Tony Blair’s speech

Here’s an analysis of Blair’s last speech as the party leader in the Labour Party conference 26 September, 2006. I wrote it for other purposes, but it might be interesting more widely than for my own note books in even in this format so I post it here.

Blair: Responding to the situation 1. As always in party conferences there is a sequence of speeches whereby the one under our analysis is a follow-up and a response to some previous ones. Here specifically:

  • the response to Gordon Brown. In the official version the remarks about Gordon. Nevertheless the was on the picture all along.

    John Snow on the day’s Snowmail remarked: ‘Blair’s valedictory speech as leader to the Labour Party conference was a pretty good one but not so good that it in any way detracted from Gordon Brown’s performance yesterday. There have been times when Blair has been almost more than brilliant on the conference floor – today was not one of them, although it had its moments. It seemed to me that he was emotionally charged from the very beginning, he made a funny and yet risky – or is that risqué? – aside at the start of the speech. He said of his wife: “At least I don’t have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door”. This, after Cherie Blair reportedly accused Brown of lying in his speech, you could interpret what Blair said as almost substantiating that she had said it, despite her denial. Handling such a charged issue by way of a gag is a demonstration of oratorical mastery and matey finesse – of the sort one wouldn’t expect from Mr Brown.’

  • Gordon in his own speech made a point about himself being a servant and the task of politician to be such. Tony acknowledged that he is, which might be seen as support for him. And he even makes a similar point about need to be of service to the people. On the other hand, he leaves the door open.

  • On Gordon’s speech. First part of the speech: either the 10 year anniversary speech – or the speech for a divorcing couple. As in case of any good speech and especially in the case of a divorce speech one would expect a catch in the end, something would emerge. A revelation? The Hungarian PM admitted he had lied – but he still wanted the relationship between himself and his party (and later, once the speech was leaked, the people). What did Gordon do? What was the thing emerging? The moment of the “I”. Me Gordon. As in many other long and turbulent relationships what emerged was the independence of the partner. Not always there has to be one overshadowed by another, for this “I” to emerge. In this case there had.

  • Compared to this Tony was hardly mentioning Gordon. The moment of the “I” was longer in Tony’s – but this also expected in the sense that this had always been so. On the other hand, Gordon was surprising the crowd, although this was expected of him, by delivering something about his personal values and plans.

  • For Gordon Brown the religious values were quite quickly turned into socialist ones, belief held as important. But rather than putting things in God’s hands Gordon keeping the faith in the Party ground.

Blair: Responding to the situation 2. Not only to Gordon Brown, Tony Blair was responding to his critics. He was constructing the “other’s” he needed to reject to claim his own position.

  • to the critics – he talks in the end of his speech increasingly about “they” who had been thinking he had changed and related him with the Tories. ‘From the day I was elected until the day I leave, they will always try to separate us. “He’s not Labour.” “He’s a closet Tory.”‘

  • The task was to show that New Labour period (also for Gordon) had been a great moment in the history of Britain and in the history of the Labour party.

  • The enemy or the ‘other’, the position to contest, for Blair was the past. He was still responding to the situation of Tories had created. He’s responding to the Old Labour. Even now he is reinventing himself and what the party should become. He makes a virtue of change, which many see as a/his vice. It’s ok to be different now compared to ten years ago.

  • In some ways Tony Blair seems to be creating a monster that he then runs ahead of. Like running ahead of a high-speed train, he rejects also his own past, his own 1997 New Labour, his 2005 New Labour and turns his own position into the newest of the New Labour. Obviously to the party, who has been supposed to follow him this has been a tough task. However necessary some of them might see the reason for changing policies, the task of constant competition with one’s own past isn’t easy.

    One of the best rhetorical techniques in political speech is that of paradiastole – which means turning vices into virtues and vice versa. Some times whole conceptual frameworks get reversed, but this is also a tool just to legitimate policies. We can say that there are minor instances when this technique is employed and major ones.

  • One of the moments, of course, is the normative redescription of the past. This moment was to be about the looking back and praising the Blair project – as Gordon Brown had done in the first part of his speech. It went beyond. Blair was responding to his own critics of whom some claimed he was going against the grain of the Labour tradition, others claimed he was going against his own earlier policies. That’s right, he seems to argue, as Blairism of the past was not about Blairism today. (He also seems to demonstrate what would have happened had he stayed in power, what the policies would have looked like – whereas Gordon Brown makes the rhetorical move of takes it as granted that he would be the leader and sketches the future with he and ‘his team’ which included – according to my newspaper sources – his rivals.) Here past is seen as a vice, not a virtue. Thus, Blairism of 1997 was only virtuous in its context.

