Saturday, March 04, 2006

Snake Oil And Prudence

Briefly, when God is a British citizen, I'll feel that it is acceptable for British Prime Ministers to claim that they are accountable to Him. Until then, I am likely to see attempts to vindicate unpopular and morally questionable, to say the least, policies by reference to wholly private and almost certainly imaginary conversations, whoever sincere the profession of belief in the policy or the conversation, as an inappropriate use of the properly private in the cause of the regretably public. It is one of the things that I think a lot of people have always been rather uncomfortable about Blair with, his blurring of the line between personal and the public, the personalisation of his political struggles, the creation of the sense of ideological crusade by him and him alone. Backword Dave gets the unease right I think when he says that

if you're at all sincere in your religious beliefs, you don't flash them at everyone; you're confident about them, and, like your parents, they're just they're to fall back on. Blair uses his; Bush uses his. You don't have to be a genius to spot a phoney.

It is the privacy of the justification which makes the coincidence so suspicious, something which is only increased by the distance from a series of traditions, and so a public discourse of normativity, that Blair has marketed himself on the basis of. I think it is generally accepted that those at its head decided some time ago that the best way for the Labour Party to react to the decline of mass membership parties and of voter identification on the basis of class was to cleave to the respectable working class and lower middle class which were so successfully wooed by Thatcher's discourse of self-reliance and responsibility. Ross McKibbin summed up something like the conventional wisdom in 1999:

In its thinking New Labour is dependent primarily on one sociological premise: that the manual working class is no longer a reliable base for the Labour Party, simply because the working class has so declined in numbers and therefore in political potential. From this it follows that the predominant class, politically and numerically, is now the broad middle class and that electoral success can be achieved only if a political party has significant support within that class - which is what the Conservatives also believed. Mondeo man is thus the same as Essex man. Lurking nearby is a related premise: that each class has a particular ideological 'fit' and that what fitted the old working class (and thus Old Labour) does not fit the new middle class... Mondeo men and women do not like paying taxes, they are not very community-minded, they like the good life and 'freedom of choice'. They do not like trade unions. They admire businessmen. They are suspicious of the state, which is always thought to be on their backs. They might be induced to accept a more 'compassionate' social policy so long as it is introduced behind their backs.

McKibbin is skeptical of the sociological aspects of this rationale, and I am sure there are rather more sophisticated stories about the political sociology of contemporary Britain than the one which sees in the disappearance of one form of class-alignment the disappearance of all forms of electorally decisive class-alignment. Furthermore, of course, the rationale ignores the impact that the Labour movement has had on conceptualisations of class, an impact which has almost certainly been to its electoral advantage, while treating as a kind of sacred cow the socio-cultural currents made mainstream and politically decisive by Thatcherism.

These kinds of strategic decisions are not the subject, directly at least, of James Naughtie's 'The Rivals'. It is a journalist's political biography of the Blair-Brown relationship from their entries into Parliament up until about half way through the second term and thus, entirely unsurprisingly and not necessarily to its detriment, misses this kind of context for the politicking which it ably documents. The portraits it provides of Blair and Brown do offer insight into the individuals who shaped New Labour, presumably with the political marginalisation of the industrial working class, or at least its effects, providing them with the ends towards which the project was to be designed, though. Blair, Naughtie makes clear, has no political hinterland, no involvement in student, local or trades union politics, nothing like the immersion in a culture of political struggle which, whatever else one may think of Brown, his background certainly provides him with. There's nothing that mediates his engagement with the public: politics as the confessional, a peculiar kind of theatre where what is said matters only insofar as it allows the actor to force their self onto the audience, alternately bragging and pleading, desperate to extend their stay, to continue to bear a soul apparently constructed entirely around the principle of pandering.

Brown's not like that. He seems aware of the publicity, the mutuality, of political discourses, presents himself as part of a tradition even when he struggles against parts of it, rather than making appeals to necessarily internal and private emotions. While Blair uses the first-person singular when making an impassioned appeal, Brown seems happier with the first-person plural. There is a kind of often Scottish reserve, a recognition of the other people in the conversation and of the intrusions, the awkwardnesses, the things left unsaid, the ways in which exposure makes us all voyeurs. The private here undoubtedly flows into the political: the political becomes the parts of the private that are suitable for public consumption, the concerns that can be generalised, presented without toppling into denial of dignity through the demand for a sentimentalised empathy. Naughtie for example emphasises the way in which Brown's private life is consumed by politics, whereas Blair's, for all that his politics depend on revelation, seems bizarrely uninterested by politics in his private life, almost unaware of it. I find it difficult to believe, for example, that Brown would have ever taken up an offer of the use of Silvio Berlusconi's holiday home. He would have understood not only the ways in which it was an unjustified taking advantage of privilege but also a getting far too close to someone who has made the unjustified taking advantage of privilege an all-consuming mode of living. This is despite his somewhat reluctant defence of Jowell, whose husband is clearly a crook, if only by association with a man with a history of noteworthy political corruption stretching back decades in a country where it is a basic assumption that everyone has their head at the trough.

I don't want this to be a generalised defence of Brown. The timidness of the Blair governments on social and economic policy is to be laid at his door, and there is little reason, given the lack of even disguised dissent, to suppose that much of the War on Abstract Concepts would have been significantly differently waged by Brown. Still, I am more comfortable with Brown than Blair. I feel he is one of us, a sheep led astray, constrained by circumstance, not acting on a stage of his own choosing. Blair seems rootless, unplacable, lacking a compass for anything other than what will draw the most attention to himself - it is possible to image him as a Tory Prime Minister - whereas Brown is obviously a Scot, and obviously a member of the Labour Party. That constrains him in ways I both feel are politically beneficial and have a personal affinity with. That sense of having to constantly renegotiate a compromise, with the others you are in dialogue with, share some public spaces with, to decide, in a series of increments, how much and on what grounds you can afford to give up, the struggle to provide moral motivation for a modus vivendi, is something that members of the Labour Party have been familiar with for some time.


Shuggy said...

You're wrong about the Blair thing. What is he actually selling? Nothing - he's not going for re-election. And even if he were, he'd understand that going on about God isn't the way to do it. Remember Campbell and his "We don't do God"? That's because it was well-understood that voters don't like this. Blair is aware of this but doesn't care. He's leaving, why don't people get that's what he was really saying?

Rob Jubb said...

It's not just about that though is it. 'I bear the scars on my back'; 'if you'd been seen the evidence I've seen'. It's all personalised. There are ways in which the use of religious faith in politics is entirely appropriate: Martin Luther King's use of biblical imagery, as well as no doubt religious conviction, to argue his case, engaged with a discourse which took those things to have worth. Blair just says 'believe me'. It's not the same at all. And, thinking about it, I suspect that it is the Martin Luther King kind of religosity that Campbell thought the public were skeptical of: religion does not occupy the same social space in Britain as it did in the States in the fifties and sixties, while the politics of conviction, which Blair's statements of religious belief are certainly part of, are I think fairly central.

Perhaps he is going. Maybe all that 'if he was going to try and justify the war, he would have used some less publicly embarassing means' is true. That's not the point though. The point is that he is a politician whose appeal rests on a publicisation of the private, on a prositution of himself, and I find that rather repulsive.