Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Gordon Brown

The Blair Years Part Five

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday 17 November 2016 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=9430

 

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The War with Gordon Brown

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While journalists and biographers have done much to illuminate the strange psyche of Gordon Brown, there is only one writer who could have done him justice- William Shakespeare. There are countless anecdotes about Brown’s rages during which he hurled expletives and inanimate objects. Tessa Jowell, one of the more placid members of the Cabinet, was provoked into shouting at Brown: “Don’t you ever f****ing speak to me like that again.” Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon groaned, “Why can’t he behave like a human being?”

 

“From day one, it was terrible,” says Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff. In the early days of the new government, one of the most senior figures in Number 10 (not Peter Mandelson) said, “You know Gordon. He feels so vulnerable and so insecure. He has these psychological flaws.”  Peter Mandelson once remarked to Blair that he should put a sign up on his desk with the inscription: “Remember: The Chancellor is mad”.

 

Blair’s team of advisors and Brown’s were in a constant state of warfare. According to Jonathan Powell, “Gordon had a very strong field of gravity. People became infected by his paranoia. Working for Gordon did something to people”. A senior civil servant commented: “The people around Brown were pretty ruthless”.

 

Blair and Brown

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I was in the House of Commons on July 27 1983, to hear Gordon Brown’s maiden speech. The speech was impressive in a dour kind of way, showing a great deal of sympathy for the downtrodden in his constituency. He shared a Westminster office with a newly-elected MP from the Sedgefield constituency, Tony Blair. When Labour leader John Smith died in 1994, Blair was shadow home secretary and Brown shadow chancellor. The legend has it that on 31 May, Blair and Brown met at the Granita restaurant in Islington, where Brown is said to have agreed to step aside on the understanding that Blair would one day stand down in favour of Brown. Throughout Blair’s premiership, Brown would shout at Blair: “When are you going to f*** off!”

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Financial Wizard

 

Brown liked to portray himself as more socialist than Blair. His record as Chancellor does not support this. Soon after taking office in 1997, the new administration announced, with Brown’s agreement, that it would be continuing Conservative economic policies. Brown wrote: “I wanted to preserve Thatcher’s competitive tax rates. I wanted wealthy people to feel welcomed in the UK”. The Chancellor’s new tax rates favoured speculators, tax-avoiders and the super-rich. According to Tom Bower: “Blair’s grasp on the effect of Brown’s policies on British industry, the City or the economy was indiscernible”. However, Blair realised that whatever about Brown’s self-image as “prudent”, he was spending too much. Blair did not realise how ignorant Brown was about markets and balance sheets or warnings about the property bubble and the effects of deregulation.

 

 

Obstruction

 

Brown, like a sulky child, hindered many policy initiatives, not because he had any rational case against them, but simply because Blair wanted them. Andrew Rawnsley comments, “Brown did not offer much by way of an alternative vision or theory of reform. He just knew what he didn’t like. What he didn’t like was anything coming from Blair”. A Treasury minister commented that “Gordon thought that Tony was shallow. By definition, any idea coming from Tony had to be reckless and unworkable because it was Tony’s idea”. Brown said “Tony doesn’t think more than an inch deep”. There countless stories of Brown refusing to attend important meetings. When he did attend, he would not contribute, spending the whole time working on his own papers.

 

There are also countless tales of Brown interfering in the remit of other ministers. The NHS will serve as the prime example. Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, was incandescent when Brown, without consultation, announced his own NHS review and made critical remarks about the health service’s performance. Milburn complained to Blair that Brown “saw it as his right to trample on everyone else’s territory”.  On health and education, the chancellor adamantly opposed creeping privatisation of services at the same time as being a fervent proponent of public private finance initiatives (PFI) to fund the building of NHS hospitals. Let the sewage flooding the operating theatres at the brand-new Carlisle hospital stand as a telling symbol of PFI.

 

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/the-healthcare-business-in-the-uk/

 

My Indecision is Final

 

Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson said, “I had Permanent Secretaries wanting decisions and we couldn’t give them because Blair and Brown were in a row. Issues stacked up like aircraft over Heathrow”. Like so many others, Wilson found it difficult to decide what Blair wanted because there was no defined objective, only generalities like “reforming the public services”. Wilson’s request for Blair to explain his message received at best idealistic verbiage.

