May 11, 2007

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

As written by Davide Simonetti of

Forgive the Latin title but I think that this is the best way to convey the sense of irony I feel when looking back on Tony Blair's decade in office. It means, of course, "Thus passes the glory of the world" but the vernacular doesn't do it justice. There will, no doubt, be plenty of political obituaries being written about Tony Blair and after ten years of his leadership, there are so many aspects of his tenure in office that only some of them can be covered here. This obituary isn't just for Blair but also for the political system he helped to undermine.

As Tony Blair prepares to leave Ten Downing Street for the last time as Prime Minister, it is us, as well as him perhaps, who are emerging into the sunlight blinking after such a period of darkness. I fear the euphoria will be short-lived. Anyone who has driven on the Autostrada in the mountainous regions of northern Italy will tell you, you emerge from one tunnel into bright sunlight before almost immediately entering another. Similarly, we are exiting the long tunnel of Blair only to enter what seems almost certain to be the much shorter tunnel of Brown. A tunnel it will be nevertheless, but one where the light at the end of it is visible. After that, the tunnel of Cameron seems likely to follow, and its length at this time is unknown.

Though not perfect, the tunnel analogy does I think illustrate part of the problem we have had with British politics since Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979. A pattern seems to be emerging with a strong idealist of one party staying in power for far too long followed by someone to continue their policies who serves a much shorter term until he in turn is replaced by a strong idealist from the opposition who remains in office for far too long. Thatcher claimed Tony Blair and New Labour to be one of her greatest achievements. Certainly she created the climate for Blair, and Blairism can be seen as a continuation of Thatcherism - both 'ideologies' make use of the same economic theories. Blair in turn is taking credit for the reformation of the Conservative party under David Cameron. The two great opposing parties are merging into one homogenised entity where, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter which one takes power and the theatrics in Parliament are just that.

Was it always this way? I don't think so. There used to be much more of a distinction between 'left' and 'right', now the terms are all but meaningless and voters have little to choose from in terms of policy and instead base their selection on personality or looks. This may be described by some as "winning the argument" but we are all the poorer for it as democracy is the loser.

Blair came to power on a wave of optimism. Finally the sleazy, selfish Tories were cast out, and with such a huge majority, Blair had a mandate to bring in some real positive changes. Alas, it wasn't to be. In order to win the election, Blair pledged to stick with Tory spending plans for the first two years. The first promise he broke was the one he made to the Liberal Democrats in order to gain their support which was to seriously look in to the possibility of introducing proportional representation for a more balanced and representative Parliament. In the 1997 election manifesto was a commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform. One look at the size of his majority cast that idea into the long grass.

The first stories of sleaze didn't take long to materialise but Blair (still referred to as 'Bambi' in some newspapers) was able to turn on the charm and convince most people of his 'honesty'. His over-the-top lamentation over the death of "the people's princess", Diana, didn't raise too many eyebrows back then. It was the obsession with spin that first took the gloss off of New Labour. It was something that made them an effective opposition but was quite unsuitable for a party in government. As Cool Britannia morphed into Rip-off Britain the spin coming from Downing Street was always apparent.

There were some seemingly positive aspects of Blair's time in office at first. The introduction of the minimum wage and a huge injection of cash into the NHS that was, for the most part, swallowed up by wage increases. The situation in Northern Ireland has improved under Labour too and the new power-sharing deal can be called historic, but in Blair's speech there was no mention by name of the late Mo Mowlam who brokered the Good Friday agreement, although he did pay tribute to John Major who had the courage to start negotiations with the IRA.

The privatisation of public services continued under Blair and Labour gave away far too much power to big business letting the market drive everything as the Tories did. Introducing so many a target-driven systems inevitably lead to corruption and short cuts. Education and the NHS suffered as a result. Blair inherited an economy in reasonably good shape from the Tories. After 18 years of misery, they had finally managed to turn things around and unemployment was lower and so was inflation. Blair took the credit for this and managed to continue the trend for a while. But again, this progress is deceptive. Unemployment continued to fall in the beginning of Labour's tenure, but the jobs on offer were and are largely insecure and low paid McJobs that do nothing for social mobility.

The Tories would never have gotten away with the privatisations in the health service and education that Blair has undertaken, and 'Old' Labour would never have dreamed of carrying out these 'reforms'. By doing them under 'New' Labour, the public could be convinced that these changes were for the better. Tony Blair in this respect seems to be like a Trojan Horse put into the ranks of the Labour party in order to do the things that the Tories couldn't. The Tories protest about Tony Blair, but he has carried out their policies and done them a favour because he will take the rap for the inevitable failings of these policies allowing them to claim that they can do better. When they return to power they will merely continue the process started by Thatcher and take it to new depths now that Blair has done the difficult bit for them.

