God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.I read something recently which suggested that when we communicate with each other we work from the assumption that the other person is saying something meaningful (in the most limited sense, that it means something). So we will look for meaning, even when there isn't any. Clearly when we are dealing with figures with some sort of expertise our ability to find meaning is even keener. Once you're seen as being some sort of expert you can come out with pretty much anything and people will find significance in it.
So I find myself a bit bemused by some of the reaction to Tony Blair's latest comments. If anyone else had said something like this
In the real world of the 21st Century there will be some pick and mix of policy. Sometimes it will be less left vs. right than right vs. wrong. Above all, today efficacy - i.e. effective delivery, motivated of course by values, matters as much if not more than ideology. Don't fear it. Embrace it. It liberates us to get the correct policy. And the best policy is usually the best politics. It is not a betrayal of principles. It is applying principles to changing times.
Parties of the Left have a genetic tendency, deep in their DNA, to cling to an analysis that they lose because the Leadership is insufficiently committed to being left, defined in a very traditional sense. There's always a slightly curious problem with this analysis since usually they have lost to a right-wing Party. But somehow that inconvenient truth is put to the side.Would the reaction have been anything other than a "yeah, and" shrug? We shouldn't put ideology before practical policy, and in defeat we should not retreat into our comfort zone. Tony went on to say, to rapturous applause, that we should make an effort to spend more time with our parents as we get older, because we'll miss them when they're gone...
Which would be alright, if of no particular importance, but for the fact that it is welded to yet another defence of New Labour. This version went a bit further and said that the last three years in power were not NuLab. What I find odd about this is the rigidity of the position adopted which, to me, is the antithesis of what was valuable about New Labour in the first place. Obviously we should seek to focus on 'what works' rather than ideas we have emotional attachment to. But who in Labour these days is most guilty of wanting to cling the past, and of seeming to believe there is One True Path? I would suggest those who talk about not budging one millimetre from the previous approach have a pretty good claim. New Labour had a powerful appeal, both within Labour and outside, because it did, as Tony suggests, liberate us. But now it most often seems to be the keepers of the Blairite flame who are talking about what can't be done, and can't be changed.
It's notable that the party is therefore frequently issued with warnings about abandoning the centre ground, but often these betray a view where the centre ground is unshifting. Again this seems to be a reversal of the optimism, and achievements, of New Labour. Whilst aware of where the public were, it also had an aspiration to move the consensus on issues. Now Blairites seem to be far more pessimistic about what you can achieve. And it's principally for this reason, I think, it's a busted flush. Optimism is attractive and inspiring, pessimism is not, though it is comfortable and less risky.
When you go back and read Tony's old speeches they drip with optimism, and when you hear him speak he still has that. But his loyalist supporters seem to have hardened his worldview into a rigid approach to politics that now leaves me cold. And 'efficient delivery of services' is a guiding principle for a mobile phone company or something, it is nothing like enough to inspire a political movement.
Ultimately as a party we have to have some assumptions about what we can realistically change and what we just have to accept and work within. But, as events both this week and the last few years in the financial crisis have shown, we can get some pretty fundamental assumptions wrong. When that happens we have to redefine what we think is changeable. Otherwise even radical reformers can end up as conservatives.