There has been a flurry of activity surrounding Tony Blair over the last few days to mark the 5year anniversary of his departure from Downing Street. It has got me reflecting about just how good a politician he really was, whether any of the current generation have his potential and if not, why not?
First, if it is not already obvious, I am a fan. It was Tony Blair that gave me that final reason to join the Labour party back in the mid-nineties and, since his departure, it is a party I have generally felt less comfortable in. Some of it was his policies – major reforms to health and education that only a centrist from a Labour background could have hoped to succeed in; an aggressive equality agenda; a global view based on the spread of democracy and active engagement when humanitarian needs demanded it (not to mention the massive expansion in the international development budget). In short, the third-way was what was needed for the country and that is what Blair delivered.
Less tangible but perhaps more significant were his leadership qualities, of which he had in abundance. Whether it was the death of Diana, Kosovo or 9/11 he had a knack for understanding the public mood. He also understood the dangers of a political vacuum and, if no-one else could, would quickly step in to fill it. This was particularly important in the hours, days and weeks following 9/11 where America felt isolated and therefore unpredictable and the rest of the world unsure how to act, it is no understatement to say that during that time Tony Blair held together a global peace.
That is not to say I liked everything he did, far from it – Iraq as in for many on the left was a cause of angst and something I couldn’t and didn’t support. That said, I never doubted his belief that it was the right thing to do, and that is third important trait – the belief and confidence that what you are doing is right. Politics, particularly at the highest level is rarely about absolute rights and wrongs, it is about judgement. Once you have made up your mind you have to have the desire and belief to see it through.
So how do the current crop compare? Tony Blair said in his interview with the Evening Standard yesterday ‘there are two types of leaders – reality managers and reality creators. Mostly it is adequate to have reality managers but now we need leaders who can create reality’. Judged against that we are not faring well. Despite what I sometimes write, there is no evidence that Cameron is inherently evil, but he is just adequate – and that just isn’t good enough such uncertain times. Sadly he is not alone, there are very few, if any on either front bench who have that desire, vision and belief that is required to simultaneously take on challenges like the banking crisis, the arab-spring, health, education, the Olympics and much more. The only names who come to mind with even the potential are Gove for the Tories or Umunna for Labour. Both at least have intellect and belief in abundance.
Why so few heavyweights? I think the answer is three-fold.
First, selection for either of the main parties benefits two groups of people far too much – ultra-loyalists and special advisors/those within the political machine. There is nothing wrong with being loyal of course, but I would far rather have an MP who has the power of free-thought and rebels from time to time than one who slavishly holds party line at all costs (just look at how many ‘loyal’ Conservative MPs looked ridiculous following the fuel duty u-turn earlier this week).
Secondly, age. Has anyone else noticed how just as the average age of the population is increasing, the age of MPs and ministers is tumbling? I am all for the ‘if you are good enough, you are old enough’ philosophy, but as I mentioned earlier great leadership is about judgement and that almost always comes with experience. This also links to the first point and the shallowness of the pool for potential candidates. It is now a well-trodden path to cabinet – good school, PPE or similar at University, parliamentary assistant, special advisor, a couple of years on the backbencher and then a junior ministerial role before graduating to cabinet. Where are the teachers, doctors, nurses, business leaders in all this?
Thirdly and finally, the power of the whips has just become too strong – so even if you have made it through the first two, you are unlikely to get past the third with your reforming zeal and dignity still in tact. Like Big Brother in 1984, you’ll have every bit of independence squeezed out of you until you become fully assimilated into the party machine. Great for party unity, bad for politics.
And so, depressingly, fear we will have to wait a long time until we see another Blair and perhaps even longer until we see one surrounded by other strong Ministers. On the other hands Blair did say he would like to return to office….