In 1936, the ageing, much-loathed Labour ‘rat’ Ramsay MacDonald rose to speak in the British House of Commons eager to contribute his views on the crisis created by the rise of Nazism. He never got much of a chance. His one-time comrade, James Maxton growled from behind him, ‘Sit down, man. Sit down. You’re a bloody tragedy.’ And MacDonald, perhaps recognising the truth of the remarks, fell.
It is no exaggeration to say that many British people are feeling that way about Tony Blair, whose career has now entered its endgame. Having spent months trying to groom a successor to challenge Gordon Brown, he has now bowed to the inevitable and begun talks on the process of handover.
His Government, which prided itself on being able to balance the policy agenda of a social democratic Party with an authoritarian approach to law and order, is now shambolic making populist policy on the run in a desperate attempt not to be outflanked on the Right. Blair himself, for so long the one Labour leader acceptable to Tory middle England, is now loathed across the political spectrum, with the intensity reminiscent of the way the Australian public turned on Bob Hawke in the early 1990s.
Far from being an asset, Blair is now a liability it is essential for Labour to replace him if they are to have any chance at all against ‘Dolphin’ Dave Cameron, the blue-green Conservative who bicycles to the Commons and sports a wind-turbine on his Notting Hill terrace.
Yet for all this, it is not Blair’s fall that is the tragedy, but his rise as measured by the mounting evidence of how little Labour has really achieved in its nine years in power, and the leeway the public were willing to give him. There is a creeping sense that a fourth term one in which a (slightly) more Leftish Prime Minister Brown would open up a more aggressive agenda may prove elusive, and that the ‘Blair era’ may prove a wasted opportunity.
At first sight, this seems absurd. In the wake of Thatcherism’s 17 years of wholesale social destruction, Labour has expended untold energy and billions of dollars in reconstructing the most elementary services in health, housing and education. Research by Polly Toynbee and David Walker (in a book-length audit of Labour’s performance, Better or Worse Has Labour Delivered?) suggests that Labour has increased access to higher education by 20 per cent, boosted levels of high-school completion in deprived areas by 80 per cent, universalised access to pre-school care, doubled public spending on major diseases, and halved waiting times for medical services. One can add to this the establishment of a minimum wage, the expansion of public housing stock, and much more besides.
It’s an impressive policy record, yet it’s one sided, for what the Blair Government has failed to partner it with is any substantial assault on institutional inequality. This was borne out by recent findings by educational body the Sutton Trust, which found that access to professions such as the law, journalism and politics had become more, not less, dominated by graduates from public (that is, private) schools and Oxbridge over the last 10 years.
Inequality of this sort is undoubtedly a hard nut to crack but the fact that it has worsened indicates that Blair’s Government has never really focussed on it. Rhetoric aside, Blair gave up early on trying to rein in Oxbridge’s autonomy in student selection, and his Government has positively encouraged faith-based private ‘academies’ to further the divide between children of middle and low-income families.
The aim is nationalist the UK needs a knowledge-economy elite to compete in the 21st century, and the Government is relatively indifferent to where they come from. Such initiatives are not unrelated to the new ‘liberal imperialism’ which has the UK and the US running a Westernised world. The last thing Blair wants to be bothered with is the mucky business of inequality one former aide has suggested that he lost interest in domestic policy around 1999, and that the bulk of his time since has been occupied with international affairs.
But when inequality is not addressed, the provision of extra services though it improves people’s lives becomes regressive. It is an admission of defeat in the face of a rigid and stratified society. And once that admission is made, such services are partnered with an increase in authoritarian regulation of everyday life.
When this happens, Labour Parties can make a sudden lurch into deep-Right territory. The resources used to reshape society are then employed to micromanage individuals from the notorious ‘anti-social behaviour orders’ to health warnings on chocolate bars, to government guides for new dads (‘a park is a good place for a child to play’) to the latest, most Orwellian idea: the ‘pre-criminal’ intervention in families whose children are assessed of having a high risk of being anti-social.
Sadly, some of this is necessary the Thatcher-Major years left sections of the population so de-socialised that the UK has an extremely high proportion of very obnoxious, violent people, and families of the ‘neighbours from hell’ type. But the bulk of it is simply social control applied to a frustrated population who know how slight their chances are of breaking through.
Worse, such control has fused with the wildly over-the-top brace of anti-terrorist laws. The result is a sort of ‘Nurse Ratchet’ State authoritarian and therapeutic, dedicated to the management rather than maximisation of its people.
So yes, it is a tragedy. And a warning.
It is easy for cautious Labour Parties to duck the big fights. But if they don’t tackle the key institutions of inequality, there is no point having them they simply become their own negation, and fall having never risen.
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