• Tony Blair Gives the Game Away

    Tony Blair’s advice to Ed Miliband this week is unlikely to influence the direction taken by the current leadership of the Labour Party, but it does have the merit of providing a telling insight into how New Labour wasted an unparalleled opportunity.

    It is of course appropriate that the advice comes in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s death, since it may be regarded as Blair’s most recent act of homage to the departed former Prime Minister. It was always the (usually unspoken) guiding principle of the Blair government that the Thatcher legacy was too well-entrenched, and too valuable, to be challenged – and it is clear from this latest effusion that this remains the cardinal principle of Blair’s politics.

    He seems not to remember that Margaret Thatcher was thrown out in 1990 by her own party or to notice that her death has revived bitter memories of the division and damage she created. For him, it seems, the whole of the Thatcherite agenda lives on.

    Both then and now, however, Tony Blair commits a fundamental error in his analysis of how political opinions are formed. What he fails to recognise is that most of our fellow-citizens do not think about politics or economics in any systematic way. It is only a small minority, whatever their position on the spectrum of political views, that has developed a fully coherent set of beliefs and principles.

    The majority are perfectly capable of holding in their minds quite contradictory notions and allegiances and of nodding in agreement to any one of the propositions offered from any part of the political spectrum. What matters, what determines the way they will think on any particular issue and the way they will vote, is which of those contradictory values is closest to the surface, or in other words has the greatest salience for them, at any particular time.

    As we confront the various issues and challenges that are the stuff of politics – the necessary compromising of conflicting interests and the proper allocation of scarce resources, power and freedom – we will find that each of those issues and challenges can be defined and described according to competing narratives. The battle for political support and the disposition of political power will depend on which of these narratives is the most persuasive.

    The challenge, therefore, and particularly for a party of the left that will usually stand for change and therefore progress, is to produce a narrative or narratives that explain difficult and complex issues most persuasively and relate them most accurately to the values that voters hold and that we espouse.

    Most people in Britain will affirm, if asked, their continued belief in the values of fairness, compassion, tolerance, concern for others. But those values have become submerged under the tidal wave of free-market propaganda; if we are to rescue them, we need to find effective ways of bringing them back to life, and back to salience, by showing their relevance and value to the solution of current problems.

    We do not meet this challenge by accepting Tony Blair’s advice. His response to the apparent Thatcherite hegemony, now and when he was in government, is and was to move the whole of Labour’s agenda rightwards. The values of our opponents were affirmed; the principles and policies that the voters knew were those that Labour had always stood for were abandoned.

    But the voters had not moved rightwards en masse. They had, it is true, become disillusioned with some elements in Labour’s programme – elements that needed updating and re-thinking – and they had been persuaded by an effective competing narrative to support some elements in the programme of our opponents.

    But for the large number of voters, of almost every political allegiance or none, who continue to embrace the values of community and compassion, the wholesale move rightwards was confusing and uncomfortable; it left Labour voters with a sense of abandonment, undecided voters with the perception that there was no real alternative to Tory extremism, and voters who would not ordinarily vote anything but Tory quite unpersuaded that New Labour was a convincing alternative.

    Moreover, in politics, unforeseen events happen and circumstances change; the issue as to who has the most persuasive narrative to explain those changes is therefore constantly redefined. The Global Financial Crisis was not, as Blair argues, an event that left opinion unmoved; the voters, it may be safely asserted, were desperately keen to escape the wreckage and to find a way forward.

    Their partial and now reducing adherence, in the aftermath of the crisis, to neo-liberal orthodoxy was in many ways a reflex action; a dash back to mother’s apron strings in times of danger. It will take time – years – to bring them to a realisation that the crisis was the result of market failure; but the fact that this will take time and effort is no reason to concede the whole of that issue to the Tories and to make no attempt to increase understanding of what went wrong so that we can avoid such crises in future.

    The only people who might think that this is a correct response are those who believe that the Tories are right and that the whole issue was the fault of supposedly “big” government; even precious few Tories now truly believe this – but Tony Blair apparently does.

