If there is no alternative to this, we’re all in reverse
Fear and pain at the Labour Party conference.
No, Tony Blair is not turning into Margaret Thatcher. But many commentators seemed to think he might be, after Blair’s big speech at the Labour conference. His declaration that ‘I’ve not got a reverse gear’ echoed Thatcher’s famous ‘the lady’s not for turning’ line from her speech to the 1980 Tory Party conference. Blair’s message now, many concluded, was basically the same as Thatcher’s then: ‘There Is No Alternative.’
But there is a big difference between the two moments in political history. In Thatcher’s day, TINA stood for resolution. In the age of Blair, it stands more for resignation. Thatcher was challenging her opponents to a fight over political principles. Blair is asking more for a shrug of sullen recognition that there is nothing left to fight over in British parliamentary politics.
The air of resignation surrounding Blair’s version of TINA was well captured by the Sun, Britain’s largest-selling daily newspaper and a key media supporter of New Labour. At the start of the Labour conference, the newspaper published a long editorial savaging the Blair government’s record on everything from health and education to crime and immigration. Yet almost in spite of itself, it was forced to conclude, ‘we still back him’. Why? ‘Increasingly, it feels as if we give him our support because there’s no alternative. That’s an unhealthy state for our readers and the country.’
New Labour leaders did try to sustain the illusion that they are engaged in a battle of political principles with their opponents. They even sought to scare the children into behaving, with dark talk of the spectre of Thatcherism still stalking the landscape. But reports of Baroness Thatcher’s declining physical and mental health gave a truer image of the state of the political right.
In reality, the big speeches at the Labour conference only confirmed the demise of the Left-Right battle over competing visions of society, and the rise of a new therapeutic kind of politics. For example, home secretary David Blunkett said that the government’s priority was to assuage the public’s fear of crime and anti-social behaviour. And health secretary John Reid announced that the government’s job was to alleviate people’s pain, indeed to wage a ‘war on pain’.
Fear and pain are not normally considered the stuff of political debate. They belong to the more private realm of feelings. The prominence of these themes at Labour’s conference confirms the triumph of the new politics of emotionalism. It signifies the retreat from grand projects designed to change the society in which we live, into petty attempts to manipulate our emotions.
The job of government is now to act, not as a national political leader, but as a therapist to the nation – feeling and soothing our pain, relating to and calming our inner fears. This is not just a debased idea of politics, but a dangerously intrusive one. As Frank Furedi demonstrates in his forthcoming book Therapy Culture, having abandoned the attempt to convince us to believe in something, today’s elite is using therapeutic politics to try to tell us how we should feel.
It is a further sign of the demise of grand political visions that even this is now considered too ambitious by some leading commentators. Thus one pro-New Labour columnist criticised Reid’s bizarre speech about how foundation hospitals will alleviate human pain, not for reducing politics to such a banal level, but for offering an ‘earthly Utopia’. The politics of low expectations have now reached the point where even the notion of government-as-aspirin can be dismissed as Utopian fantasy.
Seen from this narrow perspective, there really can be no alternative in British politics to what Blair represents, regardless of what might happen to the man himself. Today’s allegedly big political debates are really all about technical, managerial matters. The question of exactly how a hospital should spend its funds, or of which precise way students should be made to pay back the costs of their university education, are matters of accountancy rather than ideology.
Even the rows over Iraq are less substantial than they might appear, with critics focusing on the exact timing and pretext for the war, while accepting in principle the West’s right and even responsibility to invade and overthrow governments of which it disapproves (see Labour’s phoney war, by Brendan O’Neill).
If the damp squib of the Labour conference ‘rebellion’ exposed the myth that the left offers any genuine alternative to Blair, the coming Tory conference will confirm that the Conservative right has no more to offer. Voting Liberal Democrat, as the recent Brent East by-election showed, does seem to offer an alternative of sorts to some people: not a political alternative, you understand, but more an alternative to politics altogether.
This, as the Sun might say, is an unhealthy state to be in. There is no reason to support any of the parties. But as we have argued before on spiked, the increasing cynicism about all things political points towards dangerous levels of passivity and stagnation in society. The loss of faith in political action for change today goes far beyond what we think of a Blair or a Duncan Smith, and endangers the future of human progress. We are all in danger of going into reverse gear.
So if there really is no alternative in politics, what is to be done? That is a far more important question to debate now than foundation hospitals or tuition fees. It is no use anybody simply trying to declare an alternative policy or party.
At spiked we aim to begin by critically engaging with the broader intellectual culture that underpins the grim state of political life today. We want to challenge not just New Labour or the Tories, but the decline into low expectations and the rise of therapeutic politics, broader currents that have helped remove any belief in radical social advance from the agenda.
In short, perhaps we should be trying to lay the foundations for a ‘pre-political alternative’, to create a climate in which it at least becomes possible to look beyond the limitations of Blair and those who toil in his wake. A modest enough ambition, maybe, but is there an alternative?
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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