TVNZ recently bought an interesting little program from the BBC. Created by talented screenwriter Sally Wainwright, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard is about a working-class mum catapulted unexpectedly into the office of Prime Minister. Her first act is to tell George W Bush where to shove his congratulatory phone call. Further episodes call for the charmingly genuine Pritchard to think outside the box, scold reactionary Tories, question the Monarchy, move Parliament to Bradford, downplay the threat of terrorism, prioritise Kyoto, poo-poo the nuclear industry and frequently liaise with and defer to an ill-defined but evidently powerful lobby group known as The People. The tacitly shrieked subtitle is, of course, Tony Should Have Done This.
The Amazing Mrs Pritchard is, in short, part of the storm of editorialising surrounding Tony Blair’s resignation. The general tone of this discussion is one of strained disillusionment, with grudging admission of a few unglamorous successes placed alongside long-winded examination of failures and missed opportunities. The game I like to play is to watch this stuff and see how quickly someone uses the expression “hopes and dreams” – as in, “Blair carried the hopes and dreams of a generation, and he sold us out.” It’s usually turned up by the end of the third sentence. As Tony starts looking for a new flat, therefore, it’s important to remind ourselves why he’s such a disappointment.
In his excellent book Things Can Only Get Better, British humourist and lifelong grass-roots Labour supporter John O’Farrell does an inadvertently excellent job of explaining this. O’Farrell’s core point is very clear – the Tories stayed in power for eighteen years because Labour never provided a remotely credible alternative. The book is marketed as being by someone who “helped Labour lose elections at every level.”
O’Farrell also, however, points out that as Thatcher’s premiership continued, she became less a politician than a fact of life, something like the weather, to be whinged about no matter what, with attendant increasing bitterness and loss of perspective on the part of the whingers. Never disowning Labour’s principals, he nevertheless likens the party to a cult whose members blamed every personal and social ill on one remote, abstract demon. Here, for example, is his chief complaint about the Falklands War – “Why did she have to go to war with a fascist dictatorship? Why couldn’t we have a straightforward goodies and baddies war, where Thatcher was the baddie and the People’s Socialist Republic of Narnia were the goodies?” Victim mentality became absurdly entrenched. In the mid-‘90s, as Labour clawed back influence local elections, O’Farrell caught himself thinking it would be better if they lost – “was there not, I wondered, part of me that would be more comfortable with that?”
Those familiar with British comedy of the period may have noticed this process in action. In 1982 Rik Mayall formed a sitcom around his caricatured anti-Thatcher stand-up routine. The Young Ones pokes fun at student radicals living in a milieu of surreal poverty; Mayall’s frothing, self-dramatising Labourite ninny is the butt of most of the jokes. Eight years later, some of the biggest laughs from the audience of Young Ones co-writer Ben Elton’s televised stand-up routine The Man From Auntie were for his barbed anti-Thatcher remarks. Casual, dyed-in-the-wool hatred of Maggie had become so central to their popular appeal that these guys barely managed without her. Mayall remains irretrievably typecast and Elton now divides his creative energy between musical theatre and rather nifty social-realist mystery novels.
What becomes clear from Mayall and Elton’s comedy, O’Farrell’s book and The Amazing Mrs Pritchard is that, on May 1st 1997, Blair’s core supporters did not elect him to run a country. They elected him to give the miners their jobs back, blow a raspberry at Ronald Reagan, tear down the tower-block flats and secede the Malvinas to Argentina. He was elected to nullify the 1980s, to make it as though Thatcherism had never been. Such expectations were about as reasonable as you’d expect. Blair was elected seventeen years late by a group of people who had used that period of time to imbue him and his party with an importance bordering on the messianic. These people needed lives back then and their pronouncements on him as he leaves office suggest they still do now.
Blair’s government has not been a failure. He took a party that, just a few years earlier, was essentially unelectable and swept it into power. He won two subsequent elections. His chief opposition is in pretty much the same state of flaccidly protean, mewling, self-inflicted irrelevance that Labour was in during the ‘80s. The economy did well enough that every Briton over the age of three could suddenly afford a cellphone, the infrastructure for which was promptly put in place. The Irish can get back to squabbling amongst themselves rather than bothering other countries with their infantile grudges. And the Gleneagles debt-relief deal was closed, providing even such useless sectors of British society as Bob Geldof and U2 with an excuse to feel good about themselves.
Then there’s Blair’s involvement in Iraq, described by one British journalist as an ‘utter disaster’ and likely to skew attitudes towards him until his premiership passes from living memory. One might reasonably ask why. The British have been dealing with organised hate crimes by self-styled patriots since the 1500s, and that experience shows. The portions of Iraq they patrol are among the most peaceful. I can thin of no British equivalent of the Abu-Grahib scandal. And local repercussions – the bombing of the London Underground in 2005 – succeeded in closing down the Tube system for less than twenty-four hours. If, heaven forbid, you still have nothing better to do with your time, you can question the wisdom and efficacy of the invasion of Iraq, but wasn’t the British who screwed up.
When people say Blair shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, they mean he shouldn’t have sided with America, and in a sense they’re right. Petulant, adolescent, you’re-not-my-real-Dad anti-Americanism blights the popular and intellectual culture of Britain as much as most other counties, and the generation that grew up loving to hate the special relationship between Thatcher and Reagan was obviously going to baulk at a repeat performance. Again, however, those people are betraying a habit of thinking Blair was in power during the ‘80s. They’ve forgotten the outcome of the ‘80s as well. After all, Reagan and Thatcher won the Cold War. Stupid as it sounded at the time, their foreign policy worked. So might Bush’s. So might Blair’s.
If there’s been a crucial failing that’s ruined Blair’s premiership it hasn’t been on his part. It’s on the part of his electorate, who have been consistently unable to surmount key intellectual obstacles when considering him – those obstacles being the perceived awfulness of Thatcher when they elected him in 1997 and the Baghdad insurgency as he leaves office in 2007. Blair has no control over either and shouldn’t be criticised for them.
For all the wittering about “hopes and dreams”, furthermore, nobody to my knowledge has deliberately addressed the question of what sort of sad, romantic twerp attaches that sort of emotional and intellectual capital to a mere political party. John O’Farrell has inadvertently provided an answer – the British – but his book was published in 1997, not long after Blair was elected, and so was written without reference to their subsequent disappointment. And that disappointment is a reflection on them, not Blair. I would hate to have to be the one to explain this to George Galloway, Ben Elton or The Smiths, but you simply cannot invest liberal democratic governments with the sort of emotional import as they clearly did. Governments don’t promulgate philosophies, they run countries. Blair has done precisely that. Expecting him to have done differently indicates immaturity on your part, not inadequacy on his.
Curiously, later episodes of The Amazing Mrs Pritchard seem to acknowledge this. Increasingly concerned with the difficulties she encounters fulfilling her election promises, the first series ends with a cliffhanger as Pritchard confronts a potentially lethal skeleton in her closet. Agonising over whether to come clean or cover it up, Pritchard wonders “Should I just get over myself?” Whether she can get over herself will be shown in the next series. And whether the British public can get over themselves will be shown by what they think of Blair in five year’s time. Both will be interesting to observe.