Sir Richard Wilson

Sir Richard Wilson

Rawnsley quotes one of Blair’s closest advisors: “Tony sits there at the Monday morning strategy meetings screaming: ‘What are we doing about health? What are we doing about crime? What are we doing about transport? And nothing happening.’”

 

Blair put on a good public performance after the London bombings but someone who saw his performance at the Cobra meetings said, “He didn’t understand the machine of which he was the master, so he got in the way of getting what he needed.”

 

New Ways of Governing

 

In 1997, Blair was a complete novice to government, as also was Gordon Brown. Neither of them had managed anything except a political party. The prime minister’s apathy about organisation and management was incurable.  Officials at Number 10 had a set ritual for welcoming a new prime minister. Blair was presented with a thick blue folder, entitled “The Precedent Book”, which set out how previous governments had handled major events, such as the Queen’s Speech and Prime Ministerial statements. Blair pointedly did not open it. The Cabinet was not consulted about Brown’s decision to grant independence to the Bank of England. The Cabinet Secretary was concerned that major decisions were not discussed in Cabinet. “I’m sure they’ll agree,” responded Blair. The Cabinet Secretary persisted: “shouldn’t the Cabinet at least be informed?” “They’ll all agree,” repeated Blair, more emphatically.

 

Cabinet meetings were not held as frequently as under previous prime ministers; they did not last long; there was little substantive discussion. A joke became popular among ministers. “Why does the tea trolley serve only half the Cabinet? Because the meetings are over before it can reach the other side.”

 

Blair was happy for the government to interfere in all the interstices of citizens’ lives. The nation and its administrators became weary with initiative fatigue. According to Andrew Rawnsley: “Units, task forces and review groups, commissars of modernisation on every subject from silicone breast implants to social exclusion, proliferated … councils were instructed on the annual gross weight of dog turds they were expected to collect”.

 

The deficiencies of Blair’s style of governance is shown starkly by his handling of the invasion of Iraq. One of Blair’s reasons for avoiding formal discussions about Iraq was that he wanted to exclude Brown. In the past, a military intervention of this nature would have involved discussion of thick red files in the Cabinet room by ministers and officials and senior military officers covering the background and options.  Blair kept decisions to himself but subsequently did not give them his full attention. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon discovered that conversations with Blair about Iraq were invariably undermined by the prime minister’s attention shifting elsewhere.

 

Conclusion

The number of Whitehall press officers had expanded to 1,100. The tally of special advisers –

spin doctors – had more than doubled since May 1997. Millionaire novelist Ken Follett was once a generous supporter of the Labour Party but became disillusioned. He predicted that Blair would be remembered “as the Prime Minister who made malicious gossip an everyday tool of government”. It was an ironic result of the efforts of New Labour’s propagandists that they undermined the public perception of the character of the Prime Minister and obscured his government’s real successes.

 

Next week – what were the successes?

 

The Blair Years Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday, November 3 2016. The title given was Privatisation’s Disastrous Route.

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We have seen in previous articles how Blair failed to put in place structures that would make a practical reality out of the grand visions he hoped would be his legacy. New Labour did nothing to reverse the disruption caused by Tory privatisation of public utilities and transport. Blair’s own lack of attention to detail led to failures in the areas of energy policy, transport and agriculture.

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Transport

The New Labour manifesto for the 1997 election promised “an effective and integrated transport policy at national, regional and local level …” However, According to Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull, “no-one ever really looked after transport. It was a very low priority in the first term.”

John Major is remembered fondly by some, but I will always remember him for doing to the British rail network what he did to Edwina Currie. Conscious of being in the shadow of Thatcher, he wanted his share of the privatisation glory. Rail was the only major area left so Major was determined to privatise it, even though it led to fragmentation, chaos and death. Operations were broken up and sold off, with regulatory functions transferred to the Rail Regulator. Railtrack took over the infrastructure and track maintenance became the responsibility of 13 different companies. Three rolling stock operating companies (ROSCOs) took over passenger trains with the stock being leased out to passenger train operating companies (TOCs) which were awarded contracts through rail franchising.

