So, Mr Blair’s become a Catholic, and there are a billion pop explanations in play — that Blair’s keen to wallow in guilt for his disastrous foreign policy, and nobody does guilt better than Catholics (cf going straight into the Middle East job after doing so much, and in such a well-intentioned way, to bollocks up the region) — that it’s the long-term result of being married to Cherie Booth, once you’ve jumped through all the Carole Caplin papaya-flavoured hoops that have been set up along the way — that you can’t quite keep that much moralism bottled up inside you without letting it spill out all over something, and now he doesn’t have the British people anymore he might as well absorb himself into the Holy Roman and Apostolic Catholic Church. (I’m sure we can always come up with more: if you do, pop ’em in the comments).
But it seems to me there’s a more interesting, longer-term trajectory at work in what we can usefully for the purposes of this post call Blair’s mind, and I’ll say a bit about that over the fold.
Back when he was leader of the Opposition, as articles like this one in today’s Observer point out, Blair did talk quite a bit about God. And it was nicely opportunistic on all sides: Blair’s revival of a moralistic vocabulary was useful cover for the accelerating retreat from identifiably left-wing politics; it was a useful weapon for the Party in the ongoing attack on Tory “sleaze”, allowing Labour front-benchers to suggest that they weren’t like that; and it allowed backbench MPs to signal their subservience to the incoming regime ahead of time by picking up on the new rhetoric and thereby inflating a mini-mid-nineties bubble of Christian Socialism (of which very few traces now remain).
And what Mr Blair said from time to time could be delightfully confused. Here he is, for example, in a talk (sermon? not sure – probably not) at Southwark Cathedral in 1996:
For myself, I start from a simple belief that people are not separate economic actors competing in the market-place of life. They are citizens of a community. We are social beings, nurtured in families and communities and human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other. Britain is simply stronger as a team than as a collection of selfish players. Our relationships with and commitments to others are not add-ons to our personalities: they make us who we are. Notions of mutuality and interdependence are not abstract ideals: they are facts of life. People are not just competitive: they are cooperative too…
[That’s from the indispensable New Britain, by Tony Blair, pp.299-300.]
In passages like this, he oscillates away, pinging back and forth between two quite different accounts of community, pretty much sentence by sentence. We move sharply, though hardly seamlessly, from the claim that we are “human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other” to the stupid platitude that “Britain is simply stronger as a team than as a collection of selfish players”, before moving back to more John-Macmurrayesque reflections on how relationships with others constitute personhood itself. In other passages from his speeches and writings of that period he uses the language of community to describe what de Alexis de Tocqueville called self-interest rightly understood, and then we’re straightforwardly back onto the terrain of liberal individualism again. Taking it all together, it looks as if he’s gripped by an idea of community — or perhaps he’s gripped by the idea of having an idea of community — but that has no idea how to articulate a coherent intellectual position. (Perhaps there was a moment of self-knowledge in his confession once upon a time that he wished he’d studied political ideas at university, rather than Law?)
In a smashing 2002 essay which deserves to be far better known than it is, “Professor Macmurray and Mr Blair: The Strange Case of the Communitarian Guru that Never Was“, Sarah Hale has argued that those commentators who trace Blair’s so-called communitarian so-called politics back to the “personalist” philosophy associated in this country with John Macmurray were making a mistake, on the grounds that Macmurray’s concept of community was characterised above all by non-instrumental relationships, above all that of friendship, cultivated for their own sake. What Blair calls community, she tells us, Macmurray called “society”, a form of human association organised around the shared purpose of the common good. Hale quotes Macmurray as saying that in society “the good man is the man whoserves his country, serves his generation, identifies himself with the good of the community and devotes his life to the accomplishment of the social purpose”. She then notes that this is “so exactly the sort of thing which Blair says”, and she goes on to observe that “this morality is being set out in detail” by Macmurray “only to be condemned… [as] a false morality… false because it thinks of human life in biological terms, as if we were animals, not persons.”
