LONDON — Watching British Prime Minister Tony Blair is like watching a religious phenomenon. He has stepped off his platform on the backs of members of the Labor Party and has ascended into the clouds, where he hopes to be borne along by the rushing winds of the future. As he lifts off, he kicks away the old ladder of class and party loyalties. He has gambled his party’s future on being able to realize his vision of 21st-century Britain. What no one knows is whether he cares if — or indeed whether it matters if — the party does not survive the ascension of its leader.

This transmogrification of Blair into prophetic, and unchallenged, leader took place while he delivered his leader’s address to the Labor Party’s annual conference in Bournemouth on Tuesday. Since he became leader of the party, this annual speech has never failed to stir the members; either their hearts are touched and softened by Blair’s confident, hopeful image of the better life that Labor promises, or their minds crackle stiffly as yet another layer of cynicism hardens.

Despite the trappings of futurist technology — the backdrops, the moving lights, the video, the transparent thingummy that carries his speech, the supereffective microphones, the instant television relay — Blair is actually the most old-fashioned leader Britain has had since the Liberals’ David Lloyd George 90 years ago. (Winston Churchill, Britain’s best-known political speechifier, was a man of the written word, delivered on radio, in thousands of articles and many huge books. He was not a rousing platform speaker.) Blair does something no postwar party leader has done — use a platform speech to reach out emotionally to his listeners, to mix religious and moral sentiments with political action.

The intellectual point of Blair’s speech this week was that he chose to damn all obstructions to his vision as aspects of conservatism. In doing this, he deals directly with a thesis about Britain that has been very popular in academic and intellectual circles. This is that Britain, by embracing a nostalgic, class-ridden, antitechnocratic view of itself, has for the last 100 years been doing nothing more than managing its own decline.

Blair did not dispute that that was what Britain had been doing. He disputed that it any longer needed to be done, and he castigated the notion of inevitable decline as a false myth perpetrated by conservative forces to protect their own niches in British society. As he spoke — or rather, as he hymned the future — the forces of rural conservatism were outside the hall calling for the end of his project, which they see as a deliberate and wicked war on the ways of the countryside. The immediate complaint concerns Labor’s promise to end “hunting by dogs,” meaning the organized hunting of fox and deer, usually on horseback with immense pomp and ritual but also more humbly, on foot, by ordinary country people.

The cause has been taken up by Britain’s newest mass lobby, the Countryside Association. This body counts among its supporters the Prince of Wales and many millionaire owners of great corporations and eager supporters of the London social high life. Cannily, they speak the language of old Labor — the preservation of rural jobs and communities, the deprivation of many rural areas, the cruel blow of “mad cow disease,” the intolerable persecution of their simple habits by anonymous EU laws and regulations.

For many of us committed city dwellers, this issue of fox-hunting at first seemed a slight and silly thing. But the strength of feeling it has drawn forth, some expressed straightforwardly, some tortuously and dishonestly, has made us think again. For here is the debate of images and language that Blair’s address touched on so eloquently.

It is puzzling that any city dweller should identify with a mythical way of life conjured up by the skillful countryside association lobbyists. They imagine for us a peaceful, gentle, sweet-smelling way of life that we all once lived and to which we would all return if we only could. The idea that “real” England is rural, nostalgic and small-thinking is an image that has powered not only many Conservative speakers, but also many architects and town planners who have abandoned the modernism of tower-blocks and concrete slabs and now produce pastiches of small villages in town redevelopments. The real Englishman, this image suggests, wants nothing more than to spend his summers playing cricket on the village green and his evenings quaffing local ales in his village pub while his wife (he is married, of course) happily bakes Victoria sponges for the women’s institute and sends the children safely and with clean faces to the village school.

This was the consolatory Britain dreamed up by men and women who could not embrace the cities and technologies and sheer magnitude of modern living, or the trade unions and disorder and crowds and garishness that went with it. They particularly could not embrace modern, urban Britain when it was no longer leading the whole country into the future. The idea that the real Britain was to be found in a gentler, more gracious and rural village community protected Britain’s squirearchy from a loss of power in the real world of cities, multinational corporations and U.S. hegemony.

Blair’s trick has been to link Britain’s working-class organizations, which have traditionally supported big state protection, with the conservatism of Britain’s nostalgic bourgeoisie — and to condemn them all as the dragging “forces of conservatism.” The next trick he has to pull off is to link progress with new technology and with new methods of management and new forms of discovery and research. And then to persuade us that this whole package, including genetically modified organisms and the Internet and professional managers of schools and hospitals is a good thing. And not just a good thing, but the embodiment of Britain’s true self. For Blair’s Achilles’ heel is his nickname, “Phony Tony” — the idea that he is no more than an old-fashioned salesman for the shallow glitz that defines modernity.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.