16 MARCH 2002, Page 11

Mr Blair's pious rhetoric is not going to placate the traditionalists in the Labour party


In every conservative breast beats an instinctive sympathy for lost causes. It is this that directs one's attention to, and almost makes one shed a tear for, the Labour party. For this once great institution, the means by which for almost a century the working class found its voice in politics, finds itself about to be mugged yet again by the impostor who has taken control of it. 'Impostor' may seem a provocative word to use about Tony Blair, but it accurately describes how he is seen by millions of traditional Labour supporters, for whom he is no better than a Tory stooge. He has succeeded in politics not merely by treating them with contempt, but by being seen to treat them with contempt; and there is every sign that he is about to repeat the manoeuvre.

For on the question of Iraq, Mr Blair faces a choice of either siding with the Americans or with the anti-American, anticolonialist and pacifist instincts of his own party. In making this decision, he needs to reach only one judgment: will the Americans win? Will they rout Saddam Hussein? And, though there is always a degree of uncertainty about any war, the strong likelihood is that they will. The fighting will be as one-sided as in the Gulf war, and this time the Iraqi tyrant will perish. One of the great Arab grievances against Washington, namely that it had Saddam within its grasp yet allowed him to go on massacring his own people, will have been removed, and so will one of the gravest threats to Israel, perhaps opening the way to an American-imposed peace. But whether or not wider and more durable blessings flow, there will be dancing for an hour or two in the streets of Baghdad, and the opening of Saddam's torture chambers will make it impossible to imagine that it was wrong to overthrow him. To ask Mr Blair to refuse his share of the credit for this victory would be like expecting Winniethe-Pooh to turn down a pot of honey.

Labour opponents of the war do not see events unfolding like that. For them, an American and even a British disaster would be a very wonderful thing. They are in the uncomfortable position of people with a vested interest in bad news. Denis Healey — not a particularly left-wing figure — assured us that the Gulf war would be a disaster. More recently, the Taleban let down their allies in the Labour party by fleeing Kabul under cover of night and allowing John Simpson to take the city in time for the Today programme. But hope springs eternal in the Labour pessimist's breast. Perhaps this time Mr Blair and his American friends will get it all wrong.

Even among the Blairites there is a fitting degree of nervousness that their brilliant careers could founder amid the desert sands. Some of them try to convince themselves, on the basis of hints dropped during their last visit to the American Embassy, that no 'full-scale' invasion of Iraq is in prospect. Let us assume, however, that the Americans go in on whatever scale is needed to finish the job, with the result that Mr Blair is seen once more to have backed a winner. Then even the ranks of lain Duncan Smith will scarce forbear to cheer, and Mr Blair's belief that he can take his own party for granted will seem to have been vindicated in the most striking way.

This will be a dangerous lesson for him, for his habit of taking people for granted is one of his most objectionable characteristics. Bourgeois triumphalism was a malady of the high tide of Thatcherism. Its typical figure was the yuppie, a newly rich vulgarian with no respect for the past, or for the gentlemanly culture to which earlier self-made men had aspired. Peregrine Worsthorne identified the disease and argued in a brilliant pamphlet that a 'dynamic of snobbery' was urgently needed to ameliorate the dynamic of greed that had been set in motion. Needless to say, he was ignored.

In the high tide of Mr Blair, bourgeois triumphalism is rife once more, though in a slightly different guise. Once more we see mindless admiration of wealth and no respect for a defeated political tradition — in this case that of the working class rather than the landed gentry. One need not belong to either of those classes to fear the tyranny of the glib careerists who run the show now, or to lament what has been lost. The time has come for a book called The Breaking of the English Working Class, written in the manner of The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson, who remarked in his preface:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.

The enormous condescension of the Blairites towards the party they took over is insufferable. They really do believe that they are the only grown-up ones, and that everything which came before their splendid 'modernisation' (most of which is attributable to Margaret Thatcher) was a mistake. No amount of speeches such as Mr Blair's vapid attempt on Tuesday to portray himself as an idealist can hide from millions of former Labour supporters that he no longer has any connection with them. The warning to the government from the TUC leader John Monks of 'the risk of haemorrhaging trade-union support, especially at the polling booths' describes something that is already happening. The tradeunion barons of old may have been as difficult as the hereditary peerage to justify in democratic terms, but their very cussedness, their willingness to make life bloody awkward for the powers that be, reflected an element in the British understanding of liberty which still exists, but which goes unrepresented in the bland Blairite world.

A large part of the electorate has disfranchised itself because it can no longer see anyone worth voting for. These ex-voters are not yet organised (though some of them achieved a brief, spontaneous organisation during the petrol protest, and again in the northern riots), but they are a fluid and bellicose element, and they make British politics less predictable than most people think.

The Blairites claim that a low turnout at the polls does not matter, because they can still win on a low turnout, and winning is all. It is certainly true that the Conservatives show no sign yet of benefiting from Labour's weakness. But what if Mr Blair's most serious difficulties were to result not from any attack on him by the opposition, but from his insolent disregard for his own party and for its creators, the trade unions? They despise him, and they may be slightly better at making life difficult for him than he realises.

Peter °borne is away