Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Book Review | Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered

In Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government ReconsideredJon Davis and John Rentoul seek to counter the negative prevailing view of Tony Blair and the New Labour government, focusing on key areas of criticism. This is a fascinating study packed with first-hand accounts and primary sources, writes Robert Ledger, and is a vital addition to the literature on the Blair government and the wider New Labour project. 

Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered. Jon Davis and John Rentoul. Oxford University Press. 2019.  

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The legacy of the Tony Blair government continues to be the topic of some debate, as shown by the former Prime Minister’s recent defence of his record following a sustained attack from the Jeremy Corbyn-supporting wing of the Labour Party. This makes Jon Davis and John Rentoul’s new book on the Blair era, Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered, all the more pertinent. The authors believe that the ‘prevailing view of Blair and New Labour is too negative’ and that this book should ‘provide a counterweight, so that the independent-minded reader is better placed to reach a considered view’ (312).

Heroes or Villains? takes an innovative approach to its subject, having developed out of a number of university courses taught by Davis and Rentoul at Queen Mary, University of London, and King’s College London. One of the strengths of the book is that many of the key protagonists—including Blair himself—spoke to the classes and provide at times fascinating detail.

The book focuses on several key themes, mostly ones that have been the target of criticism: ‘spin’; the politicisation of the civil service; ‘sofa’ government and Blair’s alleged presidential approach to the office of the Prime Minister; Blair’s relationship with Gordon Brown; the role of the Treasury; and the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The book makes the case that the Blair government had a particular focus on policy delivery. As such, the number of operational elements that were negatively portrayed during the period should be viewed in this light.

New Labour was characterised as running such a ‘spin’ operation, led by practitioners of some of the darker arts of politics, that it neutralised a civil service resistant to change by appointing special advisors and granting unusual powers to the likes of Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, with Blair making decisions in small cabals outside of the cabinet. Heroes or Villains? does a good job of contextualising these issues.

In retrospect, Blair’s methods neither look as much of a departure from what went before or as worthy of the criticism they received during the actual period. In fact, several of the senior civil servants interviewed in the book appear to look back fondly on the Blair years as a time of change and energy, harking back to ‘just how good things had been under Blair’ (170). It should also be acknowledged, however, that governing looks decidedly different when—as Blair did—the Prime Minister’s party commands a huge majority in parliament. With government and parliament increasingly deadlocked in the contemporary era, the Blair government appears unusually effective in implementing decisions and making policy.

Image Credit: Tony Blair at Chatham House, 2012 (Chatham House CC BY 2.0)

The relationship between Blair and Brown provided journalists with endless pages of copy. The protagonists interviewed and cited in the book appear to broadly converge on two phases of the relationship: a first period of creative tension, and a second period of counterproductive mistrust. Nevertheless, what also seems clear from Heroes or Villains?—also outlined in Brown’s memoirs—was that for most of the New Labour agenda, particularly viewed in the longer sweep of Labour history, there was little difference between Prime Minister and Chancellor. Having said that, Ed Balls, whose contributions are one of the book’s highlights, believes the pair ‘didn’t do enough to hold it together’ (252).

Indeed, Heroes or Villains? is not solely focused on Blair. A chapter is devoted to the Treasury under Brown and Balls, including key policies such as the granting of independence to the Bank of England immediately upon taking office in 1997. A number of things stand out: for instance, the technocratic approach of Brown and Balls, and how much of New Labour’s economic policy had been worked out in detail during the years in opposition, in preparation for government.

New Labour’s economic record is a bone of contention for the Blair government’s critics, who point to a lack of progress on narrowing the inequality that had mushroomed during the Margaret Thatcher and John Major years. Davis and Rentoul provide a caveated defence of New Labour’s economic policy: for instance, the fact that average real incomes in the UK grew by 17 per cent from 1997 to 2010, higher than many of Britain’s peers including Germany and the United States (303).

Overall, the legacy of Blair’s time as Prime Minister has been appraised unusually negatively, in several respects worsening in the years since he left office. Recent events have intensified two areas of criticism: Brexit and the ascent of Corbyn as Labour Party leader. Amongst the piles of material written during the post-mortem of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the Blair government has received a significant portion of blame over its decision to allow immediate free movement of workers as part of the 2004 European Union expansion, which incorporated most of the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Corbyn’s economic critique, deriding New Labour as reheated Thatcherism, or as an example of that supreme (but imprecise) political insult, ‘neoliberal’, also proved highly persuasive. Blair himself has been open to debate the significance of the former, but defensive regarding the latter.

