Friday, May 11, 2007

The Blairite Legacy

As their seems to be a national obsession with defining what the Blair Legacy™ is, it seems only fair that I should also have a crack at what people will remember about Blair. Of course, it would be easy for me to just copy and paste what a thousand other commentators have written, but that would be just plain lazy. It would also be very easy to spend the entire post using the situation in Iraq with which to beat Teflon Tony. However, no matter how angry this decision made me, there are countless other examples of why this man has been such a disaster for this country and, in particular, for left-wing progressive politics in general.

Firstly, I want to take you back to 1997 and the general election. Now, I have to confess something to you. Something that seems to annoy many left-wing people I have encountered via this medium. However, it is something that I am proud of. I never voted for Tony Blair. There I said it, this is where you start hurling abuse at your monitor for my failure to vote for the only electable, left-wing candidate. As I said, however, this is something of which I am proud to say. I know this will sound a little 'I told you so', but I had bad feelings about Blair right from the very start. I was coming up to the end of my final year when the election campaign was underway, and I was looking forward to playing a part in my first general election (it's rather like the first time you go out on a date - only the end result is even more crushingly depressing than you might have feared). A friend and I watched some of the pre-election bullshit (sorry, I mean campaign) and we were both agreed - we couldn't trust Blair. At that stage it was for very superficial reasons. Remember the devil eyes poster by the Tories? Well, that was exactly what we thought of Blair - the only disappointment being that it was the dreaded Tories that had come up with such an appropriate image for our future Prime Minister. We were also very suspicious of the actual content of what he said, but it was the smile and the eyes that made me think that he had sold his soul to the devil (as it now seems). So, regardless of the consequences of not voting for the only credible opposition to the Tories, I voted Lib Dem. Not much better but at least it wasn't Blair.

Not long after the election, I began to realise that Blair was preparing to be the very thing I feared he might become - the spawn of Thatcher. And here is where his legacy begins. Barely two months after the election, on a wave of 'goodwill', Blair did the unthinkable. He introduced top-up fees. Essentially, he opened higher eduction up to market forces. Now, I know it is a controlled market at the moment, with no flexibility to set varying fees and thus create 'competition' and 'choice', but the foundations are certainly there. Besides, education is a right, not a privilege. Any attempt to put a price on education, makes it exclusive to those that can afford it. Surely this was the antithesis of a socialist government? Was this the Tory party in disguise? Of course it was. And as they have proved ever since, the re-branding of Labour as 'New' Labour might as well have been labelled Tory 'Lite'. Furthermore, under Blair's Labour party, the divide between the rich and the poor has become even wider. Who would have thought that this would be possible with a Labour government? It is very clear who truly inspired Blair.

Not long after the introduction of tuition fees, Blair then showed how close he was to big business. In October 1997, Blair decided to exempt Formula One from the ban on tobacco sponsorship. It then emerged that the decision was not as simple as was first thought. It transpired that Blair had accepted a £1 million donation from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone before the general election. As part of his defence, Blair claimed that:

"I don't believe I have been tarnished - no ... I am a pretty straight sort of guy."

Aaah, hindsight eh? Again, the suspicions about his support of the business community (not to mention the accusations of being bought by business leaders), raised serious questions about where this country was heading under Blair. First, restricting universal, free education, then seemingly bowing to the will of big business. Were we in fact seeing a Tory 'Lite'? A government with roots in Thatcherite economics? A centre-right Labour party?

There then followed a series of scandals as Blair became embroiled in a culture of sleaze. This was turning into the Major years all over again. Blair resorted to spinning himself out of every mess he found himself in. However, many people were starting to see through the culture of spin that Blair had created around him. As one commenter put it on the BBC website in 1999:

Tony Blair and the New Labour Party now represent nothing more than the sneering face of New Thatcherism. How else can one describe a party which embraces privatisation of core public services (through the PFI), cynical pre-election tax cuts ahead of real investment in schools and hospitals (and New Labour is proud of the fact that it spends less on public services than any British government in 40 years), an "ethical" foreign policy which sees British weapons sold to some of the most opressive regimes in the world?

