Blair, the BBC and dictatorship

The Iraq war was a catastrophe for the way the UK is governed.

Over on his blog, the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, posts a revealing PS about Blair's second appearance before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.

What is emerging before our eyes is a clash of cultures between a politician who believes governing is, in the end, about one man's judgement and the Whitehall classes who believe it should be about official papers, formal consideration of the evidence and collective decision-making.

This is appalling. The word for government being one man's judgement is dictatorship. This is not a mere "clash of cultures" (as in "Do you prefer a sofa to a table?"). And Blair has made it clear it is not a matter of judgement. Judgement demands a larger process such as the assessment of evidence and a demand for different options. What Blair has always fallen back on is the sincerity of his belief or gut instinct; again an attribute of dictatorship.

Another aspect to Nick Robinson's attitude, which I am sure is shared across the political class of which he is an outstanding member, is that democracy does not come into it. One part of the Whitehall elite still clings to the need for process and a return to its Establishment codes. As a choice between this and Blairism it is quite right. But it lacks the language to gain popular support for what is an elite form of rule.

I suspect this lies behind the Chilcot inquiry taking itself seriously in a way it was not supposed to do, when it was set up under New Labour. The fact is that the Iraq war was a massive catastrophe for the way the UK is governed. It was illegal, but the government went ahead. It was a military folly, but the warnings were not heeded. It was based on patently ridiculous "intelligence warnings". There were clear distortions of the truth, aka lies (one example will suffice: Saddam could not have been manufacturing chemical weapons but Blair said he was). Above all, the decision was profoundly undemocratic, voters did not want it and were wiser than the elite in their – I can proudly say our – judgement. This is especially damaging as the British system, while not a modern constitutional democracy, has been based on the rule of law and popular consent from the 19th century, before democracy as we know it, with universal franchise, existed anywhere.

People have complained that the Chilcot inquiry does not have a clear brief. But its role has now turned into an inquiry as to whether the legitimacy of British government can be restored.

Note, never mind about democracy.

Of course, it needs a wider remit. When it was announced that Blair was being recalled, was I alone in thinking back to his being the first serving prime minister to be questioned under caution by the police and then questioned again?

Which leads on to more news of the week: Andy Coulson's resignation as David Cameron's media henchperson.

I was confident Coulson was doomed when, before the election, the Observer ran what I described at the time as a "towering" guest column by Peter Oborne. He warned Cameron, whom he supports, not to keep Coulson as his spin doctor should he win the election, as Coulson had been "presiding over what can only be described as a flourishing criminal concern".

The question is: why indeed did Cameron appoint him? Oborne asks this again with knobs on today in the Telegraph.

The answer loops us right back to Nick Robinson's inability to see dictatorship when it mushrooms before his eyes. Cameron thinks that Blair was a successful example of how to govern.

There was a very striking contrast last weekend. In a thoughtful speech to the Fabians to which I hope to return, Ed Miliband told his party how it had misgoverned when in power despite the good things it achieved. He put clear water between himself and his Labour predecessors. That was Saturday. Come Monday, David Cameron in his big speech justifies his reckless approach to public-service reform by praying in aid Tony Blair and only Tony Blair, the "you know", short-circuit dictator himself.

Coulson would have signed off on that Cameron speech as one of his last official acts. Perhaps the question Robinson should have been asking is: who represents continuity and who a change of government!

This is a cross-post from openDemocracy.

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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.