Inside Story

Echoes of revolutions past

A dizzying 2019 ends in a Conservative upheaval with distinct traces of Tony Blair’s New Labour

David Hayes 31 December 2019 2711 words

“We have to rise to the level of events”: British prime minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street on the morning after the election. Vickie Flores/EPA

England’s electoral revolutions arrive once in a generation. Whether long foretold, as in 1997, or half suspected, as in 2019, they deliver an instant and profound sense that everything has changed.

These two epic moments have an odd symmetry. Tony Blair’s landslide for New Labour and, twenty-two years later, Boris Johnson’s thumping win for the Conservatives, were alike powered by cross-class support, kinetic leadership, demotic edge and skilful use of the other side’s schisms (not least over Europe). But the strongest link is the deepest: a palpable awareness that not just politics, but history — and even, perhaps, geology — has shifted decisively.

Sure, the two events differ greatly in context and detail. New Labour’s hegemony in Scotland and Wales made 1997 a pan-Britain triumph, unlike Johnson’s dependence on English votes. While Blair’s offer of (British) national renewal was served with emollience, Johnson’s pledge to break the Brexit logjam invited a partisan style. Both points reflect the divisions forged by the 2016 referendum on the European Union, which put the two men on opposite sides of a chasm. In this light, Johnson’s teasing echo of Blair’s celebratory cry on the morrow of victory (“A new dawn has broken, has it not?”), followed by a visit to none other than Sedgefield, Blair’s old seat and New Labour touchstone in England’s northeast, were also a wave from the future.

Across the gap, in other words, there is correspondence. Blair’s was an anti–status quo revolution, but so was Johnson’s. It may not look like that: Blair ended the Conservatives’ run of four election wins after eighteen years, while Johnson caps another foursome, thus granting the Tories a second decade in office (the first a story of coalition followed by desperation). But just as Tony ran against Labour’s own past of extremism and defeat to burnish his newbie credentials, so Boris seeks to avoid any taint of the David Cameron (2010–16) and Theresa May (2016–19) governments — and Brexit is the perfect solvent. That wave is also a salute.

Even the figures stand comparison. Blair’s party took 43.2 per cent of the vote on a 71.3 per cent turnout, gaining a working majority of 177. Johnson’s has 43.6 per cent on a 67.3 per cent turnout (compared to 68.8 per cent in 2017), securing an eighty-eight-seat cushion. (The seat figures take note of Sinn Féin’s boycott of the House of Commons, the Irish party having nominally gained two MPs in 1997 and seven in 2019.) The earth clearly moved more for Tony than Boris: his record 10.2 per cent Con-to-Lab swing broke Margaret Thatcher’s 5.3 per cent Lab-to-Con swing in her 1979 revolution. But Johnson’s unique sweep, as both pro-insurgency and pro-incumbency, is in its way equally stupendous.

Elective affinities, and contrasts, go further. Labour’s astonishing 1997 haul of 418 seats (out of 631, discounting Northern Ireland, where British parties don’t stand, and the Commons speaker) included fifty-six (of seventy-two) in Scotland and thirty-four (of forty) in Wales. These countries also elected ten nationalists, six from the Scottish National Party and four from Plaid Cymru, the Welsh party. But John Major’s Conservatives were wiped out there, losing their eleven Scots and eight Welsh MPs.

Those results, a boost for Blair’s devolution plans, also painted the Tories as irredeemably — guess what? — an English nationalist party. The mordancy here is that Major, a bitter opponent of Brexit and Johnson, accuses the latter of taking the party into an English ghetto. Yet after a mixed performance in 2019, the Johnson-led Tories are second in seats and vote share in Scotland and Wales. They retained just six of their thirteen Scottish MPs, taking 25.1 per cent of the vote on a 68.1 per cent turnout, but in Wales added six to reach fourteen MPs, a record 36.1 per cent on a 66.1 per cent turnout. In England itself, the Conservative vote share was just short of 48 per cent.

A future Scottish referendum will be competitive, as was 2014’s vote of 55 per cent to stay in the United Kingdom. But to say independence is nearer, the consoling wisdom of bruised anti-Brexiteers in London media-land, is overplaying it. Electoral cycles, and multiple contingencies, can still give destiny a run for its money. The dizzying events of 2019, accelerating in the five months since Johnson became prime minister, are clinching evidence.

No one owns the future. But a period when the UK is living close to the edge suits leaders claiming steerage rights over history’s tides. Amid so much insecurity, people want leaders with a higher sense of direction as well as an ability to keep the show afloat. Thatcher and Blair, at their zenith, had it; Major, Gordon Brown and Theresa May didn’t. Cameron acted the part well, but after winning four big contests (two elections, two referendums) out of five he ended a loser. Now Johnson is a candidate for the pantheon. A twist in his wipe-out of Corbynism is to make Blair’s placement there, as controversial as Thatcher’s, look steadier.