From the start of Blair's tenure as leader of the Labour Party, he sought to seduce big business. His party needed support and cash and by selling access, and later peerages, the money rolled in. It was only a matter of time before Labour got rumbled for this and a large part of Blair's legacy will be the cash for honours investigation where he became the first Prime Minister to be interviewed by the police in a scandal - twice. The cash for peerages scandal was yet another miserable milestone of the Blair premiership. Even more shocking was the decision by Blair to halt the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into the corruption surrounding the BAE - al Yamamah arms dealing with Saudi Arabia. This has done immense damage to Britain's international standing and the country can no longer criticise corruption abroad and be taken seriously.

What Blair will be remembered for mostly is, of course, the Iraq war. Up until then the electorate were pretty forgiving but all that changed with the lies leading up to the illegal invasion and the chaos that followed it. By ignoring between one and two million people on the streets of London he showed a contempt for the wishes of most people in Britain. He only got support for the war by exaggerating the supposed threat from Iraq. When the falsehoods about Iraq's WMD were exposed, it lead to the highly suspicious death of the prominent scientist Dr David Kelly and an inquiry that was an obvious whitewash. The only resignations from this saga were from the BBC which became emasculated as a result. The worse the situation in Iraq got, the more exposed Blair and New Labour became. Blair focussed on preventing any meaningful discussion on the war either in Parliament or through further inquiries.

Of course the Iraq and Afghan wars were just the latest in a series of campaigns that Blair either participated in or supported. In 1998 Britain bombed Iraq with the Clinton administration, in 1999 it joined in the bombing of Serbia. Britain backed the attack on Chechnya by Russia under Vladimir Putin. And in 2006 Blair wholeheartedly supported the Israeli assault on Lebanon. While Blair made loud claims to be supporting democracy and freedom, his government backed repellent regimes like those in Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Colombia. While Indonesia was attacking Aceh province in 2003, Britain was supplying weapons to it. On a more positive note, the sending of British troops to Sierra Leone in 2000 did help end the civil war there.

Part of the fall out from the Iraq war was the continued disenfranchisement of young Muslims in Britain furious at Britain's involvement in the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan and its unqualified support for Israel and refusal to speak out against the atrocities committed against Palestinians. An already high threat of terrorism got much higher and on July 7th 2005 the first suicide bombings in western Europe took place in London killing 52 people and maiming hundreds more. Blair resolutely refused to to equate this event with his foreign policy and lies were trotted out to cover the incompetence of the security services who had been following at least two of the bombers. The government still refuses to hold a public or independent inquiry into this event.

What has happened though is an unprecedented attack on the long-held civil liberties of Britain. Under Blair Britain became a surveillance society with more CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world. Demonstrating outside Parliament became illegal without prior permission from the police. Despite all opposition against the idea, Blair pushed hard to impose ID cards on us all with biometric information and all details about us (including medical) easily accessed by government departments as well as fraudsters. The right to trial by jury is being eroded, habeas corpus has been suspended.

Yet despite all these measures, Britain is no safer according to the same government who introduced this Draconian legislation. We are constantly being told of numerous terror threats against us. Whether real or exaggerated, the population is being kept in a state of fear and therefore more likely to accept even more erosions of civil liberties.

Crime and punishment were obsessions with Blair, particularly when it came to anti-social behaviour. During his tenure 3,000 new criminal offences were created. Since coming to office there have been 53 law and order bills. Unsurprisingly this had led to an explosion in the prison population in Britain making it the highest in Europe at about 80,000 compared with the 50,000 it was when Blair took office. The severe overcrowding in Britain's prisons has led to proposals to build more of them and loud calls to cut the prison population.

Part of Blair's obsession with punishment can be put down to the relatively new phenomenon of government by tabloid. Blair, more than any other Prime Minister, has been heavily influenced by the tabloid newspapers, particularly The Sun. Rupert Murdoch helped formulate the public opinion that got Blair elected and has since had a hold on him. This has resulted in knee-jerk legislation coming from New Labour every time a grizzly story hits the headlines. For all his enthusiasm for the law, Blair has been quite happy to twist it to suit his agenda. We've seen him do this in the case of the Chagos Islanders. Similarly, the courts were used to prevent three Britons from suing Saudi Arabia for torturing them after pressure from the Saudis.

