Filed under: Politics
The sure and certain knowledge of your own impending mortality affects people in different ways. For some the surety of knowing that they have started on their final slow walk into the arms of the Reaper sets them to quiet contemplation and a conscious effort to make peach with the world. For others, suddenly the meaning of Carpe Diem becomes all too clear; time is a racin’ and they have so much to do and so little time if they are to rest, at the last, fulfilled.
This is, I think, what Frank Herbert was alluding to when he wrote; βTo suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror, to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.β?
We must all, at times, reflect on notions of mortality; such thoughts are brought not merely by the prospect of physical death but by the ‘little deaths’ we undergo periodically in life; those times of seeming apocalyptic upheaval that we enter knowing that things will never be quite the same again.
So, surely, must it be with Anthony Lynton Blair having entered his third term of office as Prime Minister in full foreknowledge of the length of his allotted [political] span.
For all that we know, too well, the slogans and the spin; ‘things can only get better’, ‘education, education, education’ and ‘Labour is at its best when it is at its most radical’; an objective assessment of his eight years in office and the achievements of that period must surely show that reality has fallen well short of party rhetoric.
We have certainly done well with our careful stewardship of the economy, building on the stability inherited from Ken Clarke who, uniquely amongst modern Tory chancellors, put the interests of country and the economy before short-term political expediency and laid the foundations for the flattening of the boom-bust economic cycle from which the country has benefited over the last eight years β one cannot however, claim, as politicians inevitably do, that we have ‘broken’ this cycle; the fundamental instabilities of capitalism that Marx correctly [ even in the estimation of right-wing economists] identified have not gone away forever, we have simply become more successful in managing them and mitigating their negative effects β and we have reaped the rewards of this; channelling more money that ever before into the key public services, education and health.
Well, perhaps this description β by the BBC - of Blair’s speech to this year’s Labour Conference best sums up the reality of of our achievements over eight years in government.
βHe also spent a large section of his speech reminding delegates of the great advances they had already made, albeit that they were often “quiet advances” - like laws on domestic violence, paid holiday for all and free museum entry - that decided the “character and culture” of a nation.β?
It is, by any measure, an intriguing summation of eight years of power and of the Blair legacy to-date; a catalogue of modest successes and achievement which, when stripped of their rhetoric and spin, sound more the stuff of a Chief Executive’s speech to shareholders at an Annual General Meeting than that of a political leader to party members.
Where, one might ask, are the big ideas? Where are the grand themes, the vision, the broad sweeps of ideological change?
For all his public pretensions of radicalism; for all the rhetoric about change and modernity, to date Blair has delivered nothing so radical as even Harold Wilson’s one landmark achievement β the creation of the Open University β let alone touched upon the radicalism of the Attlee government of 1945-51. Blair has promised much in eight years yet when it comes to the one genuinely radical idea with which he entered government in 1997 - electoral reform and reform of the House of Lords β he has delivered almost nothing. The removal of a few hereditary peers is all he has to show for his rhetoric about reform where it matters most, in the democratic (or not, in the case of the House of Lord) institutions of government itself.
This, for me at least, is the central paradox which drives the Blair premiership and one well characterised by Robin Cook in first couple of chapters of ‘The Point of Departure’ when he describes Blair as lacking the deep roots in the party of other and as being concerned only with outcome and not process.
On the domestic stage this has led to a considerable degree of timidity in the face of popular opposition; one thinks immediately of the drawn out backsliding on Labour’s manifesto commitment to a ban on hunting with hounds. Conversely, on the international stage we have seen Blair go against public opposition on a similar, if not greater, scale to the opposition to the fox-hunting ban in his decision to support the US in the invasion of Iraq. Here we have two situations in which there has been marked, large-scale, opposition to government plans yet differing reactions to that opposition from Blair himself. The one discernible difference between the two issues, if Cook’s characterisation of Blair is accurate β and I have no reason to think it isn’t β would appear to be Blair’s perception of the likely outcome of each of these policies. On fox-hunting Blair was persuaded by arguments about the likely impact of a ban on rural life and the rural economy; on Iraq he was persuaded of the benefits of the removal of Saddam Hussain; and having formulated his perception of what constituted the ‘best’ outcome in each situation, he took his decision β unmoved so it seems by arguments of principle.
This apparent facet of Blair’s character, for all his outward self-confidence, seems to hint at a core of insecurity in his make-up. Blair, as has been said so often over the last eight years, is a winner; but more than that he seems driven by the need to be a winner and to be seen to be a winner, to be the kind of person whom victory is everything and second place is nowhere at all. No doubt this is something exacerbated by his relationship with his own party, particularly the rank and file membership whose roots in the party [and in socialism] run deep in a way that one suspects Blair could barely comprehend, let alone emulate.
