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Labour Party Conference 2002
by James Naughtie
Day 3:
Former US President Bill Clinton brings a touch of glamour to Blackpool


We did wonder where we were when Kevin Spacey got a half-standing ovation for just walking into the Winter Gardens. Labour conferences haven't been like this before. But it would be wrong simply to look at the glitz and sneer. When Clinton came, he brought substance with him.

The speech, from an old master of the slow-burn delivery, did strike some of his critics (right and left) as an exercise in windy well-meaningness but to most of his audience it was a kind of pedagogic triumph. He drawled his way around the world and its problems, and of course on Iraq he dived into the midst of the most tangled political issue and poke with real clarity. It was helpful to Tony Blair - as it was meant to be - in that it was a defence of the UN as the best mechanism for dismantling Saddam's weaponry, but also a defence of the ultimate right to take military action against him.

So for all Clinton's enjoyment in a retired President's right to be nakedly political abroad, and bait the Conservatives here as he baited the Republicans at home, the power of the speech was in its powerful defence of multilateralism in foreign policy and what he called (rather imprecisely) an integrated world.

His theme was one that's been preoccupying Blair. The strategic game with the Bush administration now is about the United states posture on a number of international issues : will it think of solutions through coalitions and the UN or respond to the urge of some of those around George W Bush to pursue unilateral policies. It's overwhelmingly in Blair's interest to make sure that they choose the first route, and Clinton's argument in Blackpool was helpful to him. Those here who're passionately opposed to war in any circumstances will, of course, have been unmoved but the Downing Street gang were grateful for Clinton's clarity. It might help in some of the days ahead.

The big problems for Blair on Iraq (as on the domestic "reforms" that he's promised in the public services) lie some way ahead, and you can think of Clinton's performance as a healthy overture to some of the arguments which will grip this party in the months ahead. It would be wrong to put too much store in it, but it's worth noting how potent a theatrical experience it seemed to be for many of those there. people who haven't watched Clinton in the flesh before are always surprised by his power, which seems to creep up on his audience and have them in its grip almost before they know what's happening.

He's the great speechifier, starting with a preacher's soft opening and increasing his pace at a careful rate as he builds it all up, and he still has the gift of appearing to be interested in persuading his audience, even when he's doing nothing more than mounting one of the performances which he loves. This was certainly a performance, but it was also a sermon meant to persuade. To some people's taste, it skirted too easily round some of the past failures of American policy (and some of his own inconsistencies) but that's a fault hardly unique to Clinton. The success of the speech was in the way it helped to bolster Blair's message from the day before. Clinton won't make the difference to Blair's success or failure in his "third way" reforms, but in giving the Prime Minister a lift at his conference it was an elegant and welcome contribution.

Take an example. Turning on its head the criticism of the west for its past support of Saddam, Clinton used that history as part of the justification for being tough now. What we helped to create, we have a responsibility to destroy. That's a line we can expect to hear again, from Downing Street.

Party conferences have a limited role in our politics. Their effect on the country at large doesn't last long. But for the parties themselves they can either be an effervescent tonic or a depressant. Despite the rocks and shoals that may lie ahead for this government, with all their dangers, this conference will be seen by Blair as uplifting. He avoided open splits and ugly dissent, though his party is trouble in many ways. For that, in part, he can thank his old friend Clinton.

I have seen some strange sights in Blackpool in my time. But I never expected to see a McDonald's surrounded by the American Secret Service and containing Bill Clinton, Alastair Campbell and Kevin Spacey, nor labour delegates cheering an American president (rtd) for justifying a likely war in the Middle East, not for that matter, a Labour prime Minister telling his party that he wanted "post-comprehensive education" and more private money in public services.

This next year is going to be extraordinary. they may be war; there may be in its aftermath a referendum to abolish the pound; there will certainly be the start of a long battle with the unions and many professions about public service reform. A rollercoaster ride has begun. It was appropriate, then, that it should be marked by a vintage performance from one of the political masters of our age. He said he wanted to show why politics mattered; he also showed how much he enjoys it and why he can't let go. This will be remembered as the conference of Clinton as much as the conference of Blair.

Day 1: Jim arrives in Blackpool

Day 2: reflections on the leader's speech

LINKS
In depth reports on the conference - from BBC News Online
The Labour Party - conference details


NB. The BBC cannot be held responsible for the content of external websites


Listen - James Naughtie interviews the Prime Minister Tony Blair about Iraq, public service reform and the Euro (03/10/02)
Jim in the Blackpool studio
James Naughtie hard at work in the Outside Broadcast vehicle
Listen - Former Cabinet minister Peter Mandelson gives his views on the conference.(01/10/02)
James Naughtie, Miranda Holt and Leala Padmanabhan
The Today team in Blackpool
Listen - Can Labour deliver the bold agenda promised by Blair? Home Secretary David Blunkett (02/10/02)
James Naughtie interviews David Blunkett
James Naughtie interviews David Blunkett at the Imperial Hotel, Blackpool
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