It was a wintry English day in late 1988, and I took my A-Level class to the Westminster Hall in London for an Economics conference. On the bill was the the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasurer) John Smith, but he could not make it on the day, so his very young looking 35 year old parliamentary private secretary (who no one had heard of) filled in instead.
At the time the British Labour party was a laughing stock. Maggie Thatcher ruled supreme, her Conservative party was half way through its 18 year reign, having won easy elections in 1979, 1983 and 1987. They would go on to win again in 1992. As we listened to the young MP from Sedgefield, we realised that this bloke was not a loony leftie. He was highly articulate and argued clearly with passion. The Hall was spellbound, hanging off every word. This guy’s good, I thought. I was a natural Labour-leaning voter, a teacher in a government school, appalled at what the Thatcher government was doing to public education (I saw the crumbling and lack of investment first hand. In my two years of teaching there had already been multiple teachers’ strikes.)
When it was Q&A time, one of my braver students stood at the microphone and politely asked Tony Blair (for it was he): ‘Your Labour party has been trounced in every election in my living memory – how can you be so sure that you’ll get back into power and enact the things you want to do?’
Blair listened patiently, and smiled a half smile. He then let fly with a strong argument about hope and change, never giving up, and why he believed what he believed, and why it was crucial for the country. Never give up hope, he implored, never think there is no option.
Wow, I thought, I’m going to watch this guy’s career. He’s something.
Six years later, the Shadow Chancellor had become leader of the party, and then, tragically, suddenly died. Tony Blair ascended to the leadership (aged 41) and 3 years later became Prime Minister (the youngest since 1812) in a landslide. He would be PM for the next 10 years, one that showed great early promise (peace in Northern Ireland probably being his greatest triumph) with a popularity rating as high as 93% in 1997; but his later years would be tarred by the rising fatalities of the increasingly unpopular Iraq War and his strongly held views around the the regime’s weapons of mass destruction (which proved to be a fiction).
In a Shakespearean tragedy, Blair swept all before him until being undone by his own overblown rhetoric and the nagging jealousies of his own Treasurer, who wanted the crown for himself.
When I think of Blair, I think back to that fresh faced energetic 35 year old I saw hold a 1000 strong audience in his hand. He was a product of the Thatcherite time, a new Labour MP. For surely the greatest victory Thatcher had (and there were a few – although she also had her own Shakespearean end) was what she did to the Labour party. She transformed it, out of necessity, and Blair was one of the few that led them out of the wilderness into the powerful political force they became in mid 1990s and into the 2000s. His win in 1997 was the largest ever for his party, and he went on to win another landslide in 2001 and win again in 2005 (post Iraq War, with a reduced minority). No Labour leader had been PM that long.
When you beat an opposition, in business, politics or sport, be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.