Blair may be the most successful Labour Prime Minister is the history of the party but he will never command the respect and, dare I say it, love of party members in the manner of his political antecedents. When his time has come and gone, how will he be remembered by party members?
As the man who led Labour to victory three times? Of course.
But no one will speak his name with the reverence with which we speak of Keir Hardie. No one will talk of his achievements as we do of Attlee; or quote his speeches as we do Nye Bevan’s; or speak of him with the affection and respect commanded by Michael Foot and John Smith.
Will we remember him for his intellect and drive as we do Tony Benn? As a great parliamentarian like Robin Cook, or a man of unquestioned personal integrity like Tam Dalyell?
No. One cannot even say he was entertaining in the manner of Dennis Skinner.
Blair will be remembered as a winner, as a man who was effective and efficient in the manner of George Graham’s Arsenal side; manager of a team whose success you could be proud of but without ever liking the way they played the game. As a leader Blair lacks either the kind of personal or ideological connection with the party required to genuinely command its respect β members may speak well of his election victories but never from the heart and never with genuine affection and, as such, his legacy may well be that he comes to be seen as a creature of his time and a necessary evil, a cuckoo in Labour’s nest who was never quite ‘one of us’.
It’s ironic but understandable, therefore, that Blair’s third term finds him finally making a conscious effort to match rhetoric with action and begin to realise his long-stated aspirations of pursuing a radical agenda. Suddenly, and with political mortality firmly on the horizon, Blair has rediscovered radicalism and appears to have found the will to follow through with his agenda for change. One cannot help but think these two things intimately connected.
Blair and his supporters in government now talk of choice, of the marketisation of those public services that have been a central facet of government policy over the last eight years, education and heath. We are to have more choice as consumers of these services; more private finance initiatives, more foundation hospitals, more city academies, more of our public services delivered by the private sector, or by the voluntary sector or transferred into quasi-charitable trusts and now an education system built entirely of independent state-funded schools, schools that will live or die on the sword-point of market forces. Perform well and thrive. Do badly and die.
Now the rhetoric has shifted to talk of ‘irreversible change’ and a ‘permanent revolution’ in the delivery of public services. We now have a tune to dance to by Government With Attitude and with rhetoric that’s ‘Straight Outta Trotsky’ β not that Blair will realise that - even if their policies come ‘Straight Outta Thatcher’. Who knows, perhaps it’ll all be released as a double album?
But hang on here, isn’t this all the wrong way round? Aren’t Prime Ministers and their governments supposed to be at their most radical during their first term of office and not their last, especially when swept to office on a tide of hope and with a crushing majority?
Have we missed something along the way? I think we have.
It’s easy to arrive at the mistaken belief that Blair has failed in his pre-1997 objective of modernising the state if one looks only at his change of heart on electoral reform and his failure to do more than scratch the surface of reforming the House of Lords. Yet, if one looks a little more closely then it becomes apparent that far from failing to deliver on reforming the state, Blair has actually succeeded and done so, in most respects, beyond his wildest dreams. Year after year, policy after policy, for the last eight years this government has gone quietly about making fundamental alterations to the very nature of the state and its relationship with its citizens; just not in the way any of us expected back in the days when Blair was merely a Prime Minister-in-waiting.
Over the last eight years, the government has set about systematically eroding our civil liberties and our constitutional and democratic rights in a manner which would shame a South American dictator.
The criminal justice system has been quietly bypassed by the growing use of fixed-penalty notice for minor offences; a system which is part ‘protection racket’ (it allows you to ‘pay off’ the government in order to avoid going to court) and part data-capture exercise (although in paying the fixed penalty notice you make no admission of guilt, you are still fingerprinted and required to provide the police with a DNA sample for their records); ‘Diplock Courts’ are to be reintroduced in complex fraud cases, removing from defendants their 800-year old right to trial by jury, a right founded on Magna Carta; and ‘double jeopardy’, the right to only be tried once for a criminal offence has now gone, giving the Crown Prosecution Service a new motto: βIf at first you don’t succeed, trial, trial againβ?.
Local democracy has found itself subject to what amounts to ‘death by a thousand qualngos’
(Quasi Autonomous Local Non-Governmental Organisations).
Local Authorities may be far from perfect institutions but throughout their history they have had two redeeming features; members were elected by local people and they provided local services. Getting rid of the former would be too obvious a move to get away, although the government has gone some considerable way towards curbing the authority of councillors by saddling them with the Standards Board; getting rid of the latter has sadly been all too easy.