A whiff of destiny came earlier for Boris, the proto-“world king,” than for Tony, whose artless, pretty-straight-guy memoir ups gear in a riveting dissection of the Labour left grandee Tony Benn’s politics of half-willed failure. Johnson, a decade younger, also had a more zig-zag route to the summit than Blair’s conventional lawyer-to-MP trajectory: journalism, souffle TV, London mayor, scandals all the way. His persona, mid nineties onwards, was a perfect fit for a popular culture ever more blokey, vacuous and right-on. Many who invested in him then are now big loathers thanks partly to buyers’ remorse, as I sketched in 2011:

[This] was also a period when comedy was becoming a major cultural industry, and — for a media that loves contrarians and the facade of difference — when “political satire” was filling the gap left by the end of ideology and the infirmity of political opposition. Boris was funny and clever; he stood out; he charmed; he got into scrapes, but even this seemed part of the Just William–style deal; and perhaps most effective of all, in a media-political culture becoming ever less serious, he reflected back to the audience a fashionable unseriousness, the sense that it — political argument, public life — was at heart all a jolly jape…

But the media, and certainly his left-wing opponents (very many, and what material he delivered them!), seem to have got Johnson wrong. Behind the charm offensive and the prolific journalism was always a formidable brain and a cold ambition. When the critics began to catch up in 2007–08, the sound of intellectual gears changing — from Boris ridiculous to Boris dangerous — was thunderous.

Still, they were wrong-footed. The left had loved, embraced and championed comedy’s colonisation of politics — most of it still does — but this was a step too far. The big mistake, it seemed, had been to characterise Johnson as above all a media figure (even if in the modern era every successful politician must be that), and to miss the possibility that the deceptively jocular exterior was also a mask. Could Boris even be more serious than the left? It was a question too fearful and disturbing to ask.

From this angle, Johnson’s ascent may be less unlikely than it can appear — as long as those contingencies are factored in. Blair too was a beneficiary of randomness, in particular the sudden death in 1994 of John Smith, which catapulted him to the Labour leadership after a much mythicised trade-off with rivalrous ally Gordon Brown. Thus was New Labour born. The steel he acquired in winning the party round proved its mettle in first-term foreign-policy crises, from the Kosovo war to 9/11. Thus was the road to Iraq opened. Blair, by then up against destiny with ever fewer tools in his kitbag and an enemy next door in 11 Downing Street, made a fair fist of the asymmetrical combat.

A third win in 2005, with a majority of sixty-eight on 35.2 per cent of the votes, turnout being 61.4 per cent — an anti-war surge having rewarded Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats with 22 per cent — was the graffiti on the wall. Blair lasted two more years, armour-plated now as he had to be, before leaving the piteous Brown to fritter New Labour’s already drained capital while lashing at phones, doors, keyboards and voters in frantic search of a governing purpose to keep Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne at bay. He never found it. In the event, Brown’s three years, ending in electoral defeat, Ed Miliband’s five, and Jeremy Corbyn’s four (and counting) saw Labour’s most baleful leaders drive the party into, respectively, ditch, pit and sewer.

In 2007, no one saw that coming. Many still blame Blair for it all (and everything else), which is an oblique tribute to his stature. “We have to rise to the level of events,” Johnson told cheering supporters on the morning of 13 December. Blair did so, destiny his motor and undoer, and every later British politician since is in his shadow, as he was in Thatcher’s. In the utterly changed context of 2020, Johnson — his vow of a “new golden age” another edict to self and colleagues — has to make good on those words. That electoral revolution is now his energy source and compass.

Johnson, well advised by Dominic Cummings, played a blinder between July and December in turning parliamentary zugzwang into checkmate of many adversaries: Tory grandees, backbench coup-makers, a calculating speaker, a casuistic Supreme Court, the BBC, Channel 4 and the opposition parties (the SNP excepted). So much had to happen, and not happen (for example, Labour possessing a mite of strategic nous), to ensure this. Hindsight alone lays inevitability’s false trail. Had the Europeanist remainers tied Johnson down, blocked an election and fixed a new “people’s vote” — their campaign name, which the luminous Times columnist Janice Turner describes as “blood-boiling” — everything would look different. Democracy had a close call.

That said, Brexit always had on its side an iron logic, rooted in the 2016 “no” to the EU: democratic legitimacy, popular sentiment, unbending belief — and redemptive “for all that” fairness (perhaps the supreme English value, exalted in the Scots-universal New Year song). These elements, strikingly, are now being quietly ceded by leading remain voices. Yes, populism also came into it, as how could it not, though endless Trump and far-right comparisons in New York Times-land and Guardian-land (to cite only these outlets) are wildly overcooked.

Lost in translation is that Brexit’s principal impulse was always democratic patriotism. Johnson’s adjusted withdrawal agreement with the EU having passed its second reading by a Commons’ majority of 124, the UK is on course to leave on 31 January.