    Tony Blair’s advice is, in other words, not only defeatist in electoral terms, but also a betrayal of the interests of most people. If he genuinely believes that George Osborne has got it right, then he should be honest enough to come out and say so. Otherwise, he should surely accept that his duty as an experienced political figure is to help towards learning and applying the necessary lessons.

    It is significant that, in Blair’s list of seven priority issues for Ed Miliband, there is no mention of the fundamental issue of how the economy should be managed so that we escape from recession and rebuild our shattered productive sector. It is true that Tony Blair never showed much interest in economic policy and seems to have overlooked its importance; yet that is precisely where Labour should focus its efforts, both in its own – and more importantly, the country’s – interests. To take up that central challenge is not only a duty but an opportunity – to reject the canard that we have to choose between social justice on the one hand and economic efficiency on the other.

    We should now argue that there is nothing economically efficient about keeping large numbers out of work, about leaving manufacturing flat on its back, about using vast amounts of money from both the taxpayer and the central bank to boost the banks’ balance sheets while both demand and investment remain depressed.

    This is now our opportunity to take the argument forward on our terms. We don’t have to choose; the solution to our economic problems does not lie in piling burdens on the most vulnerable. The path to economic efficiency lies instead in creating a more inclusive and equal society in which everyone – as contributor and beneficiary – is able to share. We can develop a narrative that convincingly explains the failures and – in accordance with the values that we share with so many of our fellow-citizens – takes us forward in both social and economic terms.

    Bryan Gould

    12 April 2013

  • The Murdoch Monster

    The worst moment of the Falklands War, from a British viewpoint, was the sinking in April 1982 of HMS Sheffield by an Argentinian Exocet missile. I was at the time working as presenter and reporter on ITV’s nationally networked current affairs programme TV Eye. I was immediately despatched by the programme’s editor to travel to Portsmouth, the Sheffield’s home base, to interview the young families who had learned overnight that their husbands and fathers had been killed.

    I was required to walk up to their front doors at breakfast time, with a cameraman at my shoulder, and catch the newly grieving widows sobbing into the camera. I found that I could not do it. I returned to London without the requisite footage.

    As we watch the phone-hacking scandal engulf the Murdoch media empire, it is worth registering that there has long been – at least in some parts of the media – a journalistic culture that says that “getting the story” is everything. Some hardened hacks glory in their willingness to break the rules, of both law and decent behaviour, if that is what it takes.

    So the unpleasant truth about News International is in some senses nothing new. Yet there is a special significance to Murdoch’s travails. It is not just that his newspapers broke the rules (and we have yet to discover just how far-reaching those breaches were); it is the impunity with which News International thought it could be done, the power which it gave them, and the uses to which they thought it could be put that should worry us even more than the disregard shown for ordinary human decency.

    I know, or knew, Rupert Murdoch slightly. We had, I suppose, a couple of things in common – both Antipodeans and both members of Worcester College at Oxford where he had been a student and I, some years later, a don.

    But it was as a politician that I accepted a lunch invitation from him, and his then right-hand man, Andrew Neil, in the late 1980s. The three of us had a pleasant meal and an interesting conversation at News International’s Wapping headquarters, but – even to this day – I can only guess at what the purpose of the invitation might have been.

    But that guess is a fairly informed one. We now know that Murdoch was intent on using the power that he wielded through his newspapers and other media to cajole, threaten, and suborn the leading politicians of the day. He presumably concluded over our lunchtime conversation that I was unlikely to be malleable enough to be worth pursuing. Others, however, seem to have reacted differently.

    One of those who seem to have arrived quickly at a mutually advantageous modus vivendi with Rupert Murdoch was Tony Blair. Tony seems to have consulted Murdoch repeatedly about the policy stances he should take in order to win the support of the Sun newspaper, which was read by large numbers of working-class and potentially Labour voters.

    Murdoch had never been shy about claiming the political and electoral influence which he said that the Sun gave him. Indeed, on the morning after the Tory general election victory in 1992, the Sun’s famous headline was “It Was the Sun Wot Won It!”

