14 MARCH 1998, Page 8


Mr Blair's variety of religious experience


Under Mr Blair, however, priorities have been inverted. Many of his ministers seem to regard paperwork or departmental meetings as an irritating distraction from their real duty: to ensure a good press. That is why there have been so many difficulties between ministers and their civil service press officers since 1 May; as soon as the minister for string has a good write-up, the minister for candle-ends is consumed with jealousy and berates his press office for let- ting him down. It also explains the contrast between superb presentation — no demo- cratic government has ever been so adept at handling the media — and the continuing absence of policy detail in several crucial areas. Nor is it solely detail which is absent; whenever this government is asked about its strategy, it merely repeats its slogans.

But this government is not about policy detail or about strategy; its social pro- gramme is a magpie's nest of improvisation and theft. For the Blair government, the medium is the message, and the medium is Mr Blair himself. Mr Blair not only domi- nates his government to a greater extent than any previous PM did, including Mrs Thatcher; he is its raison d'être: his person- ality is its philosophy.

There are parallels with Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1983. If she had been assassinated in her first term, none of her disciples would have been in a position to take over, and Thatcherism would have suffered a grievous check to its momentum. But her successor — probably Willie Whitelaw or Francis Pym — would have had to reckon with the Thatcherite legacy; Joseph, Lawson, Tebbit et al. would have ensured that he could not manage the party on any other basis. If Mr Blair were to disappear tomorrow, what legacy would he leave? Labour would still be in power, but what about Blairism, especially if the party chose Gordon Brown as its leader, as it probably would, with all faults? Post- Blair, Blairism would not exactly be the scent on a pocket handkerchief; more, per- haps, the hot air inside a miniature dome.

But Mr Blair is not going to disappear; in order to understand his government, we have to understand him. That is not easy. The standard interpretation is still John Rentoul's. Mr Rentoul, a left-wing journal- ist, was given considerable access to Mr Blair for two years, and produced a useful biography. He said that after those two years, he still did not know what, if any- thing, Tony Blair believed. The PM's per- sonality is equally inscrutable. Mr Blair is a warm and humorous man, seemingly at ease with himself; no one could accuse him of being mean-spirited. Yet he reacts very badly to criticism. Under questioning in the Commons, he quickly becomes tetchy and petulant; all the attractive aspects of his personality seem to drop away, like so many masks. He cannot bear even the mildest dissension from those he regards as allies; his attitude to the Guardian makes Paul Johnson sound like a director of the Scott Trust. Some sympathetic journalists recently asked him about the Murdoch press. 'At least Rupert Murdoch doesn't own the Guardian,' came the reply, and those present thought that they detected a hint of 'if only'.

There are other contrasts. Compare Mr Blair's attitude to the constitution, his dis- missal of all reasoned objections, his deter- mination to legislate before thinking — and his behaviour over fox-hunting. Before the election, one or two would-be Tory defec- tors lobbied him, offering their support if he would spare their sport. He was dismissive, almost contemptuously so; there would be no place for hunting in new Britain. Then came the Countryside March. As so often, this government was arrogant until it was challenged, and tentative thereafter.

The arrogance is psychological, the ten- tativeness psephological. Mr Blair never forgets how he won the last election: by attracting the support of at least three mil- lion voters who have no deep allegiance to the Labour party. They came like a flock of starlings; they could depart as swiftly. Mr Blair knows that many of their instincts are not his instincts. That explains the wariness when challenged, the edginess when criti- cised. He knows that however big his victo- ry, it was won playing away from home. I have occasionally claimed that the support for Mr Blair is a mile wide, but a yard deep. He often behaves as if he agrees. Apropos of psychology, Mr Blair is deeply religious; genuinely so. The devout almost invariably display the influence Of their faith in one of three ways. The first, and much the rarest, is an intense and ful- filled humility. The Dalai Lama is a good example, as was the late Leonard Cheshire; there are usually about half a dozen such characters alive at any one moment. The second is a crushing sense of sin. This is not incompatible with worldly success; the first Lord Beaverbrook is said never to have lost the fear that hell-fire lay just beyond his drawing room, or his bedroom. But the third and commonest manifestation sits much more easily with personal comfort: the belief that one's faith is an indication of divine favour. Even before his flirtation with Roman Catholicism, Mr Blair might have seemed far removed from Calvinism, but he conveys a sense of being one of the elect, and he has an election victory to prove it.

Strong religious belief offers its adher- ents a further advantage: it simplifies the world. There is an explanation for every phenomenon, a text or a liturgy for every occasion; no need for enquiry, scepticism or much knowledge. This has obvious attractions to the intolerant and to the intellectually lazy; Mr Blair is a bit of both.

He has never thought hard about his own political beliefs and seems to know very lit- tle history. Last autumn, one of those help- ing with an early draft of his party confer- ence speech observed that he seemed to be asking for a doctor's mandate. The refer- ence meant nothing to him; he had barely heard of Stanley Baldwin. Now John Tusa is complaining that Mr Blair's interest in the arts extends solely to pop music. It is as if he is dismissing everything outside his own experience, anything that occurred before he began his mission.

Hence 'New Britain', hence rebranding; they reveal Mr Blair's Cromwellian ardour for effacing all traces of earlier faiths. They also reveal his rootlessness. This must surely be a longer-term disadvantage in such a deep-rooted country as this, especially as Mr Blair is not even a rootless cosmopolitan. Much worse: he is a rootless metropolitan.