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Ordinary people had the right to expect that after 18 years of the Tories, Tony Blair would be different
30 April 2002
In his first few weeks as Prime Minister, Tony Blair made a number of symbolic gestures. One of them was to visit the Aylesbury estate in South London, where the poor lived.
The stairs of the rough-cast concrete estate were perfumed for the new prime minister and people looked out of their doors in mostly bemused silence as he tried to greet them. The effete leader of the people's party, escorted by a policeman, looked decidedly ill at ease.
Purpose-built with tiers of tiny flats, damp on the inside and peeling on the outside, an exercise yard and no community facilities, the Aylesbury is like an open prison. At the time of Blair's tour, 59 per cent of the households were living in deepest poverty, 17 per cent were unemployed and 78 per cent of the older teenagers were not in full-time education.
Blair's visit was reminiscent of the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, to the Welsh slums in the 30s, when the future king said the immortal words: "Something must be done." Blair did not say something must be done about the poverty, rather that it ought to be tidied up and policed and the poor kept out of sight: single mothers in McDonald's, the young lads weeding the grass in the cracks in the concrete.
There was no suggestion by Blair that he would address the main cause of this poverty - almost two decades of spectacular wealth redistribution by Margaret Thatcher, the eradication of real jobs and training and the running down of schools for most children. Instead, the Great Impoverisher, Thatcher, was invited to take tea with the Great Moderniser, Blair.
Blame, and a moralising vocabulary lifted straight from Daily Mail editorials, was the new style. Poverty was the fault of the poor themselves, or social services, or the teachers. Education Secretary David Blunkett's abuse of perhaps the most valuable (and underpaid) professional group drove many teachers away; others stoically refused to accept his nonsensical denial of the central role of economic inequality in success and failure.
The poverty that has deepened under Blair's Thatcherite regime has overwhelmed its stream of propaganda about "education, education, education" and merely illuminated the truth in RH Tawney's great work, Equality, once the inspiration of Labour leaders. "The idea that differences of educational opportunities should depend upon differences of wealth," wrote Tawney. "Represents a barbarity."
What does Blair believe in? A clue was provided one year before his 1997 election victory when he toured Asia. In Singapore, a one-party state, he declared that the "success" of the dictator Lee Kuan Yew "very much reflects my own philosophy".
He offered no political context for his admiring remarks about a system of social control described by one writer as "happy face fascism". Like the ruler of Singapore, Blair had already attacked single mothers and homeless young people and the right of workers to job security.
Above all, he made clear he wanted to "modernise" and "reform" British life. These positive terms were misused repeatedly in the media, allowing New Labour to disguise its true agenda.
This had been spelt out seven years earlier in a book by Peter Mandelson, Blair's closest adviser, co-authored with Roger Liddle. Called The Blair Revolution: Can Labour Deliver? they highlighted Britain's "economic strengths" as its multinational corporations, the "aerospace" industry (weapons and military equipment) and "the pre-eminence of the City of London" (banks, money dealers).
This was the blueprint. Blair has duly put the interests of these groups first, and they have responded by bankrolling his "project". New Labour's inner circle is dominated by extremely conservative businessmen; and the likes of Raytheon, one of the world's biggest arms makers, funds the Labour Party. Like few Tory prime ministers, Blair has joined together big business and the British state in holy wedlock. Parliament and other representatives of the people, like trade unions, are awaiting their divorce papers.
This was Margaret Thatcher's dream, to which the dictator of Singapore duly paid homage. Blair, he said wisely, was Thatcher's successor.
In handing the Bank of England extraordinary power over the economy and in privatising, by stealth, the health service, education and the Post Office, as well as selling off air traffic control and the London Underground, Blair has gone further than Thatcher.
Political respect for the public service, the premise of civilised life in post-war Britain, has been replaced by a culture of profit and greed unmatched in Europe.
Certainly, he will be remembered, I believe, for his betrayal of the hopes of ordinary people who had the right to expect that after 18 years of the Tories, he would be different.
Instead, his greatest achievement is the historic convergence of the two main political parties, making Britain a single ideology state in which elections are little more than a ritual contest between two almost identical factions, devoted to the same rapacious "free market". The party names are retained, Labour and Conservative, but these distinctions are now meaningless, like two packets of soap powder manufactured by the same company.
Groups of fearless Labour MPs - that is, real dissent within the mainstream of politics - are no more. One MP, Paul Marsden, dared to stand up to Blair's complicity in the murder by bombing of some 5,000 civilians in Afghanistan and found himself subjected to a crude form of intimidation by the party's whips. I count just five Labour MPs who bear what is left of the party's conscience.
To understand Tony Blair in May 2002, try this rule of thumb - reverse most media descriptions of him in May 1997. Besotted Tonier-than-thou commentators wrote of their hero: "Tony Blair wants to create a world none of us have known, where the laws of political gravity are overturned (and) ideology has surrendered entirely to 'values'."
The biggest Blair myth was that he was non-ideological - whereas the difference between Thatcher and Blair has been Blair's liberal veil. His power owes much to his ideological kinship with those he now complains about - famous and powerful media figures who like to regard themselves as representing the "centre" of British political life, but whose attachment to a status quo based on divisions of wealth and class made respectable by Thatcher is unshakeable.
