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Thursday, April 05, 2007

How to banish cynicism

There is something odd about the Times report on Monday regarding Labour's latest assault on the SNP.  The odd thing is neither the assault, nor the report, but the headline: "Chancellor and Blair attack SNP".  Chancellor and Blair?  Newspaper headlines are usually short: why not "Brown and Blair"; or "Chancellor and PM"?  It's a small point but nevertheless the underlying implication is clear.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer is an important man with a serious role; he should be accorded some respect.  Tony Blair, however, is a man without authority; an isolated and powerless figure in the waiting room of history.  He may be Prime Minister in name, but in practice he is of minimal significance: not even Mr Blair; just Blair.

Of course we have serious political differences with Tony Blair and the concerns about the damage wrought by many of his policies on the fabric of our society are serious.  Nevertheless, he has been one of the most important world statesmen of the last ten years, and he is the consummate political operator of his generation (although he is still a young man, for a politician of his stature).  A sitting Prime Minister is entitled to more respect than this.  Blair's tragedy is that his political capital – the goodwill accompanying his 1997 election victory, had been squandered by the time he really needed to draw upon it: when he had to take the most momentous, unpopular, but nonetheless essentially correct foreign policy decision to join the in the invasion of Iraq.  Politically he has never recovered from this, and his party has never forgiven him.

And so the world moves on, and Gordon Brown is, to all intents and purposes, the Acting Prime Minister.   But the knives are out for him, too.  The current controversy over what precisely the Chancellor knew, and when, about the likely consequences of his £5 billion a year tax raid on pensions is of such powerful significance precisely because of the expectation that he will soon get the top job.  Just a couple of weeks after he was accused of Stalinist tendencies by a top civil servant, the Chancellor finds himself embroiled in a “scandal” that might not be a crime in the same league as Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture, and the slaughter that went with it, but nevertheless an action which has had severely negative outcomes for a pension system which was one of the best in the world before Gordon Brown got his hands on it.  Although the Chancellor is not without his defenders, it is notable that many of those cited by the Treasury as supporters of this particular policy at the time have denied voicing any such opinions.  Tony Blair is not the only senior Labour politician to have made enemies in the past ten years. 

While the cynicism that pervades the perception of politicians by the media and the public at large is unfortunate, it has to be conceded that much of the damage to the image of politicians is self-inflicted.  The lack of competence, the inability to listen to expert advice, the determination to hide behind spin and public relations and the urge to conceal the facts rather than face up to difficult realities are all features of modern politics, and for all New Labour’s protestations on taking office that “things can only get better”, in many ways the political system is even less healthy now than it was ten years ago.  The political establishment is tarnished, and it is hard to see where any impetus for change can come from, except from outside that establishment.  We need a widespread renewal of our civic society and political culture – the windows need to be thrown open so that the fresh air of new ideas and a new idealism can refresh the government of the country.  We don’t just need new faces and a new party, we need a new way of doing politics.  The New Party seeks to put itself at the forefront of this movement for civic renewal.