2000s >> 2001 >> no-1165-august-2001

Greasy Pole:Politicians on probation

Tony Blair and his government are on probation. They spent the years between 1997 and 2001 in hardened delinquency – telling us that things were changing, getting better, when all the evidence said that they were as bad as ever. It was not surprising that so many Labour voters stayed away from the polling booths in June – not because of what Blair denounced as apathy but to assert their disappointment in Britain under New Labour. So it came about that after the election the government could spend little time congratulating themselves on their historic win but had to consider the fact that they had not delivered what they had promised.

Thousands of sick people still have to wait for admission to hospitals for treatement by under-resourced, overworked staff in conditions which can often be described as appalling. Poverty is as deep and as damaging as ever. Many children go each day to schools in crumbling, overcrowded buildings. University graduates are qualifying with huge debts through having to pay tuition fees.The “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” policy has not proved to be the magic formula for reducing it ; in fact violent crime continues to rise. For these reasons – and for many others – the voters’ assessment of the government was – “Could do better. Must do better. After all, you’ve got to come back asking us to vote for you again in another few years. And like any subdued delinquent on probation, the government has had to promise to do better.

But of course the Tories – for different reasons – also made a dismal showing at the election. For them, it is even more urgent to do better in their appeal to the voters. First of all there was the matter of their leader but they were spared the embarrassment of pushing William Hague over the cliff by his obligingly jumping before a hand could be laid on him. At this time of his humiliation there were few people cruel enough to recall all the glorious promises that were made about him when he became leader – promises about how this young, vigorous judo hobbyist was destined to lead his party out of the gloom and divisions of the Major years. After Hague’s resignation there was some doubt about whether anyone would be mad enough to want to lead a party which is unlikely to get a sniff of power for the next ten years. But in the end there were five MPs so devoted to their duty to their party and country that they were prepared to make the necessary sacrifice to serve the rest of us – or, to be more accurate, in order to fulfill an ambition which has dominated their political lives.

All these candidates agreed that the Tories were also on probation. In 1997 they had failed to convince enough voters that the previous 18 years had been notable for their achievement in building a prosperous, secure, healthy, crime-free country. Now, they had to do better. Portillo thought they had been too hard line in their policies; Davis thought they had not been hard enough. Ancram thought they had been too divided. Duncan-Smith said the leadership election was about “. . . how we renew, how we change, about how we stay Conservative” – which was muddled enough to appeal to just about every Tory in the country. They got plenty of advice from psephologists and media hacks about the need to occupy what they called the Middle Ground – a kind of unstable political swampland – except that Blair and his New Labour people are there before them. Covered in that kind of mud, the two parties look exactly alike.

The most gruesome personification of this approach was Michael Portillo, who has spent the four years since he was rejected by the electors of Enfield Southgate trying to expunge the memory of a number of unwisely hysterical speeches – like the one when he had a Tory conference swooning with his reference to the SAS and their “Who Dares Wins” motto (Ted Heath snarled that the reaction to this speech “hit new heights of offensiveness”). Portillo came into Parliament with the reputation of a fast rising star and as soon as he had changed his hair style from the gawky schoolby fringe to a proudly sweeping quiff he began to make his mark as an unrepentant, straight-down-the-line Thatcherite. The Iron Lady herself knew him as “beyond any questioning a passionate supporter of everything we (stand) for” – which should have been enough to finish him off. In another provocative speech he informed an audience of students that had they been studying in some other countries they would have been able to buy their degrees. He took on the job of pushing through the hated Poll Tax, on the grounds that it was one of the most beneficial pieces of legislation dreamed up by any government. The embodiment of Tory arrogance, he seemed to glory in being one of the most hated politicians in the country.

Portillo’s apparent personality change, his efforts to get people to love – and to vote for – him has only made him look more ridiculous and gruesome than ever. He is no longer the arch-privatiser; now he promises that a Tory government would match any money Blair’s government spends on the NHS. He has accepted the minimum wage, although he once said this would lead to mass unemployment (perhaps even more people out of work than there were under the Tories?). In fact he has committed a future Tory government to “full employment” – as if that can be brought about through government policies. He no longer regards the Labour Party as a mortal enemy; now he praises Blair’s lot for how they are running the economy (as if governments have anything to do with how the economy runs). And, most crucially, he revealed that all those rumours over all those years about him being homosexual were true. He could hardly have bared his soul more dramatically – which is a measure of the effect on him of that defeat in 1997.

Portillo’s best-known opponent for the leadership, Kenneth Clarke, is very different. He has been called “blokey”, which means he has no time for soul-searching, he wears rumpled clothes and suede shoes, carries a large beer gut, smokes cigars. “Sod my image” he once said to a journalist who was worried about what he looked like as he sat munching a mammoth sandwich at a boxing match. The late Alan Clark, a rather different Tory MP because he was wealthy and disdainful, sneered at him as a “pudgy puff ball . . . lazy, flawed . . . wanker . . . not worth 25 votes”. Thatcher, Clark wrote, “cannot stand him” “which may have had something to do with the fact that Clarke was not afraid to stand up to her (in fact she thought him a “persuasive bruiser, very useful in a brawl or an election”). Kenneth Clarke showed what he thought of his rich antagonist by suing the manufacturers of Trivial Pursuit when one of their questions got the two men muddled up.

But being the sort of guy who would stand his mates a drink at the club bar does not mean that Clarke is at all relaxed in his attitude towards the working class and the priorities of British capitalism. As Education Secretary he had a running battle with the teachers in his drive to impose teaching standards on them while he squeezed more and more work out of them. When he was Health Secretary he was more concerned to scorn striking ambulance crews as “taxi drivers” than to settle a dispute which put many lives at risk- which made not a few people hope that one day he would himself need the kind of emergency attention which ambulance crews provide every working day. His imposition of budgets on GPs met with opposition from the doctors, who Clarke dismissed as motivated by their wallets before the needs of their patients. These budgets are now suspected of discouraging some GPs from spending money on treating their more elderly patients – perhaps because worn out workers are not economically fruitful to keep alive.

It says a lot about the politics of capitalism that one of these men could be the next leader of the Conservative Party. The other candidates have no more to recommend them. Scary Iain Duncan-Smith is an unrepentant Thatcherite who was once described by Norman Tebbit as “normal”, which should have been enough to finish him off politically but as he sits for Tebbit’s old seat at Chingford may have done him some good. David Davis is a hard man, admired by Alan Clark because he is a very good skier – which may have a limited appeal to anyone who is not to be seen on the ski slopes. He is another who thinks the Tories lost the election because they were ideologically too soft. Davis was in the SAS although whether this has impresed Portillo is not known. And trying to unite them all and the rest of the Tory rag-bag, and to show that the ghost of Macmillan still walks,was the amiable toff Michael Ancram.

No one should be impressed by the attention we are getting from apparently remorseful politicians. We should treat them as delinquents on probation; if they don’t improve they will have to answer for it. There is no need to punish them, as delinquents are punished by the courts. It will be enough, to trust ourselves to run human society without them.


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