Waste of trust|
Much is made, not least by The Spectator, of the waste of New
Labour: the huge growth of the public sector, the proliferation of
equal opportunities outreach co-ordinators, the obsession with
inputs at the expense of outputs. And certainly Tony Blair’s
government has spent more of our money than any government before
it. Certainly, it has created thousands of not just non-jobs but
anti-jobs: jobs actually devoted to making life more difficult for
the productive and creative parts of the public services and
economy. Certainly, it has failed to understand the difference
between ‘14,000 extra police’ and genuinely making people feel
The real scandal, however, is a more fundamental sort of
profligacy, a deeper kind of extravagance. New Labour has been
wasteful of our hopes. It has spent more goodwill and squandered
more political capital than any administration in recent memory, and
to less effect. It has undermined our faith in the institutions of
state and in the democratic system itself.
Let us recall — it feels far longer than eight years ago — those
days of May 1997, when the hope invested in Mr Blair was so strong
that even people who had not voted Labour pretended that they had.
The Prime Minister came to office with a range of advantages
unprecedented in British democratic history: personal popularity, a
huge Commons majority, a strong and booming economy, a united party,
quiescent trade unions and — not least — a non-existent opposition,
an empty space where the Conservative party used to be. No other
prime minister ever had all this at once.
New Labour has not, as is sometimes claimed, achieved nothing;
but, given this hand, it has achieved far less of real and lasting
value than it could, or should, have done. What will be Blairism’s
legacy? The New Deal? What is its radical agenda for the third term?
Identity cards. What is its main argument for re-election? That the
other lot are even worse than us.
The Conservative party’s total eclipse in 1997 — arguably,
indeed, to date — gave the government the opportunity to reshape the
terms of politics. Previously hostile groups, such as the City and
even, at the time, the press had been won over, partly by the
skilled wooing of New Labour, mostly by anger at the Tories’
incompetence and tiredness. There was a chance to move towards a new
style of discursive, open debate — because the old need to worry
about your opponents taking advantage was over. With a majority of
170, they could have done anything.
Instead, all they did was talk about it. In practice, Mr Blair
chose to continue with the defensive game plan devised in
anticipation of a narrow majority, a hostile financial establishment
and a critical press, as if he were Jim Callaghan facing an
immediate run on the pound and a vote of confidence in the House. He
contracted, with depressing speed, arrogance and secrecy, the
industrial diseases of government. A combination of Thatcherite
obeisance to the private sector and the bureaucratic centralism of
the 1970s, New Labour’s tragedy is that it is not really new at all.
Future historians, as Tony Blair would say, might forgive the
Prime Minister. They will point out that New Labour’s arrogance and
timidity was really a sign of its deep insecurity and fear. The
formative years of Mr Blair and most of his Cabinet, politically,
were the 1980s, years in which the Labour party was bested and left
bleeding by Margaret Thatcher. One way of explaining Blairism is
that it is a form of political post-traumatic stress disorder caused
by the horror of living through that experience. It came to the
conclusion that the only way to behave in government was to behave
in the way in which its predecessor had behaved.
So because Mrs Thatcher had talked tough on crime, Labour had to
talk tough on crime. Because Mrs Thatcher had wooed Rupert Murdoch,
New Labour wooed Rupert Murdoch, even though it was powerful enough,
at the beginning, to take him on. Because Mrs Thatcher had been
defined by her enemies (the unions, the Argies), New Labour
constantly talked about finding its own enemies to define itself
against. Because Mrs Thatcher was a world stateswoman, Tony Blair
had to be a world stateswoman.
Mr Blair’s foreign policy has indeed so often seemed to verge on
the histrionic — never more than in his absurd Sedgefield speech
last year, in which he compared al-Qa’eda to Nazism and said that
Britain was in an ‘existential’ struggle against it. Nazism was
a genuinely existential threat, in that it could have destroyed
civilised life in Europe. Al-Qa’eda cannot hope to do anything of
the sort, and Britain’s traditional liberties will be the victims
of the Prime Minister’s sorry lack of proportion.
But foreign policy is also the clearest example of the most fundamental
canker in New Labour: its belief that the ends justify the means.
Even now, the government justifies its manifest lies, half-truths
and exaggerations on Britain’s road to war, its corruption of the
civil and intelligence services, the grave damage it has inflicted
on Iraq and the international order, on the grounds that the Iraqi
people are better off. In fact, of course, the war was a fraud on
the Iraqi people as much as on the British people: just as we were
promised weapons of mass destruction without the evidence to support
them, they were promised stability, prosperity and freedom in the
full knowledge that no plans to achieve any of this had been put
But even if the claim were true, even if Iraq were now a veritable
Switzerland on the Tigris, the argument would be irrelevant, because
the ends never justify the means. Ignoble means contaminate noble
ends. Mr Blair’s deceit has left him more toxic than any shell of
Iraqi mustard gas; a man whom even his own candidates will not touch
without the full Noddy suit, gloves and respirator. But it goes
far deeper than him, or the simple issue of dishonesty. Many New
Labour ministers are sincere people, acting in what they believe
are our best interests. But they do not understand that you cannot
do the right thing by a process that is wrong.
Just as the tiny band of New Labour staged a brilliantly successful
coup on the Labour party, it is now — with the best possible intentions,
of course — attempting to stage a similar coup on civil society
and the state. Its attacks on basic liberties and on the independence
and discretion of the judiciary — serious enough to provoke four
High Court judges to speak out only this week — are no doubt prompted
by a sincere desire to do right, to prevent crime and protect us
from terrorism, as well as a more calculating desire to avoid the
blame if an attack happens. But the means are fundamentally sinister
and dangerous, and they deny us our right to disagree.
No doubt with the best intentions, Labour has centralised power
in Downing Street, co-opted previously semi-autonomous groups such
as quangos and the police, further emasculated local government.
Everywhere its preference is for the big and the central over the
local and the personal — the mega-hospitals an hour’s bus ride away
from anywhere, the super-GPs’ surgeries, the out-of-town hypermarket
over the closed-down local post office, the very opposite of the
things that make ‘sustainable communities’. But top-down centralism
and five-year-plans never work, because you cannot bring about change
from the centre. You have to enlist the support of the people who
actually implement the policy by involving them in the process.
No administration in history has tried harder to make us like it
than this one. There is a message for every audience, battalions
of operatives to control the line. But the government’s basic lack
of humility and honesty has left it in a position where almost nobody
supports it with any enthusiasm, and more people than ever positively
hate it. New Labour are managerialists who can’t manage, populists
who aren’t popular.
Yet thanks to the inadequacy of the Tories and the electoral system
alike, it is almost impossible to imagine that Labour can lose this
election. Tony Blair will be re-elected, albeit grudgingly and by
default. The voters’ realistic task next week, by whatever means
possible, is to restrict Labour’s majority, and to enforce pluralism
and humility upon it.
Andrew Gilligan is a senior feature writer for the London Evening