How Clinton and Blair reshaped politics
The unique thread that joins US and UK history is the subject of a new book by Anglia Ruskin University political historian Richard Carr.
Published by IB Tauris (a Bloomsbury imprint), March of the Moderates looks at the so-called Special Relationship between the UK and the US, which became slightly clammy during the Thatcher/Reagan years and went up a gear for the Clinton/Blair years of New Labour and New Deomcrats before becoming excruciatingly symbiotic in the Bush/Blair era post 9/11.
Dr Carr relates how the friendship of a common language and shared history, underpinned by American support in two world wars, morphed into a shared economic story as British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan rebooted the contract between citizen and state in the 1980s with much-reduced budgets for everything from education to welfare/benefit payments alongside much-reduced tax breaks for large corporations and individuals of wealth. This reboot put neoliberalism - pro-market, pro-Wall Street/City of London, pro-wealth, anti-tax - in the driving seat, leading to today's ultimate proponents, messrs (or messers, given their attempt to dismantle the rules-based international order) Trump and Johnson.
Dr Carr explains how, in the Tony Blair/Bill Clinton years of the 1990s, common interests were elevated to a new kind of harmonisation - 'transatlanticism'. Transatlanticism gave way to 'The Third Way', a political mid-point between Thatcherism and social democracy. The author points out that there is in fact no middle ground there, but oh how they tried anyway. Then came the ill-fated - and not just for the centre-left - presidential election of 2000, which saw a right-wing president take control of the White House, putting Tony Blair in a quandry. There was a sense, the author writes, in which it was inevitable that Blair would have to forge a working relationship with George W Bush, but even Blair's spin doctor - the first of a new breed of toxic media handlers which has led us straight to Dominic Cummings - questioned whether Blair "had to be such close friends with Bush"?
The relationship was uneasy to start with. Dr Carr unearths new research showing David Miliband's - then head of the Number 10 Policy Unit - angry reaction to the Bush defeat of Al Gore: "They stole it". The comment was found in a trove of correspondence between Miliband and Bruce Reed, the director of Bill Clinton’s Domestic Policy Council, discovered as Dr Carr was researching March of the Moderates.
The 2000 Presidential election had come down to one state, Florida, where there was a margin between the Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W Bush of just 537 votes.
Gore pushed for a recount, particularly given the existence of ballot papers where it was difficult to determine the voter’s true intention – those with so-called “hanging chads”. However, the Democrats’ bid for a recount was eventually rejected 5-4 by the Supreme Court.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request for material held at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, Dr Carr found an email sent by David Miliband two days after the controversial Supreme Court verdict was delivered.
On 14 December, 2000, in a message to Reed, Miliband wrote: “Awful business – they stole it! They don't actually like democracy on the right, and hate the idea that their right to rule is being challenged.”
In accepting the result, Miliband wrote: “Gore sounded good last night - big man vs small man.”
Nor did these feelings instantly go away. On 9 January, 2001, 11 days before Bush became president, Miliband confided to Reed via email that “the new lot seem very depressing”.
Nine months later, Blair would find himself standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the US following the 9/11 attacks, a gesture which would lead to the Iraq War. Miliband would later serve as Foreign Secretary (2007-10) under Gordon Brown, and is currently chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, based in New York.
Commenting on the emails, Dr Carr said: “David Miliband was at the heart of the Third Way project – that realignment of the centre-left in the 1990s. It’s totally understandable that he would be angry about Gore losing in such controversial circumstances.
“The 2000 US Presidential election formed a big speed bump in the ‘march of the moderates’, meaning that there would be no progressive successor to Clinton in the White House.It therefore ended a period of intense intellectual collaboration between Blair’s New Labour and Clinton’s New Democrats.”
March of the Moderates is grounded in a detailed analysis of the New Labour/New Democrats' legacy. It sheds new light on the relationship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and unearths unpublished information on figures such as Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Neil Kinnock.
As such it provides a valuable record of a slice of history.
It's difficult, however, to concur with the section which "shows how the centre-left recovered after years in the wilderness and offers signposts for the ways in which Blair and Clinton’s success could again be achieved". To mix up the recovery of the centre-left with some sort of return to politics for the Bush/Blair clans seems to overlook the fact that, if the centre-left has recovered, it's because it has dissociated itself from the toxic aspects of the Blair and Clinton era. In 2019, both social democrats - a term they helped phrase - and the new right abhor them. The middle ground has vanished: now you either believe that neoliberalism has to be aggressively pursued at all costs - even if it requires the permanent despoliation of the earth - or you believe that neoliberalism's free-market capitalism has proved incredibly destructive and has to be replaced with a new kind of economics, even if it's not quite clear exactly what form this new economics might take.
Either way, we're on a different page now, and the return of centre-ground politics, if it does happen, won't be because of Blair and Clinton. It'll more probably be despite them. But then again, with politics as topsy-turvy as it is, maybe 'March of the Moderates' is ahead of the curve: it would certainly help if one wins the 2020 election.
- March of the Moderates: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and the Rebirth of Progressive Politics, was published by IB Tauris on September 5, 2019.