Demitasse liberalism

International | Tony Blur: A real '90s guy takes over at 10 Downing Street

Issue: "Louisiana's Buy-You-Election," May 17, 1997

Islington is the sort of shabby-turned-chic neighborhood--like San Francisco's Knob Hill or parts of Brooklyn--smart '90s couples gravitate to for a charming, almost pretentious, lack of pretense. Rows of white walk-ups have been renovated to accommodate the children of two-career professionals who've set up housekeeping along its shady streets. Play equipment vies with London's normally tidy gardens out back. Swiftly multiplying corner shops and ethnic restaurants attest to the upwardly mobile character the north London neighborhood is acquiring.

This was a fit setting for Great Britain's new prime minister to take up residence with his lawyer wife and three children after joining Parliament in 1983. It was also an appropriate place for Tony Blair, leader of the Labor Party since 1994, to meet with other members of the party leadership last fall-in a nouveau-minimalist restaurant called Granita-and purpose to change Labor's image.

That meeting in part gave birth to &quotNew Labor, new hope for Britain," a slogan that carried Mr. Blair's party into what is being called &quota new dawn" for the country. Mr. Blair prodded his party to abandon its historic commitment to &quotcommon ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange." The party of the mines and mills and Marxist ideology thereby became the party of the middle class, sweeping Conservatives from 18 years in power. Historians had to reach back to 1832 to find a comparison to such swift and total transfer of government. Of the 659 seats in the House of Commons, Labor won 419; Conservatives were reduced to 163, and Liberal Democrats won 45 seats, doubling their representation in Parliament.

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Lacking the separation of powers that characterizes American democracy, Mr. Blair's victory gives him control of the bureaucracy as well as the legislature. Within 12 hours of polls closing, predecessor John Major was turned out of 10 Downing Street.(Soon after, Mr. Major's replica was removed from its prominent place in Madame Tussaud's wax museum and Mr. Blair's put in its place.) Mr. Blair took up the post the same day with his cabinet nearly complete.

Political observers this side of the Atlantic, used to thinking that most things British are permanently retro, found Britain's general election fascinating for its sweeping &quotnewness" even as it was an eerily deja-vu-all-over-again parallel to President Clinton's election in 1992. Both leaders are baby-boomers who forced themselves onto the political stage just out of law school. Mr. Blair's wife is a well-known London attorney. Both belong to parties that endorse government control of education while sending their own children to private schools. The &quotNew Labor" label reflected Mr. Clinton's &quotNew Democrats," as both leaders sought to bring their party to the center of left. The Blair campaign even adopted spin doctors and a war room.

Mr. Blair was also like Mr. Clinton in attending Oxford in the early 1970s. But Mr. Blair was heavily influenced by Peter Thomson, an Anglican priest from Australia who led long conversations about theology and politics. Mr. Blair joined the Church of England at Oxford but has more recently been rumored to be interested in Catholicism. Throughout his political career he has publicly identified himself as a Christian; fellow believers, however, were dismayed to find him downplaying his faith during the campaign.

At one photo op it was discovered that Mr. Blair would be speaking directly in front of a hospital slogan reading, &quotThe service of God is the service of man." Aides had the camera angles shifted to obscure the religious reference. More to the point, conservative Christians worry that Mr. Blair's muddled theology taken with the clouding of political distinctions that earned him the nickname &quotTony Blur" will hinder the work of Christian faith in politics.

In an interview last Easter titled &quotWhy I am a Christian," Mr. Blair told the Sunday Telegraph he considers himself an &quotecumenical Christian" (see sidebar). He told the paper, &quotI find many of the debates between Catholics and Protestants completely baffling."

During the campaign Scotland's cardinal of the Roman Catholic church, Thomas Winning, accused Mr. Blair of &quotwashing his hands on abortion" by not making it a campaign issue. And he opened himself to further criticism from conservative church leaders by appointing Chris Smith, an openly declared homosexual, as Heritage Minister. Meanwhile, a liberal group of ecumenicals, the Council of Churches for Britain, criticized the prime minister for abandoning Labor's traditional pledges of full employment and higher taxes to promote the welfare state.

In this climate there is no such thing as straight Labor Party policy. Behind Mr. Blair's centrist rhetoric there are some strong socialist members of the party now in very high places. The party's traditional base of support-chiefly trade unionists-are sure to come knocking, chits in hand, wanting a favor returned for remaining quiet while Mr. Blair recrafted their image. Nobody knows how many pledges and debts are owed to unions and the traditional left wings of the party, which now have at least several proxies sitting in Whitehall.


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