What’s going wrong with Britain?

openDemocracy Opendemocracy Anthony Sampson Helena Kennedy
26 May 2004

openDemocracy: Both of you, in different ways, welcomed the arrival of New Labour in 1997. Now, in different ways, you have become not just disenchanted, but seriously worried about what is happening to British government. Both of you have written books that are a wake-up call to your compatriots about how you see public life in Britain, its system of parliamentary democracy, and fundamental rights like trial by jury being threatened – all now intensified under the pressure of fighting terrorism and the way the United Kingdom was led to war in Iraq.

Can we then start by asking: was there an incident or moment when you thought that the Labour government was just not making a mistake but going off course? What was your wake-up call?

Anthony Sampson: I felt early on that Tony Blair’s government was ignoring, even that it despised, parliament. Blair himself, I realised, saw politics with a non-parliamentary view which was dangerous and ahistorical in terms of the character and continuity of British democracy. These concerns certainly came to a head in the run-up to the Iraq war, when parliament was bypassed until the last minute and the public had to take to the streets to express what was a majority disapproval of the government’s policy. For me, the basic relationship between a constituency and its MP, its member of parliament, has been undermined - now by the media also, as well as by New Labour. But this representative relationship is the key to British institutional life, and Labour ignores it.

Helena Kennedy: I felt that we did not see the shift in culture I had expected after Thatcherism and eighteen years of conservative rule. Obviously it wasn’t going to happen immediately, but it was clear around two years into the New Labour government that it was not going to take place. We were not changing the ethos which we inherited.

I remember about two years after the government came to power, sitting with a number of people considered pretty close to the inner circle, listing the things that hadn’t happened which we felt should have: the madness of privatisations that hadn’t been reversed, such as of the railways; the way in which reforms were being imposed without listening to those on the frontline.

Then there was the reduction of the special allowance to single mothers – a form of support which signalled our awareness that it is much harder to bring up a child on your own. The government didn’t like the idea of being seen as defenders of single parenthood, especially thanks to the hostility to the single parent in the tabloid press, and they played along with that agenda.

Helena Kennedy is a lawyer and writer, chair of the British Council (since 1998) and of the Human Genetics Commission (since 2000). Her books include Eve was Framed (Vintage, 1993) and Just Law – the changing face of justice and why it matters to us all (Chatto & Windus, 2004).

Anthony Sampson: That was another key disappointment: tabloid government, which was in fact conservative thinking. Once you felt the tabloids were having a direct impact, particularly on the prime minister, then that inevitably meant that New Labour was being pulled in a conservative direction.

Helena Kennedy: What has become much clearer to us all since then, is the extent to which this really does come from Downing Street. It comes from the top. It is Tony Blair’s agenda. For a long time, other people were seen as responsible, such as David Blunkett, Derry Irvine or Alastair Campbell. It’s absolutely a mistake. Tony Blair actually is the generator of much of this desire to please the tabloid press and embrace the agenda they set.

In addition, one of the perennial problems for government of a left disposition is that you feel that you are the party that “speaks for the people”, and there is a temptation to be inclined towards authoritarianism.

Anthony Sampson: Yes, and any government that determines its performances around a public relations effort, as Tony Blair set out to do, is also inevitably centralised. It comes from the need to control the message or “spin” delivered to the public. This sucks power into the centre, and even though you may think this is temporary in order to achieve reforms, it gives tremendous power to a very small group of people – a very serious mistake which has never really been rectified.

Anthony Sampson is a journalist, commentator and writer whose many books include the official biography of Nelson Mandela and the classic Anatomy of Britain series which illuminated the workings of the country’s leading institutions. His latest book is Who Runs This Place? (John Murray, 2004)

Of course, centralisation is endemic in a lot of recent policies but it has become much more serious than before. I think it has changed the whole anatomy of the country. Labour proclaimed that it would decentralise; in fact it has weakened all resistance and Tony Blair has led in a way that makes prime ministerial authority much stronger than it was before, even under Margaret Thatcher.

A failure of intelligence

openDemocracy: You, Anthony, regret a departure from traditional norms of British parliamentary democracy, while Helena criticises the lack of change from “Thatcherism”. Is the problem one of discontinuity or continuity?

Helena Kennedy: I’m sure that in the future we’ll see the nature of the failure more clearly than now. New Labour came to power having learnt from Thatcher and carried on doing things as they were being done before by her. That’s what I mean by not shifting culture. The whole point is that your way of doing things reveals your values. The way you carry out your policies is like how you live your life. They had new policies but they didn’t change from Thatcher’s methods.

