The Unlikely Lads  

21 April 2022

The Unlikely Lads

by J.R.Thomas

Last week we examined the Reagan-Thatcher years, via a Delia Smith diversion.  This week  we will test readers’ patience (and no doubt, in some cases, their tempers) by looking at another special relationship between a British Prime Minister and an American President.  But to begin once more with a minor, or rather a Major, diversion, if only to point out the odd coincidence that both John Major and his successor Tony Blair lurked behind surnames that in the normal way of personal nomenclature would not have been theirs. 

Mr Major was the son of Abraham Thomas Ball, who was a travelling entertainer under the name Thomas Ball; he became Major-Ball later in life as did his son, though John was to, as it were, drop the Ball.  Tony Blair’s (Anthony Charles Lysander Blair to his school masters) father was adopted; his birth father’s name was Charles Parsons and he too was a travelling entertainer.  That urge to woo the public seemed to have descended to both men, and one wonders to what extent changes of name and breaks with familial history drove them into politics and to the top – the deep psychological drives of rootlessness are well known to be one of the spurs to ambition. 

No such pondering though with our American President; he was the son of a man who had the same job and the same name, a scion of one of the great American political dynasties, the Bush family.  George W. Bush will probably be seen by history as a more skilled and indeed successful President than he is currently regarded (we are assuming that at some point academia will abandon its current rush of quaint emotion and return to sober analysis).  His contemporary Mr Blair is also going through a stage of deep public contempt but will surely rise considerably in the estimation of history.

As with Thatcher and Reagan, it was purely fortuitous that they led their respective countries at the same time (Blair from 1997 to 2007, Bush from 2000 to 2008). Both were first elected to office mainly because of a reaction against sleaze. Blair swept away a government that had clearly lost its way, was divided and weak, was constantly in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, and where its weak leader, John Major, seemed to have nothing original to say or do.  Bush was in a different circumstance; the previous President was of course Bill Clinton, whose administration had overall been successful, continuing the policies of Reagan and Bush senior, avoiding most foreign adventures, and pursuing a moderate programme of social reform.  The problem had been Clinton himself and his private life, both before and in the White House, although such was Bill’s charisma that he might well have won a third term, had he been eligible to stand again.  Al Gore almost won but failed because he was seen as unworldly and aloof – but mainly because he was not Bill.  

As it turned out, Blair and Bush were natural leaders, though very different in style; in public life they had an assurance and an ability to read and reflect the public mood that was almost uncanny.  Blair is articulate, openly intelligent, and middle class with an easy-going manner that in person and on televison was enormously appealing (his style was set with the death of the Princess of Wales, whom he characterised with a stroke of genius as “the People’s Princess”).  Bush was the opposite; although from a grand rich and political family (and a highly intelligent well read man) he reinvented himself as a folksy and inarticulate Texas rancher, with a self deprecating manner.  It brought the contempt of the east coast intelligentsia, but it went down very well with the voters.  But that a close personal relationship would develop between the two men seemed unlikely.

The two though had great similarities; they were both centrists, Blair coming from the soft left to centre, Bush from the soft right to centre.  When they met they found that they were not far apart politically.  They were liberal, largely non-interventionist, and wanted social reform (Blair more so), but cautiously.  Blair was a constitutional reformer which Bush was not – but where Blair was heading was to a British constitution more closely resembling that of the United States.  They were also both deeply devout, their policies strongly informed by religion – both influenced in this by their wives (Bush to a teetotal methodism, Blair to Catholicism).  They got on well from the beginning, though it was the events of 9/11 that brought them together; before that Blair had the natural reserve of any Labour leader at seeming too close to an American Republican.  They were, as we stand at the moment, seemingly the last leaders of their nations to have a clear vision of what their countries should be, with common values and approaches and shared political consensus, and wanting similar values to produce peace and prosperity and democracy throughout the world; and to be able to communicate it successfully to their electors.

What happened after 9/11, and in Afghanistan, and in Iraq was not a breakdown of that view, but a rushed attempt to carry that view into effect by reacting to very unforeseen circumstances.  That turned out for both of them to be a disaster for both of them.  The fury in their respective countries over the bombings took them both in directions which they would in normal times have resisted; both were severely let down by their intelligence services which prompted them into the Iraq invasion.  And both failed to ask themselves, or their advisors, “after a successful invasion, then what”? 

This overseas disaster overshadows everything they achieved.  And if the great success of Blair was to bring Labour to be a natural social democrat party, his legacy was not to linger long.  Brown and then Miliband and then Corbyn  each kicked away a leg of that new platform (Brown, to be fair, perhaps not intentionally), and there is no real sign of a leader of optimism and vision to turn Labour back into a force attractive to a broad spread of voters, although Starmer may yet blossom. 

In the US, the legacy of Bush was not, as he hoped, to build a Republican Party in his own image, Reaganitely low government but open to social reform.  McCain was a war hero but his politic dreams remained obscure, any appeal he did have undone by his running mate Sarah Palin.  Romney and Ryan made little impact; though how could they against the charisma of Barack Obama, a man who won a second term by saying and doing the minimum and thus not upsetting anybody. And then there was Donald Trump; a successful leader of a bloc it is true, but not of a party or a country.  And then Joe Biden. 

Which is not to say that inspirational strong winning political leadership is dead.  In the US, on both sides of the spectrum, are rising stars – Abbott and DeSantis at the head of the Republican pack, Shapiro and Khanna leading the challenge on the Democrat side.  And in the UK?  Well, ask us again about this time next year; the smoke around Boris has got to clear, and Sir Keir must soon break out of his box. 

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