‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Leo Abse's attack on Tony Blair

"The Man Behind The Smile: Tony Blair And The Politics Of Perversion"

In 1972: Tony Blair and Alan Collenette, Richmond, West London

1996: two years after Blair became leader, a year before his landslide electoral victory and triumphal entry into Downing Street. Veteran Welsh MP Leo Abse, Old Labour and proud of it, gives TB a working over with fists of Freudian analysis.

There is an old Chinese philosophical saying: "man is greater than anything that comes out of him." I find elaborate schematics of the human soul unconvincing. The insights of psychologists are illuminating and suggestive, but I don't think you can tie them all together with threads into a neat bundle. There's lots of ends of speculation poking out of it. For example, the foetus hears its mother's heartbeat, but that isn't necessarily why we respond to the rhythms of rock music, for we have heartbeats of our own.

I think it was Karl Popper who observed that much of psychoanalysis was unfalsifiable. Yes, Leo Blair had a debilitating stroke, but we don't know what the son read into his father's mute gaze. Yes, TB's mother was reportedly unassuming and the "cement" of the family, but no, we don't know that tending to her disabled husband's needs starved her son of affection; nor that "cement" should be read as cold and hard, rather than binding. One can certainly postulate that intimations of mortality galvanized Blair, but then he said that himself.

Explaining a public figure like TB is an even bigger challenge, because policy and presentation are at least as much about other people as one's own personal history. The vagueness of Blair's manifesto may be, as Abse suggests, to do with an immature reluctance to accept one's own aggressive impulses and enter into combat with opponents; but it may have more to do with making the broadest possible appeal to a public that wants pain-free answers.

As early as the 1960s, there was concern about how presentation had trumped policy in American politics - see Joe McGinniss' book "The Selling Of The President 1968." Then there's Robert Redford's 1972 film "The Candidate", in which the challenger's successful strategy is to get the incumbent to commit to policy statements, losing a percentage of the voters each time, without doing the same himself, so when he wins, the new President is lost:

Blair's "consensus by diktat" approach to his Party must have been a contrast to the divisions among the Conservatives, and the emphasis on youth helped to make Labour's opponents seem old and out of touch. Did Blair like Jagger? Wilson made much of the Beatles. Abse should have swung his bow round and loosed his penetrating shafts at an electorate infantilised by dreamlike media and by a government that promises to do all for us because it takes everything from us.

Mad, or cunning? The smile of a politician may be that of a pervert afraid of his own violence; or it could be to disarm you while being perfectly aware of his aggression - here is Chris Mullin's diary for September 13, 2001:

"To London on the 18.47. David Miliband was on the train. He is in a similar situation to the one I was in when I was first selected - enemies occupy every office in his constituency party, although in his case it is nothing personal.

"He says The Man - who was once in a similar situation in Sedgefield - advised him 'to go around smiling at everyone and get other people to shoot them'. Advice that The Man seems to have applied throughout his career."

But in 1996, there are elements of the coming Labour government that Abse correctly identifies as sources of trouble: the Wilson-style "kitchen cabinet" of four powerful men, the increased power of Brown's Treasury, the failure to think things through (despite protestations of "joined-up thinking") that led to the graceless Baroness Jay curtly dismissing the hereditary peerage without having a generally agreed alternative, the continuing obsession with presentation (endlessly "making sure", "shaking up", "rolling out").

It was all Bakunin, the impulse to destroy justified as a creative urge. It was rock, but it spilled out of the concert hall. Think of Lindsay Anderson's 1968 "If...": moral outrage at finding the pickled foetus in its school jar, but then mortaring and machine-gunning the assembly at Speech Day. Think of the 1970 film (based on 1968) "The Strawberry Statement", students destroying the academics' lifetimes' work and screwing among the filing cabinets. Or "Zabriskie Point". The Paris Riots of 1968. The revolutionaries who took over the Establishment, cannabis fumes rolling down the BBC's corridors.Tariq Ali, Jerry Rubin, Timothy Leary. Fun. Millenarian madness. The once-a-generation collective testosterone tension that explodes into war, civil war or rebellion. It wasn't just Blair, it was a whole culture ready to take on its parents, who had had enough of real, bloody conflict in their lifetime and who were dazed at the reaction from well-fed youngsters with money in their pockets. A culture ready for a Leader. "Don't trust anyone over 30", said Jack Weinberg.

Assisted by biased reportage, the public saw a divided, dithering and venal Conservative Party. Time for a change. Blair was on the boat when the tide turned.


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Paddington said...

The childish anarchists of every generation destroy the hard work of the previous ones, whether they are in power, or not.

A K Haart said...

"Explaining a public figure like TB is an even bigger challenge, because policy and presentation are at least as much about other people as one's own personal history."

I agree. The ebb and flow of events may select the person best suited to ride them. From that perspective it is the events we should look at.