“Maureen wants to use the backroom later, so the press will have to clear out and move into the hall,” the flat-vowelled voice said. Noon, and the radio feed was coming from Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s northern constituency, and the man himself was being introduced by his agent, a man he said had shown total loyalty to “me, the party, and Sunderland football club, not necessarily in that order”.
Cue the sound of laughter in a regional hall. Pure political theatre, a man with his own nuclear arsenal announcing his resignation amid lace curtains and a steaming urn on a trestle table.
“Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down” he said, mixing metaphors, as he passed through the formalities. “On 27 June I will tender my resignation to the Queen,” he said.
What? June? Another month ? Bob Carr was out of the building while the TV journos were still doing their reaction shots after his tender of notice. We’ve already had the longest lame-duck premiership in history, one which has drained support from his successor, and Blair’s still hanging around?
Well, at least we have a date. And, until the doorstopper memoirs arrive, the most direct apologia pro vita gubernator that we’re likely to get.
“I’ve never put it this way before” he said, explaining that as he came to political maturity in the ’80s and ’90s (’90s – a bit tardy?) the country presented as something where you had to be in favour of EITHER aspiration OR compassion, EITHER tolerance OR conservatism, etc etc, and that the country was now a place where aspiration AND social justice, tolerance AND traditional values, etc etc …
There followed a defence of the domestic record, oddly couched in a rhetorical and defensive “ask when you last heard of people waiting a year for an operation, ask when you last heard of pensioners freezing to death in their homes …” and so on.
But it’s a measure of the disastrous path the Blair Government has taken that all this felt like a warm-up to the main act, which was, of course, a defence of Iraq. We got everything we thought we would — the deaths of hundreds of thousands defended on the grounds of sincerity: “Believe this — I truly believed in what I was doing” etc, etc.
What was extraordinary was the political justification:
In Sierra Leone and Kosovo I took the decision to make our country one that intervened … and then came 9/11 and I thought we should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our ally…
And so Afghanistan and Iraq.
Read that again. Iraq. As a consequence of 9/11? Or as unquestioning support of US war-making? Or as both? In other words, a country destroyed for reasons that had nothing to do with either clear and present danger to the UK, or the sufferings of its own population.
Let’s remember again the lead-up to the war. The weapons-inspection process was terminated early, the “proof” (copied from Phd theses online) was an obvious farrago, and Saddam’s regime was a tinpot, nasty dictatorship with about 1000 deaths and disappearances a year — less than US/UK allies such as Uzbekistan. The decision had already been made.
For defenders of Blair, the focus on Iraq is simply a way of baiting a PM more centrist than they would have preferred by way of focusing on one among many policies.
And the record on domestic and social reconstruction policy is not insubstantial, but the point is that where you stand on such a question is an absolute test of your politics, and whether you focus on the narrow terrain of national politics or, in the last instance, have some sense of responsibility to human beings per se .
For the fact is that, under Tony Blair, Labour cut all ties not only with anything resembling democratic socialism, but also with social democracy, and even the most centrist notion of a left. It became a war party, buttressed at home by piecemeal social market programs and authoritarian control. Foreign and domestic policy were interconnected since the will to do what Labour governments should do — introduce irreversible progressive change — was never there. Instead, what was wanted was a disciplined population, increasingly subject to market forces, capable of serving Britain’s role of ongoing greatness.
Thus — and this is the other side of Blair’s failure — social mobility in the UK has decreased over the last 10 years. Under John Major, a kid from below the poverty line had more chance of getting out of it, of getting into university, to Oxbridge, to the professions.
Without increased opportunity, social welfare programs actually become regressive — they’re a sop to the poor, a consolation prize for their permanently shrunken chances. Because people start to get a bit angry about that — expressed these days in crime, booze ‘n’ drugs, violence etc rather than political activism — a huge surveillance apparatus has to be put in place.
