As Tony Blair begins his campaign to win a third term at No 10, John Gray asks what, if anything, the Prime Minister has achieved in his first two and considers whether hubris has cost Blair his career.
It has become conventional wisdom that Margaret Thatcher was a conviction politician, whereas Tony Blair believes in nothing. Like many clichés, this contains some truth, but it can easily be misleading. Blair does not seem to be much interested in domestic issues, and there are few matters of economic or social policy on which he has appeared to be ready to risk valuable political capital.
Yet he is far from being a mere trimmer, and still less the Tory manqué of left-wing demonology. Blair is a neoconservative, and shares the missionary fervour of that American creed. His unswerving support for President George W. Bush's attack on Iraq demonstrates, to my mind, the danger of moral certainty, not cynicism, in politics. Blair will enter history as a gifted politician who threw away a political opportunity by allying himself with the hubris of the Bush Administration.
In some ways, Blair's rise to power mirrors that of Thatcher. Like Thatcher, Blair aimed to achieve hegemony in British politics. He succeeded in marginalising the Tories and has effectively neutralised opposition in his own party. Yet, unlike Thatcher, he has not used his power to advance a new political project.
In domestic issues, he has mechanically continued the Thatcherite programme, while in foreign affairs he has gone further than Thatcher ever did in making Britain an instrument of American power. Blair promised a new politics, but his time in office will go down as the long fag end of Thatcherism.
When Thatcher was ousted, Britain was a different country from the one that existed when she took office. She aimed to unshackle British capitalism and revolutionise the economy. At the same time, she wanted to restore the stodgy mores and deferential social order of Britain in the Fifties - perhaps even the Thirties. It was an incoherent dream, but it changed the country beyond recognition. The fickle winner-takes-all society we know today is far removed from Thatcher's nostalgic fantasies. But it has come into being partly as an unintended consequence of her policies, and Thatcher can justly claim to have altered Britain irrevocably. When Blair quits Downing Street, he will leave the country much as he found it.
Before he came to power, Blair held out the prospect of a post-Thatcherite agenda:a set of policies that would somehow reconcile the imperatives of the unfettered market with the demands of social cohesion. Once in power, he carried on where Thatcher left off - reshaping public services on a simplistic model of the business corporation, using the rhetoric of community to promote authoritarian penal policies and thus, like Thatcher, undermining autonomous institutions, promoting the growth of new bureaucracies and enhancing the power of the state.
Blair's Britain is a showcase for late capitalism and, far from overcoming its contradictions, shows them to be irresolvable. The ruling values remain those of market individualism and American capitalism continues to be seen as the only viable model of economic modernisation. The conflict between the free market and social values has not diminished. Blair prattles on about morality and community, while the logic of the market renders them dysfunctional and redundant. In the past, capitalism may have required "Victorian values" such as prudence and thrift. Today, it encourages reckless borrowing and a taste for gambling - a development aptly symbolised in the Government's attempts to promote an American-style casino culture in Britain.
Like Thatcher, Blair achieved his position in British politics through the breakdown of the two-party system. It was Labour's self-division that made Thatcher's decade-long hegemony possible. With Labour in suicidal mode, Thatcher was able to impose a brutal shake-up on Britain's institutions.
The price of this upheaval was the rise of new Labour. In the course of the Thatcherite revolution, Tory Britain ceased to exist and the Conservative Party itself was nearly destroyed. The coup that ousted Thatcher in 1990 left the Tories unhinged, and by the time of the general election of 1997, they had become a rabble.
Blair's ascendancy is a by-product of the continuing Conservative collapse, but it is also a result of the changes he imposed on Labour. In effect, he constructed an entirely new party. "New Labour" was a purpose-built construction with few links with the party culture that preceded it, but it was not a vehicle for a new ideology and it had few, if any, new policies.
It is best described as Leninism plus public relations: a mix of centralism in party management with an unremitting attempt to shape public perception through the mass media.
It is true that the first Blair Government brought about some fundamental changes, such as Scottish devolution and the transfer of responsibility for setting interest rates to an independent committee of the Bank of England; but the first of these was the result of a pledge inherited from the time when John Smith was leader, and the second the work of Gordon Brown. There is a sense in which Blair has no policies at all. The overall drift to carry on Thatcher's agenda has been by default, through the lack of any other direction rather than a clear sense of the objectives the Government meant to achieve.