Nobody wanted rail privatisation 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 splitting of 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 re-nationalizing Railtrack. Blair did not accede to the people’s wishes.

Privatisation was meant to bring business savvy into public utilities, but, in reality, it allowed foreign governments and their state-owned operators to make vast profits out of the UK. In one two-year period, Dutch company Abellio took dividends of £20 million from their UK operations; French company Keolis made £37.9 million; German company Arriva made £15 million.

Hatfield, the morning after the train crash. Investigators and Police at the scene of the crash. The remains of the crash. New parts of the track waiting to be put on the tracy which was used by the Kings Cross to Leeds train yesterday which crashed. October 20, 2012. Photo by Andrew Parsons/i-Images.

Hatfield, the morning after the train crash. 

The Hatfield rail crash in 2000 led to severe financial difficulties for Railtrack which was put into a special kind of insolvency by the British High Court. On October 17 2000, four passengers died and dozens were injured because a faulty rail hadn’t been replaced: the rail crumbled under the friction of the 12.10 from King’s Cross to Leeds and threw the train from the tracks. Blair did not take the opportunity to re-nationalise the railways but nevertheless pumped in taxpayers’ money. In 2002 a new organisation, Network Rail, bought Railtrack PLC. Network Rail had no shareholders but was nominally in the private sector but its borrowing was guaranteed by the government. In 2004, Network Rail took back direct control of the maintenance of the track, signalling and overhead lines.

Instead of sorting out the chaos in the national rail network, the Blair government went ahead with plans to mess up the Tube. Although chancellor Gordon Brown was resolutely opposed to any hint of privatisation in the NHS (except in building hospitals) and banned use of the word ‘choice’, he was obsessed with using PFI (Private Finance Initiative) to revitalise the underground network. In practice, PFI is a bad deal for taxpayers and involves a hidden privatisation of public services. The UK Accounting Standards Board 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 and by sleight of hand reduce the deficit. PFI can only be implemented through an anti-competitive process which inevitably leads to corruption. The big corporations would not be interested if it were otherwise. For a small investment, companies can be sure of long-term profit guaranteed by the taxpayer.

The government announced in February 2002 that it was going ahead with plans for part-privatisation of the London Underground despite wide-spread opposition. Opponents insisted that the plan was fundamentally flawed on both financial and safety grounds. Brown and Blair left the detail to deputy prime minister John Prescott who soon lost control to a group of businessmen, lawyers and consultants whose fees reached £1 billion. The final bill for the project was about £30 billion. Blair supported his chancellor’s hubristic scheme “as the only way to get massive investment into the ailing network”.

Energy and Fuel

Energy provides another example of Blair’s inability to maintain a consistent position and to trust his ministers to implement a policy. As a means of reducing energy costs and the incidence of fuel poverty, a new programme of grants for cavity wall and loft insulation and for draught proofing was quickly launched, with some 670,000 homes taking up the scheme. This scheme was later abandoned and the number of those suffering from the cold increased. Steep price rises and possible power blackouts, that we are so familiar with in Sri Lanka, were a grim possibility.

Germany was driving the EU to increase the proportion of energy supplied by renewables to 20%. Only 1.6 of Britain’s energy needs was being generated by renewables and Merkel’s policy would cost Britain’s consumers £7.9 billion extra every year and would wreck its energy market. Industry representatives doubted whether the prime minister and his advisers understood either the costs or the complications. When Alistair Darling told Blair that he was mad to agree to Merkel’s plans, Blair said “I got confused”.  In Broken Vows, Tom Bower writes: “As so often, although their conversation lasted only a few seconds, his eyes wandered.”  William Rickett, an energy expert working in the Cabinet Office, commented: “That’s not the sort of behaviour you expect from a prime minister. He’s wasted eighteen months of work and it’s delayed anything happening on the ground while we go back to the drawing board”.

