David Cameron's debt to Tony Blair has been remarked on from the beginning. His age, family, idle use of 'yer knows' in front of the camera, lurking anxiety regarding media profile, bad taste in jeans... These all added to the sense that the Tories had found their own answer to a politician they considered unbeatable. Michael Gove, apparently, has gone around referring to Blair's memoirs as a key reference point against which to check Conservative policy-making.
But what about Blair 2.0? What about the one who experienced strange stirrings in his belly, at the sight of jets taking off for Kosovo in 1999, at his command? Who returned to that strange potion for another hit in Sierra Leone in 2000? And who, catastrophically, saw a "kaleidoscope being shaken", when everyone else saw two passenger planes colliding with two skyscrapers in 2001? Will we see a Cameron 2.0 as well? Listening to the tone of his speech (as opposed to the policy itself) about the "military covenant" earlier this month, then seeing how he has leant on Barack Obama over Libya, I began to wonder.
All politics involves some stance towards temporality and, hence, to mortality. The birth of Western political philosophy, Plato's Republic, represents the challenge of politics as the attainment of a social order that transcends time in some way. If the philosophers are in charge, and the philosophers have knowledge of eternity, then the republic will be governed according to principles that will out-live any individual life. Politics, by this account, is a secular religion: it provides rituals, forms, order that endure, where human life does not. It contrasts with the ephemera of the marketplace or the mob.
There are less oppressive answers to this same problematic. Rome is still known as the 'eternal city', thanks to the belief that the republic would outlast everything. 'Civic' and 'democratic' forms of republicanism may be committed to the ephemera of chit-chat and politicking, but they do so on the basis of philosophical and anthropological principles that are no less permanent than Plato's. Then one might think of Edmund Burke's famous argument, that the social contract is not only between the living and the living (as Locke and others had argued), but between the dead and the living, and the living and the not-yet-born. Finally, there is the stark political nihilism of Carl Schmitt, for whom politics is about who we would die for (the 'friend'), and who we would kill (the 'enemy').
The problem of time, and hence of death, is inerradicable from the urge to create and govern political order. Politics without an awareness of finitude is mere policy or flim-flam. I guess Hobbes's Leviathan sets the stage for a form of empiricist utilitarianism of a sort, by positing the saving and prolongation of life as the first principle of the modern state. This may be the instinct of many politicians today, and certainly the worldview of many economists and policy-makers. One of the risks of Marxism is that, in attacking capitalism's oppression of the living by 'dead labour' (i.e. capital), it simply inverts the problem, and leads to an exuberant modernism which only cares about the now; in this, New Labour and its Marxist forebears were equally culpable.
We need political leaders to see beyond the empirical, beyond what lives here-and-now. And the danger represented by Blair and Cameron is of politicians who discover mortality and finitude only after they have risen to power. Traditionally, a politician would become Prime Minister in their 50s or 60s, when they would be likely to have lost a parent. A long time ago, they may well have lost a child (as both Gordon Brown and Cameron actually have). Certainly they would have experienced war at first or second hand, and be well-acquainted with the experience of mourning.
The early appeal of Blair and Cameron - their 1.0 incarnations - was that they lacked metaphysical baggage. Especially in the case of Blair circa 1997, he represented a glorious post-modern lightness, a play of smiles and football banter, a man who felt equally comfortable with foreign leaders as he did with pop stars or the man on the street. Possibly this lack of baggage or relation to history actually aided him in his great domestic triumph in bringing peace to Northern Ireland: who better to draw a line under the past than a management consultant? But he admits now, as Blair 2.0, that his great regret was that he cared too much about the media and what people thought of the Labour Party. Cameron's attempted 'de-toxification' of the Conservative brand has followed a similar path.
These are men of focus groups, Clinton-esque handshakes, drinks parties and interviews on sofas. But they then discover that they control submarines, bombs, and warships. Not only that, but they can send orders to the type of uniformed toffs who they thought had disappeared decades ago, who then send down orders to working class boys to shoot people and get shot at. For a young Tony Blair or David Cameron to discover the military must be like moving into a trendy new condo appartment, and discovering that someone has left a ouija board in one of the cupboards. At first, you shut the door in horror. But eventually you're going to become curious about what it might do for you.
This is the danger of discovering death, destruction and killing only after one becomes Prime Minister. That strange look Blair began to get in his eye, and the ever-longer pauses that he left between sentences in his speeches, were the signs of a man who had acquired metaphysical baggage for the first time. But he discovered it not in the endurance of democratic freedom (which would have oriented him to at least care about the constitution) but in the military. He jumped straight from the flim-flam and ephemera of focus groups and BBC Breakfast, to the existentialism of bombs and coffins.
But surely these are the outlying poles of political temporality: to move from the hourly tittle tattle of news, to the eternity of death in one clean move, is to pass over everything of long-term value. Between these, politics consists of all manner of temporal relations - to law, to human rights, to the nation (as Blue Labour has now discovered), to nature, to the elderly, and to the newly born. A financial system dominated by the short-term could still give way to an alternative dedicated to the long-term, though there is remarkably little sign of this happening.
Whether Cameron will become fully Blairified remains to be seen. A 'good' conservative leader would discover a Burkean, possibly also a republican, relationship to time, rather than leap whole-heartedly into the Schmittian existentialism that Blair revelled in. The examples of the Military Covenant and Libya are themselves measured, even noble. The private tragedy of losing a son no doubt gives him a greater sense of temporality than his career in PR ever would have. But if Cameron develops that look in his eye, I will worry.