On most mornings, starting at 8 a.m., I play table tennis with the poet David Pidsley.
Much of the time during these table tennis sessions is spent in discussion, and from this dialogue there gradually emerged the idea of a long collaborative poem on Tony Blair and the New Labour administration.
In a number of ways, not least Blair's launching of British troops into four invasive wars (Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq) Blair's administration is unprecedented in British politics, and perhaps a fitting subject for a satirical poem. In imitation of Blair's own high-flown rhetoric and boundless personal ambition, perhaps it also deserves to be on an epic, or at least quasi-epic, scale.
Turning to the detailed subject matter of the poem, although the subtitle is "The rise of a British fascist", we are not asserting that Blair is a "fascist" in the popular, pejorative sense, which usually implies malign intentions. In many respects, Blair is considered to be innocent, not least because the poem assumes the chief elements of Roy Jenkins' description of Blair -- that he is a first rate politician but a third rate intellect.
There is much evidence that Blair gloried in his lack of interest in detailed history, and even regarded such knowledge as inhibiting to a politician with ambitions to make history afresh. In this sense Blair is protected from the charge of active or conscious fascism by his lack of a clear or rigourous historical framework. But this does not prevent us from pointing out the remarkable similarities between New Labour and certain fascist precursors.
In science, one tries to classify a subject according to criteria of similarity. How would one classify Blair? As a socialist? Hardly. As a free market liberal? He liked and admired rich and successful people but had little understanding of the complex mechanisms of markets. We propose that the frame in which he best fits is classical fascism, which is also a precise historical category.
According to its founder Mussolini, fascism is based upon the belief that the state is more important than the individual. Mussolini claimed that fascism was the first belief system to state that important premise overtly. It does seem to be a unifying theme underlying New Labour's chief characteristics -- its passion for domestic and overseas interventionism, its championship of "security" over civil rights or individual liberties, and its rejection of the traditional constraining mechanisms of democratic government.
If we take into account that Blair was obliged to act within the terms of our British liberal heritage, some of the key elements of his administration were:
1. An effective putsch in taking over the Labour Party with two fellow conspirators (Brown and Mandelson) and leading it in a radically different direction.
2. Top-down command and control of the Labour party, based on undermining and isolating anyone who was "off message".
3. Bypassing ancient democratic traditions such as scrutiny by parliament.
4. Transmuting cabinet collective responsibility into centralised ("sofa") government.
5. "Controlling the political narrative" (Blair's own words) through numerous "eye-catching initiatives" (Blair's own words again) which allowed him, as Leader, to dominate the news. As further empirical evidence of the qualitatively different nature of his administration, Blair's remarkable domination of the opinion polls through the great majority of his three Parliamentary terms is also unprecedented in British politics.
6. As a consequence of all these deliberate centralisations of power, Blair generated a capacity to launch British troops, more or less unilaterally, at his own behest, into four separate and unrelated invasions of foreign territory during nine years of premiership (Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq). That's four times as many invasions of overseas territory as Mussolini (Abyssinia) during Mussolini's entire administration, and four times as many hot wars as Margaret Thatcher (the Falklands) during her eleven years as premier.
7. Even in parting, Blair agreed and co-engineered the non-democratic succession of his chief henchman Gordon Brown, leading to a further three years of centralised rule by a politician unelected by either his party or the country.
At the time of writing, during the next several years or so of New Labour autobiography, biography, hagiography etc., perhaps we need some form of antidote to the vast New Labour publishing industry which is due to swamp us.
Although the poem does not attempt to pull its satirical punches, I would also claim that in the main it is not vindictive, score-settling or revenge-seeking towards its protagonist. Rather, it treats Blair as largely innocent of malign intentions, and instead directs its searchlight onto us, the electorate who placed him in power with substantial majorities for three consecutive parliamentary terms.
BLAIR -- the rise of a British Fascist will be published in 3 volumes in the blog publicpoems.com, starting on 13 July. There is also a detailed introduction. The poem has been written in a form somewhere between prose and blank verse, so that those who do not usually read poetry can read it as a prose narrative if they wish. At the very least, the historical subject matter -- including the bitter battle for power between Blair and Brown -- is wonderfully rich. We hope that BLAIR does its subject justice, in the full meaning of that term, and that it entertains you.