 

Petrol Revolt

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An avoidable crisis brought the UK to the brink of anarchy and almost toppled the government. “The great petrol revolt of 2000” led to hospitals cancelling non-vital surgery and funeral directors warned that they would not be able to bury the dead. It reminded me of James Callaghan’s winter of discontent when I sat in a Manchester cinema with rats running over my feet because the local authority could not collect the garbage. By 2000, fuel prices in the UK had risen from being amongst the cheapest in Europe to being the most expensive. By 2000, tax accounted for 81.5% of the total cost of petrol, up from 72.8% in 1993.  Because of demonstrations against increased fuel tax, a stage was reached where nine out of ten petrol stations had no fuel to sell. There was panic buying and supermarket shelves were empty. One minister warned: “There would be no food. The health service was going to collapse. We were twenty-four hours away from meltdown”.

 

After being initially slow to focus on the problem, Blair went energetically into action, working the phones to influential people in the oil and haulage businesses. He was not successful and shouted “For f***’s sake, they gave me assurances”. One of the oil executives resented Blair’s attitude.  “We are not nationalised industries. We are globalised companies with, on the whole, more influence around the world than the British Government”. Blair said, “I have to show I am leading”. Sending in the army was considered but the generals were reluctant. Polls showed that as many as 94% supported the protesters. As Andrew Rawnsley put it: “The petrol shortages might be a pain, but the people seemed ready to endure them so long as the torture inflicted on the Prime Minister was greater”.

 

Foot in Mouth

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The army was called upon to help in another crisis which Blair mishandled – the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001. With up to 93,000 animals per week being slaughtered, Agriculture Ministry officials were assisted by units from the British Army. The bureaucracy failed abysmally, politicians were unfocused, then panicked and scientists and self-interested farmers issued confused predictions. Thousands of farmers faced financial devastation because the Rural Payments Agency had collapsed. The Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, would be officially criticised for contributing to a blunder that cost over £1 billion in compensation but was rewarded with promotion to the Foreign Office. Blair admitted: “We were mired by scandal and controversy and then I did a reshuffle which was the worst of all worlds”.

 

Next week, Blair goes to war – in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq – and with the Treasury.

 

The Blair Years Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 20 2016 where it was given the title Saviour or Serpent.

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Tony Blair has announced that he may return to British politics. This is somewhat surprising considering the universal loathing that is today felt for the man following the repercussions of the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003 and his more recent sordid quest for riches, a quest which has led him to consort with many dodgy dictators.

An examination of Blair’s rule may be enlightening for those masochistic Sri Lankans who believe that this island nation’s polity is supreme in its incompetence, inefficiency and corruption and its politicians unrivalled in their practice of the dark arts of Machiavellian manipulation.

Euphoria

I for one have not forgotten the euphoria which greeted Blair’s election. 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. I even got a job with MORI. This was like a new dawn after 18 years of Tory rule. Blair introduced the longest-lasting non-Tory government since 1762.

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Dysphoria

In 2006, when Blair made his final speech to a Labour Party conference, a MORI poll put the public’s ‘satisfaction’ rating of Blair at 20 per cent, lower than Thatcher on the eve of her fall. There had been a time during Blair’s premiership when approval ratings surged to levels of surpassing those conjured up in totalitarian regimes.

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 a sobering experience to walk around the Imperial War Museum and to see the remembrance of so many lost lives. My grandfather had fought in the First World War. I wonder if my father’s experience in the Second World War had truncated his life so cruelly. Little did I suspect on that morning at the museum that Blair would be complicit in so many needless deaths.

Dawn and Disillusion

 

Professor Anthony King described the 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, promising to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions.

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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. During Blair’s stewardship sleaze continued and the tired institutions continued to languish.

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“Our mission will be the renewal of our public services. There is nothing more important to making Britain a fairer and stronger country.” Did he succeed?

Health

I was working as a management consultant in the NHS when Conservative Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke introduced his “reforms”. The “internal market” introduced in 1991 split health authorities (which commission care for their local population) from hospital trusts (which compete to provide care). GP fundholding gave some family doctors budgets to buy care on their patients’ behalf.

Critics saw this as creeping privatisation but Clarke claimed that his reforms prevented Margaret Thatcher from abandoning the NHS. Nevertheless, he brought in many people from the business world and the giant accountancy firms. My boss was the redoubtable Sheila Masters (now Baroness Noakes), a foul-mouthed gorgon imported from Peat-Marwick. Trade journal Accountancy Age described her as “the country’s most high profile accountant”. I had a report published by HM Stationery Office which showed that the reforms seemed to require an army of accountants and managers to implement them. Doctors and nurses felt that money that should be going towards patient care was being wasted on management.

