10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 11


I believe Mr Blair means it.

The trouble is: means what?


Six days with New Labour in Blackpool — far, far too long — leave this correspon- dent with the weirdest of feelings. What fol- lows may sound unhinged; I have been wrestling with the difficulty of conveying to you a sensation which is persistent, yet almost eludes language.

For it is about language: the use of lan- guage. I believe our new government is entering the post-ironic phase of political discourse.

When Peter Mandelson described the oily overalls of the horny-handed sons of toil, his words were not a straightforward reference to honest manual labour, but nor were they ironic, meant with a wink, to distance the speaker from a face-value interpretation of his words. When Mandel- son speaks of the abiding affection in which all members of Tony Blair's Cabinet hold each other, it is important to under- stand that he is not being sarcastic — meaning the opposite — but nor is he intending to be understood wholly without spin. He is having a little joke, but a might- ily obscure one.

Mr Mandelson is in post-ironic mode. He is referring to irony without quite using it. He is inviting us to dwell where he dwells: on a strange level of the imagination where language hints at mockery without overtly mocking, hints at a second meaning without embracing it. That is far from the crude tap of the nose which says 'you and I don't believe this'. It leaves us suspended in a world where politicians smirk not at us — nor, with us, at the uninitiated — but smirk almost at themselves, for this sneer is reflexive. Everyone is initiated. Nothing is quite meant, nor anything wholly wry. No one is quite serious, or entirely joking. New Labour winks at the wink itself.

But Mr Mandelson is a flawed prototype for the post-ironic politician because beneath it all we dare suspect that he is more than an elaborate arrangement of internal mirrors. There may be an interior life, another Peter, able to smile at the apparent Peter. Something in Mr Mandel- son's glance includes the possibility that, one day, when this is all over, we may be able to have a drink with him and laugh.

Not so with the Prime Minister. The Wholly post-ironic politician permits no hope of an off-duty giggle. When Mr Blair tells the Winter Gardens that there is 'no going back from the road to the future', this perfectly idiotic remark is not meant as a joke at any level.

That remark invites one of two interpre- tations. Those who think Mr Blair is just stupid might conclude that he stupidly sup- poses his remark to mean something. Those who think he's not stupid might con- clude he knows its meaninglessness, but knows a modern politician has to spout these banalities.

Both are wrong. Blair is neither guileless fool nor clever cynic. He is post-cynical. You cannot call him shameless, for the shameless can stand back from their actions. Blair is wholly committed. The Downing Street press aide who told me with shining eyes last week that I would one day understand that his master was both capable and sincere was preaching to the converted. I know Blair's smart. I do believe he means it. But means what? Ah.

Mr Blair's politics, like his discourse, have transcended meaning. He is sincere without being, in the end, sincere about anything. He's genuine. He wants a better world. He genuinely means that there's no going back from the road to the future. Nor is there. And where does that road to the future go? Ah — to the future of course, 0 ye of little faith!

Our Prime Minister has come to resem- ble the creatures Alice met through the looking-glass, and in Wonderland. 'Begin at the beginning,' said the King gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end. Then stop.' I don't think the King was joking; I do not take him to be stupid; there is no sugges- tion that he intended to mislead or confuse Alice, nor to employ irony. But what did he mean?

Leo, you always have the weak and the sick For heaven's sake pick something different for a change.' 'Sentence first, verdict afterwards' — another Carrollism. Children do not, on the whole, like Lewis Carroll's writing because they do not know if it's supposed to be funny, or what — and nobody in the book seems to know either. It's like a rather unpleasant dream. I feel the same about New Labour. Like Carroll, it's creepy.

And nowhere creepier than in the half- light where political journalists dwell: moths flapping around Mr Blair's flame. In this Orwellian world, 'spin' is delivered straight — unspun. We are told, straight, that a cer- tain phrase in Gordon Brown's conference speech 'means' that his row with the Prime Minister, which never was, is over, though it never began. We examine our pre-released text. The phrase means no such thing and will not be taken by the audience of Labour delegates to mean any such thing. So what are we journalists to say they 'mean'? My preference, which would be regarded by my Fleet Street colleagues as quaint, would be to report the speech straight, and report the spin doctors' offer of an authorised codicil as a real and separate event, which it was.

But the task of unweaving language from spin becomes ever harder. Last week (for the first time, I think) journalists were told what Mr Blair would mean by what he would say in off-the-cuff interviews he had not even given yet. Tackle these spinners, however, or those for whom they practise their art, and ask on what level all this is meant, and they stare blankly at you as through glycerine. They don't even wink any more. We are now supposed to be part of the new language, part of the double meaning, unable to stand back and smile at it any more. In this ethos we are to dwell, straight-faced, knowing the irony yet too involved to be ourselves ironic. I guess it must have been like this at senior levels in the old Soviet dispensation.

Like Carroll's Kings and Queens, Hares and Duchesses, Mr Blair speaks without irony. But of course there is irony in Alice — authorial irony. Carroll himself was iron- ic toward his creations. Tony Blair's author is, presumably, God. God is almost certain- ly employing irony in His creation of the Prime Minister. To pass a week with New Labour in Blackpool is to be drawn in by some sort of divine wink.

Matthew Parris is parliamentary sketchwriter and a columnist of the Times.