Many readers’ views towards the Blair government, however, will already be tipped in one direction depending on their view of the greatest controversy of the era: the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Davis and Rentoul contextualise the invasion against the febrile backdrop of those post-9/11 years, as well as the previous stance of the international community towards Iraq and its weapons programmes. Although Blair had overseen a number of effective foreign policy interventions, such as in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, it may be too much for many readers to agree with the sentiment that ‘Iraq [should not] be allowed to eclipse all of Blair’s foreign policy’ (302). Nevertheless, and as the authors describe, it was—and is—very easy to get drawn into the details of weapons inspections, the legal basis for the war, what Blair promised Bush and when, ‘dodgy dossiers’ and so on. On Iraq, as Davis and Rentoul aptly point out, none of this could camouflage that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was ‘flawed’ (277), and as a political decision, the Iraq War ‘votes broke New Labour and were the beginning of the end for Blair’ (295).

Heroes or Villains? is a vital addition to the literature on the Blair government and New Labour. It will be of interest to the lay reader, as well as students, and is a far more sober account than most of the existing titles, many of which denounce Blair as an aberrant Labour leader. It is easy to forget how New Labour was once a feared and respected political operation, not to mention that in the 1990s the project was seen by many as modern, progressive and even exciting. The focus of the book means that not every theme is examined in depth (unlikely given that Blair was in power for ten years): for instance, the Northern Ireland peace process, devolution and policies towards the EU. Nevertheless, Heroes or Villains? is a fascinating study, packed with first-hand accounts and primary sources, and one, as the authors posit, that the fair-minded reader will find particularly rewarding.


Note: the above was first published on LSE Review of Books.

Robert Ledger has a PhD in political science from Queen Mary University of London and currently teaches at Schiller University Heidelberg and the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management. He is also a visiting researcher in the History Seminar at Goethe University Frankfurt and the author of Neoliberal Thought and Thatcherism: ‘A Transition From Here to There?’  

Book Review | A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy

In A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on DemocracyRussell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum identify and outline the emergence of a new type of conspiracist thinking in our contemporary moment, showing it to pose a fundamental threat to democratic functioning. While questioning whether the book ascribes too much intentionality to those engaging in ‘the new conspiracism’, this is nonetheless a timely and important conceptualisation, writes Ignas Kalpokas

A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum. Princeton University Press. 2019.

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During the past few years at least, there has been a growing discourse on the ‘end’ or ‘crisis’ of democracy. Not least among the concerns leading to such dire insights is the emergence of conspiratorial, fake news or post-truth campaigning as a mainstream political tool. Obviously, lies, appeals to something other than fact and truth, as well as conspiracy theories, have been around before the present moment. Hence, it is the task for academics and commentators postulating such seismic shifts to demonstrate where and in what ways the change has taken place. That is precisely what Russel Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum aim to do in their new book, A Lot of People Are Saying, through conceptualising what they call the ‘new conspiracism’.

The new conspiracism for the authors is precisely what it says on the tin: a new type of conspiracist thinking, distinguishable through its lack of sense. Effectively, if traditional conspiracism relies on conspiracy theories, then new conspiracism is best defined as conspiracy without theory. The authors espouse the well-established view that traditional conspiracism provides a tool for dealing with shock, anxiety, insecurity and disbelief by providing order and certainty by way of allegedly uncovering hidden truths, world orders and nasty plots that can be blamed for something. At the same time, traditional conspiracism is inclusive and empowering in encouraging people to embark on detective work to uncover hidden things. Meanwhile, the currency of new conspiracism is, in the authors’ opinion, exactly the opposite – disorientation without the search for ‘truth’. Moreover, instead of careful searching for hidden ‘facts’ to substantiate the traditional conspiracy theory, new conspiracism operates on the basis of mere insinuation (as in the title phrase, ‘A lot of people are saying…’) or mere exclaimed assertions. In other words, while traditional conspiracism still embraces the rules of conventional epistemology (giving ‘evidence’, substantiating claims, etc), new conspiracism does away with mainstream rules altogether.

In the place of ‘evidence’, however dubious, Muirhead and Rosenblum trace a new source of new conspiracist authority – repetition. Essentially, if a claim is repeated, tweeted and shared numerous times, then it indeed becomes true that ‘a lot of people are saying’ something, and that fact alone becomes sufficient to sow doubt, if not to prove the point. In addition to setting a low bar for demonstrating veracity, new conspiracism is also convenient for the claim-maker as ‘bare assertions, ominous questions, and innuendo’ are elastic and can be pulled in every direction depending on the situation, while purporting to be merely asking questions ‘evades ownership of the claim’ (39). As a result of such vagueness and plasticity, new conspiracism is also revealed to have a relationship with the out-group that is very different from traditional forms. Moreover, while the followers of traditional conspiracy theories, encouraged by the alleged ‘facts’ they purport to have discovered, can afford a feeling of righteousness and the drive to correct others, new conspiracists tend to simply deny others’ standing on an ad hominem basis while simultaneously distorting the very knowledge criteria that has underpinned our societies.

