The article below was
written in 2001 just after the election of that year. It is 1600+ words and slightly edited for
THE GLASS IS FALLING - A
The Blair Bounce Election
of 2001 has been a strange experience.
All along it has had the whiff of 1959, when McMillan’s Conservatives
should have been punished for the grotesque adventure of the Suez Affair, their
dissembling arrogance, and the cavalier treatment of the public purse. Again, an electorate befuddled by style,
unsure of the future, and lurching to the apparent safety of the certain have
given authority back to an undeserving and creepy bunch of hoods. So what happened this time, and where were
Who are these Tories? Apart from Hague and a handful of others they
were strangers to us all. It is possible
for a party to be elected as a more or less clean slate of unknowns, Blair
managed it in 1997 against the Tory misfits, but it is much better for a team
to have made an impact on the minds of the electorate. This is something that had not happened, and
it is worrying. Was it simply a failure
of strategy on the part of the Conservative Party, or has the media drifted
away so much from routine and day to day politics and issues that we no longer
know who is in the frame? During the
election most of the tabloids were rarely deflected from their style and
celebrity sensations, and even the broadsheet newspapers gave cursory attention
to any but the leaders. If the media
cannot be bothered with the second tier politicians then why should the voter?
A part of the problem now
is that few members of the House of Commons have ever done much of a real
job. As one pensioner put it, they don’t
know one end of a shovel from the other.
This means that in dealing with the world of work, the getting and
spending, and realities of the ordinary jobs, they really have no idea of what
goes on and how things are organised or done, and it shows.
At one time the typical
Tory could claim that by and large most of them had more experience in actually
running real things than their Socialist equivalent, the sons of toil, but that
is no longer true. The generation who
had some idea of how to react when things got rough quickly and things had to
be done fast and firmly have gone. Blair
and Major both, as well as their advisers, have been flustered and floundering
in these situations.
Also, the Tories do not
lie convincingly, when they have needed to temporise there has been the tell
tale slack in the mouth. Their
inexperience has meant that many have retained the habits of childhood, the
wide-eyed frankness and the excuses that just get you into more trouble.
New Labour with its
essential qualification of a total lack of any concept of truth has been able
to lie with impunity. If anything there
has been the smack of admiration amongst those voters in commercial life and
especially in the public services for whom toughing it out is an article of
William Hague has been
worse off in having Sir Edward Heath, the Beast of Bexley, to contend
with. In addition there has been Boyo
Heseltine The Dome, the very sundry fans of Europe (Prodi and Kinnock Rule OK)
led by Napoleon Howe, and as an occasional comedy turn, Baroness Thatcher, to
distract people from his message.
Can anyone remember what
the policies were, and did anyone really know in the first place? Oliver Poole, one of the great Chairmen of
the Conservative Party averred that it was necessary to have your ideas firmly
planted in the public mind a good six months before an election. Then you convinced the voters that you had a
grasp of the essentials.
It is more difficult
today, when there are no longer the great issues of war and peace, and we have
accepted some of our limitations. Additionally, the media driven need to go
after what is defined as a story about human interest or the latest gruesome
sensation, remains a formidable obstacle to putting over a closely argued case
on the needs of the future. Moreover,
the voter has become convinced that matters like health, education, and race
are the only real items and are not secondary to the critical concerns.
Is it possible actually to
have a set of policies as a means of guidance for the voter? The movement in the Nineties to legislation
on the hoof, running sloppy regulations and directives past Parliament in a
hurry, and taking on board as policy the latest utterance of the more
influential pressure groups and public relations outfits, means that government
increasingly is a game of hopscotch.
So when an opposition
leader attempts to say that policy is important then the counter argument is
simply “Trust me when it happens”. In a
world of real and media uncertainty and incompetence it is very difficult to
counter this claim. The next
Conservative Leader can hope only that something comes up which causes Blair to
blow a fuse big enough to lose the faith of the masses.
One of the paradoxes of
history is that in 1959 there was an electorate, most of whom had left school
at fourteen or earlier having had only an Elementary School education, but
possibly were better informed with less media facilities. The much longer educated voter of today with
a multiplicity of news sources and providers of information, arguably knows
little, and cares less.
So who needs policy?
Gaitskell observed that he
would fight, fight, and fight again, for the principles he believed in, which
may have been a factor in his losing the 1959 election. The British seem to be averse to this sort of
open pugnacity in their politics. They
prefer to be lied to with honeyed words and told things are easily accomplished
and at much less cost than anyone expects.
This is the basic reason for so many of our financial fiascos in central
and local government.
Corelli Barnett has
observed that Tony Blair is not a man he would care to be with in a slit trench
with when the bullets start flying. He
has missed the point. Blair is well
aware that he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. William Hague has given the appearance of
being a bit of a bouncer who wants to get on with it. Politically this is not the British way.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
In the late 1940’s Bevan
took the local arrangements for health care in Tredegar, which worked well in
the context of a Welsh Valley, and made them the template of the National
Health Service of the future for the whole of the UK. At the same time the Government imprinted on
the public mind that there was a finite end in sight. As I heard Attlee say in 1950, “It will take
a long time and we will have to work very hard, but we will get there.” The trouble was that there wasn’t any “there”
to arrive at; the destination was always going to be changing, as well as the
roads to be followed.
The combination of Bevan’s
single model with mid 20th Century administrative systems was fatal
to the idea. The NHS was badly flawed at
the outset, and all the reorganisations, initiatives and the rest, have simply
added to the confusion. At least in 1959
you could reckon on a clean floor and a tidy bathroom and food in the mouth.
The indescribable filth of so many hospitals and the sight of the incapable old
starving in their beds for lack of staff to feed them is a testament to the
capabilities of our civil service and political system.
It would be possible to go
through a litany of failures and incredible stupidities, and one wonders how
the government of the day got away with it all.
But they did so there should be little surprise that despite its
manifest weaknesses and failures the government of Blair and his associates
have survived, trading on the weakness of the electorate when faced with the
need for change.
When the results began to
come through in 1959, we were disbelieving of what we were seeing. Surely they were untypical? How could the shyster, Supermac, as they
called Harold Macmillan, be going back to Downing Street? The historians have pored over the subject,
but have not come up with convincing answers.
Was it really the fear of radical change? There is one possibility, though, a remark
made at the time by a senior lady Labour councillor who knew her ward and city
better than any. “They thought we were
going to close ITV down, and didn’t want to lose Take Your Pick.” she said,
talking of the virulent reaction of many Labour leaders to the introduction of
the commercial television channel and the new world of game shows.
So what did the electorate
of 2001 think they were going to lose? I
am at a loss here and can think only that the price of houses may have
something to do with it, but that is a weak and tentative gut reaction, and
probably wrong. The worry is that in
1963 the electorate lost Gaitskell as an option and in 1964 finished up with
Wilson after Macmillan finally blew his fuse and left Home with insufficient
time to make up lost ground. This gave
us the dreadful combination of Heath and Wilson and the abandonment of any future
Surely, we can do better
than that? But it all may be academic.
In the eighties, there
were commentators who predicted that the Conservative government of the day
could rule forever. In the nineties,
they self destructed, but can New labour be trusted to do the same?
Not much has changed.