So, as I say, by the Spring and Summer of 1999 I was getting interested in the idea that there might be interesting and somewhat robust connections between the left-wing ideological apology for Pétainism and Mr Blair’s third way. But what happened in 2001 took me quite by surprise.
On the same day as the elections in which the Italian post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale swept back into office on the back of Silvio Berlusconi’s victory in the Italian general election, Tony Blair visited his constituency in Sedgefield, County Durham, in order to receive the nomination of the local Labour Party as its candidate in the forthcoming General Election. His acceptance speech was presented to the media as the Prime Minister’s “first keynote speech” of the general election campaign, and it was one in which he described the major outlines of his political creed and tried to articulate (again!) the big ideas that animated his political activity, and it turned out that the core values of the Labour Party were virtually indistinguishable from those of Marshal Pétain’s.
If you remember, the Vichy regime replaced the revolutionary republican slogan “liberté, egalité, fraternité” with an alternative triad, “travail, famille, patrie“. And, as you probably don’t remember, because it wasn’t given quite as much media coverage as it ought to have had (just a snippet in the Guardian Diary), Mr Blair in that speech said this, that “Here in Sedgefield in 1983, in a supposedly traditional Labour constituency, I learnt, thankfully, that others felt exactly the same, who believed in the values of hard work, family, patriotism, equality of opportunity, and who felt they were the real values underpinning the real purpose of the Labour Party, if only we could rediscover that purpose.”
Earlier in the speech, he had claimed that around this time, in the early 1980s, he stopped allowing what he had read or what he had learnt to guide his politics, and that he “started to think about it on the basis of what I felt”. Well, equality of opportunity aside — and that appeal is used in New Labour discourse as much to legitimise present or future inequalities as it is to challenge them — what Mr Blair felt, and what he felt his constituents felt, was best articulated in terms of a Vichyite slogan, with the same concepts being deployed in the same order.