Nothing provides a better insight into our antique political culture than a party leadership contest. I remember talking with Robin Cook just as the Blair bandwagon began to assume unstoppable proportions. Cook had outfought and out-performed every other Labour contender by a mile; he was cleverer, more experienced, funnier. And yet what he was having to read in the press was an endlessly recycled remark about him looking like a garden gnome. The Gadarene rush to Blair told the rest. What on earth was this really about? Cook is neither handsome nor ill-looking, just somewhere in between, like the rest of us. The Labour Party hadn't cared about looks when it picked the flaccid Wilson, the much-creased figure of Jim Callaghan or the stooping, stick-waving Foot. A bit of deconstruction suggested this was all a blind, that Labour had just had a Welsh boyo and an Edinburgh lawyer as leaders, neither of whom had made it. That was quite enough Scots, Picts and people from the periphery. The really important thing was to pull back in the SDP English, the sort of Labour supporters who sent their children to private schools. Blair, who'd been to a private school himself, was perfect for this. The English - if not the British - are a profoundly monarchical people: they wanted not just an elected leader but a young prince, so the leadership was as suddenly and completely Blair's as if he had drawn a sword from the stone. He is now the Dauphin awaiting his inevitable inheritance and all men are on his side. His undoing is certain but it is far ahead and his courtiers do not yet talk of things like that.
LRB 3 August 1995 | PDF Download