Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Alistair Darling

The Blair Years Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 27 2016

Colman's Column3

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.

Tony Blair

Education

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.

blunkett

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.

 

Welfare Reform

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.

field

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.

harman

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.”

domequeen

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.

 

 

Will Scotland Go It Alone?

This article  appeared in the August issue of Echelon Magazine.

 

Billy Connolly said: “I don’t want to influence anybody so I shut up. I think the Scots will come to a good conclusion in the referendum. They’ll get what they deserve.”

 

Voters in Scotland will go to the polls on 18 September to answer the “Yes/No” question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Scotland has had its own legislature since 1999. The Scottish National Party, led by Alex Salmond, who is first Minister for Scotland, dominates the Scottish Parliament. Those arguing for full independence say the current arrangement does not allow sufficient powers to govern Scotland effectively.

Who Can Vote?

Residence is the important factor. Around five million people aged 16 or over living in Scotland will be able vote, while 1.15 million Scots who are living outside of the country, including dedicated Scottish nationalist Sean Connery, will not be allowed to vote. Certain foreign nationals living in the country can register.

Separatism

With independence, Scotland would leave its centuries-old political union with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, taking with it nearly ten percent of the UK’s population and one third of its landmass. Scottish soldiers, engineers, and merchants played leading roles in building the British Empire, for example, in establishing the tea industry in Ceylon. Edinburgh and Glasgow became global centres of finance and industry.

UK Education Secretary Michael Gove said Scottish independence would invigorate Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader would think the UK’s split puts him in a “stronger position” to dictate to the world. Enemies of the West would cheer a “Yes “vote because the “second principal beacon of liberty” in the world would become more unstable.

Spain will be watching the outcome in Scotland with interest. The EU has taken the position that issues such as those currently posed by Scotland and Catalonia are for member states to resolve internally.

Scotland’s New Status

The “No” camp sees dangers in Scotland going it alone. In international negotiations, it will, they say, be a small unimportant nation of five million, instead of being part of an important nation of 63 million. All agreements previously created were with the UK as a whole. Scottish independence will mean a need to renegotiate membership of NATO, the UN and the EU. The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the EU. Spain may be reluctant to set a precedent for separatists in Catalonia. The “Yes” camp argues that independence will mean that Scotland will get a new seat at the UN, its own EU Commissioner and twice as many MEPs. Salmond insists that a newly independent Scotland would effortlessly take its place as the twenty-ninth member state in the EU.

Alistair Darling, leading spokesperson for the “Nos”, predicts that Edinburgh’s large financial sector will migrate south on September 19 because it will not want to remain in a country foreign to the 80 percent of its customers who live in England. Darling warns that the remaining UK might not keep paying for Glasgow’s Clydeside shipyard to build UK naval vessels.

Postive Aspects of New Status

Scotland did not buy into London’s abandonment of the post-war consensus of universalism and the welfare state. Scotland has only a few private schools. Its National Health Service remains in state hands, while, in England, the involvement of private companies in the provision of medical treatment has long been underway. The “Yes” camp believes Scotland has more in common with the high-tax, high-spend social democratic welfare states of Scandinavia than it does with the “greed is good” capitalism of the City of London. London and the southeast have effectively seceded from the rest of Britain and devised a post-industrial economy based on financial services and neoliberal tax policies. These which have caused a widening inequality that appals many Scots.

If even a strong Labour government in Westminster—one headed by two Scottish-born prime ministers, first Blair and then Brown—only made things worse, then maybe Scotland has to go it alone.

The “Yes” campaign’s manifesto, Scotland’s Future, promises “a transformational change in childcare,” the scrapping of London-imposed changes to welfare benefits, and, in the move most likely to attract international attention, the removal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system from Scotland.