So, Blair’s Government has become the one which has seen not merely millions of CCTV cameras, but now cameras with microphones attached to pick up conversations in a 20-metre radius, and, most recently, loudspeakers which bark at you if you commit “anti-social behaviour”. It’s the Government of the “foetal ASBO” in which children of criminal families are marked from before birth as potential criminals, to be tracked throughout life by social workers, probation officers, psychologists etc. The cumulative effect of these measures is simply to rot a free society from within. Public space becomes a place not of citizens, but of suspects. Trust and solidarity are undermined; fear and separation are enthroned.
It’s the Government which has turned primary education into a bizarrely over-regulated regime of testing so that by the age of seven, every kid is poked, prodded, metricated by 129 different benchmarks, and the actual process of education is lost. It has handed over control of education to “city academies” run by private companies — who are building schools without playgrounds because they see children as part of a “business enterprise” who should not have unstructured time.
Yet, it didn’t have the guts to legislate changes to the Oxbridge entrance procedure, to break the hold of the public (ie. private) schools on elite learning. In civil liberties, it has banned political protest within a mile of Parliament, and mooted a multibillion-pound ID card that will do little against serious crime, much less terrorism, but which may be denied to those without addresses — in other words creating a class of non-persons. The visible corruption around cash-for-peerages, dodgy dossiers, BAE arms deals with the Saudis has been as bad and more frequent than under the Tories. And overarching it all is gravity’s rainbow: the replacement of the nuclear Trident system has been authorised, contrary to prior non-proliferation agreements, committing the UK to an imperial future, rather than one as a citizen-nation of Europe.
In all, it has deployed the ideas and language of social democracy — using the coercive powers of the state against wealth, to improve lives through lessening inequality — to the practice of coercion directed against the poor, to maintain order in a market-dominated society. The surveillance state treats the population as guilty until proven innocent — whether in Iraq or Bermondsey. And I have no doubt that a Rudd government would not be substantially different in many aspects.
For what? For what? When I first came to Britain in 1997, I lived in Hackney, one of the poorest boroughs in Western Europe. When I go back there these days, the unbelievably shabby, dilapidated high street has had a new music centre built, a couple of rundown housing blocks have been rebuilt with better fabric, and the hospital has a bigger casualty department. The kids are going to Sure Start early learning centres, and while the schools aren’t “failing” as they were hitherto, the students still aren’t going through to GCSE (the year 12/year 13 equivalent), or even levels below. Why? Because they feel there’s no point. The fix is in. Blair never really inspired them to believe that a fairer society was on its way, one that would repay their efforts to find a place in it.
Social democracy means nothing if it is not about freedom — real freedom, the material freedom to make a meaningful life, rather than an existence in the surplus labour pool — as well as equality and security. Blair’s supporters continue to point to the myriad of piecemeal programs and accuse critics of being unrealistic. This is simply limbo-politics, always making you bend over backwards further, to go lower. There are other stories to tell about the Blair era — about economic stewardship, managerial competence, etc etc. But I’m of the left and Blair claimed to be of the left, and I can only judge him on those standards by which he himself asks to be judged.
In 1945, the Attlee government had a country that was broke, exhausted, faced the worst winter of the century, and was feeding a country — Germany — that had recently tried to annihilate it. And still they established the NHS, free education, a welfare state, nationalisation, decolonisation and much more.
The Blair Government came to power in 1997, on the wave of a Western global economic boom, with a majority of more than 160 seats. It entrenched privilege, reduced the poverty rate from 14% to 12% — before it started to climb back again – and helped cause hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths in a former colony. That is the Blair decade.
So, if Blair didn’t really believe in “irreversible progressive change”, what did he believe in? His parting words in the draughty room in Sedgefield say it all: “The British are special. The world knows it. In our hearts we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.”
What a thing for a social democrat to say. What a thing. Not an expression of left patriotism, of love of country and community, of a hope that its virtues had been strengthened, that it had contributed to the greater human good. Instead, a braying chauvinistic triumphalism, a mixture of Kipling and cod-Americanism.
So vale, Caesar. Some have suggested an EU post is in the offing. God speed your passage to the new Rome, Brussels. May you sojourn there in a glass box listening via headphones while the Iraqi maimed testify against you.