Blair's two Administrations have given birth to countless initiatives, but they are not policies in any traditional sense. They are trial balloons: floated, altered, dropped and then re-floated in an unending test of public opinion. For Blair, policy-making is part of the technology of power and is always subordinate to news management, or spin. The reaction of Rupert Murdoch has always been a more important factor in assessing the standing of the Government than the success or failure of any policy.
To be sure, every party tries to present itself in a favourable light.
Nevertheless, by making relations with the media the pivot of Government, Blair has made one of his few enduring contributions to British politics.
Blair's goal was to displace the Tories as the political vehicle of Britain's ruling elites, and all the changes he made to the party's stance flow from this objective. He soon succeeded in appropriating some traditional Tory issues, notably "law and order".
More subtly and decisively, he removed the enemy by which the Tories had defined themselves for much of the past century. At least since the First World War, the Tory raison d'ê+tre has been hostility to economic collectivism. From the symbolic renunciation of Clause Four onwards, Blair has tried to make his party market-friendly. He wanted to do more than make Labour acceptable to the City. He aimed to strip the Conservative Party of a crucial component of its identity, and in this he succeeded. The Tories now lack any clear reason for existing and they will recover only if they benefit from public disillusion with Blair.
In this, he has applied a strategy pioneered by the New Democrats. Former President Bill Clinton managed to keep the Republicans at bay by mimicking their policies, and it is a version of Clinton's strategy of triangulation rather than any new political idea that accounts for Blair's political dominance up to the present. Blair has toyed with notions such as stakeholding and the Third Way, but they have been used as political marketing tools rather than as guides to action. There is nothing resembling a Blairite ideology.
Nevertheless, it would be quite wrong to conclude that Blair is just a pragmatist. His view of the world is formed by the ideology of the New Right. Far more than any of the traditions of the Left, it is this that has shaped him. Blair's development over the past decade tracks that of the New Right and consists in a movement from neoliberalism to neoconservatism. For neoliberals, the global triumph of capitalism was ensured by the fact that it was the most productive economic system. No doubt wars would continue to occur, but they were relics of the past and in no sense necessary to the expansion of the world market.
In contrast, neocons understand that the global spread of "democratic capitalism" will come about only after large conflicts, and requires the intensive use of military force. This is a radical recipe for permanent revolution in international relations. Several of the older UK neocons began on the Trotskyite Left, and their readiness to deploy US military power stems in part from the Leninist perception that revolutionary transformations are rarely achieved without the shedding of blood on a large scale.
The anomaly of a Labour leader throwing in his lot with a fundamentalist Republican president has been widely commented on. Less often noticed is the fact that, by doing so, Blair has ended up a camp follower of an Administration in thrall to a right-wing American variant of Trotsky's theory of world revolution. This curious metamorphosis has been aided by another feature of neoconservatism - Jits intense religiosity. If the armed missionaries in the White House draw heavily on a defunct revolutionary ideology, they also reflect the growing power of American fundamentalism.
Neo-conservatives have a keen sense of the power of religion, and from the end of the Cold War onwards they have cultivated a close relationship with the Christian Right.
Blair adopted the neoliberal economic programme by default, but he is a neoconservative from conviction. The neocon mix of Leninism and religion accurately reflects his personal outlook. Neocons are militant believers in historical progress and, although Blair's reasons for backing the Iraq War have shifted over time, his continued support for it comes largely from his faith in American power as the ultimate guarantee of human advance. It is possible that Blair's support for Bush began as an ill-judged exercise in realpolitik. He seems to have perceived an opportunity for Britain to act as the bridgehead between the US and Europe, and decided that by giving unqualified public backing to Bush he could have a moderating influence on US policy. For a time he may even have believed that he could prevent the war.
Blair's objectives were worthy, but they reflected a mistaken view of the Bush Administration's objectives and an inflated estimate of his own influence. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, neocons gained control in the Bush Administration. Their primary strategic objective was to secure control of Iraqi oil supplies so that the US could withdraw from Saudi Arabia. This necessitated regime change in Iraq. In addition, imposing regime change in Iraq appealed to the utopian strand in neocon thinking.
