One-party state? Don't talk libertarian nonsense
When Tony Blair ended his messianic speech to the New Labour conference with that punchline about 'And now, at last, party and nation joined in the same cause', it made some commentators a little nervous about echoes of one-party politics from the past.
In an acutely observed piece in the Times, Matthew Parris declared himself uneasy about the speech's 'Tomorrow belongs to me leitmotif of a new order of things', adding that 'Mr Blair's conflation of party with nation' had 'made my flesh creep'. In Scotland on Sunday, Gerald Warner even suggested that Blair's rhetorical flourish had conjured up the spectre of the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl: 'One Nation, One State, One Leader! Sieg Heil!'
There is indeed something deeply creepy about this prime minister. And, while Blair is no more a Nazi than he is a Communist, Britain under New Labour is assuredly a one-party state. It is a one-party state, however, with a difference. Opposition forces have not been banned by government diktat, nor defeated in a civil war, nor crushed in a coup. Instead, most of them have been quietly and politely incorporated into the New Labour project.
A little over 10 years ago, when old Labour was in total disarray and all meaningful debate took place within the ranks of the Conservative Party, one could talk about Margaret Thatcher's government having established a one-party regime. Thatcher's domineering style was to polarise issues and trash all opponents, as she handbagged her way through the 1980s, famously demanding to know of everybody, 'Is he One of Us?', and giving short shrift to the many who failed that test.
Blair, by contrast, preaches the doctrine of 'inclusiveness'. He has self-consciously defined himself as the man in the middle of British politics, and invited all politicians of the centre to join the creeping New Labour consensus. Exclusion orders will be served only on those few deemed to be one of 'them' - the hardcore minority 'forces of conservatism' against whom Blair aimed his fire in that Bournemouth address.
The Liberal Democrats have effectively become a kind of soft left wing of New Labour, providing not so much an opposition in the House as an in-house opposition. Leading Tories, too, have been seen waving from atop the Blair crusade bus. The launch of the 'Britain in Europe' campaign in October had heavyweight Conservatives such as the former cabinet ministers Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke and Chris Patten lining up behind the prime minister.
It is not only opposition politicians who have been brought into the Blair fold. From industry to the media and from entertainment to the universities, few corners of British society have been left untouched by New Labour's recruitment campaign. Every influential body has moved within Blair's orbit, to the point where even those who are not entirely seduced want to be involved. One remarkable result is that there is no longer any serious anti-Labour lobby within the British business community.
Where previous Labour leaders might have sought to ingratiate themselves with the old establishment, the New Labour government (while not above a bit of toadying to the royals) has set about forging a new elite bearing its own stamp. As James Heartfield demonstrates in detail elsewhere in this issue of LM, this process of transition within the political class may not yet be complete, but it has quickly entrenched New Labour's people in power as the agents of one-party rule.
Two and a half years after Blair's electoral success, it is now clear that New Labour is the natural party of government for the end of the 1990s. It is equally clear, however, that Blair's party is not really the conscious architect of its own success. It has had no grand political masterplan to implement. Rather, New Labour draws its strength from the way that it reflects political and cultural changes which have occurred in Britain since the 1980s. Where Blair's people have tried to innovate policy initiatives, as with the Millennium Dome or the new Scottish and Welsh assemblies, they have met with a response that is lukewarm at best. But where they have surfed and assimilated existing trends in society, rebranding them as their own, they have been much better able to establish their authority.
'The class war is over', Blair announced at the Bournemouth conference. If he meant that the old political battle between right and left has ended, few would argue. What is less clear is who won that contest. As one American commentator recently observed, the left lost the economic war, but the right lost the culture war. As a consequence we are left with a world in which everybody accepts (albeit without much enthusiasm) that there is no alternative to the capitalist market. Yet at the same time, few are prepared to champion the values of Enlightenment thinking and individual freedom that capitalism has traditionally claimed as its own. The resulting peculiar compromise has proved to be New Labour's home ground.
