Monday 15 April 2013

Following, not leading

Tony Blair’s very public message to Ed Miliband not to turn left is a timely reminder of the way in which new Labour became the natural inheritor of Thatcher’s political legacy.  But I found his message both confused and confusing.

He seemed to be stressing the need to show leadership, but warning against taking a clear alternative position on just about anything – as though the question of leadership can and should be completely divorced from the question of direction.

There was one part of what Blair said in particular, which very much distanced him – albeit probably unintentionally – from Thatcher’s approach, although not from her ideology.  He said that British politics has not moved to the left and that there is no appetite for such a move.  It is most un-Thatcher like to seek to follow, rather than lead opinion.

When Thatcher led Britain to the right during her period in office, she didn’t do so on the basis of any pre-existing consensus of which she merely took advantage.  She did so on a proactive basis.  And I’m not convinced that her election in 1979 had much to do with any shift in political opinion; it was more to do with despair and desperation at the dog end of the disastrous Callaghan administration.  It was an election which it would have been difficult for any Tory leader to lose, regardless of ideological position.

Within the limited political spectrum of UK politics, what Thatcher showed was that a determined Prime Minister could create political change and shift opinion rather than merely responding to pre-existing opinion.  Yet, doing that in the other direction is precisely what Blair is warning against.

A point which I’ve made many times in recent years is that you do not change public opinion – on any issue – by reflecting current opinions rather than challenging them.  Reflecting opinion helps parties to win elections, but it doesn’t bring about change.  Following Blair’s advice is the best way of securing the Thatcher-Blair legacy; but then I suppose that’s what he was trying to achieve.

No comments: