British prime minister finds a Third Way

June 09, 1998|By Richard Reeves

LONDON -- "How Was It for You?" complete with a picture of the prime minister and his wife in bed under the Union Jack, was the cover of The Sunday Times magazine a couple of weeks ago. The actual title of the story inside was in small type in the corner: "Blair's first year."

The author, Philip Norman, was not impressed. The Tony Blair he described made Bill Clinton look almost Lincolnian. The key moment of the Blair year, in this account, was the death of Princess Diana and the prime minister's immediate characterization of her as the "People's Princess." Wrote Mr. Norman: "The epitome of Tory values . . . became the Patron Saint of New Labor."

Thoughts on Thatcher

He goes on to compare Mr. Blair's reaction to Margaret Thatcher's melodramatic or comic-opera invasion of the Falkland Islands: "A nation in fear, shock or bereavement becomes a wonderfully simplified, pliant thing responsive to the most facile gestures of leadership."

That may go too far. Mr. Norman seems to speak for those who simply cannot believe that young Mr. Blair, who took control of Labor only four years ago when John Smith died at the age of 56, is so damned popular here and abroad. One final shot, with more truth, was this line: "A leader whose compulsion to be photographed in denim shirts makes him a more suitable candidate for a Ralph Lauren catalog than 10 Downing Street. He is known to admire Margaret Thatcher, and has learned from her that a prime minister's greatest strength is total absence of shame."

That one sounds more familiar to an American. But Tony Blair is no President Clinton, principally because British politics is a great deal more ideological than the American kind. An American president -- Nixon in China or Clinton on Wall Street -- does not have to explain deviations from the party line because we really don't have such dense historical lines. Mr. Blair is called on day after day to justify his rejection or renewal of a century-old socialist party.

Mr. Blair remembers his first attempts at moving the party to the right when he said: "We have to appeal to homeowners as well as council tenants." The reaction to that, in his own words: "It went down like a lead balloon."

"My generation longed for a Labor Party in which people who are successful felt at home," he says now. "If you wanted to get on in life, you had to be Tory. Indeed if you wanted to own your own house you had to be a Tory."

A new party

Mr. Blair has changed that. In the words of one of his Labor colleagues, Roy Hattersly: "He used to describe himself as a Christian socialist. But he believes principles are pointless without power. Now he is firmly against equality as a goal and the redistribution of power and wealth as a policy. . . He has jTC created a new party with Labor roots. Mr. Blair is no Thatcher either, though he must govern in her shadow as Mr. Clinton has governed in the shadow of Ronald Reagan. Mr. Blair changed his party, no small feat.

Mr. Blair's goal now, paraphrasing his own words, is to promote economic efficiency with social justice and fairness.

"I support a minimum wage," says Mr. Blair. "But these days people need to be highly adaptable, creative and flexible. . . . That's different from the old Left's position, which says that regulation is the way to fairness. There is a role for government. . . . But that role has to do with skills, education, technology and a modern employment service, rather than saying that the best way to job protection is a rigid set of rules."

That is, the British say, the Third Way. Not socialism, not raw capitalism.

So, in Mr. Hattersly's words, Mr. Blair is the man of the hour and seems to be the man of his day as well. Why? This is how Mr. Hattersly answered that question: "The need to balance the efficiency of the market with the social protection of government regulation is accepted at almost every position on the political spectrum."

That is the new place for leadership, it seems, the place where Mr. Blair and Mr. Clinton, too, are trying to level the common ground they share with their dominating predecessors, Ms. Thatcher and Mr. Reagan.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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