  • Rather than merely assuming something as a vice that he needs to turn to a virtue, Blair establishes or plays with existing conceptions, and plays out his own position – as their opposite. “They are not fighting in vain. But for this nation’s future.” This was one of the few remarks on the war in Irak – the most contested policies of the Blair government.

  • ‘Selective trust schools or city academies’ was another contested policy that Blair sought to legitimate. ‘But if, as at the academy I visited in Lewisham, good GCSE results doubled in a year, and a school once under-subscribed, now five times over-subscribed, how is that a denial of public service values? Surely it is the most vivid affirmation of them.’

  • Blair singled out two important figures for politics: the patient and the parent. He talked about the hot topic of the NHS reforms [which include public private partnerships and (semi-)privatisations] – ‘on the NHS in an independent treatment centre, in 3 months, free at the point of use, that is not damaging the NHS; it is fulfilling its purpose.’ Both Blair and Brown acknowledged the NHS as a Labour achievement and a thing that the Britons should be proud of. With the continuous critique of the NHS and the suspicions that the government will simply privatise health care, this is important.

  • One of the examples of a critiqued policy were the ID cards and the DNA database. On the latter Blair argued: ‘We were told it was a monstrous breach of liberty. But it is now matching 3,000 offences a month including last year several hundred murders, and thousands of rapes and other violent offences. Difficult reform leading to real progress in the fight against crime.’

  • He recognised ‘the fundamental dilemma: how do we reconcile liberty with security in this new world?’ These two things are commonly seen as opposites are now being related. This is one of the main dilemmas of Blair (objects of the critique he’s gained) and a cross-cutting theme in his speech.

  • Even claiming that he is not a Tory, he redescribes himself, and describes the socialist values on his side: ‘I’m a progressive. The true believer believes in social justice, in solidarity, in help for those not able to help themselves.’

    Other issues:

  • We could also look for the way in which things that appear completely incompatible with each other and also with the traditional Labour values are been related in Blair’s speech.

  • We could see the ways in which politics is seen by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, where one of the paradiastolic moments emerges. Is politics about the ‘image’? Spinning and image-building had been seen as backbones of the New Labour project of getting into power – or to put it with Blair ‘of not losing’. Brown emphasises politics as service. Blair argues that next elections should not be about image but about ‘strength, judgment, weight and ideas for Britain’s future in an uncertain world’. He argues: ‘The next election won’t be about image unless we let it be.’ By this he may support Brown, or whoever else will follow him, as it is generally seen as difficult task to find someone equally charismatic as himself or the Tory counterpart David Cameron. And why would he want to deny this…

    Responses: what I found interesting was the way in which expectations were created before Blair’s speech. And after the hype everyone was analysing it (even the Finnish national daily I read this morning.). The fascinating point is the way in which the speech then did not meet the expectations in the eyes of the media. It didn’t appear as the classic speech.

    Just an hour before the whole event Blair’s speech from perhaps the 1996(?) party conference was shown on the channel (BBC Parliament) I was watching online. In comparison, Blair was low key. Is it that he really was? Is it that we could recognise the catch words in his speech: “tories no more the party of the family but a party of law and order”, “we are the party of the individual”, “new politics”, “beyond left and right”, “with opportunity must come responsibility” [sic], [on previous government:] “long on rhetoric and short on policies at work”? Whereas with the new one he we could not yet. Or was is that, because he was so focused in reinventing himself as the Blair of 2006, he did not dwell in nostalgia, as I did watching the previous speech? Did we simply want to focus on the nostalgia? Perhaps we really would have needed to hear these catch-words to let him go. In this process, we might have been able to understand why the hell it was that we were all so excited about a political change, a break from the Tory rule and – let’s face it – about Tony Blair. [I remember the feeling in Edinburgh after the landslide, when I was on an Interrail with my friend and saw the Labour double-deckers driving past and declaring the victory. Fantastic! In the same autumn I went to study in the UK. After the short honeymoon came the protests against the tuition fees, then those against the wars in Afghanistan and Irak. Ultimately, my Britain has been the Blairland that I just emigrated from and soon no longer exists.] The last words of Blair’s speech were: ‘You’re the future now. Make the most of it.’ Look, Tony, it’s a bit difficult as you just claimed it for yourself, for the new Blair, the 2006 model. Expectations matter. Irrespective of whether I would have wanted that model, irrespective of whether I know that in this kind of a speech a sensible leader projects also towards the future, I would have wanted to see you through the nostalgia and as the past.

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