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April 24, 2006

Mr Blair Goes to Pentonville: Jeremy Black considers what Blair's reputation will be among future historians

Posted by Jeremy Black

What will be the consequences of the current party funding scandal for Tony Blair's future reputation? Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - considers what Blair's reputation will be among future historians. The views expressed in this article are those of Prof. Black, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Off-tape conversations are always interesting. Usually, the radio warm-up is along the lines of what you had for breakfast, but sometimes the warm-up is more interesting and longer. When interviewed two years ago by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto for a programme on European integration (I was offering a Eurosceptic account), we discussed how far Blair was corrupt. I was inclined to emphasise corruption of governmental processes, but Felipe went the whole hog and argued that he was personally corrupt. I was reminded of this in mid-April when one of the most prominent historians in the century discussed over lunch whether television viewers would see a tear-stained Cherie outside Pentonville. Maybe Blair ought to be there. Public servants who appear less culpable have ended up in a harsher plight in recent years; but I doubt we will see the apotheosis of Blair in HM's care.

More significant, I would suggest, is Blair's reputation. Already this is low, both as far as journalists are concerned, and also as the historians' approach is shaping up. Here indeed the basic charge is not corruption, in so far as speculation is concerned, but rather corruption of the processes of governance and corrupting the reputation of government. Both are serious charges against Blair and also a major critique of his likely successor, Brown, who has done nothing to lessen the damage done.

Processes of governance rest in large part on consent, and reputation is crucial to this. In part, Labour has been a victim of its success, for, having used morality as a key issue, in denouncing Tory "sleaze", it accentuated the moral dimension of reputation. Indeed, professionalism was in part reconceptualised accordingly, a process that makes the exposition of policy more difficult, not least with foreign and military policies.

It would, of course, be misleading to argue that this is simply a matter of public policy. Instead, there are major shifts in society to which politicians seek and/or need to respond. The most striking is the decline in deference, seen for example in early 2003 when Blair was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman in front of a Tyneside audience that queried Blair's answers. Given this shift, there is much more of a willingness to query governance (one ably exploited by the Liberal Democrats), and this ensures that ministers need to be more careful of public perception.

Instead, there has been a remarkable complacency on the part of the Blair coterie. Tactical skill in managing, indeed manipulating, the media, associated in particular with Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, has been mistaken for strategic success. This gap became more apparent once Blair ceased to drive the tempo of politics. Whether other politicians will be able to contact with wider currents is unclear.

So where does this leave selling peerages and raising party funds? Blair has badly failed to judge changing moods, ironically so given his earlier approach to "sleaze", and this suggests both arrogance and a worrying lack of appreciation of attitudes. His presidential style of politics is particularly expensive, and, while this does not cause the funding crisis, it has seriously compounded it. This should be a theme of discussion and criticism, from within Labour, elsewhere in the political system, and more generally.

There is also the sense that honours are bound up with the issue of access to the leader, and that money has been a crucial lubricant. This represents at once a form of interest-politics and an aspect of potentially-damaging corporatism. Blair is not a Berlusconi, but the very fact that they can be mentioned together reflects not only their friendship, but also a similar ambience of power. This presumably was not what was meant by Euro-convergence.

Similarly, the proponents of New Labour wanted much more than money-politics; but the means of power tend to become more important than goals as governments consolidate their position. This has happened with Labour, and exchanging Blair for Brown in the showroom will not change the situation. Indeed, there is a wider problem, whoever is leader, with the gap between the widening and encroaching prerogatives of government and the ability to ensure results and influence social trends. The use of show, or spin, to bridge the gap has not worked. It has corrupted and is corrupting. Blair won't go to Pentonville, but his failure deserves castigation and he will receive it. Presenting himself as a man of destiny is unlikely to convince future commentators, let alone historians.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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I was reminded of this in mid-April when one of the most prominent historians in the century discussed over lunch whether television viewers would see a tear-stained Cherie outside Pentonville.
Who might that be - from the context surely a TV historian - so we have a choice of Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson or David Starkey. Or perhaps Andrew Roberts, but that would be much less fun - and would he really be described as a historian by an academic historian? Posted by: Curious at April 24, 2006 02:27 PM

So Blair won't go to Pentonville? Oh my. I am so disappointed. In hope that we might bring back the death penalty, I had even considering ordering t-shirts saying: 'Send Blair to the Chair!' How depressing.

Posted by: s masty at April 25, 2006 02:24 AM
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