Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Learning from Blair's Journey and the Court of Tony Zofis

Tony Blair is one of the most skilled politicians of his generation and his Journey will be an important source for studying the politics of British governance from 1997 to 2010 (although the story starts earlier, with Neil Kinnock and John Smith), alongside books by Gould, Campbell, Mandelson, Mullen, Seddon and others. For the study of practical politics, three things stand out for me:

  • first: war is a failure of politics. Tony Blair chose to throw all his political skills to align his country with disastrous and misguided policies of America’s neo-cons, when he could have used his abilities and access to Bush to guide the world on a surer course for dealing with dictatorships like Saddam Hussein. Hindsight is easy, of course, but we need to mine the lessons of the past to avert disasters in future. 
  • second: Blair and Brown re-habilitated the public sector but failed to reform it, because their model for driving change was wrong. For an inside story it is worth reading Michael Barber’s Instructed to Deliver alongside John Seddon’s Systems Thinking in the Public Sector (and The Systems Thinking Review) which shows the negative impact of top-down targets and presents a radically different approach to public service transformation.
  • third: the central role of “office politics” in the past 20 years, although it may be more apt to call it the court politics of Tony Zofis (as Ted Wragg called it). The big political battles took place behind the scenes, with teams from Brown, Bush, the Security Council, Europe and other fiefdoms.
Democratic politics was marginalised during the Blair years. Tony Blair would have been stronger and more successful if he had fought Gordon Brown in an open contest for the Labour leadership; if he had engaged his party and the public in an open process of public sector reform; and if he had listened to the public on Iraq.

Of course there were many other areas of practical politics from which we can learn, including both positive changes, such as the peace process in Northern Ireland, devolution in Scotland and Wales, active support for the world’s poorest through DfID and the G8, the introduction of citizenship in schools and increased support for parents and children in the early years. But in many other areas we need to understand why so little progress was made, including issues of income inequality and social justice, health and well-being, drug and substance abuse, criminal justice, reform of parliament (including the upper house and voting systems), local government, pensions, PFI and the financial system, the Middle East, European Union and the marginalisation of the Labour Party itself. But these are now issues for a new generation of political activists, who need to study and learn from what actually happened before it becomes mythology.

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