Under Blair democracy itself has come under pressure. Blair introduced a series of gimmicks designed to create the illusion of increasing democracy in Britain, the results have been the opposite. New voting methods have led to electoral fraud. Just about every petition on the Downing Street website has been ignored, including one with over a million signatures. We've heard 'The Big Conversation', we've also seen an 80 year-old heckler manhandled out of a Labour Party conference and we've seen a woman arrested for reading out the names of people killed in Iraq. The Terrorism Act is used as a catch-all to prevent any sort of dissent. There was even an attempt to pass a law allowing further laws to be made without Parliamentary scrutiny called the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Although a good performer in Parliament, Blair was never much of a parliamentarian, his style was always more presidential and tried to push through controversial legislation with a minimum of debate. From early on in his premiership he relied more on unelected advisers than on cabinet ministers. He changed Prime Minister's Questions from twice a week to just one 30 minute session. Accountability to Parliament has become an issue now. Before Blair came to power, the slightest whiff of a scandal would result in a resignation. Now Parliament is regularly misled and resignations are few and usually by disgusted politicians rather than scandal-ridden ones. When scandal has forced the resignation of politicians, they often reappeared shortly afterwards as in the cases of Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett.

People have become more and more disillusioned with party politics as they see little difference between the party in power and the opposition. And when Labour was re-elected in 2005 with just 22 percent of the electorate, the need for electoral reform was highlighted as never before. Britain now has the lowest voter turn-out in Europe when it comes to general elections. Voter turn-out has fallen from 72 percent in 1997 to 60 percent in 2005.

On the international stage, Blair's credibility was severely undermined by his closeness to the Bush administration and his inability to criticise it no matter what atrocities it committed or supported. Guantanamo was merely "an anomaly". In many cases it seems that Britain was actively involved in abuses. This is evident by Britain's close collusion with the USA in 'extraordinary rendition' with the UK being used as a stop-over for CIA flights taking abducted people to countries where they were tortured. Britain's denials of any involvement have proved to be false and the lack of co-operation with the subsequent investigations is a matter of record.

Internationally Blair became known as Bush's poodle and this label reflected Britain's position as little more than a client state of the USA. In this 'special relationship', Blair has allowed the USA to sack British Ministers, to rewrite his speeches in America and Blair had to ask permission from Bush before embarking on diplomatic missions. The isolation of Britain and the United States became glaringly apparent during the Lebanon war where Britain and America alone with Israel opposed the rest of the world which called for a ceasefire.

Another legacy of the Blair era is the sharp divisions in society which he failed to address. Under Blair, there has been an 'economic apartheid' with child poverty among ethnic minorities much higher than the rest of the population. And the inequalities don't stop there. Recently there has been a string of reports highlighting the inequalities in Britain which has the second highest child death rate among the 24 richest countries in the world. Child poverty in Britain is increasing and a recent UNICEF report showed Britain's children to be the unhappiest, most neglected and poorly educated among the world's 21 richest countries.

Like Blair, Gordon Brown refuses to tackle the issue. Social mobility in Britain has effectively been frozen so there is even less opportunity for people to climb out of the poverty trap. The introduction of University tuition fees (that Blair had originally said would not be introduced in his election manifesto) frightened off many poorer students from furthering their education because of the huge debts they would be saddled with for much of their working life. So much for "education education education". Under Blair the gap between rich and poor has widened considerably.

Will things improve under Gordon Brown? Superficially possibly but somehow I doubt there will be any real improvement. Brown is one of the architects of 'New Labour' and another fan of Thatcher. While he has been happy to hide and let Blair take the flack for New Labour's failings, he himself is behind many of those failings as we saw with the recent pensions scandal. Brown could have threatened to resign (or be sacked) over the Iraq war if he was as opposed to it as has been reported by David Blunkett. A high-profile resignation like that of the chancellor of the exchequer would have had a huge impact on Blair's credibility earlier on and might have changed the policy. Instead he chose to go along with something he knew to be wrong. That says much about his character.

Right from the beginning of Blair's long departure, Gordon Brown has been portrayed as the only viable replacement. Most of the other potential candidates are broadly similar in political outlook to Blair with the only one offering an alternative set of policies being John McDonnell. Needless to say, this threat to the status quo has been pretty much marginalised by the media. New Labour seems determined to carry on regardless of the failures of its policies. Blair, no doubt, will see this as as a sign of his lasting legacy and maybe it is but it's not one to be proud of.

So what next for Blair? There has been plenty of speculation as to what Blair will do next. The most common view is that he will tour on the lucrative lecture circuit, but there have been plenty of other rumours too. Some speculate that he will work (or rather continue to work) for Rupert Murdoch, others think that he might get a job at the UN or the European Union. Perhaps he might want some ambassadorial role which will give him some needed diplomatic immunity from potential prosecution. He may start off by taking one of the freebie holidays he has become notorious for (the Italian media has dubbed Blair "Lo Scroccone" - the scrounger) although they might be harder to come by now. Whatever Blair does I hope he is never again given the amount of responsibility and power he had as Prime Minister of the UK. While it still seems unlikely he will be prosecuted for war crimes, it isn't a total impossibility and a one way ticket to the Hague is what is hoped for by many.

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