Anthony Sampson: Thatcher also had a very tight group around her. But it was much more closely linked to parliament. Although Thatcher was indeed pretty autocratic, her methods, for all their faults, were closer to parliament than Blair’s. The parliamentary role is an absolutely crucial factor. Labour’s lack here is making it far too cut off.

openDemocracy: Other countries in Europe have reformed and decentralised power. Without being parliamentary in a traditional way, Labour could still have had a democratisation project in a constitutional sense?

Anthony Sampson: There was never any real constitutional thinking, I believe. The recent Lord Chancellor fiasco was an example of that.

Helena Kennedy: My strong feeling in 1997 was that some people in the new government were genuinely interested in the constitutional change agenda. But the understanding was shallow. Apart from Gordon Brown who reads books and is interested in history.

openDemocracy: It’s fascinating that both of you, in different ways, appeal to long-standing British traditions, within your otherwise quite radical analyses; isn’t there a paradox in invoking parliamentary tradition or legal precedence?

Helena Kennedy: I think that the leadership of New Labour linked modernising and reform with a contempt for the past. This reflected a very shallow understanding of Britain’s constitutional arrangements and trapped them in the worst aspect of the past. A constitution has simultaneously to be embedded in the way people actually live their lives, open to progressive reform, and rooted in the accumulated understanding of principles of fairness, equality and justice developed over generations. Protecting the best is not about old-fashioned, entrenched obeisance to antiquated national traditions. It is about building on people’s own inherited sense of fairness. Just because the Magna Carta, or especially trial by jury, is centuries old, doesn’t mean it’s outdated!

Anthony Sampson: There is another aspect to what I’ve called New Labour’s ahistorical approach. They think of government in engineering terms, the problem with many revolutionary governments. They even think in a mathematical way about institutions. British development has depended a great deal on informal influences and a tremendous interdependence and mutual respect between institutions, particularly between the law and government. New Labour’s defective, ahistorical tendency has been revealed in its treatment of the House of Lords - it is in limbo, with inherited power abolished, and nothing definite has replaced it.

Helena Kennedy: Often when the government sees a problem, it gives some boy in Downing Street the task to find out how they solve it in other countries and then copy it.

openDemocracy: Or girl!

Helena Kennedy: They’re always boys! But whoever it might be, it’s the prime minister himself who is ultimately responsible for this way of doing things. I would compare it to a surgical transplant with no consideration to the immune system; in this case the way in which the body politic might be able to deal with this new addition. This approach is absolutely unworkable in any political system.

Also in openDemocracy, Godfrey Hodgson (“A comedy of errors”) and Roger Scruton (“Tony Blair and the wrong America”) debate Tony Blair’s imitation of American models in his way of governing

The end of public service?

openDemocracy: There’s a strong passage in Anthony’s book where he talks about the domination of the marketplace over government and says that today civil servants “keep their heads below the parapet while the values of public interest and public service have been eroded.” This poses the question, what now? Can we simply return to the classical ethic of public service? Where are the values of public service now, after the experience both of Thatcherism and of New Labour?

Anthony Sampson: I think it’s the most profound issue. The idea that there’s no difference between public service and private incentives I think is absolutely shocking. Senior civil servants like Steve Robson, architect of rail privatisation, and now Richard Wilson who was head of the civil service have been misleading when they deny it. Because everybody knows from their own personal experience the difference between the tradition of public service and the marketplace. It is absolutely crucial to British public ethics. Once you abolish the idea that there’s no difference between running a business corporation and a government department or a hospital, then we are virtually saying that ethics don’t matter. I think that’s a shocking doctrine. The inability of New Labour to defend the concept of public dedication is absolutely the most serious thing that’s happened.

Helena Kennedy: Yes, in every field, from health to education, there are large numbers of people leaving, who had chosen to commit themselves to a world where value lay in a principle other than making lots of money – in producing some public outcome, in improving the lives of others. The idea that you don’t attach a value to that ethos and that our public spokesmen and politicians do not seriously defend it is heartbreaking. My husband is a surgeon, and I am a lawyer involved in defending vulnerable people in the courts. We both witness a quite shocking rejection from the top of the values that motivate public service.

openDemocracy: What about the role of the media in this process, which Anthony referred to in his first answer? Surely it’s not just the government that is to blame for the hollowing out of the values of public service.

