The Blair Years Part Two
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 27 2016
Tony Blair has announced that he may return to British politics. Britain needs a saviour and Blair always saw himself as a Messiah. How did his vision work when he had a chance to make substantial changes in British society as prime minister from 1997 to 2007? The triumph of style and spin over substance, lack of concentration, poor management of human resources and avoidance of confrontation were common themes in Blair’s approach to all the major issues that he had intended to tackle.
Education was a big factor in Blair’s “vision thing”. “Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people.” Blair significantly increased public spending in absolute terms on education but was hampered by a lack of focus (despite his addiction to focus groups). David Blunkett, when Education Secretary, believed that the NHS was a black hole which was permanently in crisis and was likely to suck away what he believed should be available for education. In 2001, Labour spent less on education as a percentage of GDP than John Major had in 1995.
After eight years of Labour government, illiteracy was increasing. Eleven-year-olds were entering secondary school damaged by Whitehall’s pressure on local authorities and schools to “teach to the test” – not to create better human beings who could make a valid contribution to society, but to churn out pupils who could pass tests so that schools could hit targets. As with the NHS, there were frequent complaints of “initiative fatigue”. Head teachers felt overwhelmed with paperwork and bureaucracy. Constant testing, targets and inspections were detracting from learning and encouraging teachers to be dishonest. Scores were being manipulated. To satisfy the target of five GCSEs and a rise in the GCSE pass rate to 76 per cent, many head teachers had directed pupils to take easy courses. It looked good that more GCSEs were being achieved but 21.7 per cent of pupils who got what counted in the revised system as five ‘good’ GCSEs left school without demonstrating a reasonable knowledge of maths or English. Grades were inflated to please the government. In 2005, AQA, one of the country’s largest examining boards, awarded an A* in business studies for marks of 47 per cent. That was typical of grade inflation.
The promotion of privately sponsored academies did not improve real standards. A National Audit Office (NAO) report showed that the exam results of academy pupils were below average and some academies were wasteful, weak and financially irresponsible. Blair used inaccurate 2005 statistics to bolster his own supposed achievements. He ignored the NAO report and poorer results which were published in later years.
Blair’s first Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, said the prime minister was always willing to discuss problems. His style of leadership meant that there was no guarantee that anything happened afterwards.
Just as he was unable to implement a grand vision for the NHS and for education Blair found welfare reform beyond his powers of imagination and perseverance. He failed to get across to ministers and civil servants what he wanted and failed to get his ministers to work productively together. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, was an acknowledged guru on welfare benefits. An ascetic, monk-like creature, he had accumulated a vast amount of knowledge and ideas from his study at university of economics and his time at the CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) and the Low Pay Unit. His parents were Tories “who believed in character and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps”. When Blair appointed him in 1997 as the Minister of Welfare Reform, Field took this to mean that he had licence for “thinking the unthinkable”. Blair wrote that: “the problem was not so much that his thoughts were unthinkable as unfathomable”. Field clashed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the Secretary of State for Social Security, Harriet Harman.
There was a serious personality clash between Harman and Field. Andrew Rawnsley reports that Harman, “pinking with anger”, shouted “I can’t work with someone who thinks I’m a liar”. White with fury, Field shouted back: ‘And I can’t work with someone who is a f****ing liar.
I worked in social security local offices, visiting claimants in their homes, in Manchester in the 1970s and moved to London in 1982 to work for Sir Arthur Armitage, chairman of SSAC (the Social Security Advisory Committee). When Field was Director of the CPAG, we saw him as an advocate for benefit recipients and a man of the left. Today he looks more like a radical conservative. He certainly did not favour a dependency culture. The Blair government was quite intentionally trying to make Britain a fairer society and Downing Street’s task groups encouraged the disadvantaged to expect an equal stake in society. According to Rawnsley: “Not only was work made less attractive than government handouts, but with the government’s blessing, a new majority of Britons classified themselves as victims”.
When I worked at SSAC, I had many entertaining conversations with the forthright Ann Bowtell, before she became a Dame or a Permanent Secretary. When Alistair Darling took over from Harriet Harman at the Department of Social Security he asked Dame Ann Bowtell if he could read all the briefing material on work in progress on welfare reform. “Oh,” replied the Permanent Secretary. “That shouldn’t take you long.”
Rawnsley comments, “This was the moral for Tony Blair. Announcing a Big Idea was not the same as having one.”
Dome – Doh!
The Millennium Dome provided an apt symbol for the bad aspects of the Blair years. Blair brought humiliation on himself by claiming that the Dome would be “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”. The Dome project was conceived, on a smaller scale, under John Major’s Conservative government, as a Festival of Britain kind of showcase to celebrate the third millennium. Blair greatly expanded the size, scope and funding of the project and significantly increased expectations of what would be delivered. Psychogeographer Iain Sinclair correctly prophesied doom for the project. “The peninsula was where the nightstuff was handled: foul-smelling industries, the manufacture of ordnance, brewing, confectionery, black smoke palls and sickly-sweet perfumes. … In a sense, it was very perceptive of the Millennium Experience promoters to settle on Bugsby’s Marshes as the site for their monumentally expensive folly. Where better to greet the millennium (even if the nominated date is meaningless) than this ravished swamp with its history of plague, pestilence and pillage?”
Blair committed too much of himself and New Labour to this folly. The Dome was designed by Richard Rogers, New Labour’s favourite architect; the company chairman was New Labour supporter Bob Ayling; the Prime Minister’s friends, Peter Mandelson and then Charlie Falconer were the main front men. Most of the Cabinet, the media and the public did not want the Dome but that did not matter. How could this government transform Britain’s public services, which were already consuming nearly 35 per cent of the nation’s revenues, and still waste money on this nonsense? Andrew Rawnsley comments: “What the people wanted was not a vacuous temple to political vanity but a health service that worked.” The Dome was commissioned without any further discussion among Blair’s ministers.
The opening night was an excruciating fiasco which severely displeased the Queen and Prince Philip who were forced to endure a dance troupe of near-naked dancers, one of whom flaunted a three-foot spikey penis at the audience. The organisers were not even able to supply the Prime Minister’s wife with a glass of water. The Tesco house champagne was served in self-assembly plastic flutes and ran out. The heart in the Body Zone had developed an irregular beat and its brain was broken. Lord Blyth, of Boots, who had been a generous donor to the party, barked: “New Labour can bloody well wait for their £12 million.”
Andrew Rawnsley wrote that the enterprise “embodied the most meretricious features of the consumer age which New Labour had absorbed too well. The Dome was the vapid glorification of marketing”.
Next week, I will show how New Labour did nothing to reverse the fragmentation and disruption caused by Tory privatisation of public utilities and transport.