Image Credit: (movprint CCO)

Whereas traditional conspiracism is seen primarily as a quest for explanations, the new conspiracism is presented as essentially a way to vent unarticulated emotions.  As the authors claim: ‘For angry minds it offers the immediate gratification of lashing out, of throwing verbal stones.’ This, once again, relates to persuasion and the elaboration of claims: new conspiracism is attractive as a form of venting precisely because of the low bar of veracity, whereby ‘if one cannot be certain that a belief is entirely false, with the emphasis on entirely, then it might be true – and that’s true enough’ (43). Hence, detailed disquisitions can be dealt away with completely and negative political emotions unleashed. Moreover, this perfect storm is also seen as being strongly related to the revolution in communications that has replaced gatekeeping with popularity, the latter again privileging quick emotion-laden exchanges.

There is, however, an important nasty underside of new conspiracism, at least as Muirhead and Rosenblum see it. By eroding trust not only in people but also in entire institutions and political systems, the new conspiracism is seen in the book as a threat to democracy itself. Politicians, institutions and expert bodies are framed by perpetrators of new conspiracism as simply unworthy of trust and obeyance (or even too dangerous for that, as in the Hillary Clinton paedophile ring claim). Moreover, new conspiracism is anti-democratic in another important way: it is radically anti-pluralist. It posits a singular ‘true’ people against untrustworthy elites. However, the latter point seems to be more like a blend of traditional conspiracism and populism rather than a distinctly new conspiracist condition – something that the authors do not address. Still, partial support for that claim can perhaps be drawn from the authors’ assertion that since political parties are among the institutional victims, public debate (inasmuch as it can still be called a debate) becomes premised on conflict and battle, but without the structured competition and legitimation of difference that traditional party competition provides.

Unfortunately, despite conceptual innovation, there are serious drawbacks to this book as well. Already in the Introduction, a much more debatable assertion begins to take shape: that there are some shadowy forces (which remain largely unidentified, except for Donald Trump and, more implicitly, some Republicans) conspiring to bring down democracy through undermining trust and promoting disorientation. However, the question that lingers throughout the book is whether the authors are not ascribing too much intentionality here. While it is clear that new conspiracism has the effect of undermining democracy, it remains far from certain as to whether there really is some intentional premeditated plot, as the authors imply, or whether political actors just aim to exploit for their own political benefit societal trends that develop independently and for completely unrelated reasons.

Without such a demonstration, the authors’ claim remains mere assertion, paradoxically itself of a new conspiracist type: to paraphrase, ‘a lot of people are saying that some shadowy forces conspire to bring down democracy’. And since most of the book is dedicated precisely to debunking the alleged conspiracy, the above fallacy becomes paramount. In fact, once the new conspiracist thesis is fully conceptualised midway through Chapter Two, the book turns into a seemingly infinite cycle of repetition of the conspiracy claim, often with the same examples given (usually drawn from the 2016 US Presidential campaign, the Trump presidency and school shootings), just with slightly different actors involved.

Overall, the book’s contribution should be divided into two distinct aspects: the legitimate, timely and very important conceptualisation of new conspiracism and the much less supportable insinuation of a conscious antidemocratic plot. Moreover, it must be noted the book is completely US-focused and therefore may have a somewhat more limited appeal and relevance in other parts of the world where both the concerns and good knowledge of the examples given cannot be taken for granted. On a related note, and probably even more importantly, its academic input notwithstanding, the book has to be read in the light of the tribalism of current US politics, ultimately framing the academic argument into a Democrat-Republican debate. While Trump’s and his allies’ highly complicated relationship with truth makes them potent objects of critique, I was nonetheless left with the feeling that the elaboration of the academic argument was more of a side-effect than the central focus.


Note: the above was first published on the LSE Review of Books. 

About the Reviewer

Ignas Kalpokas is currently assistant professor at LCC International University and lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University (Lithuania). He received his PhD from the University of Nottingham. Ignas’s research and teaching covers the areas of international relations and international political theory, primarily with respect to sovereignty and globalisation of norms, identity and formation of political communities, the political use of social media, the political impact of digital innovations and information warfare. He is the author of Creativity and Limitation in Political Communities: Spinoza, Schmitt and Ordering (Routledge, 2018).

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