The cage that must be rattled

Reform and respect: Tony Blair has proved considerably more adept at the former than the latter, certainly where the Labour Party comes in. Over the past decade he has fashioned it in his image - doing whatever it takes to get into power and to keep power, but unclear about the purpose of that power. In his third and, one assumes, brief incarnation, he has decided to take on the hoodies and the hoodlums on our streets, in our midst and in our public services.

But who should be the recipient of the "respect" that the Queen exhorted, on behalf of her Prime Minister, her subjects to show? The royal family? Harmless or harmful fun, take your pick. Your local bobby or community support officer? As long as their behaviour is commensurate. Teachers, definitely; doctors, probably; your neighbours? Respect is, in the end, the ultimate performance-related test. Where earned, it should be shown. Which is where this government comes in.

The "plague on all your houses" verdict from 5 May ref-lected the sullen mood of the campaign. It testifies to the detachment of citizens from politicians. The Labour Party has a limited and conditional mandate. A chastened Blair promised on election night that he would listen and learn. But listen to whom and learn what? The initial signs are not promising. As ever, he confuses hyperactivity and macho posturing with considered activity and genuine consultation.

The 18-month legislative programme is not all bad. Measures to introduce corporate manslaughter are belated but welcome. Similarly, broad but not unqualified support should apply to reform of charity law, the tightening of our compensation culture, tougher smoking restrictions, stronger curbs on replica firearms and knives, and, most clearly of all, an extension of maternity rights and childcare provision. It is this more positive agenda - social justice, greater equality and opportunity, and addressing the twin British diseases of low quality of life and low life chances - that should be the urgent priority of this and any Labour administration. But these, alas, are not the headline issues. ID and IB are the acronyms of the moment.

In 2002, when this government took its first steps to introducing identity cards, the New Statesman supported it on the grounds of egalitarianism. That was before Iraq and the deceits that accompanied it. A government with a flexible approach to the truth and a cavalier attitude to intelligence should not be allowed further to encroach on our lives. Reform of incapacity benefit is complex. Again, it comes down to motive. Is this a means of saving money or of encouraging people who may have lost confidence or motivation to get back into work?

As each measure is debated - from the deeply contentious, such as asylum and immigration, anti-terrorism and education, to Lords reform that should herald a new constitutional settlement - the NS will probe and harry. It will rattle cages in the most fearless traditions of our two longest- serving editors, Kingsley Martin and Peter Wilby. We will not accept at face value assurances from a government that has squandered the respect of the left and many beyond.

The length of Blair's final period of office is secondary. More important is not who but what comes after. Government is about more than torrents of legislation. Political leadership is about more than government. The direction of our country and the world, where we can affect it, is about far more than our leaders. The next few years could mark the end of a cycle that promised so much and delivered not a lot. Or it could be the start of something more inspiring.

A tyrant's charter

In an era when TV determines an event's importance, the massacre in the Uzbek town of Andijan has received less coverage than it deserves. Camera access denied, few stories supplied. The reported death toll of more than 700 constitutes one of the worst cases of bloodshed involving government troops and civilian protesters since Tiananmen Square in 1989. With such staunch friends in the White House, Islam Karimov, one of the most unpleasant cast-offs of the Soviet era, knew he could act with impunity. The Uzbek president has done George W Bush many a service since 9/11 - protection of gas supplies, an airbase for sorties into Afghanistan and beyond, and a willing venue for a spot of offshore torture.

We may be bystanders, but we are not innocents. The roots of this barbarism can be traced back to the US Congress, to January 2002 and Bush's invocation of the axis of evil. By selecting three targets for his "war on terror" - Iraq, Iran and North Korea at the time, although, like any hit parade, countries go up and down - the president did not herald an era of regime change for despots the world over.

"Democratisation", aka "liberal interventionism", when applied consistently and through international organisations, could be embraced by the left. But the agenda is based on a single criterion: US interest. The world is where it was during the realpolitik of the cold war, except now there is one superpower doing as it pleases. The UK response? A statement of concern a tad less weaselly than that of the US - for a regime whose human rights abuses are documented even by the Foreign Office. If the moral courage of Jack Straw and Tony Blair had matched their political guile, from Iraq to Uzbekistan, Britain's standing in the world would have been enhanced, not diminished, in recent years. Now, as long as you are on the right side of the "war on terror", there is no better time to be a torturer and tyrant.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The nuclear charm offensive