Dawn and Disillusion: the Bathetic Blair and Brown Era
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
I published this on Open Salon in the days of hope shortly after Obama’s first presidential election victory.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”
William Wordsworth: The Prelude. Book xi.
I remember another election victory. It was another time, another country. I remember the new hope that many of us living in the United Kingdom felt when the Labour Party won the 1997 general election and Anthony Charles Lynton Blair became prime minister.
On the BBC’s election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997. He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions.
May 2 1997 at the Imperial War Museum
On the bright morning of 2 May 1997, I wandered down to the Imperial War Museum. A complete stranger, a very tall man conducting a poll for MORI embraced me, shouting “Isn’t it great”. I was as enthralled as he was. This was like a new dawn after so many years of Tory rule. I only once (tactical voting) voted for any party but Labour. I have never voted for the Conservative Party. My father had been a staunch Labour supporter for the whole of his too-short life. I voted for Labour in that 1997 election and felt that I had personally achieved something. Many of us were drunk with joy.
It was sobering experience to walk around the Imperial War Museum and to see the remembrance of so many lost lives. The reconstruction of a Great War trench was particularly sobering. My grandfather had fought in that war. I wonder if my father’s experience in the Second World had helped to truncate his life so cruelly.
Eighteen Years of Tory Misrule
The Conservative party had been in power since 1979, first under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and then under John Major. Thatcher’s radical approach had led to the death of manufacturing industry, which in turn helped her to annihilate the unions and destroy all vestiges of working class power. The north of England became a wasteland. There were record levels of unemployment and homelessness; there were beggars in the streets of every city and increased rates of suicide, particularly amongst young men.
Nationalised industries were dismantled and sold off at a loss with the taxpayer footing the bill. The health service, long the pride of the nation, was fragmented and subjected to mad concepts of ‘quasi markets’.
In 1981, there were riots all over the country, fuelled by racial and social discord. Later, The Poll Tax Riots were mass disturbances, arising out of opposition to the Community Charge (commonly known as the poll tax).
Whatever positive changes Thatcherism achieved, the social costs to the British population were severe. The poverty rate doubled. Britain’s childhood-poverty rate in 1997 was the highest in Europe. Industrial production fell sharply and unemployment tripled during her premiership. When she resigned in 1990, 28% of children in Great Britain were considered to be below the poverty line, reaching a peak of 30% in 1994 during the Conservative government of John Major, who succeeded Thatcher.
The Major Years: a Nation Ill-at-Ease with Itself
Major abolished the poll tax but otherwise things got no better. Major’s slim majority proved to be unmanageable, particularly after the UK’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on 16 September 1992, Black Wednesday, when billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was wasted in a futile attempt to prop up the currency’s value.
In its dying years, the Conservative administration lost none of its arrogance, despite its ineffectuality. John Major is often described as mild-mannered and decent, if ineffectual. Tony Banks (a politician, not the member of Genesis) was noted as an MP for his irreverent wit. He had known Major when he they were both on Lambeth Council. Banks said of Major in 1994 that “He was a fairly competent chairman of Housing. Every time he gets up now I keep thinking, ‘What on earth is Councilor Major doing?’ I can’t believe he’s here and sometimes I think he can’t either.”
Major’s greatest crime was destroying the rail network.
Destroying the integrated network and selling it off to private companies caused immense difficulties. Nobody wanted it except Tory ideologues and those who stood to make a fat profit at the taxpayers’ expense. After a series of rail disasters with many fatalities, there was a growing consensus that maintenance work was not being done properly and the complex plan to split the railways into 25 different companies was a horrendous mistake. After the Paddington rail crash, in October 1999, a Guardian/ICM poll found that 73% of all voters would support renationalizing Railtrack. The megalomania of nice, decent, grey, boring John Major was killing taxpayers who had paid out their hard-earned money to make rich people richer when he sold off the nation’s railways for the sake of profit and political dogma.
The Conservative Secretary of State for Health, Kenneth Clarke, (he later made a bid for the party leadership but was hampered by the fact that he was in Vietnam peddling cigarettes to the third world on a retainer of 100,000 GBP a year from British American Tobacco) had set about dismantling and fragmenting the National Health Service in the same way that the railways had been smashed.
