Monday, April 09, 2007

Blair's Ten Years

The Observer has a special on Blair's ten years; including a BPIX poll and a long essay by Andrew Rawnsley. The poll shows the public pretty much has the measure of Blair: 51% think "He manages to convinve himself that whatever he has decided to do must be morally right", with only 28% preferring: " He believes all of his statements and actions are morally right". Reviewing the poll, David Sanders and Paul Whiteley conclude the voters do think Blair "is a moral person" but also think that his morality is "flaky". 49% agree Blair is "too concerned with spin"; 45% that he is "out of touch"; 40% that he is "tired, run out of ideas"; only 7% find him "visionary", 12% "principled"; 7% "in touch"; and 6% "trustworthy". Most voters - 58% - see the war in Iraq as his biggest failure (the next highest option - on 10% - is "being in office while the gap between rich and poor widened").
The poll findings on "public performance" (the NHS, crime, etc) are also very poor; but this is perhaps unfair. The truth is that there are many things that it is simply beyond the ablity of government to control. When a government has been in power for a long time and there are - as there inevitably will be - still problems with the NHS, crime, etc, then voters begin to make an adverse judgement on the government, and the pendulum begins to swing. That is why it is so important for governments to try to "renew" themselves. On the other hand, the judgement of the voters is not altogether unfair; "reform" for Blair has meant only one thing: privatisation and part-privatisation (this is the ideological mania - inherited from Thatcher - at the heart of New Labour and why Rawnsley is wrong to say that Blair is ideologically "of no fixed abode"). Sanders and Whiteley suggest that: "One possible explanation for the negative scores lies in the enormous disillusion of many public service workers with the tide of target, monitoring and audit that inhibits their ability to perform their "real job"". More than 40% of British adults either work in, or have partners who work in,the public sector. They talk about "their largely negative experiences of the public sector" with their "friends and acquaintances". So these "negative views" spread to the wider population. On the other hand, it might have been interesting to know how voters would have responded had they been asked the counter-factual question: "Would the NHS (or whatever) be in better shape had the Conservatives, rather than Labour, been in office over the last ten years?". The outcome of actual General Elections suggests voters would not answer in the affirmative.
The poll shows Blair's biggest achievement is considered to be the Good Friday Agreement (23%) - and although this may reflect good recent publicity it is a good call.

The Rawnsley essay gets Blair right in many ways : he is a brilliant "tactician" with a "magic flair for performance", and is "superb at the thespian aspects of politics", "fantastic" at the "poetry of politics", the "most accomplished communicator of his era" (bar Clinton, I think). But he is uninterested in the minutiae of politics, finding policy detail "tedious", "an acrobat politician, not an engineer politician". He is "too easily seduced by wealth" and has "an awe of riches".
Much of what Rawnsley says (e.g. about Blair/Brown) is familiar enough. Here are some things which (although not novel revelations) caught my eye:
(i) many Blairites think it unfortunate there was not a leadership election in 1994; after the 2001 election Blair considered sacking Brown; and after the "wobble" in the spring of 2004 it was Cherie Blair who rallied the Blairite troops to persuade Blair to stay (one might have thought she had other priorities at that time). It seems Cherie Blair's hatred of Brown knows no limit.
(ii) On Iraq, Rawnsley says that Blair committed himself to regime change in Iraq as early as his meeting with Bush, at his Texas ranch, in April 2002. Rawnsley doesn't think it right to call Blair "Bush's poodle". He was not - Rawnsley argues - "being pulled by a leash held by Bush". I don't quite agree with this. Even if it was Blair who was pulling the leash (like a dog who wants to go "walkies" while his master is sprawled in front of the TV) he was still on a leash. Not so much a poodle then; a yappy Scottish Terrier perhaps. Rawnsley also argues that Blair did not lie about Iraq (he "did genuionely believe that Saddam had some sort of weapons programme") but does not dispute that that "hedged and conditional intelligence" was presented as "cast-iron evidence". In other words the evidence was "sexed-up" to suit a pre-existing political committment. In any case, Blair can make himself believe anything he wants to believe.
(iii) According to Rawnsley, "virtually everyone who has served in the cabinet" regards the war in Iraq as "a total disaster".
(iv) One (unintended) consequence of the war in Iraq, Rawnsley argues, is that it weakens "the very cause of liberal interventionism of which he was such an eloquent and impassioned champion". This he thinks "the most tragic" consequence of Blair's premiership. This I think is true; intervention in Sudan is made much more difficult, even impossible, by the disaster in Iraq.
(v) Rawnsley implies Blair was already committed to introducing variable university tuition fees at the time when an explicit committment not to do so was included in the 2001 Manifesto (he calls this "particularly stupid"; dishonest is another word that springs to mind).
Overall, Rawnsley's summation is pretty favourable: 40 continous quarters of economic growth, low inflation, interest rates and unemployment, "the largest increase in spending on public services there has ever been in British history", SureStart, pensions credit, tax credits for working families, the minimum wage (But most of this is Brown rather than Blair, isn't it?). It is hard to disagree that: "If he (Blair) left Britain still a very unequal place, and one in which social mobility had become disturbingly frozen, it was a much less unequal place than it would have been had the trends of the Tory years continued". And yet...there is the increased Home Office-driven authoritarianism, there are the repeated scandals arising out of deference to money and the monied, there is the obsession with privatisation, there is the failure to make any serious inroads into reducing inequality (and the unwillingness of Blair to do so) as opposed to "holding the fort", there is the fraternising with Aznar and Berlusconi, there is the committment to "flexible labour markets" (which spawns vulnerable part-time workers on temporary contracts with few if any social benefits who are easily sackable), and there is Iraq. The Government has been a curious mxture of (i) neo-Thatcherism (low income taxes, privatisation, etc), (ii) "stealthy" social-democracy (minimum wage, pension credit, etc), (iii) halting constitutional reform (devolution, removal of the hereditaries from the Lords, etc), and (iv) blind support for US Foreign Policy. It is a very mixed record.


Blogger dreadnought said...

The disappointment! It’s a real shame. Compare the elation of the morning of 2 May 1997 to now. Blair’s legacy might be 10 years of another Tory government.

10:39 pm  

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