    Blair went on to become one of Murdoch’s most faithful acolytes. It was Tony who was the guest speaker at the celebration of News Corp’s anniversary in California in 2006 and – standing shoulder to shoulder with Murdoch – who proclaimed that “we are all globalisers now.”

    Blair’s example – his success in apparently riding to three election victories on the back of Murdoch’s support – brought most other politicians into line. It became the accepted wisdom that electoral victory depended on Murdoch’s endorsement, and this allowed him to demand more and more by way of special treatment from government in pursuit of his business interests. It was said of Blair’s government that Murdoch was the nineteenth member of the cabinet – and one of the most powerful – and Murdoch has been assiduously courted since by politicians of all parties.

    Murdoch is of course also active and powerful in other countries, and particularly the United States, where his Fox News and ownership of the Wall Street Journal give him an influential platform. Only in Britain, however, has the cravenness of politicians allowed him to dictate to governments quite so blatantly.

    Does any of this matter to us, in New Zealand? Yes, it does. The power that Murdoch has, whether real or perceived, means that one man, with extreme views that would be rejected by all but a tiny minority, is able to shape the international political debate behind the scenes, and dictate terms to elected governments, whatever the views of the voters themselves.

    We have to live in the global economy that he has helped to shape. And, it is worth registering that no New Zealand government has dared to introduce the “anti-siphoning” legislation that would have prevented Sky Television from using their monopoly of sports broadcasting to develop a position of dominance that means the death knell of public service television.

    The real threat of Rupert Murdoch, in other words, is not just to the decent standards we should expect from our media. It is to the very substance of our democracy.

    Bryan Gould

    16 July 2011

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 19 July.

  • Tony Blair’s War

    The Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq – surely one of the defining events of the last decade – may well, if we are lucky, answer some of the pressing questions about that disastrous episode. We may, as a result, be able to confirm with greater certainty that the invasion was illegal, and that it was based on a lie.

    What seems unlikely, however, is that we will be any the wiser as to why – from a British standpoint – the invasion was undertaken at all. The question, when applied to the Americans, admits of a relatively straightforward answer. There may have been for George W. an element of filial piety, and a sense of a task uncompleted, and controlling the oil may always have been a factor, but the main impetus was surely the conviction of that powerful group of conservatives who controlled the Bush administration – advisers like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle – that “if you have the power, use it”. The use of what was imagined to be overwhelming American power to change the Middle East map was too tempting to resist.

    For these ideologues, alarmingly ignorant as they seem to have been of the world beyond American shores, everyone in the world – whatever their ethnicity, culture or religion – would be Californians if they could; all that was needed was to remove obstacles like Saddam Hussein, and the dominoes would, for once, fall in the right direction. The invaders, it was confidently predicted, would be welcomed by the liberated with flowers.

    But when we ask the question of the British, the answer is less clear, and the Chilcot process seems unlikely to produce any real insights from the only person who could respond with any accuracy and authority. We may be forced to seek the answer for ourselves.

    There are of course the explanations derived from realpolitik; there was,first, the supposed need to control future oil supplies and then the constant imperative to stay close to the Americans.

    The oil question was regularly advanced as a plausible explanation for the Iraq adventure at the time. But, in retrospect, it carries little conviction. There is no evidence that Saddam was any more likely than anyone else to cut off oil supplies to the West; the main obstacle to the continued flow of Iraqi oil was, after all, the sanctions applied by the American-led alliance.

    But, it could be argued, if the Americans – even if erroneously – believed that Saddam had to be removed if the oil supply was to be guaranteed, that was surely reason enough to support the invasion, if only to assure the US that it could rely on Britain. And it is certainly true that, following Suez, the imperative to never stray too far from what the Americans wanted was deeply ingrained in British foreign policy, as I discovered at first hand when I joined the Foreign Office in the late 1960s.

