Thursday 28 April 2005    


The Week



Andrew Gilligan records the goodwill that accompanied Mr Blair’s 1997 victory, and how he lost it

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Issue: 30 April 2005
Waste of trust
Andrew Gilligan

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 safer.

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 in place.

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 Standard.