SUNDAY MORNING 30 April 2006
It’s a bright cold morning in the middle of the May Bank Holiday weekend. [“A Bank Holiday is a public holiday in the UK and also in theRepublic of Ireland. Although there is no legal right to time off on these days, the majority of the population not employed in essential services (e.g. utilities, fire, ambulance, police, health-workers) receive them as holidays; those employed in essential services usually receive extra pay for working on these days. Bank holidays are so called because they are days upon which banks are (or were) shut and therefore (traditionally) no other businesses could operate. Legislation allows certain payments to be deferred to the next working day.” -Wykepedia] Jack and I have had our morning blow through up on Letcliffe, 750 feet above sea level and the coffee is brewed. Jack is back on form after a bad three days, he picked something up somewhere that badly upset him and his Best Friend has been on 24/7 nursing duty. All is well now, he has regained control of his sphincter and throat and the Dettol can be put away in the cupboard for a while.
Truth to tell I am feeling slightly depressed. I suspect this is partly a result of broken nights, concern for my mate and a bit of a back storm. Nothing like a healthy dose of pain from old injuries to bring on thoughts of mortality. Attending the funeral of a 67 year-old friend last Friday hasn’t helped either. No worries, we all have downers occasionally, this will pass and I decided that one course which would help it on its way would be to do some writing, I find it is good therapy. The next Fred article for the BET is boiling up and a trawl of the latest news on the web triggered off a couple of neurones into activity. So here I am using you lot as a psychological aid before getting stuck into Fred.
Our home news is of course full of the froth of political scandal. I’m not suggesting that the matters exercising the Fourth Estate aren’t important but the treatment of them does seem to follow a certain pattern. Anybody familiar with the last days of the Major government will recognise the frisson of expectation that ripples through the papers when it is announced that X has engaged Max Clifford as media adviser, the Prime Minister has ‘absolute confidence’ in whoever and drugs have been found in a cabinet minister’s guest bedroom.
These threads of cloud in a stormy sky scud past the window but don’t really impress or interest me much. What exercises me is why it is why our elected government is mired down in this sink of dishonour, incompetence and suspected corruption.
We’ve had almost ten years of ‘New Labour’ now and I sometimes think that the guardians of the public good are the electors with the longest memories. Over the years the threads of suspicion coalesce into theories and eventually become strong personal belief. I have long suspected that I am at the latter stage but have never unified the threads into a coherent opinion, I have reached that point now.
When Labour achieved the crushing victory over the opposition in 1997 it was largely due to a violent public reaction against an incompetent government bankrupt of any original policies, driven by monetarist ideology and an arrogant belief that they knew what was best for Britain. Tony Blair and the newly invented Labour Party was the only credible alternative. The contrast between the youthful Blair and the Grey Major was irresistible.
I sat up that night and watched the political landscape of Britain melt and re-form before my eyes. Jimmy Goldsmith ranting, Portaloo looking stunned as little Twiggy stole his seat and the unbelievable spectacle (for an old Labour man) of the map turning red. When the scale of the majority became clear my first reaction was that this was unhealthy.
I suspect that the thought in Downing Street that followed the emotion of the victory was fear of the size of the task and doubt whether they knew enough about governing to be able to take advantage. The result of this was a policy of steady as she goes, the decision was taken to resist immediate change and pursue the same course that had got them into power; rigid control of the Party Members and manipulation of the media. In effect, they made the mistake of carrying on fighting an election instead of changing gear into governing.
As they played themselves in, got the hang of how government worked and absorbed the information presented to them by the Civil Service they realised that manifesto promises had to give way to what they saw as ‘reality’. The party had to swing to what they called the centre but was in fact to the right of the outgoing government. New Labour was on course to becoming New Tory.
At this time I had a healthy suspicion of Tony Blair. He was too good to be true and certainly not what I recognised as a natural socialist. I suspected that he saw the party more as a vehicle for his ideas and self-promotion than as an opportunity to pursue the New Jerusalem. I am now convinced that I was right. Very quickly, power was transferred to Downing Street from Parliament and TB accelerated the process first started by Margaret Thatcher, he constructed a presidential style government without the natural checks and balances of a written constitution. Being a lawyer and not an historian he had the wrong intellectual base and couldn’t realise that such a flawed model of government contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
Absolute power with no effective opposition allowed New Labour to ditch manifesto promises, privatisation, tuition fees and erosion of the public services became policy and these were forced through parliament on the backs of a quiescent majority. This ‘success’ bred arrogance culminating in an alliance with a deeply flawed right wing US government in the obscenity of the attack on Iraq on the basis of downright lies which flawed intelligence did nothing to counter.
Once this Rubicon had been crossed the Blair government had no alternative but to stick to the legend and try to drive the mistake into the background by pursuing the ‘Blair Legacy’. They accelerated change in education, the NHS, the way the economy was funded and the degree of central control over all aspects of public life. This latter project rode on the back of an unhealthy fear of ‘terrorism’ and ran in parallel with exactly the same mechanisms in the US. If the policies are flawed divert attention by using fear as a mechanism for control.
The further this process went and the more power was diverted to the centre the easier it became possible to to run the country by edict. New policies and targets poured out of Downing Street, the bureaucratic load increased and at the same time Gordon Brown was resisting any expansion of money spent on government. One of the chief weapons in this part of the project was by commissioning a change-over to computerised systems which could reduce human input. The systems were commissioned and it was here that the big mistake was made insofar as the day to day governing mechanisms of the country were made. It was not accepted that the sensible management policy was to run the old manual systems in parallel with the IT systems until the latter had proved themselves and then effecting the change-over and gaining the savings. This would have entailed vastly increased capital expenditure over the interim period. The staff were cut to reduce the burden on the treasury immediately. We have seen the results of this in the massive problems encountered in every part of government where this policy has been applied and it has proved an incredibly expensive policy not only in respect of the money that has been wasted but in the failure of essential systems.
The present furore over foreign nationals convicted of crime being lost by the system is but the latest of these failures in common with every other social institution that the government has meddled in. Managers in the Prison Service, Immigration and the Home Office were swamped by a flood of new policies and insufficient funding to support the situation. What isn’t at the moment apparent but I suspect will eventually become evident is that these same flaws are present in all the other institutions and for the same reason. These deficiencies will eventually surface.
So, my bottom line is that electoral success has lead to arrogance, the imposition of flawed policies and targets and that these faults have been exacerbated by a flood of badly drafted legislation fuelled by the need to control. At the base of all this is a fundamental misconception of how society works.
It is no accident that the American Constitution starts with the words ‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’ [This preamble has never, even in the US, been regarded as legally binding. It is held to be a pious expression of the intentions of the men who approved the draft.]
What New Labour failed to grasp was that it was the electorate who gave them the power and ultimately it will be the electorate who decides whether they can keep it. The disadvantage of the presidential system is that the success or failure of the government depends on the acceptance by the electorate of the actions of one man. Mr Blair is about to learn this uncomfortable lesson, I suspect earlier than he thought. In the words of the Spanish proverb; “Take what you want and pay for it”.
As for the legacy…… I have a simple view of this which boils down to two questions: Is the world a safer place? How much damage and death have the policies caused? The Blairs and Bushes of this world may strut across the world stage with their arms akimbo as directed by their body image consultants, they may exercise unimaginable power for a fleeting span but there is one area over which they have no control, the verdict of history. I am glad I don’t have to bear their future burden.
It hasn’t worked, I do not feel cheerful. I shall take Jack for a walk……
SCG/30 April 2006
[I have just heard that James Kenneth Galbraith has died. Rest in peace. Now there’s a bloke I could have trusted……]