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The Man Behind the Smile

Tony Blair and the Politics of Perversion

By Leo Abse

Robson Books 1996

Reviewed by Michael Newland

‘A Labour Party inoffensive to all becomes a strumpet of a party, for what are being proffered are fantasies, fairy stories, the delusion that without struggle, without conflict, we can have a society where we can live happily ever after.’

Not long before the premature death of John Smith I was at the Labour conference in Brighton with a colleague.

We were not there because of any great belief in the Labour Party - for most people in Britain that ended with the antics of the 1970s which made people wonder if Britain was governable and whether Labour’s backers lived in the real world. We thought Labour might be natural supporters of our campaigning to end the insanity of a labour market in which a large proportion of the workforce were excluded from jobs on the basis of the dates on their birth certificates. We were wrong about that. What we got was the farcical but thankfully short-lived 'young country' puff. A small but telling example of the detachment from the sort of matters which one would expect a responsible Labour government to address.

Roaming the corridors to smell the political air, my colleague said she’d caught a glimpse of a rising star in the party preening himself before a mirror in a wash room. “He looks a vain bastard” she said. The man was, of course, Tony Blair. Leo Abse tells us that an aide to Blair noticed that the most used item in his official car was the vanity mirror. So my colleague hit the dubious character spot with just a glimpse of the man destined to dominate British politics.

Abse’s book was published at a time when the public, anyway, had more or less decided to abandon the Tories in favour of a wunderkind who would remedy an ailing Britain, but without the difficulty and conflict which had attended Margaret Thatcher’s revolution. Gain without pain was what Blair appeared to offer, and Abse’s savage attack on Blair could easily be dismissed as the sour grapes of an older generation of Labourites who hated to see their tradition swept away, even if it meant getting back into office after seventeen years in the wilderness of opposition.

Gain without pain?

Labour, says Abse, was based in its soul on the idea that social improvement came about through struggle and conflict. The public were largely persuaded by New Labour that this realistic appraisal of the odds was outdated. By some magic, a new breed of politician could unite Britain in a process of painless reform and all the old difficulties of the real world like winners and losers from policies would evaporate. Why it was possible to swing this unlikely idea in the period before the 1997 election may be impossible to fully understand except in the longer term, but one factor in it was certainly Blair’s charisma.

We already have the two key elements in Blair’s projection of himself as a future leader of Britain - charisma plus the claim that a brand of politics could be all things to all people. Put like that a rat could easily be smelt. Abse smelt it and wrote about the rat. The electorate was to be infantilised. A pity most were not willing to listen.

Much of Abse’s book diagnoses Blair, his ambitions and pathology, from the perspective of what psychoanalysis has to say about human development. That is controversial and what he says will be accepted by some but not others. But that does not seriously affect reading his book. Whatever the origins of Blair’s faulty personality - nearly ten years after the composition of the book few still doubt that a collection of freaks and charlatans have taken power in our country - it is what it is and the results have been what Abse predicted.

Blair’s politics are described as the ‘politics of perversion’. That is a charge which goes far beyond the accusation of opportunism and lack of honesty which can be thrown at nearly all successful but sane politicians.

Abse notes the ‘Johnny Come Latelies’ who flooded into the Labour Party before 1997 attracted by the offer of conflict-free politics. The membership has since halved. Under Blair, things could only end badly. Abse predicted it before New Labour even took up office. We appear not yet to have reached the inevitable denouement. The inertia which power brings can propel a brand of politics forwards for a surprisingly long time even without anything more substantial to sustain it.

Max Weber saw political charismatics as those able to appear to have magical properties to which followers submit. How often have we read since Labour’s election in 1997 of Mr Blair ‘personally intervening’ in some intractable problem? The mere presence of the magician will supposedly transform the situation. We can all sit back, breathe a sigh, and say ‘sorted’ to ourselves.

Weber pointed to the appearance of charisma as commonly occurring in emergencies. The need for a sense of the availability of magic, when in extremis, is only natural and may mobilise energies which otherwise would be dissipated in despair. It may make the difference between disaster and victory seized from the maw of disaster. But Britain is not in such a situation - a 1940, for example, where Churchill’s soaring rhetoric could make a real difference. What is required is capable management, and charisma on its own will not provide it.