How naïve could we be?!
So on that day in May many of us were overjoyed that the scoundrels were out of office and a bright, shiny, clean, new team could put things right.
During the Blair years Britain was less bleak than in the days of Thatcher. There was rising individual prosperity but it was all based on bubble of credit from unsustainably high house prices.
The Blair government introduced some social policies seen by the left of the Labour Party as progressive, such as the minimum wage and measures to reduce child poverty and money has been pumped into public services. The effort has been undermined by madcap experiments in neo-liberalism which have undermined health services, education and transport by the attempt to introduce quasi-markets. Prisons have been privatized and there are record numbers of people occupying them – how else to make a profit?
New Boss- Old Boss
Soon after taking office, the new administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One of Blair’s “triumphs” had been to abolish Clause IV of the party constitution. This dealt with nationalization of the commanding peaks of the economy. By getting rid of this central pillar of Old Labour principle, the party became New Labour. On attaining power there would be no attempt to re-nationalize privatised industries, like the railways or water, even though 73% of the population wanted that. New Labour brought further privatization by stealth. Blair and his finance minister, and later successor, Gordon Brown, pursued with great zeal the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), using private capital to fund public projects.
Private Finance Initiative
In practice this is a bad deal for taxpayers and involves a hidden privatisation of public services. The UK Accounting Standards Board has called PFI an “an off-balance-sheet fiddle” because the government can move the cost of public works out of the public sector borrowing requirement. PFI can only be implemented through an anti-competitive process which inevitably leads to corruption. The big corporations wouldn’t be interested if it were otherwise. For a small investment, companies can be sure of long-term profit guaranteed by the taxpayer.
The financial pressures of PFI directly caused 93 deaths at Maidstone and Stoke Mandeville hospitals. Clostridium difficile is spread by poor hygiene – basically patients were eating traces of other patients’ faeces. The official report said both hospitals were “preoccupied with finances”, instead of being preoccupied with faeces and were seriously impeded by the PFI. Nurse numbers were slashed and patients were constantly moved around; the combination of these two factors was a foolproof way of spreading infection.
Profits (as high as 58%) for the private companies comes from the budgets of the hospitals, so less is available for direct care. Beds reduced by 30% with the first wave and budgets for clinical staff reduced by 25%. Most National Health Trusts are in serious financial difficulty and many will become insolvent.
New Labour continued and extended ‘reform’ of the health service which had been one institution that united, whatever their grumbles, the entire nation in pride. Perry Anderson once remarked: “the very term ‘reform’ now means, virtually always, the opposite of what it denoted fifty years ago; not the creation but the contraction of welfare arrangements once prized by their recipients”.
Bribery and Corruption
Much of the reason for the voters’ distaste for the Major administration was because of what became known as the “sleaze factor”. There was what seemed like an endless succession of sex scandals. It was later revealed that boring old Major himself had had a four-year affair with health minister Edwina Currie.
New Labour had profited from all this but soon became bemired in sleaze itself. Julian Glover wrote: “If the Tories gave birth to modern sleaze, we now know that New Labour educated it into adulthood.”
There was the “cash for honors” investigation. It was alleged that Lord Levy (formerly a pop music entrepreneur) was tasked with raising funds for the party and was offering knighthoods and peerages in return. Levy became known as Lord Cashpoint.
Blair himself was interviewed by police. He and the Labour party were not exonerated from acting illegally. The decision of the Crown Prosecution Service was made solely on the basis of a lack of evidence and an assessment of the likelihood of a conviction. Some of the police officers involved in the inquiry claim there was political pressure applied to them and that some of the politicians interviewed were less than helpful.
In 1997, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone was involved in a political controversy over the Labour Party’s policy on tobacco sponsorship. Labour had pledged to ban tobacco advertising. Health minister Tessa Jowell was said to be fiercely anti-tobacco but was forced to argue the case for exempting Formula One from the tobacco advertising restrictions. Ecclestone had donated a million pounds to the Labour Party. Blair apologized and the money was returned but it was later proved that he lied about the timing of decisions in this matter. Jowell herself was forced to resign when she displayed alarming levels of ignorance about large bribes her husband had received from Silvio Berlusconi.