Now that nobody will contest the market system, economics has been reduced to a technical matter of fiddling with regulations. This is a job for which Gordon Brown and the rest of New Labour's boring bean-counters are well suited. As Blair boasted in Bournemouth, we've 'never had it so prudent'. His government is even better suited than the Tories were to pursuing some economic policies associated with the Thatcherite 1980s, such as the endless attempts to reform the funding of the health, welfare and education systems. Where Tory traditionalists might have balked at too much confrontation with the professions, New Labour's control freaks are never happier than when ceaselessly searching for a more technocratic style of government.
New Labour also provides the perfect language for today's culture of lower expectations. As the party of the therapeutic state, it best articulates the debased politics of emotionalism and sentimentality, as symbolised by Blair's constant use of children as a human shield in his Bournemouth speech. And in the spheres of art and education, the new cultural elite's doctrine of 'inclusion' and non-judgemental diversity has smoothed the way for the rise of relativism and retreat from standards of excellence.
For more than a century, the Conservatives were the dominant party of British politics. Not only are they now unelectable, but there seems no reason for them to exist outside of the all-encompassing blancmange of Mr Blair's political centre. The Tory conference in Blackpool did not really, as many claimed, signal a lurch to the right. Rather it was symptomatic of a party lurching all over the place in search of something to stand for. The process has produced some eccentric policies. It would be easy to think, for example, that the Tories now favour both keeping the hereditary peers and electing the second chamber. And one might just as easily conclude that the party is for or against GM foods, depending on whether one listened to the shadow trade and industry secretary or the shadow environment team.
Yet perhaps the rump of William Hague's Tory Party does still have one role. It is a similar part to that played by the American Communist Party in the 1950s - as a fringe group whose importance is deliberately inflated by its mainstream opponents, in order to give those in power something to define themselves against. As Blair searches for a 'moral purpose' to substitute for a political vision, he needs to identify dragons for New Labour to vanquish. That is the role he has allotted to the evil 'forces of conservatism'. And many of Hague's Tories seem willing to play the part. Their obsession with Europe is less about the details of monetary policy than the feeling that Europe is something to do with the future, while they are more comfortable with the past. That way lies the path to becoming a party of British aborigines, existing only to uphold the ancient rituals and rights of a displaced minority.
Whether or not we care about the fate of the Tories, there are obvious dangers in the emergence of the one-party state. New Labour's authority in society is broad, but it is shallow, not being based on real political commitment. The insecure new elite often acts like a thin-skinned authoritarian.
In Bournemouth, when Blair divided the world between those who follow him - the 'progressive forces' - and everybody else - the 'forces of conservatism' - it sounded like a divide between good and evil. And when he told us that New Labour had not doctrines but 'eternal values', it sounded less like a political party than the guardian of the Holy Grail. Such a moralistic outlook will brook no criticism, as those who have tried to argue with Blair's leadership have found on issues ranging from Kosovo to the countryside.
New Labour's true colours shone through in the passage of Blair's speech that dealt with civil liberties. The arguments for freedom from state control were simply waved aside as 'libertarian nonsense'. The civil liberty he believes in, the prime minister told us, is the freedom to live in a civil society free from the scourge of drugs. Then he announced a new law and order crackdown and DNA testing for all offenders. The implication was that any measure is legitimate if it is done in the name of keeping the streets clean and our children safe. That amounts to a blank cheque for the authorities to do as they see fit, while damning anybody who complains as an enemy of civilised society. The only liberty Blair's approach upholds is the freedom of the state to intrude into ever-more areas of everyday life.
The irony of Blair's pitch is that New Labour represents the truly powerful force of social conservatism today. He banged on in Bournemouth about seeking the 'liberation of human potential'. Yet on everything from tying up scientists in red tape to urging economic restraint, from curtailing personal freedoms to dictating how people bring up their children, his government is doing the very opposite in practice.
Some might think that the precondition for any genuine attempt to liberate the human potential would be to give people the freedom to think and act, not as part of a consensus-obsessed party-nation, but as autonomous individuals. They might even assume that kind of freedom to be the only basis for any meaningful collective initiative. But that, as we now know, is libertarian nonsense.
If this magazine is bankrupted by the ITN libel case in the next few months, perhaps somebody should bring out one with a more meaningful title. Like 'LN'.
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999