Thursday, 3 May 2007

10 Years of the Blair Party

Today I am widening my scope to look at UK politics. In May 1997 the current prime minister, Tony Blair came to power. This followed 18 years of rule by the Conservative Party (11 years under Margaret Thatcher; 7 years under John Major). From when Thatcher came to power in 1979 the political 'centre' of British politics was moved firmly to the right. In line with New Right thinking especially in the UK and USA we had privatisations, high unemployment, dismantling of trade union powers, monetarist economic policy and so on. The Labour Party which had regularly been in power in the years before (1964-70; 1974-9) now found itself in the wilderness, weak and divided as the population got high on 'get rich' policies and popular nationalism, especially at the time of the Falklands War in 1982. If Winston Churchill (National coalition prime minister 1940-5; Conservative prime minister 1951-5) was in politics today, with his belief in a mixed economy (i.e. part state-run) and the National Health Service, he would be seen as being politically to the left of the current Labour Party.

John Major had put an additional 'small man' populism to the mix. He spoke to the 'ordinary' people of Britain to put a human edge of Thatcherism. This did fine for him, but at the end of the day he lacked the strength to keep all of his party behind him and the population wanted someone with more glamour, not as scary as Thatcher, but someone more inspiring than their bank manager. Blair offered that. However, he did take on elements of Major's populist mantle and certainly in the early days of the Blair regime, I was happy to talk of 'Blajorist' politics. However, overall, Blair had a vision all of his own.

So, to get back into power, Labour re-invented itself as New Labour. When the leader John Smith died of a heart attack, the young Blair became leader in 1994. Smith had already taken steps to 'modernise' the party and take account of the fact that the political scene had moved from the post-war Attlee consensus (named after the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee 1945-51) to the Thatcher consensus in which private property and profits were king. Blair kept this up and took it much further. He was successful becoming prime minister in 1997 with a huge landslide; at 43 he was the youngest British prime minister since 1812.

So, Blair was successful at getting Labour, or certainly New Labour into power and keeping it there up to the present day. My argument, is, however, that it is not the Labour Party that is in power, but the Blair Party. Many countries have political parties and ideologies focused on one man (I think Thatcher is the first woman leader to have an -ism named after her, but I might be wrong), there were Leninist (after Vladimir Lenin leader of USSR 1918-24), Stalinist (after Josef Stalin, leader of USSR 1924-53) and Maoist (after Mao Zedong, in Chinese names, the surname comes first; leader of China 1949-76) forms of Communism. In French politics there have been Gaullist parties (named after General Charles De Gaulle, French prime minister 1944-6 and 1958; president 1958-69) and in Argentina Peronist parties (after Juan Peron, president of Argentina 1946-55 and 1973-4 and to some extent his wife Eva Peron made famous by the musical and movie 'Evita'). My argument is that we have a Blairist party and political parties in his image may follow in the coming decades.

So what is the Blair Party? Politically New Labour has little connection with the Labour Party of the past. It resembles more a Christian Democrat party of continental Europe, something like the CDU of Germany. Its allies, or certainly Blair's are farther to the right, such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and George W. Bush in the USA.

Other characteristics are that as with (early) Gaullist and the Peronist party, there is a real focus on the leader, he is the source of all knowledge and vitally, of attitudes. His errors are excused rather than criticised. Throughout his term as leader, Blair has been characterised as a 'control freak'. He dislikes any rivals to his glamour or his power. The late Mo Mowlam got a standing ovation during a speech by Blair to the 1998 Labour Party conference, for all her work in Northern Ireland. Blair was clearly visibly annoyed at the attention switching from him. He had stolen a lot of the credit for Mowlam's work in Northern Ireland and she was subsequently marginalised in the government. It was very reminiscent of what happened to Sergei Kirov in the USSR in the 1930s. In 1932 Josef Stalin was well established as dictator but Kirov won support for a policy of reconciliation towards Leon Trotsky. Stalin was embarrassed by the support and applause Kirov, head of the Leningrad branch of the party, got at conference. In 1934 Kirov was found murdered by Stalin's henchmen. Fortunately Mowlam was only politically murdered (unlike Dr. David Kelly, but more on that in future). So, the first trait of this kind of party is the focus on the leader rather than policies and that has been the case in the Blairist party.

