Phoney rebellions against Blair’s empty policies
The Labour Party’s rows over issues like top-up fees make the foxhunting fiasco look deep and meaningful.
Listening to the supposedly great debates dominating British politics today, with the threatened rebellions by Labour MPs over top-up fees or foundation hospitals, I am tempted to say: bring back the foxhunting debate!
Of course, as a national political issue, the battle over a ban on hunting with hounds is a charade. The issue is entirely irrelevant to the lives of almost everybody in Britain, and has been artificially inflated by Labour MPs looking for some cause on which they can still strike a radical posture. The endless rounds of debate have been characterised by ridiculous and distorted arguments on both sides. The gruesome spectacle of self-righteous anti-hunting MPs like Labour’s Tony Banks and the Tory Ann Widdecombe chasing government ministers around parliament has seemed to capture Oscar Wilde’s description of hunting as the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.
But compared to the matters at the centre of political debate now, the foxhunting charade looks like a principled and important political issue. At least the attempt to ban a pastime involves a debate about the limits of freedom in contemporary society, at a moment when other illiberal measures tend to be nodded through without much opposition. And the hunting issue has certainly unleashed passions on either side, including the rare sight these days of a distinct constituency that is prepared to take a stand against the government in defence of its own interests.
By contrast, the current ‘great debates’ are a sham, empty to the point of being meaningless. Nobody outside the political class much cares either way. These are phoney rebellions, pretend revolts by Labour MPs who seem to want to stick their tongues out at whatever passing Bill Tony Blair happens to support. There is no real constituency in society supporting their rebellions with any passion or conviction. Whether the measures concerned pass or fall in parliament will be of no real consequence in the world outside.
The talk is of Blair putting his future on the line over top-up fees, just as it has been over foundation hospitals or the Hutton Inquiry. There are plenty of good reasons to take issue with the New Labour government. But if the prime minister really was to be kicked out of office over these sorts of issues, it would be as bizarre as him falling from power because he failed to protect the nation’s fox population with sufficient rigour.
Take the controversy over university top-up fees. As spiked writers have argued elsewhere, there are far bigger things to protest about in higher education. The big problem, for example, is not the high price of a degree, but the poor value of what is being taught and learnt at many universities (see spiked-issue: Education). Nor does the notion of saddling students with a few thousand pounds of debt – to be repaid interest-free, in dribs and drabs, when they start earning – seem like any big deal in today’s circumstances.
All the polls suggest that the public are not too bothered about tuition fees, with a majority coming out in favour of the proposals. In our consumerist culture, the idea of paying for what you get (and on credit) makes more sense to many parents than it might have done to their forebears. Suggestions that top-up fees could be ‘Tony Blair’s poll tax’, prompting a popular backlash on the scale of Margaret Thatcher’s hated scheme, seem far-fetched to say the least. If there is ill-feeling around New Labour’s top-up fees, it appears to be closer to the begrudging shrug that has greeted the congestion charge in London than the venting of collective spleen that brought down the Tory poll tax.
Yet the cause of opposing top-up fees has been taken up and talked up with great gusto, as if it were a major point of principle, by Labour backbenchers, the Tory leadership, and almost everybody opposed to Blair within the political class. The motives behind this rebellion seem immediately suspect. What exactly is all the fuss about? According to some commentators with inside knowledge, many of the Labour MPs opposed to tuition fees seemed unclear exactly what the government’s proposals were. And the Tories have caused many an informed eyebrow to be raised, by coming out so vehemently against the sort of funding measure they have pioneered in the public sector, in their cynical, desperate grasping for any stick with which to beat Blair.
Who exactly are these people supposed to be fighting for? They appear to be speaking on behalf of invisible constituencies – like the army of working-class students who are allegedly battering at the doors of the Oxbridge universities. If anything will stop more ‘ordinary’ young people getting to the best universities, it will not be that fees are too high, but that the standards in their state schools are too low. That is where those seeking a revolution in education should concentrate their fire. Instead, the crusade against top-up fees looks like a phoney war being fought to defend imaginary victims.
The Labour MPs much-vaunted rebellion is little more than an infantile tantrum, a token protest about being ignored by Blair or made to eat up their greens or something. It is the product of a degraded political culture in which sniggering at the back of the class about ‘Tony Bliar’ can pass for meaningful opposition. It offers nothing meaningful by way of an alternative vision for students, never mind for society as a whole.
Then again, perhaps an empty rebellion is appropriate, against a government devoid of ideas that itself stands for little or nothing. New Labour has pledged to pursue around 30 pieces of new legislation before the next general election. None of them is about the organisation of the economy – the bedrock issue of political debate for more than a century, now depoliticised and handed over to the techies and accountants at the Bank of England.
The Bills that the government is pushing look largely like the half-baked products of a restless administration searching for something, anything meaningful to do with its time and power. New laws and rules to regulate the use of microscopic human tissue in medical research, or set up a police register of men who have been cleared of domestic violence, or to clog up the roads with ‘jam busters’, will all be useless to our society. Indeed, as Jennie Bristow pointed out on 28 November 2003, they will be worse than useless, since the common theme is the extension of state intervention into more areas where it has no business (see Queen’s Speech: A personal problem).
All of this, the vacuous policies and the hollow rebellions, can only intensify public cynicism about politics and the widespread sense of detachment from the parliamentary process. The government’s other major initiative is supposed to be its Big Conversation with the British people. The sort of questions many would probably like to ask politicians today are ‘What planet are you on?’, ‘What are you talking about?’ and ‘Why don’t you go away and leave us alone?’.
The charade of the foxhunting debate made many thinking people wonder why their MPs were wasting their energies on such matters. But it looks highly relevant and significant compared to much of what has followed, as politics disappears down a hole in the ground.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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