Abse says that the charismatic leader needs his followers as much as they are attracted to him. What he does is to satisfy his own psychological needs, and he is as dependent on his followers as they on him. The dependency is maintained by diverting aggression towards outside groups. Two earlier but far more worthy Labour charismatics, Gaitskell and Bevan, identified as outsiders not only the Tories but factions within their own party. Blair identifies a far broader and more embracing enemy - the ‘forces of conservatism’.

Blair’s stance before the 1997 election was that his political project was to be one which would create something approaching a one-party state - its obvious and overwhelming virtue to be doubted only by those whose rationality was suspect. Abse points out that this is a concept alien to democracy and British tradition. It is one which should terrify anyone with any sense.

Blair, Abse tells us, seeks to corroborate a fragile sense of identity through his political position. Fuelling personal narcissism is paramount. Mirrors in cars are much in use, for example.

Running a government on the basis of such psychological requirements, when they are particularly voracious, is hardly a recipe for sane leadership. What is likely done will be as much for the leader’s benefit as for the country, or more so.

This explains how so much of what Blair has done in office has been ineffective, while appearing publicly presented as an endless series of ‘initiatives’ which seem on the face of it reasonable and convincing. The public enjoy a pleasant display of conjuring, and the conjuror basks in the glow of his audience’s amazement. But with a conjuror’s performance it is understood that the show ends soon, and that it is a mere display during which we agree to suspend our critical faculties for the evening. When people start to believe that the show is real, and to run a country as though tricks were reality we are in trouble. The collection of statistics on government performance, with ‘targets’ to be met, has become a conjuror’s art form in New Labour Britain.

Why is Blair still in power when he fails at just about everything? This puzzles us all and demoralises his opposition.

One can point to ineffective political opposition unnerved from offering a real alternative by the apparent dominance of New Labour’s approach to politics, and an economy without serious downturn since Labour’s election. This has been endlessly argued but has never been entirely convincing.

Abse might say that the real reason is that the country is enjoying a period of retreat into infantilism. The responsibilities of adulthood can be partly wished away.

This will only work while accumulated social capital can be drawn down. That is what happened in the 1960s with the notion that competition for shares in the cake could be dissolved in trite pop slogans like ‘all you need is love’. National wealth had grown during the post-war period in tandem with little unemployment and a country at peace. A little indulgence in fantasy was understandable but short-lived.

Far more powerful forces seem to be at work in explaining the grip Labour has on the country than simply a reasonably stable economy, or a lack of vigour on the part of other parties. Blair seems to have a lever on the national psyche which success at what he does in running the country is too limited to explain.

The answer must lie in one of those episodes within societies where a holiday from reality is demanded. Blair appeared at the right time to exploit it.

Much television now offers a retreat from reality and adulthood to a far greater degree than even a decade ago. Fiction is increasingly a vehicle for political messages rather than true to life. Adults become near-children in shows like Big Brother. Indeed the pre-requisite for television celebrity is often to offer the promise that ‘you can be successful and famous like me and have everything laid on if you act like a child’. Blair does not bring us down to earth as real leaders have to outside very temporary rampings in extraordinary situations, but fortifies and fuels the dream.

How does Blair see himself? Probably he cannot distinguish between gratifying his own psychological needs and serving the country and its needs. People who present themselves as ‘deeply religious’ are often like that. If the person is supposedly acting on a higher instruction and is gratified to do so then there is no difference for them internally! The results are no fault of the operator and anyway who are we mortals to judge them? The best charlatans are able to distance themselves from what they have done. How often do unmasked common swindlers claim that they never really did any harm.

How will the dream end?

Confidence tricksters often flourish for longer than expected because many of their victims are too embarrassed to admit they’ve been had. Followers, and some victims with a particular psychological investment in believing they have found a protective hand which offers something for nothing, will maintain that the unmasking is all a misunderstanding, which will be remedied with the next change of the wind. There are still old communists caught up in this sort of political cargo cult.

When New Labour and Tony Blair are politically dead and buried it will be difficult to find anyone who will admit they ever believed. The few true believers will maintain ‘we wuz robbed’.

May it be soon!


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