Greasy Pole – Farmyard Politics
Greg Dyke, ex-Director General of the BBC, has changed his mind. About Tony Blair, that is – although in the circumstances in which he was winkled out of a job which was supposed to make him one of the most powerful men in Britain, he has probably had second thoughts on quite a lot of other issues. Dyke first met Blair sometime around 1980 when Blair was a fresh faced, posh speaking young barrister who nevertheless wanted to ‘serve his country’ by being a Labour MP. “The Labour Party,” Dyke advised him, “needs another barrister like it needs a hole in the head” – which did not prevent Dyke helping Labour get another hole in the head by donating £5000 to Blair’s campaign for the party leadership.
That was then; this is now, when Dyke thinks Blair, in spite of his promise to introduce a new sort of politics, is really “just another politician and in some ways worse than those before him. He was either incompetent and took Britain to war on a misunderstanding or he lied when he told the House of Commons that he didn’t know what the 45 minute claim meant”. Regular readers of the Letters column in the Guardian, which seems to operate as a kind of counsellor’s couch for disappointed Labour voters, will know there are many who agree with Dyke. These are people who also supported Blair under the impression that Labour meant a different type of politics; instead they have got something which in many important respects is indistinguishable from the Tories. And Blair seems intent on supplying plenty of evidence to support the case against him.
For example on 19 July he made a speech grandly titled a Five Year Strategy for Crime, which purported to look back on the consequences of the 1960s and what the Blair government plans to do to repair the damage caused by that supposed time of “a huge breakthrough in terms of freedom of expression, of life style, of the individual’s right to live their own personal life in the way they chose”. Blair argued that law and order policy then focussed on the offender’s rights, protected the innocent and understood the social causes of criminality. But now:
“Today, people have had enough of this part of the 1960s consensus . . . they do want rules, order and proper behaviour . . .
They want a society of responsibility. They want a community where the decent law-abiding majority are in charge, where those that play by the rules do well; and those that don’t, get punished.”
That speech might have been made by John Major back in 1993 when, conveniently overlooking his affair with Edwina Currie, Major audaciously decided to lecture the rest of us on the need to get Back to Basics. He called for a revival of “the instinctive values of neighbourliness, decency and consideration for others”. He wanted the criminal justice system to “blame a little more and understand a little less”. Blair’s speech might also have been made by Michael Howard who, shortly after Blair shared his thoughts on crime and society with us, informed us that:
“Conservatives will stand up for the silent, law-abiding majority who play by the rules and pay their dues. We will put their rights first.”
Among all this competition for votes Blair ignored the fact that during much of the alleged wild days of the 1960s when, he now thinks, the foundations of a seriously irresponsible society were being laid, his party were in power. They achieved that position not by respecting human decencies and behaving responsibly but by misleading the voters. Labour’s 1964 election appeal was based on the assurance that prosperity would come through an increase in productivity arising from technological development. The Tories had apparently overlooked this but Labour were led by the ravishingly clever Harold Wilson, who had graduated in economics at Oxford. After harnessing the technological revolution Wilson would put George Brown in charge of the economy at the Department of Economic Affairs and the rest was easy. The problem was that capitalism is not susceptible to being managed in that way. Wilson’s facile assurances were exposed and his government descended into chaos and crisis. One of Wilson’s senior ministers said “The trouble with Harold is one hasn’t the faintest idea whether the bastard means what he says even at the moment he speaks it”. Another agreed: “The tragedy of Wilson was that you couldn’t believe a word he said”. It was not a shining example of a government driven by a desire to play by the rules – unless it was those governing the methods used by political parties to get power over capitalism – and behave responsibly about their electoral promises.
Meanwhile, how was the young Tony Blair surviving in those times of moral peril? From 1966 to 1971 he was a pupil at Fettes school, said to be the Eton of Scotland. It was the kind of educational establishment to have a strong appeal to the Blair of 2004 for the headmaster, a Dr. Iain McIntosh, was a disciplinarian and an ardent opponent of the “liberalising” influence of the 1960s. Fettes had a system of fagging, under which the younger boys had to be servants of the seniors. (Blair resented this but was praised by his senior for making “particularly good toast.”) Flogging by masters and senior boys was in force, with Blair the occasional victim (once at the unusually advanced age of 17). It must have been a proud moment for the headmaster when, after a game of hockey against a nearby borstal, the Fettes boys and the young prisoners compared their respective regimes; the borstal boys were sure they had the easier time.
Blair did not willingly submit to the Fettes regime as a valuable lesson in morality, which would stand him in good stead when he was later lecturing the rest of us from the eminence of Number Ten. He was in fact something of a disruptive influence in the school, persistently questioning and opposing the rules and procedures there. His housemaster assessed him as “the most difficult boy I ever had to deal with”. A fellow pupil remembered that “Masters were very worried about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and Blair looked like all three”. When he was 14 he ran away – simply walked off the train his parents had put him on to go back to school and made his way onto a plane at the airport – he said to fly “to somewhere like the Bahamas” – but the plan came to nothing because he did not have a boarding pass.
There were masters at Fettes who enjoyed Blair’s nagging and questioning as stimulating. Well there have been many others who have been bemused by his charm into accepting his flexible “principles”. Some of these people are ministers in his government. Others are just ordinarily deluded voters. This was the kind of tolerance – if that is the word – which helped him be accepted into Derry Irvine’s chambers when he was looking to become a barrister, a favour which has been repaid since. It slid him up the greasy pole, at first as a by-election candidate in the hopelessly Tory stronghold of Beaconsfield and then into the safe Labour seat at Sedgefield. It was not an obstacle to his climb that he joined CND, after he had been advised that the “more badges” he accumulated the better his chances of getting on in the Labour Party – advice he accepted with alacrity. It has seen him into Number Ten and keeps him there, in spite of the exposure of his deceits and the fact that in all important respects – in his policies, his speeches, his phraseology – he more and more resembles the Conservatives who are supposed to be his opponents.
If it is impossible to discern any significant differences between the Labour Party and the Tories, that is because there aren’t any. On the basic issue of how to run the capitalist system they are thoroughly agreed that this must be done in the interests of the ruling class, which means that both of them in government must impose policies which are against the interests of the majority, while assuring us that they are doing something else. They must both define the problems of capitalism in terms of ruling class interests and offer “solutions” which at best are little other than palliatives. It is not a matter of chance that as they try to deceive the working class the party leaders use the same words, the same phrases. It is rather like the final passage in George Orwell’s AnimalFarm, when the animals outside the farmhouse observe the pigs who have taken control of the farm inside, enjoying a raucous get-together with neighbouring farmers. As the evening wears on “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”. That is what Greg Dyke and all those disgruntled Labour supporters are witnessing now; will they cling to Labour or will they consider the alternative to the cynical mess of capitalism’s politics?