In 1997 the Labour Party fought the General Election with a fresh approach. Their latest leader, Tony Blair, came with a reformed party, known as 'New Labour'. Tony Blair was a pioneer of New Labour; "Policies and direction, appeal and cohesion, would simply disintegrate if Tony wasn't there"1 and from the start he was geared up to be the lead figure of the Labour Party. This gave the party a personality and naturally the media focused on that personality, likening him to a presidential character; "observers have been compelled to employ a term that is especially alien to the British system of government"2.
There have been numerous connections made between Thatcherism and 'New Labour' (which is basically Blairism) and Blair's style has certainly brought a fresh approach to politics for the Labour party. From the start he aimed to use different methods in order to appeal to the public. He looked "to create a new approach, setting the national mood and policy agenda via the media, rather than through the conventional channels of Westminster politics"3.
There is no doubt that Blair's style of running the Labour government was similar to that of Margaret Thatcher's in certain ways such as preferring to run business in a more centralised manner coupled with making decisions by means of things such as bilateral meetings instead of traditional Cabinet Government methods. This 'continuation' some argue, brought fundamental changes to the exercises of executive power because 'New Labour' was built on a model (Thatcherism) that worked .
This could imply a change in the way in which the executive operates simply because of how the political culture had developed, "the product not of conspiracy, but of events"4, which are beyond the control of the executive. However some could argue that these changes were as a result of New Labour's tactics, making other parties do the same because of the obvious electoral success that derived from this approach. Margaret Thatcher had served as Prime Minister for many years by using this more presidential style.
Either way there is controversy surrounding the tactics of Blair purely because his style is different from the traditional method of a Cabinet Government. Blair has been described as presidential, likening him to Thatcher, for a number of reasons. Firstly there has been a significant increase in the impact of "the influence of personalities"5 with regards to the outcome of General Elections. This factor can be seen as a result of campaigning by New Labour; in the run up to the 1997 General Election part of the Labour campaign focussed around presenting Blair as a likeable, 'just like us' character.
This approach has certainly been effective and was confirmed by various opinion polls at the time, showing voting patterns being primarily based around public feeling towards the Prime Minister rather than his party. The increased role in international affairs has boosted the status of Blair, putting him on the same level as President's from other countries. "Other trends are pulling the Prime Minister away from, or even elevating him above his senior colleagues. The growth of summits, including the G7, European Union sessions and Blair-Clinton seminars, makes inroads on a prime minister's time"6.
This can also be linked with the decreased involvement of Blair in the management of parliamentary business, for example in 1999 he had only voted in only five per cent of House of Commons divisions since may 19977. So it is sensible to assume that even though Blair has tendencies to act like a presidential character, there are factors that have contributed to this; such as the need to be an international statesman and the media's focus on personalities rather than parties as a whole; "the media demand presidential leader and crucified John Major for not being presidential enough"8.
Even though some could argue this was as a result of tactics by politicians such as Blair and Thatcher to exert more control, it is also important to remember that modern situations may prove to be easier to deal with when there is a strong and clear leader. There are people who believe that "Blair's efforts to reshape the British premiership have certainly been radical"9, so it is important to establish exactly how Blair intended to rule. Using his owns words; "people will have to know that we will run from the centre and govern from the centre"10.
This involves using the Prime Minister's Office as the centre of the executive, (the PMs staff doubled in the first two years of his premiership). This can be seen as similar to how Thatcher organised her government, except he went a step further. "The biggest centralisation of power in Whitehall in peacetime"11. This points to a move towards a government that does not use the Cabinet in the way it was originally designed. "The idea that the heads of department have an independent standing has been torn up"12.
Blair likes to use bilateral meetings to consult with the relevant minister on policy, much like Thatcher, but everything is run from No. 10 "all the threads, all the leads, all come back to 10 Downing Street"13. So it has been established that there are connections between Thatcherism and Blairism in regards to government organisation and general governing style, he even takes it a step further than Thatcher, implying that there is indeed a continuation in the methods that were applied by both relevant parties.
A prime minister is entitled to create and dissolve departments of state and distribute them amongst his ministers as he pleases in order "to enable him to work effectively and achieve his objectives"14. Therefore surely he would adjust the way in which they operate to suit his preference. "We do not assume that there is or should be an ideal or unchangeable system of collective Government". 15 This is evidence to suggest that Blair's style has made changes to the exercises of executive power, but they only affect his premiership.
It is also possible to assume that every prime minister has the potential to leave a mark on the executive because a department that they create may be kept by the next prime minister, but factors such as the change in party control often result in a re-vamp of the departments, according to matters relevant to the time. This is the advantage of having such a flexible system, that is not constrained by a codified constitution.
This could point to the fact that Thatcherism had left its mark on British politics in terms of structure, helping to shape 'New Labour. ' So to conclude it has been established that Tony Blair has a style that can be described as presidential; "a change in the role and status of the Prime Minister's position towards other political players, and a general increase in executive authority"16. He uses the Cabinet less and runs much of his business from 10 Downing Street, much like Margaret Thatcher.
The Press Office, most notably under the influence of Alasdair Campbell has become central to Blair's government and it is safe to say that in order for the government to use the media in a positive manner this trend will continue. The centralisation of the executive is probably going to be permanent because the election campaigns have been geared towards focusing on certain characters and this can be attributed, mostly, to Blair's style. It is also hard to imagine another prime minister changing this set up, although it is possible that the cabinet could be used more in the way it is supposed to be.
All this can be seen as a continuation of Thatcherism and because it is done by different party to which Thatcher was affiliated, 'New Labour' have just inserted their principles and ideologies into the structural model of Thatcherism. In conclusion one can argue that New Labour has no connection and is definitely not a continuation of Thatcherism, but they would be wrong. There are clear structural similarities coupled with comparable methods in forming policies, however there are clear differences in the actual policy content and ideology of the two different parties.
Most notably, in areas such as laissez-faire politics, individualism and privatisation. There were, however, certain similarities in regards to policies concerning the economy, with the need for a supple market couple with the spread of capitalism, but this can be connected to the idea that 'New Labour' were just continuing solid policies by the last government. It is also important to remember that there is no point in reversing or scraping policies, even by a different government because otherwise nothing would get done if everything had the potential to change every four years.
1. 'The British Prime Minister' by Anthony King, 1985. 2. 'British Government: The Central Executive Territory' by Peter Madgwick, 1991. 3. 'The Prime Minister; The Office and Its Holders Since 1945' by Peter Hennessy, 2000. 4. 'Presidents, Prime Ministers and chancellors; Executive Leadership in Western Democracies' by Ludger Helms, 2005. 5. 'The British Presidency' by Michael Foley, 2000.