Whatever happens next, Blair is the greatest


At the back of a dusty cupboard full of things I cannot quite bring myself to throw out, I still possess a 45 r.p.m. record that was produced by the British Labour Party during its 1964 general election campaign.

On the cover, there is a picture of the Labour leader, Harold Wilson, pipe in mouth, staring purposefully and reassuringly at the camera. From memory, for I no longer have a record player capable of playing 45s, the record starts with a little speech in which Wilson praises his fellow Merseyside politician Bessie Braddock for dreaming up the idea of a Labour campaign record.

"Now," says Wilson, "let's all enjoy the Labour Party's very own `Liverpool sound"'. The rest of the disc consists of a relentlessly cheerful rendering of Labour's 1964 campaign song. It was set to the tune of John Brown's Body and the chorus went:

For the country Let's Go Labour.

For the future Let's Go Labour.

For the future Let's Go Labour.

It's the party that gets things done."

It sounds incredibly dated now. Yet when Wilson defeated Sir Alec Douglas-Home's Conservative Party in October 1964, Labour's victory felt as much like a political new dawn as Tony Blair's victory over John Major's Tories would do 33 years later.

Wilson embodied competence and modernity in a manner without rival. Yet by the time that I bought that 45 r.p.m. record in a student sale in 1967, almost everything about the Wilson of 1964 had already turned sour. He became introverted, ruling through an increasingly paranoid kitchen cabinet of courtiers, hostile to the press, and suspicious of the leadership ambitions of his Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Wilson became a man who could win elections - he won more general elections than Margaret Thatcher - but whose governments were monumentally disappointing when measured against the hopes and good wishes which they carried at the outset.

How confident can one now be that Tony Blair will be different to Wilson? For many admirers of the British Prime Minister, it is cheeky even to ask the question.

Blair does not mention Wilson very often, but he knows what he thinks about him. One of the crucial things to understand about Blair is that he is the first British prime minister to be formed by the 1960s cultural revolution. Blair is seared by the memories of the contrast between what Wilson promised and what Wilson managed to deliver.

Like Wilson, Blair offers charm, wit, modernity, competence, straight talk and a fresh start after long years of Conservatism. Like Wilson, Blair has a sense of the possibilities of the times, is pragmatic rather than ideological, is driven by an ambition to marginalise the Conservative Party, recognises the importance of popular culture, and likes to cultivate a national mood. Where Wilson had Swinging London, Blair has Cool Britannia.

More ominously, Blair shares Wilson's taste for centralism at the heart of government, is more trusting of his Downing Street intimates than of his Cabinet colleagues, shares his predecessor's love-hate attitude to the press and, like Wilson, is unusually unsceptical about the motives of the multimillionaires who insinuate themselves into his counsels. Moreover, just as Wilson always had to watch out for Roy Jenkins, so Blair cannot afford to relax about Gordon Brown.

At this stage of Blair's career, however, all of this is little more than a massive cautionary caveat to the judgment that, after 12 months as Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair remains ascendant. He is the best thing that has happened to British public life in a generation. He is a man who retains the possibility to be the politician who, in defiance of those who pronounce the death of politics, does more for the progressive transformation of Britain than anyone since - well, than anyone ever, actually.

A few days ago, I watched the video which the BBC put on sale shortly after Labour's election victory last year. Potentially, of course, this video is the embryonic equivalent of Harold Wilson's ridiculous campaign song long ago. If so, the hubris will not be confined to the Labour Party.

The BBC's blurb-writers let their customary restraint go hang when they wrote the captions on this Election '97 video - "the memorable highlights of one of the most dramatic election nights ever", "each hour heralding new surprises, drama and excitement", and "the jubilation as Tony Blair finally arrives at Downing Street".

One day, perhaps, such enthusiasm may in retrospect look absurd and possibly even shameful. But, a year after the event, the blurbwriters' eagerness still seems utterly truthful and the video is well worth watching. It was a memorable, exciting and jubilant night. It did feel as if the country was making a great civic statement. It was a national catharsis.