They have done their best to reinforce Blair's illusion that "we are all middle class now". This is probably the most absurd lie of the Blair years. Last month, the Child Poverty Action Group published its first major study for six years. "Whichever poverty line is used," it said. "Around a quarter of our society was living in poverty in Britain in 1999-2000. The poverty encountered by children is even greater than for society as a whole. Around a third of children are living in poverty." That is one British child in three. In the age of Blair, baby boys in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London, today are more likely to die before their first birthday than in 1950. And from Bethnal Green, you can see the towers of the City of London, which has never been wealthier.
The richest one per cent own a quarter of all wealth in Britain; the bottom half of the population, 28 million people, own between them just six per cent of national wealth. Under Blair, this division has widened. In "middle class" Britain, infant mortality, says the Child Poverty Action Group, is "almost twice as high in unskilled manual classes than in professional classes".
Under Gordon Brown's stewardship of the economy, little of this national disgrace has been addressed, even recognised. On the contrary, Brown has seen off hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and income inequality has grown while tax for the rich has fallen.
For the first eight years of Thatcher, the rich paid 60 per cent income tax. Under Blair, they pay 40 per cent. If New Labour reinstated Thatcher's old rate of tax, it would raise £15billion for public services.
The fanfare that greeted Gordon Brown's "dramatic rescue" of the health service in the last Budget, and the suggestion that he has taken the Labour Party back to its roots, is typical of the illusions that have helped to sustain the Blair regime.
The "billions" that will barely bring Britain up to the standards of health care in the rest of Western Europe will not be raised from those who can most afford to pay.
Dividends will not be affected and tax on company profits has been reduced, yet again, by Brown, who has done nothing to end the scandal of tax "avoidance" by the very rich.
Much of the promised billions will go on wasteful "private finance initiatives" that will cream off profits to private financiers and contractors. Nurses, junior doctors and ancillary staff have been promised nothing.
"We need to get used to double standards," said Robert Cooper, who was Blair's foreign policy adviser in opposition. The basics of Britain's Americanised foreign policy seldom change. What Blair has done is raise the standard hypocrisy to new heights. In opposition, he went to Dunblane following the massacre of the children there and promised to ban small arms in Britain. He kept his promise. But he also secretly stepped up the supply of the same small arms and many other lethal weapons to countries where children are often the first casualties.
Under cover of the Official Secrets Act, the government approved the shipment of arms to the military dictatorship of Indonesia, which was responsible for the deaths of some 200,000 people in East Timor. The arms included Heckler and Koch machine guns used by General Suharto's special forces, which had long been identified by Amnesty International as the source of the worst atrocities in illegally occupied East Timor.
Under Blair, arms sales have become the most heavily subsidised sector of the UK economy apart from agriculture. Taxpayers pay about £30 each to help sustain this country in its ignominious position as the world's third largest seller of arms. Britain's clients include very poor countries, and countries on the verge of war with each other, like India and Pakistan. On September 11, as America was being attacked, the government was hosting an "arms fair" in London's Docklands, attended by various major human rights abusers, notably Saudi Arabia, Britain's biggest arms customer and spiritual home of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Most public events stopped out of respect for the Twin Towers' victims, not New Labour's arms fair.
When you next hear Blair moralising about the "evils" of the world - usually in the form of a dictator like Saddam Hussein whom Britain armed to the teeth - remember the Dunblanes that happen in faraway countries, thanks to the British arms trade. Or the British parts that are used in Israel's helicopter gunships that fire at people armed mostly with slingshots. Or his bellicose support for George W Bush's "war on terrorism" whose racist attacks on Muslims have brought fear and insecurity to Britain's Muslim communities.
If there is a political vacuum in France, into which the fascist Jean-Marie Le Penn briefly stepped, there is something similar in Britain. Only 24 per cent of the electorate gave Blair his victory last year, the lowest turnout of any general election in history.
People were not apathetic; they went on strike. They understood that the politicians on offer, like the pigs and men at the conclusion of George Orwell's great novel Animal Farm, were virtually the same.
Like many supporters of the French Socialist Party who refused to vote, many Britain's are fed up with turncoat politicians: those who gain our confidence with declarations of principle, then ditch them when its suits their career. The top echelon of the Labour Party is full of them.
The point is that people are never still and waiting and impassive. Thanks to Blair, they are learning again that when freedom is gained, in whatever form, it is not the result of anything the government has granted them but what they themselves have achieved by direct action.
Think of the civil rights movement in the United States, and the uprising against apartheid in South Africa, and the defeat of Thatcher's Poll Tax. All over the world that great popular movement is on the rise again, confronting a "global economy" that gives to the well-off and takes from the poorest.
By deriding this new movement as a "spurious cause", Blair misreads history and that may be his downfall.
Public meetings have never been more popular in Britain; they happen every day, in villages and towns. Three million people filled the streets of Rome the other day, and 13 million Italians stopped work to demand the universal right not to be sacked unjustly, which the far-right government of Silvio Berlusconi wants to make legal. His closest ally in Europe is Tony Blair, who should beware the ripples reaching here.