In one way, Tony Blair was the most brilliant politician the UK has ever had. That is the way in which, during his time, politicians became more anonymous and less in possession of character. He won three general elections, was Prime Minister for ten years – the fifth longest unbroken stretch of any Prime Minister – yet I always felt we never really knew him. He threw up a mask and has kept it to this day.
In the case of his predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, whatever you thought of them, you knew the sort of people they were even if you had never met them. You knew the issues they cared about, the issues they didn’t care about, and their position on most topics.
Yet whenever I watched Tony Blair being interviewed, including his interview with Andrew Marr, I always got the impression of a pre-rehearsed script, that he would never be caught out because we could guess his answer to every question. He was very well prepared for every interview he ever had – and as such I felt we never got to know the real Tony Blair - and probably never will.
In British politics, principles and courage tend not to get you very far. Enoch Powell and Tony Benn are just two examples of highly intelligent, highly capable people who stuck with their beliefs regardless of the party line – and neither ever got near Number 10. In the current Labour leadership race, Diane Abbott is another example of a principled politician who can be popular with the voters but has absolutely no chance of the top job.
Tony Blair took this to the next level. In taking his party away from socialism and moving towards the centre ground, he successfully removed character from our politics and our politicians. Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell became household names more than the cabinet, because of expert media manipulation. David Cameron is the natural heir to this in becoming Prime Minister while portraying only the image not that we see but that we ought to see and keeping most of his colleagues anonymous.
Gordon Brown moved away from this. As a strong character, he re-introduced principles and beliefs to the top job. Yet much like John Major, the one we knew was dumped for the one who we only knew as much as we told. (And we only knew of Gordon Brown’s colleagues when they were plotting against him. Had anyone heard of David Miliband until the banana?)
Some may regret the decline of the character politician. The days of Heath, Wilson, Callaghan, Healey, Whitelaw and so on. But let’s face it – we liked the fake image of Blair and so maybe we have got what we deserved. Also, of course, by removing character, politics became even more boring, turnouts decreased, less people were interested, and hence the Blair government was rarely in danger of toppling.
As ever, popular culture has it right. The Thick of It is a brilliantly updated version of Yes Minister with the added factor of public image management.
And Spitting Image was cancelled mainly because of the lack of characters. In the 1980s we had Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and of course Norman Tebbit with his leather jacket. Now in the cabinet, of the same rank, we have Andrew Lansley, Michael Gove and Caroline Spelman. Never mind the puppets, would you recognise the cabinet ministers if you met them in the high street?