Why Blair wishes us a gloomy New Year
The UK prime minister's 2003 message is ripe for a time when political leadership is about promising nothing and delivering less.
Tony Blair ’s New Year message to the nation has been widely attacked for giving too gloomy a signal from government. What kind of leadership is that?, ask the critics.
But the truth is that Blair struck an appropriate note for a UK prime minister in these downbeat times, when political leadership is about promising nothing and delivering less.
‘I cannot recall a time’, Blair’s speech began, ‘when Britain was confronted, simultaneously, by such a range of difficult and, in some cases, dangerous problems’ (1). He went on to list problems, from the confrontation with Iraq and conflict in the Middle East to economic slowdown and problems with asylum seekers, that have brought new risks into our lives.
‘All of this means that for many people’, Blair continued, ‘the defining characteristic of the modern world is insecurity’. Tough government action at home and abroad was therefore required to contain these risks and make the world a safer place.
Blair’s far-from-happy message attracted scathing headlines, from ‘We’re all Doomed!’ (comparing him to Frazer, a character from the old Dad’s Army sitcom who always looked on the dark side of life), to ‘You’ve never had it so bad’, contrasting Blair’s message to the famous ‘You’ve never had it so good’ speech by Tory prime minister Harold MacMillan almost 50 years before.
Some of this criticism was well merited. After all, if Blair really cannot recall a time of more difficult, dangerous problems, that says more about his current state of mind than about his sense of history. We don’t have to go back to the perils of the Second World War. Even in Blair’s lifetime, during the 1970s, British governments faced huge problems like a full-scale economic slump and a huge wave of industrial militancy, alongside a war in the Middle East and another war, against the IRA, within the UK itself.
Next to these problems Blair’s current difficulties (some of which, such as the Iraq crisis, are largely self-created) look far from life-threatening, especially given the complete absence of political opposition.
Yet in another sense, Blair got it right. His New Year message of doom and gloom captured the essence of politics today. In fact it can be seen as the modern equivalent of MacMillan’s old ‘never had it so good’ message. Giving a downbeat speech now is as appropriate as the political triumphalism of the past.
When MacMillan made his famous remark in the 1950s, capitalism was riding the crest of the post-war boom, its leaders eager to advertise the virtues of their system against the Communist alternative during the Cold War.
Nearly half a century on we are faced with a paradox whereby, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the general acceptance that ‘there is no alternative’ to the market economy, the leaders of the capitalist world feel more insecure and less sure of themselves. Their economy has long since lost its sense of dynamism, while in politics both left and right have suffered a loss of certainty and signposts since the end of the Cold War.
Political leadership is no longer seen to be about raising people’s aspirations and inspiring them to greater things. Instead, politics is now about reconciling people to a society of low expectations. Nowhere in politics today does there exist any vision or even promise of major social advance. The political class is focused on cultivating a sense of limits, whether by talking up the dangerous effects of ‘too much’ economic growth, or warning against the consequences of unregulated personal freedom.
As his speech made clear, the key factors shaping Blair’s political outlook are risk and insecurity. For the New Labour government, the doctrine of risk aversion and the precautionary principle has become the nearest equivalent to a moral code. Whether the issue is political, social, economic or scientific, the political elite begins from the standpoint that there are new risks requiring a strengthened culture of restraint.
This emphasis on the politics of precaution holds good abroad as much as at home. ‘The blunt truth is’, Blair told the nation on New Year’s eve, ‘that there has never been a time when domestic and foreign policy were so closely linked’. The government projects its risk-obsessed ‘what if?’ outlook on to the international stage. So Blair attempted to justify a potential war with Iraq on the grounds that failing to pick a fight with Saddam Hussein over weapons of mass destruction could give the green light to other possible proliferators, and might ‘make the world a very dangerous place in the future’.
As we have noted before on spiked, the Bush-Blair crusade against Iraq seems increasingly to be modelled on the ‘success’ of foot-and-mouth policy in the UK; best to slaughter them all, in case some might turn out to have something nasty.
On the domestic front, the same attitude leads the government to prioritise protecting people from the supposed risks posed by other people. As Blair’s message put it, New Labour wants to tackle ‘the sense that in key areas of social behaviour, and in our asylum system, those that play by the rules are being damaged by those that don’t’.
In a risk-averse world where politics lacks any grand ideas of social upheaval and advance, the job of government is reduced to policing interpersonal relations and private behaviour, trying to alter the behaviour and etiquette of individuals rather than change the world.
A political outlook based on fear and precaution is no substitute for a self-confident elite. That is why the insecurity of which Blair speaks begins at the top. If you want to see a micro-snap of how the state today tends both to exaggerate problems and be overcautious in dealing with them, look at the two-week theatrical stand-off between an army of armed police and a single gunman in an east London flat over the holiday period. The fear that decisive action might trigger dangerous side-effects typifies the government’s approach to many issues – including, behind the bellicose bluster, the conflict with Iraq.
While Blair the doom-monger wishes the world a risky and insecure New Year, we at spiked look forward to helping make 2003 a year of raised expectations.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
(1) Tony Blair’s New Year message, Guardian, 1 January 2003
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