Allan Massie: No merit in being wise after event

When Tony Blair believed he was at his most capable as Prime Minister, he was in fact no longer effective, writes Allan Massie

Its difficult now to remember just how popular Tony Blair was in 1997. Picture: PA
Its difficult now to remember just how popular Tony Blair was in 1997. Picture: PA

The transcript of a question-and-answer session with Tony Blair held at the Mile End Group of Queen Mary College of the University of London was published in the Independent newspaper yesterday. Mr Blair is, of course, in the eyes of many a somewhat discredited politician, largely on account of the Iraq war. Nevertheless, anyone who was prime minister for almost ten years and won three general elections has interesting things to say about the practice of politics, the delivery of reforms and our system of government.

Early in the exchanges he said: “You start at your most popular and least capable and you end at your most capable and least popular.” Doubtless this isn’t always the case. Prime ministers can stay too long in the job; they may become tired, no longer receptive to new ideas, sometimes detached from certain realities, even corrupted by power.

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It’s probably true of Tony Blair himself. It’s difficult now to remember just how popular he was in 1997 when he seemed to many, including a fair number of natural Tories, like a breath of fresh air.

But, if Mr Blair was then perhaps the most popular prime minister of modern times, he was also the least experienced. He had never held office. His knowledge of the machinery of government was only theoretical. He didn’t know how you got things done. One of the things he had to learn was that formulating policy is easy. Anyone can do that on a couple of sheets of A4 paper. Delivering policies is difficult, and he discovered that the changes in the electorate’s attitude to politics and politicians, and the consequences of new technology, meant that the long-established way of working through the civil service was inadequate. Ideas had to be brought in from outside, not always, one might add, successfully.

He made the point that most of the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s required the passing of legislation; that is to say, they were effected by means of the established system of parliamentary democracy. But, he said, “When you look at things like welfare reform, healthcare reforms – which is a big issue here and everywhere – education reform, law and order, criminal justice, you’re talking about systemic changes in legacy systems that have grown up over a long period of time.” In fact of course his governments passed numerous Acts of Parliament relating to such subjects – too many, some would say. Yet this doesn’t invalidate his argument that delivering such reforms requires “a better quality of policy advice”, from people beyond the world of Westminster and Whitehall, and “performance management: skills more often associated with the private sector become absolutely central to delivering these systemic changes.” Moreover, he said: “The effects of these changes will be long-term, whereas politics works short-term, and they often need to try to achieve a consensus, whereas politics has become more and more partisan.”

I would question this last assumption, even if, unavoidably, oppositions criticise government proposals and measures, almost as a knee-jerk reaction, for in reality one can identify a continuity in policy development over the last 30 years. Blair himself indeed was in some respects the heir to Baroness Thatcher and John Major, while David Cameron has been, at times anyway, prepared to present himself as the heir to Mr Blair. Even Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, no matter how controversial measures like the Bedroom Tax may be, are actually developing policies initiated by the preceding Labour governments or putting into practice ideas floated by Blairite ministers such as Frank Field, himself at one time given office by Mr Blair and told to “think the unthinkable”.

In Blair’s view, “the root of cynicism about politics” is that there is an electorate which is “far more assertive about their individual circumstances” but believes government works in an old-fashioned manner. No doubt there are other reasons, notably the perception that we have a political class with no experience, or very little experience, of the world outside politics, a class that is therefore divorced from common experience. It’s interesting to learn that Mr Blair himself now advises young people thinking of a political career to first get some experience of what is often called the “real world” .

Yet, perhaps the most significant feature of this Q&A session is Mr Blair’s recognition that the skills which a politician requires if he is to win elections are different from those which are required in government. “You come to power as the great persuader. Right? You get into power and you’ve got to become a great chief executive.”

Effective government requires administrative skills which the persuasive politician may not possess. This is true, but the dichotomy is not so straightforward. There have of course always been ministers who were capable administrators but lacked persuasive powers, while the converse may also be true, attractive speakers incompetent to run a department.

Nevertheless the effective prime minister surely requires to be both a competent chief executive and a great persuader. He has to know, or learn, how to get things done, but also to be able to persuade the electorate that it is the right things which are being done.

Tony Blair’s tragedy was that, as he became better – in his view anyway – at the job of identifying what needed to be done, on the Home Front if not in foreign policy, and at “his most capable”, as he puts it, his powers of persuasion faded. In consequence, even if indeed more capable, he became less effective, because politics is not just as Rab Butler described it – “the art of the possible” – it is also the art of making what is possible acceptable and welcome to the electorate. This depends not only on the merits of what is proposed or is being done, but on the ability of the politicians to persuade us that this has indeed merit.