Unlike other British prime ministers of the 20th century, Blair has made religion a central part of policies. He is Church of England and his wife is Catholic. There is nothing wrong with that, we live in times when faith has come to the fore. More alarming is his installation of the representatives of more extreme elements of the Catholic Church, with which even Catholics are often unhappy, such as Ruth Kelly (as Education and later Local Government Secretary) known to be a member of Opus Dei, which whilst not the sinister organisation as portrayed in 'The Da Vinci Code' certainly has values that pre-date the 20th century and would alarm the bulk of the British population. Out of his faith comes a strong sense of family, with four children, Blair has more than the average number in the UK. His family-friendly policies are both in step with current trends in the UK and have done a lot to help those on low incomes. However, such policies have jarred with some of the pro-feminist attitudes of the Labour Party of recent decades.

Control of the media is another trait of these personal political parties. New Labour has been renowned from the start for its 'spin doctoring' and manipulation of the press. Blair has also made use of the less democratic elements of the British political system. Loads of legislation has been extended in scope and duration by using the 'royal prerogative' (actually exercised by the prime minister) which means such changes are not debated in parliament; Blair has used it more than any of his modern predecessors.

Now some people would accuse New Labour of being 'fascist'. I think we need to be more careful in how we designate it. I certainly agree that its attitudes are not those of a democratic party. I would suggest looking at a couple of other historical examples to find parallels. The first is the authoritarian regime of Austria 1934-8, i.e. before Nazi Germany took over the country. It was run by Kurt Schuschnigg. His predecessor, Englebert Dollfuss suspended elections and other political parties, leaving his Christian Social Party in control. Once Dollfuss was assassinated, the regime became stricter. It borrowed elements of fascism, but was founded on a Catholic, nationalist, authoritarian basis, which was opposed to Nazism. The other example is the Vichy regime in France 1940-4. This was a government that ran central and southern France after the country had been defeated by Nazi Germany, though its zone was occupied by the Germans in 1943. The regime was headed by Marshal Petain and again was nationalistic, authoritarian regime, focused on the Church with the slogan 'Work, Family, Country'. In May 2001 Blair said "Here in Sedgefield in 1983, in a supposedly traditional Labour constituency, I learnt, thankfully, that others felt exactly the same, who believed in the values of hard work, family, patriotism ...". Given that we know Tony Blair can speak French, he should have been more careful to avoid the parallels with certainly non-Labour and non-democratic creeds.

Other characteristics New Labour shares with such authoritarian regimes include, pushing through legislation on identity cards (I know they are common elsewhere in Europe, but in the UK they smack too much of wartime and dictatorships); the introduction of house arrest and curfews for people who have been released by the courts but who the government has suspicions about; the introduction in the 1990s of internment camps such as Campsfield House in Oxfordshire where asylum seekers are imprisoned (often having fled such treatment in their own countries) without being charged with, tried for or sentenced for any crime and where those held have fewer rights than an imprisoned criminal (for example they have no right to toothpaste, shaving foam, etc. that people in normal prisons do, it has to be brought in by volunteers) and the promotion of single faith schools which divide the society further and encourage racial and religious unrest.

Now, I do not think we are in danger this week of Blair not giving his farewell speech as he steps down from office, but rather saying he has decided to become prime minister for life, however, there has been a flavour to the whole New Labour term in office which has tasted more of regimes that have limited democracy rather than strengthened and promoted it. These are regimes that have looked to the past, to society's shaped by Church perspectives rather than modern, liberal, let alone Socialist values (the Labour Party was once a Socialist party). I guess that I am out-of-step with what the 'modern' population wants or maybe I am just paying attention to this rather than the football results or soap operas. Anyway, this week marks the decade of the Blair Party in power.

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