Old Structures, New Labour Words

The Labour victory encouraged hope that the internal market would be abandoned. However, the key element, the purchaser/provider split – was retained, but, typical of New Labour, words were spun: purchasing became commissioning; contracts became service agreements. GP Fundholders became Primary Care Trusts. Hospital Trusts were allowed to continue.

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The public and NHS staff had high expectations that things would improve quickly. When that did not happen there was anger and despair. Blair’s first Health Secretary was Frank Dobson (his successors were Alan Milburn, John Reid, Patricia Hewitt and Alan Johnson). Dobson was allowed to stay in such a high profile job, for which he was poorly qualified, as a sop to old Labour. In those early days, the spin meisters were careful to avoid words like “competition” and “choice”. which might alienate any socialists still lurking in the party, preferring to stick with the vague concept of “modernisation”.

Dobson was eventually forced to become Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London and was replaced at Health by Alan Milburn, an old Trot who became converted to the market in health and today makes a good living from private health care. Initially, Milburn called for extra money to resolve the NHS crisis, but rejected using the private sector. “That”, Milburn declared, “would be a Trojan horse for privatisation.” Later, he resurrected competition and advocated reintroducing the Tories’ internal market. Blair did not understand Milburn’s reorganisation.

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The government persisted with PFI (Private Finance Initiative) as a method of financing building in the NHS and other public services despite repeated demonstrations of its costliness and other disadvantages.

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Civil servants did not dare mention their foreboding. Milburn’s successor Patricia Hewitt knew that Blair “did not do detail”, but she was unprepared for quite how patchy his knowledge was.

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Nigel Crisp was appointed as Chief Executive of the NHS and Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health on 1 November 2000. He was the only person so far to combine these posts. Blair was described as “muddleheaded” –  he could not describe a coherent and complete model of what he wanted to achieve. So he could not explicitly tell Nigel Crisp what to do.

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Expensive Poor Outcomes

By 2005, the NHS was costing £43 billion a year more than in 1997. The country’s health had improved but, in terms of the number of doctors, the use of technical equipment, the number of patients being treated and the cure rates for cancer and heart disease, Britain still ranked near the bottom of the international league tables. Compared to other European countries, Britain’s premature death rates were higher and clinical outcomes worse. The government was embarrassed when Robert Winston, IVF pioneer, medical doctor, scientist, television presenter, said: “We gave categorical promises that we would abolish the internal market. We have not done that. Our reorganisation of the health service was . . . very bad. We have made medical care deeply unsatisfactory for a lot of people.” Funding, he said, was “not as good as Poland’s”. Note that he said “we”. Winston was a staunch believer in New Labour, a Labour peer and the chair of the Lords’ select committee on science and technology. His This Is Your Life on TV had featured a guest of honour appearance by Tony Blair. At the 2006 BMA conference, not only the nurses but also the doctors damned Labour for causing “a real and imminent danger to the NHS”.

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Hyperactive Lack of Substance

The incoming government had made a pledge to stick with Conservative spending plans and not raise income tax levels. Even when large amounts of money were promised, Chancellor Gordon Brown refused to release them because of his feud with Blair. There is no space here to go into the detail of the new government’s twists and turns and changes of mind about what to do about the NHS. There was a plethora of new initiatives, the government appearing hyperactive, unable to allow one new scheme to settle down and produce some results before introducing a new one.

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The triumph of style over substance, lack of concentration, poor management of human resources and avoidance of confrontation is common to Blair’s approach to all the major issues that he had intended to tackle. The war between Blair and Brown cast a gloomy cloud over the entire Blair premiership. More on that next week.

Dawn and Disillusion: the Bathetic Blair and Brown Era

Dawn and Disillusion: the Bathetic Blair and Brown Era

I published this on Open Salon in the days of hope shortly after Obama’s first  presidential election victory.

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“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.

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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.

blairnoelG

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.

Blair’s Philosophy

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.”

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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.

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -

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