From Socialist Worker, No.1888, 14 February 2004.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Tony Blair’s government is in an even deeper mess than many people think. Chris Harman, editor of Socialist Worker, explains why
BLAIR IS increasingly like someone trying to extricate themselves from a net. The more he struggles, the more he is enmeshed. He has not been able to end the shockwaves from the war on Iraq.
Having failed to get away with putting all the blame on one section of the British establishment, the BBC, Blair then sets up another inquiry with the aim of putting the blame on the secret services.
The inquiry, headed by Lord Butler, has met widespread derision. You know the government is in trouble when the Liberal Democrats opportunistically take a clear line of opposition.
Blair’s problems are not, as some in the media suggest, a storm in the parliamentary teacup of Westminster and Whitehall. There are very deep strains running through British society. The war on Iraq brought these to a head.
Some of the strains are at the very top. A whole section of the British establishment were unhappy about the war. This was not because of any moral objection to killing people for profits. But there have been growing disagreements between sections of the US ruling class and sections of European capitalism.
This is over who should get the lion’s share of the loot to be obtained by exploiting other parts of the world, especially oil in the Middle East. Britain’s ruling class, with half its trade and investment in the US and half in Europe, has been torn down the middle by these rows.
When Blair threw in his lot with Bush in 2002 and 2003 he had the enthusiastic support of figures like Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun and Sky News, Lord Black of the Telegraph, the Euro-sceptics running the Tory party, and Lord Birt, former director general of the BBC.
Among those who accepted this line was Greg Dyke, an early backer of Blair who was recently forced out of the BBC. But there were strong doubts from other important figures in the establishment.
Among those expressing dissent were pro-Europe figures like veteran Labour right winger Denis Healey, former Tory ministers Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, and – usually – enthusiastic Blairite columnists like Hugo Young and Polly Toynbee. Most of these followed the golden rule of official politics – disagree with the government until it goes to war, but give it full support once the killing starts.
That was the position taken by the Liberal Democrats and the Mirror. In the meantime these disagreements created unparalleled opportunities for a very different division in society to find massive political expression.
This is the division between the political establishment as a whole and a mass of people sickened by years of inhumanity, hypocrisy and official double-talk. The succession of meetings across Britain and the great demonstrations organised by the Stop the War Coalition transformed this disillusion with official politics.
It went from private feelings of bitterness into a tidal wave of protest that forced its way into the mainstream. Blair had expected the divisions over the war to disappear once the fighting started.
No one would then worry, he thought, about the lies used to push support for the war on Iraq through parliament. But the mass movement ensured that the divisions deepened. Greg Dyke has told how at first he did his best to shape public opinion in the way Blair expected.
BBC’s Question Time audiences were vetted to make sure they contained a disproportionate number of pro-war people, and effort was made to ensure there was a “balance” of pro-war letters and e-mails. TV and radio stations were told to make sure “extreme” opponents of the war were kept off the air.
But Dyke found it impossible to clamp down completely on the anti-war opinions of around half the population. Faced with complaints from Blair in March at the height of the war, he sent a private letter in reply.
In it he said that the government was not in a position to preach to the BBC about “the balance between support and dissent” after “having faced the biggest ever public demonstration in this country”.
The mass movement ensured that what began as private disagreements within the establishment turned into a near civil war between two of its major components. It pitted the Westminster and Whitehall machine on the one side against the BBC on the other.
Dyke says that he personally moved from support for the war to doubts about it. Lower down in the BBC, among programme makers and even top commentators and interviewers, the mood seems to have become even more sharply hostile to Blair and the war.
That mood spread so even the standard-bearer of right wing populism, the Daily Mail, has felt compelled to give expression to some of its readers’ feelings against the war and Hutton.
Meanwhile those who had swung from opposition to the war to support for it, like Clare Short, Charles Kennedy and the Mirror, have swung back into opposition again.
We have seen Labour governments begin to sink into a morass before. There were deep symptoms of decay with the Wilson government of the late 1960s, and the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the late 1970s. Half the Ramsay MacDonald government of 1931 collapsed into the Tory party. But there is a great difference this time round.
The Tory party, the traditional standard-bearer of right wing politics in Britain, seems in no condition to be the great beneficiary. Partly this is because it too is split over Europe, and therefore paralysed in its criticism of Blair’s conduct over the war.
More importantly, though, the disillusion with Blair goes deeper than a single issue. It has been fed by Blair’s attacks on welfare, top-up fees, and privatisation – his much vaunted neo-liberal policies.
Fifteen years ago, under Margaret Thatcher, there were still many lower middle class and a fair number of working class people who were prepared to put their faith in such “reforms”. After the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985, many inside the trade union movement felt there was little choice but to accede to them.
That was why they let Neil Kinnock push the Labour Party to the right. They then embraced Tony Blair as he abandoned the party’s traditional socialist rhetoric. Today things are very different.
Every opinion poll shows hostility to fat cats and privatisation, resentment at the low level of tax that the rich pay, and a rejection of paying for services like health and education. When Thatcher imposed secret ballots for electing union leaders it was in the belief that this would help destroy socialist influence. But now they regularly lead to the election of people who criticise Blair from the left.
Unions like the RMT are prepared to face a complete break with New Labour. Above all, very wide numbers of people feel that official politics gives no expression to their own hopes and fears. For them, swapping Gordon Brown for Tony Blair, or Michael Howard for both of them, would just be one further insult.
Such feelings do not always move in a positive direction. The right wing press and Tory and New Labour politicians repeatedly try to re-establish their influence by turning people’s bitterness against minorities. Their targets include Muslims, asylum seekers and migrants.
The BNP is still on the fringes, but it is making inroads in areas where the left is weak and often rootless. This is why it is not good enough to simply sit back and rejoice at the tortuous disintegration of Blairism. The genuine left has to act to make sure the current crisis leads to a crystallisation of an alternative that large numbers of people can identify with.
One step in this direction is ensuring that the anti-war movement does not die through neglect. Every argument it put forward a year ago has been vindicated. The run-up to the international day of action against war on 20 March provides a good focus for every locality to hold meetings and activities.
A second step is to give real political expression to the massive feelings against the war and New Labour’s attacks. That means turning the new Respect coalition into a force where all those who have been active in the movements of the last year feel they are represented. The third step is to grasp the change which is taking place in important workplaces across Britain.
For years people felt bitter but also felt unable to act because of the memory of the trade union defeats in the 1980s. In the last few months this has begun to change. In places like the Post Office, the civil service and Land Rover, workers have begun to regain the confidence to fight.
If their fights are successful, that confidence can rapidly spread to all sorts of other sectors. What is also needed is a force to pull all these strands together. That’s why it is important to build the Socialist Workers Party and ask people to join us.
The crisis of Blairism provides socialists with opportunities we have not had for two decades. We have to seize them.
Last updated on 13 December 2009