sick to me; the patient did not look like surviving much longer, with the balance of payments unbalanced, tax rates sky high, lowest productivity in mainstream Europe, record days lost to strike action, lack of any innovation, terrible service in nationalised industries, housing rental market moribund, and the IMF economists with season tickets. Crisis, what crisis?
Well, I remember from my youth in communist country that tv news programmes had frequent examples of UK strikes etc.
Obviously to show capitalist system is not working.
They did not show Germany or Japan?
I don’t understand any link between carpets in pubs, cream sofas and any political view or party.
In a weird sense this kind of obsession is a prime example of the dematerilisation of politics into consumer symbols vs actual material forces, though I’m not sure the author saw it that way. As with a lot of fellow late millenials she always seems very earnest about identities and their symbology and minutiae even when denoucing their reality warping effects.
Blaming wokeness on “Thatcherism” and “Blairism” is a bit rich, if you ask me.
Last paragraph is the best. It makes what comes before it almost superfluous. Res ipsa loquitur.
OK. I have a narrative that cuts right across this.
Could it be that the glorious promotion of labor unions basically seized up the economy. So that Thatcher didn’t really do anything except let the inevitable crash of privileged union labor take place.
Could it be that the ridiculous house prices in England are due to a mad cult worship of the English countryside that prevents a sensible buildout of housing? I suggest taking an overnight plane from the US to Heathrow on a day when you have to circle for an hour before landing. Look out of the window, if you dare. There is land, land, land as far as the eye can see. All suitable for housing, darling.
In other words, the problem is the conceit of the ruling class, that thought it knew what was best for the workers, and then what was best for the countryside. Only like most ruling classes, it just Made Things Worse.
What a ridiculous comment, we have land but that is scarce in the south east, much of that land you see going to Heathrow or Gatwick is golf courses, farms or wildflower meadows which have their own value, the country is heaving as it is, how many houses should we build? 1 million? 2 million? 20 million? i suppose we could fit an extra 50 million houses in this country and still have plenty of space left over but what an awful thing that would be.
I quite agree, isn’t what Mary was also saying, although I myself would have said it much as you did. But she says it in a manner that adds beauty, a much undervalued quality. The wonderful language of the King James translation of the bible Is moving and poetic as modern translations are definitely not, does such language draw more people to consider the ideas expressed? I’m an engineer, no one has ever found my prose beautiful, brutal factual explanations maybe useful (and I like them) but they rarely inspire new ways of thinking. (My ramble is now over.)
The simple fact of the matter is that by the end of the ‘70s a lot of people were employed in industries that produced things that nobody wanted to buy.
The inevitable happened when Thatcher was in power. Her part in the proceedings was simply to recognise the inevitable.
And having the guts to do it. Capitalism requires creative destruction – everything has a lifecycle and newer activities replace older ones. Those who seek to “protect jobs” are usually doing the opposite in the longer term.
Maybe they could have gone down the German high-tech, quality route but I fear the attitudes and changes required for this were beyond the management of British industry, the unions and maybe even working class itself.
Maybe the root of the problem in the 19th century was the old skilled, guilds were persecuted both by the Whigs and Torys. There is this romantic notation the average Tory cared about the working class but they were mainly interested in securing their property and rights and an uppity skilled working class was a threat to this, even more than it was to the emerging liberal middle class, and they tended to invest in industry anyway (and enclose their land). So both sides of parliament tended to want to crush the pre-mass movement unions. The Ruskinite concern for craftsman was a romantic appeal for a class that never held much sympathy. England’s centralised administration didn’t give guilds the role in urban admimistration outside the city of London too.
This meant whatever weak network of artesanal confraternity that existed in the mid-19th structure was swept away by the mass movement unions, full of unskilled labour, that emerged about the 1880s/90s, that of Ben Tillet, or Tom Mann. The emergence of the ‘new union’ soon became predominant through aggressive, semi-revolutionary striking in 1889 that lead to the new generation of Liberal leaders now moving away from classical liberalism to appease them, more from fear than love in those feverish pre-WW1 years. Not to mention its ability to grasp onto the new expanded franchise through organs like the proto-Labour party.
This had a deleterious effect on the British working class. The whole focus of the labour and Labour movement became cosseting unskilled labour and not promoting a skilled artesanal working class. Over time much of them moved into the burgeoning lower-middle class anyway, given the incentives. More critically it meant the policies towards the unions rewarded workers with little interest in their business except extracting a price. It meant prioritising the unskilled, people with little sense of business or an ability to set up their own business, creating a gulf with management. It created socialist unions led by leaders like Scargill who deliberately worked against technology, artisanry and skills because their blunt ideology of total equality saw the promotion of skill with concomitant differences in pay as anaethema. Amd so the unions damed the working classes, when the thifty middle grew tied of being in hock to their games.
Yes but like most British policy there was no impact analysis. Arguably radical cuts cost Britain more than they saved – think about the cost of crime and social services (today!!) for families that were first broken by the community destruction (in addition to the fact that sacked workers at the time cost the state more in social support than subsidies for loss-making industries).
I am NOT arguing for no cuts and no attempt to tackle the unions, but she was badly advised and went too fast too hard.
[And as a scientist she already knew about the greenhouse effect so there was an alternative pathway already available for someone who really DID ideas……].
Yes she did many things well (much thanks to Keith Joseph), but massive screw ups in the defence industry (very expensive subsidies plus cosying to dodgy dictators), “the great car economy”, ‘bus-riding failures’ etc. Many of these mistakes may be driven by ideas but ones that, even at the time, were demonstrably wrong-headed.
Methinks the conceit of the ruling class is that they are properly owners and therefore shape public policy to keep the property market tight.
Or is housing demand due to mad level of immigration?
I agree that people already owning houses are quite happy to restrict supply, so prices will keep rising.
For how long though?
With inflation highest for 40 years and with interest rates to go up will this trend continue?