[She’s recently in fact published a book on the topic, which I’ll have to read, and I see that it is, along with my friend Ben’s excellent new book about egalitarianism on the twentieth-century British Left, a victim of Manchester University Press’s absolutely insane policy of publishing some of the best work by young scholars in readable prose on topics in British politics of fairly general interest, and then giving them a price that screams out “Crappy Obscure Academic Book! Keep Out! Librarians Only!” (Hale’s book is Â£55 and Jackson’s Â£60), thereby denying the authors much of the recognition they deserve for their excellent work, and the Press much of the reflected glory that they’d thereby hoover up (if reflected glory is amenable to hoovering up.)]
Anyway, to get back on track… I think Hale’s absolutely right to see that Blair is no consistent disciple of Macmurray (and, to be fair, just for once, I don’t think he has ever claimed that he is), but rather than having someone who has just catastrophically misunderstood His Master’s Voice, it seems to me we’ve got someone who eclectically mixes together fragments of political and ethical language that sound good to him, in the hope that they add up to something coherent, or, better still, electorally attractive.
Now the reason I got interested in this stuff is that I continue to worry away from time to time at the rhetorical connection I detected once upon a time between Mr Blair’s rhetoric and what I call the left-wing apology for Marshal Pétain’s Vichy France. And what it seems to me you get both in Blair’s speeches about “values” and in the writing of the former Italian Communist turned French Socialist Angelo Tasca (which I’ve written about before) is this unstable combination of what me might somewhat pretentiously call a personalist metaphysics of the person — the bit that says that we are “human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other” — onto which these men are trying, against the grain of that personalism, to tease out an Amitai-Etzioni-style communitarian ethic, and one that lends itself fairly easily to authoritarian political solutions.
What’s this got to do with Blair’s Catholicism? Just this, I think: that “personalism” resonated powerfully within mid-century Catholicism. I don’t know much about the subject, and I’d like to know more than I do, but I think Pope John Paul II’s day job before he became a Catholic full-timer was teaching personalist ethics and metaphysics at Krakow. And I suppose if you are attracted in a superficial way to this kind of philosophical language, but struggle to keep the key distinction between “society” and “community” in focus, then the kind of Catholic hocus-pocus that identifies the career of the church in the world with the workings of the divine Logos, or whatnot, might become really quite attractive.
Relatedly, finally, speculatively: it’s interesting to note that personalism resonated outside Catholicism, too. Glancing at Vaclav Havel’s philosophical writings suggests someone who’s fairly invested in this strand of thought. And I think the personaist commitment does inform both Havel’s and JP2’s instransigent opposition to Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. That may sound odd, given what I’ve already said about the role of personalism in constructing elements of the apology for Vichy (but then ideologies generally contain contradictory elements, which is what makes them interesting). But because of the characteristic and insistent personalist emphasis on the decisive separation of personal from political and economic life, it seems to me that personalism has provided resources for resistance against totalitarian and (as Havel called them) post-totalitarian governments. And so I also wonder whether those fragments of personalism that Blair imbibed once upon a time, that chimed in with his sense of religiosity, and which he used to talk about in the mid-nineties, but then shut up about because, famously, we the Great British public might have thought him a “nutter” (another moment of self-knowledge, perhaps), might also help to explain how he became quite so invested in the construction of a totalitarian Islamicist political Other after 11 September 2001, joining the crusade against Evil (or whatever W. was calling it back then) with a zeal that he couldn’t sustain any longer on the domestic front.
Ross McKibbin once wrote that
“There is… a profound tension within the Government between its strong radical-rhetorical traditions and its practices which has particularly affected the Prime Minister. Whether or not he is aware of the extent to which he is frustrated in domestic affairs by his own political choices and New Labour’s political limitations — I think he is aware — the consequence is that his deeply felt moralising-utopian urges have been displaced onto foreign affairs.”
I think that’s right, and I thin perhaps that the thoughts above might tell us something about how he got here from there.
Here ends this Sunday’s sermon. For an alternative view, try Ken MacLeod from last June: “Antichrist role ‘could hinder’ Blair’s conversion [thanks, NB].