The government stopped an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office which seemed to be leading to prosecutions of senior executives at British Aerospace over bribes to Saudi princes in relation to arms deals.
Rick Lowry described John McCain as a conviction politician without any convictions. Blair was a career politician with no trace of socialist principles or ethics who joined a socialist party as a career move. His father had been a prospective Conservative candidate and his political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.
Blair liked to portray himself as “a straight kind of guy” and was a committed Christian who eventually became a Catholic. He could have joined any political party. The historian, Tony Judt, wrote of him: “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising.” Judt also called Blair: “the garden gnome in England’s Garden of forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.”
Blairism incorporated most of the political and social tenets of Thatcherism. Peter Mandelson was often thought of as New Labour’s Prince of Darkness. It was his media savvy that helped to make the party electable. He famously declared, “We are all Thatcherites now”. The curtailing and large-scale dismantling of elements of the welfare state under Thatcher largely remained under New Labour and the privatization of state-owned enterprises was not reversed by any programme of nationalization.
Iraq and Afghanistan
In December 2006, John Major led calls for an independent inquiry into Tony Blair’s decision to join the USA in the invasion of Iraq. Blair’s reputation for honesty and integrity, already damaged by allegations of excessive “spin” because of his reliance on the dark arts of Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, was dealt a severe blow.
His defenders argue that he sincerely believed before the war that the intelligence on Iraq’s alleged WMDs was accurate; that the dossiers informing his decision were not dishonest in their presentation of the intelligence evidence. Nevertheless, Blair continues to be condemned internationally as a proven liar and a war criminal.
The second Lancet study published on in October 2006 estimated 654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5% of the population, through the end of June 2006.
I could never have imagined on that day in May at the Imperial War Museum that Blair could do this.
There has been a strong feeling in the British military that they are unappreciated. There have been stories of soldiers being advised not to wear their uniforms when they have been home on leave because some have been physically attacked.
There have been many complaints about inadequate equipment and inefficiency in the Iraq and Afghan theatres. In 2006, the household cavalry in Helmand were expected to operate in Scimitar light tanks without air-conditioning. Soldiers have been killed wearing inadequate protective gear. An SAS commander in Afghanistan recently resigned blaming a lack of adequate resources for the deaths of four service personnel, including Corporal Sarah Bryant, the first British female soldier to die in Afghanistan. They were killed on 17 June when their Snatch Land Rover struck a roadside bomb in Helmand Province earlier this year. In his resignation letter, he is understood to have accused ministers of “gross negligence” in allowing soldiers to go into battle without adequate resources.
Coroner Andrew Walker, criticizing a lack of military equipment at the inquest of Cpl Mark Wright, who died after the wrong helicopter was sent to rescue him from a minefield in Afghanistan, said, “Those responsible should hang their heads in shame”.
Many British soldiers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. An article marking the 25th anniversary of the Falklands campaign claimed that 300 veterans had since committed suicide: 50 more than died in the conflict itself. Far greater numbers can be expected as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Britain’s jails are overcrowded. Nowhere in Western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales, where about 147 people per 100,000 are in prison. A National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) study showed that one in 11 prisoners- 8,500 people—are former members of the armed forces: double the proportion just five years ago. The vast majority are guilty of drink or drug-related offences.
A Man of Peace
That decent Christian gentleman Blair is now trying to bring peace to the Middle East after sending British troops to Iraq and Afghanistan against the wishes of most of the British people. Lord Levy, who has been described as “a leading international Zionist”, has praised Blair for his “solid and committed support of the State of Israel”. In 2004, Blair was heavily criticized by 50 former diplomats, including ambassadors to Baghdad and Tel Aviv for his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war.
Hope Springs Eternal
It is ironic that Gordon Brown was so desperate to get Blair’s job and when he did it all turned to shit in his hands. His popularity ratings plummeted to the lowest of any prime minister. He was only saved by the financial crisis. New Nobel laureate Paul Krugman praised him. His stock soared. How did he achieve this? He achieved it by abandoning the policies he had always pursued and turned to nationalization. The banks in their greed had caused the crisis. After screaming for de-regulation for so long they were now coming to the government to be bailed out. Gordon Brown in effect nationalised the British banking system – with taxpayers’ money of course.
Celebrate a new dawn but watch out. The nights draw in quickly.