Churchill, Kennedy, Carter, now Blair?

September 22, 2006

Glen Rangwala, James Panton and Paul Whiteley consider the wisdom of the supposedly mooted Tony Blair School of Government

GLEN RANGWALA is a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University

What political analyst in his or her right mind would want to work for a Tony Blair School of Government? Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and Cambridge's Churchill College are associated with iconic politicians whose identities transcend narrow political affiliations. But while Blair may have done some valuable things, surely only the most dedicated of followers would hitch their professional lives to the Prime Minister's mantle given the dubious quality of his achievements and the expectation that he will continue to make disturbing comments once out of office.

Take this one from his recent pamphlet for the Foreign Policy Centre: "The struggle against terrorism in Madrid, or London... is the same as the struggle against the terrorist acts of Hezbollah in Lebanon." In one sentence, Blair labels the majority in the Middle East al-Qaeda supporters.

You can imagine academics hurriedly shredding their Blair-headed notepaper after a statement such as that.

So a Blair school would attract devotees only, turning it into yet another partisan think-tank. Would it not put a considerable dent in the London School of Economics' otherwise immaculate reputation once Blair starts intruding upon the academy? It's almost enough to make you wish that he would stay in power for another year.

And what would the school be able to present as the distinctive political identity inherited from its founder? There is no set of ideas or values with which Blair will be prominently associated even five years from now.

Blairism is only an approach - a mode of organisation involving the personalisation and informalisation of power, and a style of presentation, constructed around false choices and a turgid portrayal of the leader suffering for his cause.

The ongoing fall of Blair is in large part the rejection of those techniques. So perhaps there is a more appropriate place to house the Blair School of Government, just around the back of the LSE. They could even keep its current name: The Old Curiosity Shop.

JAMES PANTON IS a lecturer in politics at St John's College, Oxford, and co-founder of The Manifesto Club ( www.manifestoclub.com )

How fitting that, as he enters the twilight months of his premiership, the Prime Minister should be looking towards establishing a Tony Blair School of Government. His ministers have famously asserted that education for its own sake is "a bit dodgy" while railing against the elitist notion that academics might be best suited to make judgments about their applicants or might seek to make intellectual discriminations between students.

The new Labour Government has steadfastly advanced the principle that a state-funded university sector should be justified in direct proportion to its preparedness to teach subjects useful for the labour market, and its capacity to stimulate economic growth. The contempt with which it holds the once-cherished notion of academic freedom was last year explicitly expressed by Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell when he reminded vice-chancellors of their responsibility to clamp down on extremist views on campus.

But such disregard for institutional autonomy has underpinned the gradual transformation of many academics into advocacy researchers pursuing government-directed investigations. Remember, should you be seeking funding, you will stand a much greater chance of success if your proposal fits neatly into the Government's research aims, as outlined in the state funding bodies' lists of priorities. And should your work result in evidence that contradicts policy proposals, you can expect to have your findings and methodology unpicked by ministers in the House of Commons.

Given new Labour's success in turning universities away from the esoteric pursuit and communication of higher knowledge towards the socially relevant aims of economic development, social inclusion and government-directed advocacy research, the only surprise is that we should have to wait until the Prime Minister leaves office before giving him an academic department of his own. Perhaps this is a final gesture towards that out-dated notion that there should be some degree of separation between what goes on inside the university and inside the Government.

PAUL WHITELEY is professor of government, Essex University

As the pressure on the Prime Minister to leave No 10 grows, the question has to be why he wants to stay, given that he has lost so much of his authority. One answer is that Tony Blair is seeking to preserve his place in history and protect the long-term legacy of new Labour. He needs a clear policy success before donning ermine as Lord Blair of Baghdad.

This is not going to be easy, for he has always had to cope with a difficult dual premiership. Indeed, there is a plausible case for arguing that Labour's main success - economic policy - is due almost entirely to Gordon Brown. And if he stays until after the English local and the Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections next May, he risks a new Labour massacre further tarnishing his name.

But the assumption that he needs to be in office to rebuild his reputation is wrong. One route to historical rehabilitation will be to make a success of the Blair Institute for Government. The model would be the Carter Center at Emory University in the US.

By most standards, the one-term Jimmy Carter presidency was a failure. It performed poorly economically and its last days were overshadowed by the US hostage crisis in Tehran. But subsequently Carter has been resurrected as the most successful ex-President in postwar history. This has been in no small part due to his centre being at the forefront of peacekeeping and mediation efforts around the world.

If the Blair Institute concentrated on the problems of renewing British democracy, it could make a significant contribution. Finding solutions to declining electoral participation, youth disaffection with politics and widespread distrust of institutions such as Parliament would go a long way to rehabilitating the Prime Minister's reputation. Besides which, the LSE could doubtless count on a generous donation from the Bush family to get things going.

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