    Even so, the case for the invasion on the basis that it was essential to do whatever the Americans wanted does not bear scrutiny. If that had been the British attitude, and given the weight of the legal, ethical, military and foreign policy arguments against such a dangerous venture, the sensible course would have been a measured degree of diplomatic support, or at least a defensive refraining from overt opposition. The large-scale and enthusiastic commitment of direct British military support was a step of a wholly different order, and can be explained only by identifying a quite extraordinary additional motivating factor.

    That factor was the personality of the then Prime Minister. It can safely be asserted that, although many could be found at the time to support the invasion, there was no one else in British public life who, given the opportunity, would have had the confidence and moral certainty to take this country to war as Tony Blair did, particularly on the basis of a story that he knew to be false. Where did this amazing chutzpah come from?

    Prime Ministers who serve a reasonable length of time are always in danger of succumbing to what I call “Prime Ministerial syndrome” – the belief that, after years of acolytes hanging on their every word, they are infallible. Tony Blair was temperamentally peculiarly susceptible to this condition, exacerbated in his case by his extraordinary ability at that time to persuade the British people of anything he chose. It is easy to see how he came to believe that whether or not the stated reasons for the Iraq invasion were true simply did not matter; the fact that he himself supported the venture was enough.

    Why did he support it? He had by this time convinced himself that he was a world statesman, equipped to partner George Bush in a duumvirate which would re-shape the world. Underpinned by a hitherto undeclared religious conviction, he increasingly saw the world in terms of absolutes – good and evil, right and wrong. Like the American conservatives, but for moral and religious reasons rather misplaced ideological opportunism, he could not resist the chance to strike a blow not only for enlightenment but for his own destiny.

    This messianic posture was brilliantly exploited by the Bush administration. After six years of the increasingly tedious and vexatious business of governing Britain, what a wonderful confirmation of his destiny it must have been to receive the unalloyed plaudits of a fawning American establishment and media. The carping of domestic critics could safely be ignored when the world’s greatest power recognised him as a saviour.

    We invaded a foreign country to assure Tony Blair of his place in history. The irony is that it will not be the one he had imagined.

    Bryan Gould

    7 January 2010.

    This article was publioshed in the online Guardian on 25 January

  • Saving Labour

    I surely cannot have been the only reader to stop short mid-sentence at Nicholas Watts’ statement (Guardian, 13 January) that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson had “wrenched Labour out of the wilderness”. The trio may have a number of achievements to their credit but the claim that they saved the Labour Party is – at the very least – open to question. It is precisely this kind of apparently casual but seriously misleading assertion which – unless challenged – can quietly become part of the accepted wisdom. History should not so easily be re-written.

    By the time Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, the Labour Party had substantially recovered from the nadir of its fortunes in 1983. That recovery owed a great deal to the leadership of Neil Kinnock. Under Kinnock, the Party had stopped the rot by 1987, had begun to divest itself of outdated policies, and had averted the real risk of falling behind the Liberals and Social Democrats. It had made further strides towards electability by 1992, and lost that election against many predictions only because – despite his substantial qualities – Kinnock could not seal victory by reaching out to that further range of middle-class opinion which had succumbed to the claims of the Tory media that he was nothing but a garrulous working-class boyo.

    It is very much to Kinnock’s credit that he recognised this and relinquished the leadership accordingly. Although I had my reservations about John Smith (and would have hoped for a more positive approach to the prospect of government), few can doubt surely that Labour was, under new leadership, heading for a comfortable victory at the next general election.

    The reasons for that optimism are, and were, not difficult to substantiate. General elections are almost always lost by the governing party. By 1994, the heyday of Thatcherism had long passed. Mrs Thatcher herself had been deposed by her own party some years earlier because the electorate was increasingly out of sympathy with her extreme views and policies. John Major had won an unlikely victory in 1992 but had failed to convince the electorate that he was made of the right stuff to lead the country.

    My own view is that when voters woke on the morning after the 1992 election, they were dismayed to realise that they were faced with another five years of Tory government. From that moment onwards, the die was cast. They were determined to secure a change of government at the next opportunity.

