Blair, Bush, Chirac: in power, but in paralysis
Why can't any government face up to a political challenge these days?
Across the Western world today, governments are not working and the machinery of state is in a state of confusion. Tony Blair’s New Labour government in the UK, George W Bush’s Republican administration in the USA, Jacques Chirac’s conservative regime in France and Angela Merkel’s less-than-Grand Christian Democrat-Social Democrat coalition in Germany may all be in slightly different situations. But they are all in crisis.
Outgoing British Conservative leader Michael Howard recently recalled a famous criticism of the last Tory government, describing Blair as ‘in office, but not in power’. Other such labels spring to mind when considering just about any Western government today. They are in office but out of control, in power but in paralysis, in government but unsure where they are supposed to be going, never mind how to go about getting there.
This is the result when the post-ideological, managerial style of government meets a real political challenge. The elites of Europe and the USA now lack the sort of purposeful project – be it the Enlightenment, the Empire or the American Dream – that once gave them the self-belief and certainty to face the world.
As analysed elsewhere on spiked, the French government’s response to the riots that have spread from Paris to the provinces is perhaps the starkest illustration of the problem of ‘power without purpose’ today (see French lessons for us all, by Frank Furedi). President Chirac responded by saying not a word about the growing unrest for a week, presumably in the hope that, if he pulled the bedclothes over his head and whistled to himself for long enough, the bogeymen would eventually just disappear. Chirac’s impression of a rabbit caught in the headlights of history would have been shocking enough had he been a new boy still learning the political ropes. Coming from one of the most experienced and wiliest operators in European politics, however, it was breathtaking.
The international press could scarcely disguise its mixture of shock and glee at the government’s ineffectual response: ‘French leaders appear helpless as rioting spreads’, ‘Platitudes piling up but Chirac paralysed’, ‘Leaders fiddle as France burns’. But even these dramatic headlines tended to underplay what happened. After all, it was not France that was burning, but only a few hundred cars in grim suburbs, mostly lit by small gangs of adolescents. Yet this sort of juvenile protest proved sufficient to throw into disarray not just a wobbly Chirac but the fragile French state. The police, long notorious for their heavy-handed suppression of any such unrest, were soon pleading for the army to be sent in to help them regain control.
Americans are not generally keen on comparing themselves to the French, but there is a clear parallel here with the response of both the Bush administration and the local authorities to the disaster in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Many were at a loss to explain why the official response was initially so inadequate, why it seemed that the mighty American state could not reach the New Orleans evacuees when a few journalists could. There were widespread claims of racism, suggesting that the authorities did not care about the stranded people of New Orleans because they were poor and black. No doubt there is some truth in the allegations of double standards. Yet in retrospect it seems likely that the authorities would have proved just as incapable of acting decisively if the victims had been middle-class whites.
President Bush’s reaction to New Orleans, like Chirac’s response to the riots, was a demonstration not so much of prejudice as of paralysis. When it mattered, he lacked the will or the authority to push the button and make the state machinery unite behind his message. Nor was this merely a personal failing. The same incoherence and lack of will was evident at every level of American officialdom, from the New Orleans mayor spreading unfounded scare stories about mass rape and murder, to the hundreds of policemen who simply disappeared from their posts in the stricken city.
In Britain, the sense of crisis is focused on internal wrangling within Tony Blair’s government and party, rather than on external ructions caused by suburban riots or hurricanes. But the underlying problem, of a government and a political class lacking a purpose and unsure of what they are there for, remains much the same.
Take Blair’s damaging defeat in parliament over his attempt to introduce 90-day detentions for terrorism suspects (see A bad day for Blair – an even worse one for liberty, by Brendan O’Neill ). Why would a supposedly savvy political leader have attached such importance to an apparently arbitrarily chosen number of days, refusing to compromise at all? Why should anybody imagine that the right to lock somebody up for 90 days without charge or trial, rather than, say, 60 days, could be presented as if it were a non-negotiable political principle?
This sort of phoney attempt at decisive leadership looks like the flipside of the paralysis demonstrated in France and America. Lacking any genuine convictions on which to make a political stand (see his constant back-and-forth policy shifts on every issue from education to alcohol), Blair has apparently taken to inventing empty principles around which he can pose as a messianic leader fighting the forces of darkness. The hollowness of Blair’s heroic stand soon became clear, however, when he was forced to rely on the British police – not normally thought of as masters of political argument – to come up with any sort of a case for the 90 days nonsense. His subsequent defeat in the House of Commons was pretty inevitable. Before you can successfully put your authority on the line, it is best to ensure that you have some to put there.
All of these governments enjoy the far-reaching technical power of the modern state, but without the sense of purpose or authority to impose it on society. They are government machines, in search of a political mission through which to govern. The result is a dangerous mixture of paralysis and posturing. Nor can we look to their opponents for any respite. In Britain, the only serious alternative to Blair today remains New Labour chancellor Gordon Brown. Yet Brown’s reluctance to put his head an inch above the parapet on any controversial issue from Iraq to anti-terror laws makes Blair look like a truly brave fighter for what he believes.
If the official response to the French unrest summed up the problem of power without purpose, the riots themselves have perhaps demonstrated the limits of opposition without alternatives. They are an angry gesture, a lashing out, that can ultimately benefit nobody. It will take something more serious-minded than petty unrest to break the international cycle of directionless government and aimless opposition.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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