Watching it, however, one senses some of the delusions of the times, as well as some of the more lasting truths. Above all, it is useful to be reminded of just how powerfully Labour doubted that it would win, of how fragile they believed their consistently large poll lead to be, of how absurdly sceptical they were about the public mood for change.

Right up to the end, Blair and the New Labour hierarchy were afraid that they would lose. Partly this was because they never forgot the self-deception of 1992, when Labour thought they might sneak a win, but were trounced. As a result, Labour consistently overestimated the Tories in 1997.

Partly this was because they were truly terrified of the power of the media, against whom the whole ruthless and disciplined 1997 campaign was ultimately directed. Partly it was because they were preoccupied with honing their message to appeal to focus groups of politically promiscuous swing voters. Deep down, the Labour high command believed that the British people were as cautious as they were themselves. On May 1st, however, they discovered they were wrong.

Twelve months later, it requires a genuine effort of the imagination to recapture Labour's mood of uncertainty and fear. What William Hazlitt once wrote of the Bourbons - "When a government, like an old-fashioned building, has become crazy and rotten, it stops the way of improvement, and only serves to collect diseases and corruption" - reads today like a succinct summation of the last Conservative government.

As soon as the electorate bulldozed it away, in the most spectacular piece of spontaneous tactical voting in British electoral history, reducing the Conservative Party to 165 seats, it became hard to imagine that this was the same party whose leaders had begun to think themselves and their policies unbeatable.

Whatever else Tony Blair achieves, he will be the maker of tomorrow's Conservative Party, just as Margaret Thatcher was the architect of today's Labour Party.

Blair has achieved much more than that already. Top of his list of achievements, for now, is the Northern Ireland peace accord, of which his 179-seat majority was the crucial catalyst. But Northern Ireland only just shades Blair's other constitutional reforms into second place.

In only 12 months, he has carried out the Scottish and Welsh devolution project on which the previous Labour government, Jim Callaghan's 1976-9 administration, impaled itself.

At home, thanks to the continuing strength of the British economy, he has been able to channel significant amounts of spending into welfare-to-work programmes and into educational reform without having to raise any politically sensitive taxes. Abroad, he has forged a dynamic relationship with the Clinton White House, standing at the president's shoulder at the height of the Lewinsky crisis in February, has addressed the National Assembly in Paris in French and has used the EU presidency to promote peacemaking in the Middle East.

This is not to say that his progress has been unblemished. New Labour's party-fund-raising methods have made Blair some odd friends, and episodes like the Formula One motor racing donation and the row over his Treasury Minister Geoffrey Robinson's private finances have been damaging and potentially corrosive.

Blair's willingness to oblige Rupert Murdoch at every turn has demoralised supporters who want to think better of him. And the Labour government has been marked not only by a willingness to make demands on the poor to change their ways but by an equal unwillingness to make demands on the rich to change theirs.

When these instincts are set alongside a certain arrogance towards even mild criticism, it is not hard to recall the comment of the late Greek president Constantine Karamanlis, that those who govern autocratically inevitably sow the seeds of their own ultimate downfall.

That downfall, though, seems a very long way off. Abroad, Blair has barely begun on a career which could make him as important a European politician in the next decade as Helmut Kohl has been in this one. At home, though these are early days, Labour faces no electoral threat.

Providing that he plays the European issue successfully, especially Britain's relations with the single currency, Blair appears likely to win the next general election, when it comes, with almost as large a majority as in 1997.

Tony Blair faces the prospect of being the man who broke the mould of British politics, and then of retiring as an undefeated Labour leader. Rather like Harold Wilson, in fact, but with a better claim to having led a party that gets things done.

Martin Kettle, a friend of Tony Blair, has written extensively about British politics. He is currently Washington correspondent for the Guardian newspaper.