Neocons follow former President Woodrow Wilson in believing that the world's problems can be solved by the universal adoption of American-style democracy, and they think this applies especially in the Middle East. A democratic Iraq would be a model for other Islamic countries, and would diminish the threat of terrorism throughout the region. As with securing control of Iraq's oil supplies, this could be achieved only by war.
If Blair believed he could divert the Bush Administration from its course he was deluded. Blair now defends the war on the grounds that it rid the world of an evil dictator, and there is no reason to doubt that this is his genuine belief. Like Bush, he thinks of international relations in simple moral categories derived from theology. Given that relations between states are hardly ever free of moral ambiguity, this is a dangerous habit, but the theology involved is also extremely dubious.
There is an ancient academic cliche according to which American leaders are prone to take a Manichean view of politics as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, and it has become common to ascribe the same view to Blair. This is to attribute to Blair an insight into moral conflict he has never possessed. The Manicheans were subtle thinkers. They saw the world in terms of a clash of good and evil, but they left the upshot in doubt. In contrast, Blair believes that, so long as people of good will are not thwarted in their efforts, the triumph of goodness is certain.
If he talks incessantly of evil, it is because he does not really believe in it. Blair shares Bush's fundamentalist conviction that evil can be defeated, and it is this that separates him from mainstream Christian thinking. That is why, ever since Augustine, orthodox Christian doctrine based on the idea of original sin has condemned moral absolutism in politics. Medieval thinkers accepted that war is sometimes right, but they insisted that it had to be clearly necessary and they developed a complex doctrine of just war to determine when this was the case.
Blair has no time for such casuistry. He prefers to rely on a subjective sense of virtue. For him, it is enough that what he is doing feels right.
In the case of Iraq, Blair's sense of certainty appears based on ignoring the advice of those - diplomats, soldiers, security experts and others - who knew something about the country whose Government the Bush Administration was bent on overthrowing. There were many warnings of the risks of destabilising a colonial-era state that has never known democracy and contains several antagonistic communities. Blair chose to disregard them.
Along with his fellow neocons in Washington, he seems to view America as the paradigm of a modern society and imagines American power to be invincible. In this view, American-style democracy is what people everywhere want. All that is needed for it to prevail is the overthrow of tyranny - and no tyrant can withstand American military might. In giving his backing to the Bush Administration, Blair can feel that he is aiding the cause of human progress, while having the reassuring sense of being on the side of the big battalions.
But Blair's faith in American power has proved naive. The US faces intractable resistance in Iraq, and American influence has shrunk throughout the world. Saddam's tyranny has been overthrown, but at the price of creating a failed state in which the most powerful political forces are those of radical Islam. If the country does not disintegrate there may yet be democracy in Iraq; but it will be of the Iranian variety and not the Westminster or Capitol Hill model.The global struggle against terrorism has been severely compromised, first by the diversion of resources into an unnecessary war, then by the conduct of the war itself.
Blair's confidence in his own judgement was ill-founded, and his credibility has been damaged irreparably. His endless equivocation about weapons of mass destruction has led to him being seen as mendacious, but this may be unfair. It is not so much that he is economical with the truth as that he has no conception of it. For him, truth is whatever serves the cause. Deception is justified if it advances the cause of good - and then it is not deception, but the expression of a higher truth. Blair has remained silent on the abuses committed in Abu Ghraib and on the evidence obtained by torture is now accepted by British Courts. He believes that history will vindicate him, and whatever further horrors are in store for Iraq, they will not alter his belief that he is right.
Hubris of this kind cost Thatcher her premiership. In Blair's case, it has in effect ended his political career. While British voters may not care much about Iraq, the unfolding disaster in that country has left many with a mistrust of Blair that borders on contempt. He may have thought Iraq could be kept off the front page, so that he could "move on". But it continues to dominate the news and to compromise everything he does.
Blair is still likely to achieve a workable majority in the general election. But, whatever the result, he has little prospect of winning referenda on the European constitution and the single currency. He will be unable to take Britain more deeply into Europe - a goal to which he is still attached, if only for the glimmer of hope it offers that he may yet be remembered for something other than leading Britain into a ruinous war.
After coming to power making vast promises of national renewal, Blair will leave office with very little to show. Thatcher was equally ambitious, but she did bring about far-reaching changes in many aspects of British life.
Blair's legacy to Britain looks like being a string of mega-casinos and the legal rehabilitation of state torture.
John Gray is professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. His most recent book is Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, published by Granta, £8.99.