    It was certainly a signal achievement of the Blair/Brown/Mandelson “project”, (what later became “New Labour”), to persuade a Labour Party starved of electoral success that only a wholesale abandonment of its values and policies would guarantee victory. But this was a piece of sleight of hand. Not only was aping the Tories not needed; the electorate was actually very clear that it wanted change and a decisive move away from the Thatcherite agenda.

    This contention is supported by what actually happened in the 1997 general election. No one would doubt that Tony Blair was an electorally attractive candidate and that his appeal could well have added a margin to the Labour victory. But the real story of the 1997 election was that, after 18 years of right-wing and (especially after the debacle of the Exchange Rate Mechanism) incompetent government, Tory voters were disheartened and stayed at home. It was that lack of commitment, and the recognition that change was inevitable, not the abandonment of Labour principles, that accounted for the “landslide”. If, under a first-past-the-post system, your opponents stay at home, you win big.

    The real issue in assessing the role of the Blair/Brown/Mandelson trio in the Labour Party’s history is to ask, not what did they do to bring about election victory (which was largely assured by the time they arrived on the scene), but what did they do with power once the general election had delivered it to them. The answer to this question is much less flattering to them than Nicholas Watts’ claim about their “wrenching Labour out of the wilderness” would suggest.

    Every day that goes by makes it clearer that the contribution of New Labour in government has been to provide an unexpected, unwarranted and unnecessary prolongation to the Thatcherite era. New Labour has assiduously followed George Bush in foreign policy and Alan Greenspan in economic policy. On the central question of politics – the relationship between government and the market – New Labour has settled decisively on the side of the “free” market, with the consequences we are now living with. We should be very careful about investing those responsible with encomiums of praise for allegedly saving what is valuable in left politics.

    Bryan Gould

    18 January 2009

  • Tony Blair’s Easy Options

    Writing in The Guardian on 27 June 2006, Tony Blair asserts that “economic efficiency and social justice are entirely compatible.” The assertion, quoted with approval in a leading article by The Guardian a day later, is redolent of “third way” thinking and reminiscent of Lionel Jospin’s maxim “Yes to a market economy, no to a market society.”

    But like so much that is offered under the “third way” label, the assertion confuses more than it clarifies. Taken literally and at face value, it is unexceptionable. But it is not meant to be taken literally. We need not agonise for too long about the meaning of “social justice” in Blair’s formulation (though there is no doubt a debate to be had about that), but the meaning of “economic efficiency” is meant to and does cover a multitude of sins.

    In Tony Blair’s thinking, “economic efficiency” is shorthand for and synonymous with the kind of free-market economics enjoined upon – not to say imposed upon – us by global investors. As a self-proclaimed “globaliser” (see his speech to News Corp in July), Tony Blair is categorical in his belief that the global economy and the triumph of free-market economics on a global scale are not only good in themselves but are also consistent with – indeed guarantors of – social justice, however defined.

    This is, however, self-delusion on the grand scale. As I argue in The Democracy Sham, the huge power of global capital is not deployed in virtually every country to ensure that right-wing economic policies are adhered to, simply to have the outcomes undone by national governments intent on securing “social justice”. What the “third way” proponents overlook – or resolutely turn a blind eye to – is that the cardinal tenets of free-market economics are that only market-driven outcomes are to be tolerated, that governments must not be permitted to intervene in the market, and that costs that do not have a market rationale must be “externalised”, if undertaken at all. The whole point of free-market economics is to leave the market dice where they fall, which is just another way of saying that the objective is to achieve social injustice.

    The notion that market outcomes can be reversed or even modified by publicly funded social policies is simply a piece of window-dressing – either deliberate or self-deluding – on the part of governments that have no political will or analytical capacity to do any such thing. The sloppiness and laziness of the Blair formulation and the perpetuation of this delusion by “third way” academics or The Guardian have themselves become major obstacles to the “social justice” that is in increasingly short supply.

    Bryan Gould
    5 September 2006