In winning the establishment contest and now redrawing England’s electoral map, Johnson became voters’ conduit more than their ruler. If references to “the people’s government” sound bombastic, populist if you like, he seems to get this: “The voters of this country have changed this government and our party for the better. We must work to repay their trust.” The significant reference to the Tories, and cautionary insistence that so many ex-Labourites “lent us their votes” (italics added) again recall Blair’s victory speech: “we ran for office as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour… This new Labour government will govern in the interests of all our people — the whole of this nation.”

In the hinge elections of 1979, 1997 and 2019, millions of voters also wanted tangible, visible improvement in the public realm and their own lives. In the first two cases, that took until the second term. Thatcher benefited from a Labour split and a close-shave war with Argentina (contingency again), while Blair — who inherited a better economy than Thatcher or Johnson — was given a long Tory trauma, only some of it cast by his own spell.

Will voters be so patient with Johnson, or he so lucky? Given difficult economic terrain, steep policy challenges, perilous geopolitics and often-unhinged media, maybe not. A high-spending agenda joined to better public services — what the Independent journalist John Rentoul calls Johnson’s “sudden conversion to Blairism” — will be imperilled by a financial downturn. There are early glimpses of tension. Free-market Brexiteers like the Cato Institute’s Ryan Bourne feel “politically homeless” and fear their saviour may prove baby-snatcher. Nigel Farage plans to nibble at the Tories’ right flank by turning his Brexit Party vehicle into an anti-system Reform Party. And any attempt “to suppress the chaos-inducing entropic forces of Westminster/Whitehall,” as Cummings described his mission in 2014, will meet resistance inside these citadels.

“[In] every great victory lie the seeds of subsequent defeat,” the novelist Robert Harris observed of the election. How might it happen? A conceivable trajectory is that the new era’s first big scandal revives a “they’re all the same” mood, policy foul-ups ensue, Johnsonites tire and tussle (where is the flame, and who lost it?), voters seethe, by-elections are lost, recession hits, Scotland boils, Labour claws back in the north, LibDems in the south — and a general election looms. The now impossibly distant catharsis is cut up in a zillion ways to mock Johnson’s spoor of bombast, fantasy and broken promises. “2019, not such a big deal” columns mushroom.

Some are being written already.

What gives further pause is another bond between Johnson and Blair: the obsessional, onanistic abuse hurled at them. In part a subset of the vicious targeting of public figures, its impulse often misogynist and racist, the two men’s treatment has a distinct history. The anti-Blair hate-fest began, significantly, in a left–right media–political alliance that was forged over Bosnia and Kosovo, escalated after 9/11 and reached a paroxysm with Iraq. His 2007 departure brought no let up. Then came Jeremy Corbyn and a new swamp. Rentoul, co-author with Jon Davis of the best survey of New Labour to date — Heroes Or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered — classified the pathology as “Blair rage.”

Johnson’s more niche infamy, earned by serial misdemeanours, a lax private life and high-grade froth in his Telegraph and Spectator columns, morphed into serious villainy when he became Brexit champion then a careless foreign secretary. Earlier, in 2004, Johnson had backed a vain Commons attempt to impeach Blair led by the Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price, now party leader and Wales’s own man of destiny. But in 2016 the left–right front trained sights on Boris too. When Johnson ran for the Tory leadership in May-July, the virulence was eye-popping. “Boris derangement syndrome,” a phrase lifted from Brexit’s generic ability to madden, came into its own.

Such tags matter less than the wider discourse they signify. Complex as it is — and that mingling of left and right is an overlooked part of Britain’s last two decades — it bespeaks a politicised herd instinct, encouraged by social media, that often starts with an absolutist conclusion and then works backward to join the dots. Politics must always be made to fit the already known, auto-validating story. Blair was nothing short of evil and must be seen to have failed; then Brexit; now it’s Johnson’s turn, as dictionaries are raided to keep the spittle flowing, column after tendentious column.

A grave harm of this thought-blocking babble is that it squeezes the room for justified, rational criticism, and not just of Blair and Johnson. Its withered natural partner, contrarianism, is summoned to pre-empt the vacuum. The ensuing semblance of debate between these terrible twins reinforces an asphyxiating conservatism, often in radical guise. A voracious 24/7 news-and-comment mincer pumps febrility everywhere, preferring noisy partisanship and repetitive banality to informed, independent analysis that admits of complexity. Many institutions too have become fearful cheerleaders of entrenching orthodoxy. Although there are blessed oases in the desert, Brexit’s four-year limbo fortified this entire condition.

On 12–13 December, four hours of ballot counting brought catharsis. “Remember, if you are Britain, something always seems to turn up,” I wrote in 2017, channelling Dickens’s Mr Micawber. That something arrived as another implacable deep rumble from England’s middle earth. Oh, and Boris Johnson too. The way it has sent hearts and minds reeling is the best thing to happen in Britain for a generation. Voters have broken the lock and thrown open the window. Wherever the winds now blow, 2019’s end is a big new beginning. •