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New Labour presents acute problems for the historian. It is never easy to write the history of any government, such is the inevitable process of winnowing out the important from the ephemeral. But attempting to write a history of New Labour’s domestic policies under Tony Blair has thrown up a number of especially troublesome dilemmas peculiar to Blair’s era of political dominance.
The course of political history, narrowly defined, could be very confusing while Blair was Labour’s leader between 1994 and 2007. New Labour sought to fuse market, state and civic society in a self-consciously novel effort to support social and economic mobility in an age of globalisation. To some extent, covering so much of the ideological waterfront is what makes any governing coalition successful. But it also poses challenges for the author attempting to write political histories of the present.
There are five notable areas in which writing a domestic history of the Blair ministry has proved difficult. The first is that it is still very early to reach considered, balanced judgements on the impact of many Blair policies. Some architecture of the New Labour era remains, such as the national minimum wage, and seems to have become an established part of the UK’s political economy. But other elements, like human rights law, remain matters of intense controversy. Similarly, in Scotland, if pro-independence forces succeed, New Labour’s policy of devolution may be seen as a historic mistake. If they do not, the recreation of a Scottish Parliament might seem like a far-sighted reinforcement of the Union. Who can tell what it will mean in the long run?
A second challenge is the strong association of Blair’s government with one word: Iraq. The legacy of the Iraq war and the disaster it became poisoned the reputation of ‘New’ Labour within the Labour Party in the longer term. Ed Miliband’s explicit attack on the Iraq war when he became Labour leader was just one example of this. Jeremy Corbyn, succeeding Miliband, demonstrated not just a critique of Blair’s ideas, but a full-court rejection of their effects, intent and good faith. ‘Blairism’ and ‘Blairite’ thereafter became slurs among the most aggressive Corbynite activists, while Brown and Blair’s domestic achievements occasionally became a rallying point for those opposing Corbyn. All this makes any recovery of the true nature, effects, and legacy of Blair’s actions much more difficult.
The third challenge is methodological. The nearer one’s research approaches the present, the more this becomes a matter of painful selection and impossible workloads rather than an opportunity to understand more. Take, for example, the National Archive’s abundant online repository of UK government websites. There are also parliamentary papers and debates, newly-available official papers released under the twenty-year rule and data from the Office for National Statistics, among many others. All this represents a blizzard of information, often making historical analysis more difficult, not easier.
A fourth point concerns the shifting personalities of key actors central to the New Labour project. Many of the most powerful people involved are still active in politics, making at least occasional public interventions. Recently, Blair has intervened to emphasise the importance of new vaccines, electric cars, and AI. This forces the historian to ask: to what extent were these more important themes than they seemed at the time? Gordon Brown has since he left office focussed on education in the developing world, while Alastair Campbell has also become increasingly identified with the pro-European cause since Leave’s victory in the 2016 referendum. To what extent might this move debt forgiveness for poorer countries, or the EU, higher up our agenda when we study New Labour? The answer is by no means clear— focus too much on later developments and we run the risk of extreme present-mindedness.
Finally, ‘the domestic politics of the Blair government’ is a very wide subject. It is very likely far too wide for one book, written by one historian, even while excluding foreign policy. Consider some subjects any such book will still have to cover and what might be underplayed as it moves through headline topics: income distribution; security; immigration and the labour market, and so many others.
Topics that may have to be left for others, owing to word length as much as anything else, will probably be: devolution; transport policy; constitutional reform, including freedom of information and House of Lords reform; and much regional policy. Often the areas left out have been—or will be—more than adequately covered by better-qualified writers. Even so, there is a danger that ‘the domestic policies of the Blair government’ might become ‘the performance of public services in England under Blair’, which is not the same thing at all.
Overall, the problem of writing the history of the Blair government reflects the nature of New Labour, and perhaps most contemporary political history itself. ‘Blairite’ initiatives were and are kaleidoscopic responses to an increasingly fractured electoral and policy landscape—one that could show the public and party many faces, very rapidly. Grasping that range of ideas might, however, show how important political history remains, since it demonstrates how opaque New Labour could be. Contemporary political history thus becomes a craft and an ongoing, perhaps stuttering, task, rather than a smooth summation.
In the end, the student of New Labour is forced most of all to be honest and, to do so, must expose the ‘hidden wiring’, not just of Westminster and Whitehall, but of their own writing.