Privatisation became a massive priority for Blair over this period. The NHS and the education system both became prime targets for Blair's infatuation with PFI. Blair's determination to get the private sector involved in public services was the clearest indication yet of his passion for Thatcherite economics. Despite the protestations of unions and some backbenchers, Blair continued down the course of privatisation. In fact, one might say that privatisation was re-invigorated by Blair throughout his premiership.

Then there was his disastrous foreign policy. Not only has the war in Iraq itself proven to be such an unmitigated disaster, the conduct of Blair and his government in the run-up to the invasion led to numerous high profile scandals. First, and most importantly, was the death of Dr David Kelly. Dr Kelly was Andrew Gilligan's main source for the claim that the 45 minute claim was exaggerated by Alastair Campbell. After his subsequent hounding by the government, Dr Kelly was found dead on Harrowdown Hill, having apparently committed suicide (although this has been disputed by some doctors). Perhaps one of the most shocking events of Blair's tenure, the sense of distrust of Blair over this was exacerbated by the revelation that Alastair Campbell and Cherie Blair had signed a copy of the Hutton report (which investigated Kelly's death) that was subsequently put up for auction. When questioned on the auction, Blair merely answered:

"I do not believe that any offence to anyone was intended".

Progressive? I guess not. Up until this point I had deep reservations about Blair's government. The events surrounding the death of Dr Kelly simply re-affirmed what kind of government we were dealing with here. A ruthless, hard government, that would steam-roller opponents in the most callous way possible. Perhaps it is no surprise that a man like Alastair Campbell would be central to just such a regime.

After the events of September 11th, Blair announced that the UK would stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US. It didn't take long to find out what this meant. Blair refused to speak out about many issues that concerned progressives around the globe. Guantanamo was ignored, renditions were permitted, Iraq was invaded, Israel's actions in Lebanon were effectively endorsed and a strategy of pre-emptive strikes was put forward. Blair was leading the country into a new and dangerous direction. No longer would the British government concern themselves with international law, now it would be a case of following the lead of Bush and the White House. Human rights were wilfully discarded as part of the fight against terrorism that Blair and Bush put at the centre of their ideologies. Out went any remaining semblance of socialism, and in came neo-conservatism. Blair had clearly lined himself up with the far-right, who were willing to accept Blair as an ideological partner. Was anymore proof needed that Blair had abandoned the progressive left and was making a play for the conservative right? Was it really a surprise given Blair's underlying conservative (and indeed, Thatcherite) tendencies at the very beginning of 'the project'?

So where does that leave us? Well, it seems clear to me that Blair's overriding legacy is consolidation. Consolidation of the very things that the Conservatives put in place over 18 years. In fact, in some areas, one could argue that the Blair has gone further than even the Conservatives would dare (particularly in regard to creeping privatisation in the NHS etc). He has proven to be an ally and a close friend to the business community. He has developed conservative allies across the globe. Bush, Aznar, Merkel, Berlusconi and now, Sarkozy have all been friends to Blair. It would be fair to say, that he has tried to distance himself from progressive left-wing leaders across the globe. In terms of foreign policy, he has put this country at risk like never before. His foolishness has cost the UK dear in terms of respect. Iraq and Lebanon have seriously damaged our abilities to conduct diplomacy throughout the Middle East, if not the world. By aligning himself with the neo-conservatives, Blair has shown how he views the world. Democracy is something that must be imposed. It does not grow organically from grassroots movements. It is brought to the people by blood and guns. Blair's legacy has been the shift in UK politics to the centre-right. When politicians talk of the 'centre-ground', they mean centre-right. It is this policy that pushed the Conservatives further to the right, and that dis-enfranchised millions of people who were left without a credible alternative to the voices of the establishment. This will be Blair's legacy. The consolidation of Thatcherite economics and the almost fatal blow to socialism. Thanks to Blair, the true legacy that will linger, will be the legacy of Margaret Thatcher - seventeen years after we thought we had seen the back of her.

(And I haven't even mentioned cash for peerages..., BAE or the recent Official Secrets prosecution.)