Alex Salmond wrote: “I’m going to argue that our international policy – like our domestic policy – should be governed by another enlightened Scottish idea – the one Adam Smith pursued in the Theory of Moral Sentiments – of enlightened self-interest. By helping others, we will help ourselves… We seek a Scotland where sustainable prosperity goes hand in hand with solidarity and fairness.”

The Economy

Salmond claimed: “The reality is Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, more prosperous per head than the UK, France and Japan, but we need the powers of independence to ensure that that wealth properly benefits everyone in our society.”

Alex Salmond told a US audience: “Scotland’s economy is highly competitive – it’s one reason why we outperform the rest of the UK on inward investment. We are confident of our ability to succeed in the international marketplace. … Our prosperity is bound up in the wellbeing of others. We should see ourselves as a partner to other nations, not just a competitor.”

Oil

If oil revenue had been put into a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund (for the whole of the UK) rather than squandered on tax cuts, there would probably have been no referendum. Salmond says North Sea oil revenues would boost Scotland’s economy. Mr Darling underlined that while oil revenues currently accounted for about 15% of Scotland’s tax income, the North Sea’s reserves were in decline.

Pooling of Sovereignty

Idealists in the “Yes” camp are hoping for a new kind of country, not a nineteenth-century nation state, with hard borders and an army. They are looking for a state that embraces the pooling of sovereignty, as committed to interdependence as to independence.

Through the British Irish Council and the Common Travel Area, the Irish Government; UK Government; Scottish Government; Northern Ireland Executive; Welsh Government; Isle of Man Government; Government of Jersey and Government of Guernsey all work together. The SNP propose an expansion of these ties. A “yes” vote is a chance to balance out power across the archipelago.

Some in the “Yes” camp favour closer ties with Scandinavia. The Shetland Islands are closer to Oslo than London. Nordic Horizons is an informal group of Scottish professionals who want to raise the standard of knowledge and debate about life and policy in the Nordic nations. What can Scotland learn from the innovation systems in Sweden and Finland to support Scotland’s economy?

Who Is For, Who Against?

The SNP has the sharpest, most effective political machine in Scotland. Salmond is a wily strategist and a charismatic speaker. Scottish Labour’s biggest talents made their careers by leaving for London long ago. The Spectator has observed, “Alistair Darling’s ‘Better Together’ campaign seems quieter than a Stornoway playground on the Sabbath”. Darling’s association with Blair and New Labour taints Darling. He was the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer who presided over the 2008 recession and predicted it would be “over by Christmas”. He is also very dull. Most of Scotland’s artists, writers, and musicians lean towards “Yes”, as do the young. Sixteen-year olds will have a vote. It is not cool to say “No”.

What if the Answer Is “No”?

Privately, well-placed Nationalists are girding themselves for a narrow defeat. They are sanguine about this. If the “Yes” side gets more than 40 percent then, they say, a new process of negotiations about devolution will begin. What has begun in Scotland is a rebellion against the highly centralized Westminster state, which still hands Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the English regions a “block grant” of cash rather than letting them raise and spend their own funds as they see fit.

Conclusion

The Nationalist campaign has not been a sentimental business about tartanry and Braveheart. It has lacked even the faintest hint of anti-Englishness. The case for “Yes” has been presented in mild, technocratic terms. For the Nationalists, Scotland has become a land of social democratic consensus. The Conservative Party is now negligible as a political force in Scotland. In the 1955 election, the Tories won more votes in Scotland than any other party did, but decades of decline followed, culminating in the disaster of 1997. Today, of the fifty-nine members of Parliament Scotland sends to Westminster, just one is a Conservative.

Salmond speaks of the “democratic deficit” that still afflicts Scotland, and indeed the UK as a whole. It is ironic that a “Yes” vote for Scottish independence would have a drastic effect on England. If Scotland no longer sends fifty-nine MPs to Westminster, many of whom represent safe Labour seats, then Labour’s chances of forming a UK government diminish sharply. An England-dominated UK could be a one-party state, a permanently Conservative polity.

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