The carrot and stick of tying central government funding, particularly regeneration funding, to the disposal of what little housing stock remained in public ownership, the transfer of services to trusts and arms-length management bodies and the proliferation of local governance structures; including partnership boards, initiatives and forums, has in all but the most robust of local political environments seriously denuded the role and authority of elected members and, in the worst cases, removed from elected democratic control the majority of local services.
It simply cannot be right that council officers, however senior in rank, are now able to respond to criticisms levelled by an elected councillor based on concerns raised by their constituents by threatening to report the councillor to the Standards Board, yet this is something I know to be happening on an all too regular basis β one local authority not too far away from where I live is notorious for this very practice.
Nor can it be right that elected representatives of the people can be reduced, in matters so fundamental to the lives of many of their constituents as education and the running of local schools, to acting as ‘champions’ and ‘mediators’ (translated: people without any real authority) on behalf of the people there represent, while businessmen are permitted to buy themselves a seat on the boards of local schools. Yet this is what the government are proposing in their Education white paper, the removal of state-funded schools from any semblance of local democratic control.
Is any wonder that as a society we are losing confidence, losing faith in the democratic process when that portion of democracy to which we could, and should, have the closest connection is being systematically deprived of any real authority.
Blair may have failed to reform fully the House of Lords but that does not mean that he has failed to make significant changes to its composition; the vast majority of hereditary peers have been stripped of their former rights, while Labour peers now make up the largest single group in the Lords, even if time, tradition and propriety has prevented Blair from granting himself the same kind of built-in majority that the Conservatives previously enjoyed. Still it remains scarcely credible that Blair might ever have genuinely been committed to full and democratic reform of the Lords, not merely in his known preference for an appointed second chamber but his failure to push even that reform through in face of a still recalcitrant house that rebelled against government legislation mores time in the first four years of Labour rule than in the entire eighteen years of Tory rule which preceded it.
Not even the sovereignty of parliament itself, that which the people fought a civil war and executed a reigning monarch to secure and protect, is safe in the hands of Tony Blair. Amongst numerous changes to the system of public inquiries made by the Inquiries Act 2005, and Act which passed on a nod and a wink from both opposition parties and which has the primary and obvious purpose of ensuring that never again will an ruling government be subjected to the embarrassment of a Hutton Inquiry or Scott Report, there is one which makes a fundamental constitutional change to our very system of government and which effects as transfer of sovereign authority from parliament tot he executive, or more specifically to an individual minister.
At the time this Act received royal assent and passed into the law, public inquiries ceased to report directly to parliament and will now report instead directly to the Minister, who will then decide on their sole and exclusive authority which portions of the inquiry report, if any, will disclosed to the House of Commons. Such inquiries are fundamental to our ability as citizens, and of parliamentarians as our representatives, to hold the government to account for its failing, incompetencies and, in the worst cases, corruptions and cover-ups, yet on the back of shady deal between the three main parties conclude mere days before the dissolution of parliament for the last general election, the government has been permitted to appoint itself as official censor of all such future reports.
For the last eight years, government has followed an all too obvious and depressing pattern of behaviour, centralising power on itself and devolving authority to its agents and functionaries and on all the but very few occasions its has pushed this agenda too far too fast; as it did in seeking to limit the right of defendants in magistrates court to choose to undergo a trial by jury in a Crown Court, this has gone almost unnoticed.
This is Blair’s unseen success in government and a key platform upon which he now feels secure enough to push for radical market-led reforms in public services, however this is by now means the key reason why Blair is, only now, pushing hard on to complete a radical programme of, particularly, public sector reform.
Notions of personal legacy and his own perception and sense of his place in history, a place likely denied to him in Labour party circles - as already noted - by his lack of deep roots within the party no doubt play a considerable part in his thinking but I strongly suspect something more basic and visceral is at work here; knowledge of his own political mortality and by extension the security and safety of knowing that he will not, personally, have to face the electorate and account for his actions and his policies to the British people.
And that is, for me, the real measure of the man. I have no doubt whatsoever that the radical agenda he is now seeking to force through parliament, a Tory agenda by any objective measurement of the term, is one he has harboured since his earliest days as Labour leader, yet through two terms of office as Prime Minister he has been too timid in the face of possible opposition both within the Labour Party and amongst the wider electorate to openly play his hand.
Only now, as he approaches the end in the safe and certain knowledge that he will be gone long before the electorate next has the opportunity to hold him fully to account, only when, at last, he can enjoy in full the privilege of the harlot β power without responsibility β do we finally see his true instincts.
Some leader, huh?
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