Don’t cheer if Hutton brings down Blair
It would only be a triumph for the Cynicism Party and another setback for any prospect of radical change.
spiked has never been a friend of New Labour. We do not much care whether Tony Blair survives in office. But we do have to face the fact that, if Blair were to be brought down by current events, it would be nothing to celebrate. Indeed, it could only accelerate the degradation of political life.
We are told that the prime minister is facing his ‘moment of destiny’ – again. The parliamentary vote on the government’s flagship university fees policy is due to take place next week, with many Labour MPs still threatening to rebel. A day later the Hutton Inquiry, into events surrounding the suicide of government scientist Dr David Kelly, is set to publish its long-awaited report.
This must be the umpteenth time that Blair has faced his ‘worse week ever’ since coming to power almost seven years ago. For the past few years, his government (like most governments in Europe) has seemed to be in a permanent state of crisis. Because of the ineffectual state of political parties on both sides, that crisis is never resolved one way or the other. This time, however, many are predicting that Blair faces a real struggle to survive.
So will he fall after next week’s events? Almost certainly not, although the petty, personal character of politics today makes these things harder to predict with certainty from the outside. More importantly, would it matter if he did? There is certainly no meaningful political alternative waiting to replace him. Those who think politics is pretty dull now should wait and see what it would be like under the king of the bean-counters Gordon Brown.
Indeed, if Blair was brought down by the sort of criticisms generated around the Hutton Inquiry, it could set back the cause of radical change even further, by reinforcing today’s conservative anti-politics atmosphere.
We can already see some clear signs of what public life will look like after Hutton. The body politic has been effectively paralysed since the inquiry was set up last year. That state of paralysis seems set to continue and worsen, regardless of who sits in Number 10 Downing Street.
There is much discussion about whether, should Blair survive next week, he will be a ‘lame duck’ premier, having lost the authority to do anything decisive. But that is not just a problem for Blair. Every political party and every public institution, from the BBC to the monarchy, is set to become even more uncertain of itself, timid and fearful in the wake of Hutton.
The underlying assumption of the entire process has been that government, politicians and public bodies are not to be trusted, and need to be kept under surveillance and on a short lease – especially by senior judges like Lord Hutton, now appointed as unlikely people’s champions. The response is to try to counter that criticism by playing safe, doing nothing to upset anybody, and emphasising ‘openness’. Thus we have just been treated to the odd spectacle of a BBC TV documentary criticising the BBC management’s part in the Kelly affair – focused as it was on the contents of a BBC radio report.
Everybody seems to agree that ‘spin’ is a big part of the problem with the low public standing of politics today. That is ironic, since the outcome of these pressures will be to put even more emphasis on presentation and the desperation to be seen as squeaky-clean. There will be even fewer bold initiatives and no-holds-barred debates about controversial issues. There will be even less emphasis on political principles, and even more on the politics of ‘personality’, reducing the struggle for power to a sad beauty contest to see which party leader has the more honest-looking face. In this atmosphere, any notion of trying to win public confidence by giving people something bold worth believing in would be considered dangerously destabilising.
A snapshot of the anxious mood within Westminster and Whitehall was provided this week by reports that the government is hastily setting up intensive counselling procedures for civil servants. The apparent worry is that anybody who feels they have been criticised in the Hutton report might be traumatised or even tempted to ‘do a Dr Kelly’. When the authorities do not trust themselves to cope with an unfriendly word from a law lord, they are unlikely to take a robust attitude to tackling the rather more fundamental barriers in the way of social progress.
Another retrograde trend that seems likely to accelerate after Hutton is the attempt to substitute official inquiries for political debate and action. It now appears as if anytime anything happens, from a war to the suicide of an unknown civil servant or a television programme about some racist police trainees, there immediately follow high-level demands for a full inquiry. Twenty years ago it was the left that popularised the idea that inquiring into a problem was the same thing as doing something about it. That delusion now seems to have spread to New Labour and the Tories.
Rather than fight for political ideas and interests that they believe in, elected representatives today seem keen to avoid political battles and abdicate responsibility for resolving issues. Instead they will leap at the chance to hand matters over to an inquiry, where a judge or some other apparently neutral, unaccountable figure can spend months or years establishing ‘the truth’, Solomon-style. If this substitution of judicial process for politics goes much further, we may find ourselves living under a system of government-by-inquiry.
No doubt the authorities hope that these inquiries will help to re-establish public confidence. In fact they are likely to have the opposite effect. After all, they are premised on the assumption that public bodies cannot be trusted, and that everybody has something to hide that must be brought out into the open. The result of these inquiries is invariably to reinforce suspicions about conspiracies and cover-ups, leading to calls for yet more inquiries. So the Hutton inquiry has already prompted demands from left and right alike for a full-scale inquiry into the basis on which Britain joined America’s war against Saddam Hussein. This should not be mistaken for a political challenge to wars of intervention. It is more the latest expression of cynicism about politics in general.
That anti-politics mood is also likely to be reinforced post-Hutton by the trend for emotionally driven individuals to be granted the moral authority to pass judgement on political issues and elected politicians. The reduction of the political to the personal (and increasingly, the petty) means that those with a personal claim, especially those cast in the role of victim, can stake out the moral high ground on any issue.
We have already seen many in the media try to appoint David Kelly’s widow as judge and executioner of the Blair government. Now the widow of a soldier killed in Iraq has been put up to demand that defence secretary Geoff Hoon must be sacked. Even a medical student whingeing to Blair about top-up fees and why dustmen should subsidise middle-class professionals like her has been widely depicted as a righteous crusader for justice.
Whatever sympathy one might feel for (some of) these people, the idea that their personal experience gives them the authority to judge a public issue is highly dangerous, and can only further undermine the system of democratic debate and accountability. Governments and ministers should be judged by the electorate on the basis of their public records, not by individuals whose personal feelings they have hurt. These high-profile victims have one vote, the same as the rest of us. But fear of offending such people through the media is likely to push the authorities further towards taking the safe, conservative option in the future.
It is against this background that the events of next week need to be seen. Many of us would happily see the back of Blair. But if he was pushed out by these pressures, it really would be nothing to celebrate. It could only confirm the impression that politics is a bad business, and that we are better off with high-and-mighty judges than down-and-dirty elected representatives. It would be a victory for nobody except the fast-growing Cynicism and Mistrust Party – and that is bad news for anybody who wants to counter apathy and win active support for radical politics and far-reaching social change.
It does not much matter whether or not Blair survives his current troubles or limps on towards the next election. What matters is that politics and democratic debate should not be dragged further down with him. As we have said before on spiked, when it comes to running the country the worst prime minister is preferable to the best of law lords.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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