February 11, 2008

Ironic Politics

When two inciteful commentators say something, its worth thinking about it. That happened this week when both the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley and the Economist's Bagehot column devoted themselves to examining the influence of Tony Blair on his successor's government. Both argued that Gordon Brown is not merely unable to escape the legacy of Blair, he is significantly unwilling to escape it. The former Prime Minister's policy prescriptions were inevitable for someone who accepted his analysis of the way that Britain and the Labour Party had to move. In particular both articles suggested that Blairism- a devotion to the principle of mixed provision of public services- was a policy that Brown as well as Blair and even Cameron and Clegg would have to follow given what they had said. I think that both Rawnsley and Bagehot are entirely right- and it opens up what is the really major question about Gordon Brown and the reason that his Premiership has yet to inspire many.

The problem is that it is difficult to provide any account of what has changed since Tony Blair left office. The deckchairs round the cabinet table have been switched- some figures have left politics and newer men and women have been promoted (often it has to be said as in the switch of Jacqui Smith for John Reid to the detriment of the cabinet's ability to make a public impact) but little of substance has actually changed. Partly that is because the current Prime Minister was of course Chancellor before his elevation- everything done from 1997 to now has his paws all over it and he can't really deny that. Despite the fact that of the leading members of his cabinet only Jack Straw and Alistair Darling can claim as long service in cabinet, its hard to avoid the impression that to row back say on the independence of the Bank of England or the structure of the welfare system would cause the Prime Minister personal embarassment.

But there is also another factor and that's that the animating spirit of the government has not really changed. New Labour was an effort to marry Tory efficiency to Labour compassion- and avoid the moral complacency of the conservatives whilst adopting their judgemental approach to crime. It was a fusion of concepts- derived from the experience of the battles of the 1970s and 1980s which left the Labour party pulverised. Politicians like the young Blair and Brown saw that the Tories would win election after election unless Labour changed. They also appreciated that not all of the Tory reforms were awful- that the Tories won for a reason and that Labour had to behave differently in government to how it had behaved before. Those attitudes worked for a while and set Labour up for its three election victories- 1997, 2001 and 2005 but the magic began to wear off. In part because of Iraq: if Britain learnt anything from Iraq it was that we fell out of love collectively with Tony Blair. But more crucially the underlying source of discontent lay in the public sector: with the management of the great public monopolies of health and education. The hope was money plus reform would bring improvement: to be honest we haven't yet seen the timescales neccessary (more money into training doctors means more doctors not today but in seven years time for example, reforms take time to bed in and for people to become accustomed to them and start altering behaviour).

All of those prescriptions sound solid but two things lead me to suspect that they are not going to provide Labour with the reassurance of majorities in the future. Firstly the economic situation is getting worse globally and locally within the UK. All forecasters and professional economists seem to agree that the US could slip into recession, it might already be there, and that the UK may follow. This happens at a time when the Governor of the Bank of England is worried about inflation and consequently may be reluctant to cut interest rates further. Secondly the problem is that we have now heard everything we can hear about modernisation from Gordon Brown and his team: the public are losing faith in Labour's ability to modernise and are willing to give Cameron a try. If politics is just management, then why not change the managers and see how the Tories do for a while. What is important here is that the government doesn't really have a new vision, a new way of seeing the problems or a new way of explaining them to us the people. They seem, to paraphrase Disreali, to ressemble a series of exhausted volcanoes not a lively group of people filled with fresh ideas- and in part that comes back to the Prime Minister.

Its not that the Prime Minister should go: but that increasingly his term feels like the end of a government not the beggining. In part that isn't his fault- he was always more likely to be Blair 2 than to be a new kind of Prime Minister. He has the same ideological background, the same mentors- indeed he was basically Blair's political twin from the moment they met. Its no surprise therefore that his administration looks so much like that of his predecessor's. The only thing that distinguished them was that Blair had the job he wanted: the problem for Brown is that he may have got it when the moment for this kind of politics, for New Labour, had ebbed away. We shall see what the next couple of years bring- but at the moment the Labour party looks tired- its hard to see any ideological alternative from the right or the left emerging (Cameron's Tories don't seem to offer much than more extreme Blairism) but that may be the question for another day. The situation at the moment seems filled with a kind of tragic irony- one that both Bagehot and Rawnsley with typical acuteness have understood.


Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

In 1991 Brown and then in 1993 Blair were being courted by the Bilberbergers and by definition - the Round Table.

Blair then systematically took Britain apart and the man of no talent is simply caretaking the end of the mess as it metamorphoses into greater Europe.

They chose their man well. They are not fools, these people.

ad said...

The hope was money plus reform would bring improvement: to be honest we haven't yet seen the timescales neccessary

We have had ten years since 1997. The Thatcherites managed to point to some results from their reforms by 1989.

I cannot help but think that the real problem for Blair/Brown is their party.