Last Saturday, the Queen handed out one of her least popular gongs.
In her New Year Honours, she bestowed a knighthood upon Tony Blair, the British prime minister from 1997 to 2007. It’s customary for a former head of government to become a Sir or a Lady, but this one didn’t go over well. A recent poll found that only 14 per cent of Britons felt he should receive the honour, and even a majority of Mr. Blair’s Labour Party were opposed. A petition to have it revoked appeared poised to reach a million signatures.
Amid those howls, however, Mr. Blair was in the midst of receiving another sort of honour. This one is facing far less resistance, perhaps because it is mainly occurring across the Channel: the honour of imitation.
Blairism has returned like a bad meal to European politics. The Blairite combination of big-government redistributive social programs and right-leaning messages on hot-button issues such as crime, immigration and defence is proving to be a popular electoral formula in many countries.
In part, that’s because the pandemic and its economic consequences have made big-state fiscal largesse not just popular but necessary among leaders who would otherwise prefer austerity. But it’s also because social-democratic parties have realized that the only way to regain office in 2022, after more than a decade of conservative dominance, is to return to the political calculus that painted the continent light red after 1997.
It’s not as if Mr. Blair himself is popular; his name remains unmentionable in most of Europe, in part because of his decision to participate in the Iraq War, and in part because his self-declared politics have moved to the right during this century, divorcing themselves from Blairism even during his third term of office. But as the only Labour leader to have won an election in 43 years, he is serving as an inspiration to other politicians facing conservative, aging electorates.
Most dramatic of these is Magdalena Andersson, the Social Democrat who became Prime Minister of Sweden in November after her party’s erstwhile leader, facing plummeting polls after two election victories, passed her the baton.
In her bid to win September’s election, Ms. Andersson appears to have taken to heart Mr. Blair’s most famous 1990s slogan, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” a successful effort to recapture voters who had drifted to the Tories while maintaining the values of voters to the left. Polls show that Swedes are fixated on violent crime, refugees and a popular but false narrative that links the two. Ms. Andersson has embraced these polls – her inaugural speech opened with a pledge to crack down on gang crime, and she has lashed out at immigrants, demanding they embrace Swedish values.
At the same time, however, she has moved her party to the left in most other respects, pledging an expansion and deprivatization of the welfare state and a larger role for the public sector in the economy. That awkward blend of tabloid-influenced policies on culture-war issues and left-leaning expansion of public institutions was what won elections for social democrats across Europe in the 1990s; she’s evidently hoping to repeat that success.
You can see similar mixtures emerging among ruling social-democratic parties in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. The most surprising latter-day Blairite, however, is Emmanuel Macron, who has used the pandemic era to remake himself as a different sort of French president in preparation for April’s election.
This is surprising, because he spent half a decade shaking off the taint of Tony. After he was elected in 2017, Mr. Macron faced accusations, from both the left and the right, of being a Gallic Tony Blair – a comparison that, in France, can only be an insult. But, as his biographer Sophie Pedder observed early in his term, Mr. Macron was never a pragmatic social democrat or a centrist, but a liberalizer in the mould of former French prime minister Michel Rocard, who sought to shift the centre of France’s revolutionary values away from égalité and toward liberté.
In a new essay on Mr. Macron’s shifting politics, historian Blake Smith refers to his post-COVID conversion as a “suspension of his 2017 neoliberal reform platform” – a turn away from privatization and deregulation, to a new embrace of big-government institutions and regulatory power, ostensibly as part of his impressively proactive drive to fight the pandemic. He has combined this with a crusade against “radical Islamist networks” that has sometimes exceeded the zeal of France’s many far-right parties, and has won back some of their voters.
What we are witnessing is a simultaneous shift to the left within Europe, economically, and a tactical shift to the right within Europe’s mainstream parties on moral-panic matters. That two-way shuffle has a history – and its name, as loath as anyone is to say it, is Tony.
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