Anthony Sampson: The media has become far more powerful. This is something I clearly tracked. Every other institution is conscious of the power the media has. And in general it is extremely negative. I agree it is the job of journalists or television producers to attack the government without having to consider what they would do in its place. It is a necessary job they can do very effectively, but a danger arises if the media sees its purpose as only to discredit all politicians and treat them as bait. The result is that fear of the media and its voracious, limitless demands makes serious discussion about policy difficult, and the whole quality of public life suffers.

openDemocracy writers – including David Elstein, John Lloyd, Tom Bentley, David Marquand, and Douglas Murray – presented challenging arguments over the crisis affecting Tony Blair over the Hutton report, the BBC, and the Iraq war; see our “Journalism & War” debate

Helena Kennedy: In some cases the media has added to the devaluing of the professions by highlighting scandals and sensationalising individual cases, to the extent that no one in their right mind would choose certain professions or specialities. And so you drive out people of talent and ability. That happened in social work, it’s happening more and more in education, medicine and even the judiciary.

Global problems, British rules

openDemocracy: On the international stage there are questions of asylum-seekers, terrorism, and migration. How do you see their impact?

Helena Kennedy: It’s globalisation! Nobody wants to talk about migration and terrorism in these terms. The things that are valued by the globalisers and multinational corporations and benefit wealth creation and capital are open borders, the electronic transfer of money, mobility of skilled labour, these also lead to the globalisation of the movement of people and also trafficking in arms and drugs. Terror networks too are part of the phenomenon of the new globalised market world. It has to be recognised that all these aspects are interlinked. But one of the things I’m saying is that, in response to this while we have to have globalised systems of commercial law, we also have to have human rights laws to tame those market abuses and hold firmly to civil liberties.

Anthony Sampson: It seems to me that the fear of terrorism and to a lesser extent the fear of immigration has the effect of rapidly diminishing the concern for human rights over the last two years. It’s striking to me how much less is talked about human rights ever since 9/11. But one result is that the European constitution in terms of human rights as defined in Strasbourg is increasingly becoming different from the American definition of rights. The assumption that the American concern for human rights was more rigorous than elsewhere, is now in question.

Helena Kennedy: This is a point that I tried to describe in my book. There are two traditions of human rights, the American and the European, with Britain in a dual carriageway in the middle. The European way is a balancing act, it’s based on the notion of balancing community interests with the interests of the individual in a way that isn’t true of the American Bill of Rights.

This difference comes to a head in the “war on terror” and the whole debacle of the Iraq war. We have an obligation not to allow our commitment to human rights to be hijacked or dismissed because of the threat of terrorism. Here, our democratic institutions are not working well enough. The civil service has become too close to government, even co-opted. And the dismissal of legal process is exposed as a crucial flaw - the idea that principle doesn’t matter when it comes to domestic or international law. All the things that we talked of earlier about New Labour’s defective understanding of what government, politics, and law should be about are revealed in this debacle. This is where the real flaw at the heart of the project has been.

Anthony Sampson: Certainly you’re right about David Blunkett. But I think with the military and Iraq, something much deeper is going on. There is a real sense of shame. Together with the belief that the war itself was a terrible and expensive mistake this will produce a different mood and outcome. All that has happened in the last three years is so against the trend even of conservative British justice and human rights.

Helena Kennedy: I want to see Labour win another election, but I would like to see a change of direction. And I think that to get it we will need to see a change at the top and suspect that’s the next thing to happen.

Anthony Sampson: But what happens in Washington is not likely to be influenced by any British protest.

Helena Kennedy: The British government has been very pusillanimous over Guantanamo Bay and I’m afraid that this is now very much associated with personality of the prime minister. If Tony Blair were to step down I think a new leader would be able to turn that around.

openDemocracy: Isn’t something deeper at work that won’t be rectified by another change of leader or government? Don’t we need to think about another constitutional settlement, taking into account all that’s happened?

Helena Kennedy: It’s not that simple or categorical. What I’m saying is, if you’re going to be involved in any process of reform you have to fully understand what the foundations are. Reforming your party, your local government, the legal system - whatever it is, you should look at the architecture and decide where your foundation and bedrock are and change it from there. I’m not saying that you don’t shift and change things, not at all. I’m saying that the invisible scaffolding is all to do with culture - law, for example, is cultural – and this needs to be respected as we clarify the basic framework.

Anthony Sampson: I can’t believe I’m going to have the last word on such a complex question! The British system is far less structured and far less organised than government thinks, yet has rooted attitudes in an interesting way that has much more to do with society. Blair has damaged the culture but I don’t think it’s irreversible. In the end British people have a habit of reasserting their anger against overbearing rulers.

Helena Kennedy: You’re right, Anthony - I’ll have the last word, and it’s this: the leverage has to come from us, from “we the people”, that things have to be done differently.

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