What a fascinating end to a watershed week for Britain, a week shaped by the continued Blairite dominance of British politics. Cameron’s ‘modernisation’ of the health service opened the week; Blair’s evidence to the Chilcot inquiry and the resignation of Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s Head of Communications, closed it.
The Blairite ascendancy continues, shorn of its New Labour platform. In many respects this worldview does not now need to be rooted in any one political party to maintain its stranglehold, as Anthony Barnett explores in his piece earlier today. Leaders of power, whether Cameron or Clegg, or business people and media, know the way the world works; it does not really matter to them that there are significant reservations in large parts of the Conservative and Lib Dem parties or elsewhere.
I listened to most of Tony Blair’s evidence today to Chilcot; that is I listened to all the BBC coverage that wasn’t taken up with the resignation of Andy Coulson. It was a fascinating juxtaposition; the collision of two mutually admiring forces one of which shaped, even created the other; and of course to the end Coulson was following the brazen New Labour hymn book, finding a good day ‘to bury bad news’: himself.
Revealingly, there was much similarity in the style and manner of Blair’s evidence and Cameron’s comments on the loss of his chief spin-doctor. Both gave an impression that they were confident, self-assured men of the world, busy doing things and that lesser mortals should be happy that they are getting a small part of their much in-demand time. There was in both, despite all their skills, a visible irritation at uncomfortable questions; there was an audible aura of impatience and nearly losing one’s cool – this latter point being truer of Cameron’s short comments on Coulson as he still has so much to learn from the master.
The substance of the Blairite ascendancy is of course so much more serious than this, raising huge questions about Iraq, our democracy and the Murdochisation of our politics.
Firstly, on Iraq, a theme which came over on this Thursday’s BBC ‘Question Time’ with Alastair Campbell and George Galloway going at it hammer and tongs with such passion was: why does Iraq matter so much eight years after we went to war?
Imagine the US in a similar position, having such a raw, open, painful discussion about Vietnam in 1983 eight years after the Americans were defeated and the last embassy staff left Saigon; by then the US had moved on to Reagan’s ‘morning again’ for good and bad.
We haven’t moved on because we have not been allowed: by our leaders, political process and by not having a fully functioning public inquiry with the powers to decide whether the war was illegal. From where is the closure going to come, given Blair is never going to say ‘sorry’ or be convicted of ‘war crimes’? That matters to the health of our democracy and our future.
And another reason why it matters so much still – why it feels real and present – is that Blair still captivates us. He is the object of the anti-war protestors, ‘the Bliar’ of the placards outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, the man who widows and bereaved families say ‘too late’ to about his supposed ‘regret’.
Yet this is only part of the story. The other is that Blair is the omnipotent presence who stands across British politics like a colossus: the figure Labour are trying to disentangle themselves from, and the man and legacy the Cameroons are obsessed with. Thus, the NHS ‘health reforms’ are talked about internally as ‘Blair, better’; ditto Michael Gove and education, and the whole Cameron approach to his party, government and politics.
Second, the Murdochisation of our politics has gone hand in hand with the Thatcher-Blair consensus: a politics of populism, playing up to power and evangelical, messianic leaders convinced of their truth. As Anthony Barnett notes, the attributes of a dictator are now presented as the characteristics of a good leader.
The Murdoch empire has had good times under its allies Thatcher and Blair; it has in effect become a private state in the UK: a powerful wedge for commercialisation, marketisation and vulgarisation, the cheapening and dulling of the public realm and public sensibility.
The language, priorities and policies of our new Blairite, post-democratic political establishment is one which talks a language of change; indeed it adopts an almost revolutionary fervour of going on about ‘the status quo not being an option’ and invoking freedom, autonomy and choice. These powerful human sentiments have been captured and used for the agenda of ‘modernisation’: the constant buzzword of the Blairites and Cameroons to hand over large parts of our public services to ‘Britain plc’.
We have to stop this project in its tracks, because once it reaches a certain critical point, there will be no turning back for ‘Britain plc’ and ‘Fantasy Island Britain’. And that requires an alternative project based on opposing modernisation and celebrating, affirming and extending democratisation into the elites and institutions.