Friday, September 22, 2006

The dog that has never barked

A while ago, Shuggy went off on one of his cross-posted grumps. This time is was about Tony Blair and how pleasing his departure will be. Now I probably like Blair slightly less than Shuggy, yet I couldn’t summon up any energy to give a shit either way about his impending resignation.

Here’s the best I can offer to explain why (feel free to pick at this if you think I’m using too much shorthand).

Looking at Shuggy’s post, there were two outstanding features: Firstly, an annoyance with Blair’s illiberalism, his managerialism and so on. Secondly, frustration with Blair’s supporters. Those who tell us that There Is No Alternative (TINA). This latter point is, I think, the key to the others though.

Whether it refers to the inductive and bastardised Hayekianism (?) that was Thatcherism, or the more complex muddle that is The Third Way, TINA is a peculiarly British phenomenon. And – I would contend – it is entirely a product of our remarkable degree of political centralisation.

We have no bicamereralism to speak of here. No separation of powers. Our local government is terrifically weak and undignified and cabinets are picked by the Prime Minister – not the other way around. Even New Labour’s nod towards decentralisation – devolved administrations – are confined to policy areas that are, at best, administrative rather than visionary in character.

This is, to my mind, the dog that has never barked in this country. We are massively centralised in a way that no other liberal democracy that I can think of would tolerate.

I can only turn to textbooks to fully understand Thatcherism, but ‘Blairism’ is something I saw at close hand. I know, slightly, a lot of the people that buttressed the project. And I’m inclined to believe that it was the same as Thatcherism in one way; that is was a project that you couldn’t define easily to a visitor from outer space. It wasn’t intellectually coherent in the way that other ideologies are.

Yet, if you lived in Britain in the 1990s and you were interested in politics, you knew exactly what it was. All you had to do to understand it was to try and think yourself into TB’s shoes, see the world from his standpoint, and allow that to shape your position. It was so easy to communicate the values of The Third Way that Labour was not only able to do so, but to do it in a way that party discipline was maintained better than ever before.

That position had simple objectives: to remove the Tories from office and deprive them of it for the foreseeable. Do as much good as you can, by all means, but the real service that you do your country is to deny the Tories the chance to fuck things up any further. Brian Clough (pbuh) always used to tell his players that “as long as the other team haven’t got the ball, they can’t score”. And it’s a reasonable story to tell your activists as well. It still partly explains my own continued willingness support Labour. Impoverished ambition, I know.

The slavish shadowing of lower-middlebrow tabloid approaches to education or law and order can be understood in the context of a developed version of Kinnockite ‘realism’. We get ill-thought-out policies and political short-termism, precisely because there is an army of people who have a simple job: ensuring that the Prime Minister is offered only easy choices. Everything he does must be structured to ensure that he will not be blamed for the consequences.

He must not be ‘embarrassed’ to use the nauseating shorthand of this shower of tosspots. In politics, we are all Pawns, Bishops or Rooks to our King. In other countries, the game is more multi-dimensional. Managerialsim, in particular, must surely be seen as a direct consequence of this ecology at the top of government? The need to communicate acheivements and win arguments rather than actually doing anything that is subjectively worthwhile.

But in a state as centralised as this, all government must surely be thus? Oddly, it could also explain the occasionally pleasing clarity that we see in the UK’s approach to foreign policy. Unfortunately, it also explains the simplicity thereof.

This state of affairs places almost every other politician – particularly those that are not the leaders of the ruling party or the main opposition party – in a specially nasty position. They are obliged to participate in this fraud. The alternative is an impotence and obscurity that is even more complete.

For this reason, I'd always argue that politicians deserve more pity and less scorn. In their youth, many of them put all of their chips on the ‘I want to change the world’ square while their peers were off learning a profitable trade. By the time that they reach a good enough vantage point to see that they have signed a faustian pact, it is too late.

So, Shuggy, the real problem isn’t Blair. It isn’t even the messianic ‘TINA’ position adopted by his supporters. It is the bizarre level of political centralisation that we quietly tolerate in this country. None of the likely successors to Blair seem inclined to change this (indeed, Irn Broon is likely to be even worse than Mr Tony in this respect).

It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government will get in again next time. The remedy I’d propose here is a campaign to promote decentralisation and local democracy – a campaign that aims to reduce the malign power of the media, the civil service, business, political parties and pressure groups. The remedy is to offer more power to individual elected representatives at all levels (and to have an elected second chamber).

I won’t bother launching it now though - this post is already far too long.


Will said...

Good post Paulie.

Just *one* thing (well it is Friday) say... "The need to communicate acheivements and win arguments rather than actually doing anything that is subjectively worthwhile."

Surely you mean objectively/concretely worthwhile?

ivan said...

Good post. I'd propose a revolution rather than another campaign for decentralisation. But hey, we can't all be hopeless romantics stuck in late teenage mindset, can we?

Paulie said...


Actually no. I chose the word 'subjectively' carefully.

You can't argue for representative democracy without arguing for the need for some subjectivity in government.

There's a longer post than this one to be written explaining this, but as a taster, I'd suggest that the increasingly direct nature of our democracy is contributing in no small part to the creeping managerialism that is infecting government.

If you were to offer me the choice between a handful of hotheads with their country in their knuckles, and a group of bureaucrats with clipboards, I'd take the hotheads any day.

That said, thankfully, we aren't usually offered hotheads. We are often offered the bureaucrats though....

Shuggy said...

I don't disagree with much of what you've said here - it's just that 'Blair isn't the problem' doesn't give us any particular reason for wanting him to stay. Moreover, even if it did - or to be indifferent to his departure, as your argument suggests - I'm sure you'll agree this is a rather different reason from that suggested by HP and Norm. It was these I was taking issue with. In particular, I took exception to HP's vaguely Stalinist line that only those who oppose democracy in the Middle East could possibly have any reason for wanting Blair to go. Because in every other respect he's been such a wonderful Prime Minister? Serious damn mind loss, if you ask me.

I thought the idea that Blair should in some way be rewarded for his foreign policy stance fairly bizarre. As was the idea that he had won the 'three historic victries for Labour' refrain. I mean, so what?

Paulie said...


This started as a longer post that said I agreed with you in your disagreement with Norm and the line taken at HP. I also went on and on about how I agreed with you about the 'prolier than thou' line - a dictatorship of the proletariat is one thing, but they better damn well BE the proletariat, and I detect a spot of aitch-dropping at HP.

But it was starting to run into a couple of thousand words, so I chopped the post down considerably.