Friday, 29 March 1996


New Statesman & Society, leader 29 March 1996

The BSE scandal is the final nail in the coffin for the Tory government

Forget arms-to-Iraq, cash-for-questions, homes-for-votes in Westminster, or any of the other scandals that various pundits have claimed would mark the beginning of the end for John Major's shabby administration – mad cow disease trumps them all. The official admission last week that there might, just might, be a connection between bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle and one variant of Creutzfeldt Jakob disease in humans – BSE and CJD – has had a far more dramatic impact in undermining public faith in the government than anything else it has done.

Everywhere, people are asking the same questions. If some respected scientists have been saying for several years that there might be some connection between eating B S E-infected beef and contracting CJD, a fatal neurological illness, why on earth did ministers and their advisers ignore them, claiming beef was entirely safe? Why was the programme for eliminating BSE pursued so half-heartedly? And how many of us are going to die horrible lingering deaths because we took the government's advice seriously?

Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell's explanation, that the government was only doing what the scientists on the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) suggested it should do, is not good enough. The committee's membership was chosen by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and initially failed to include any public health experts (their appointment last December almost certainly precipitated this month's warnings over BSE) and was consistently laggard in acknowledging mounting evidence that there is indeed a link. Maff in turn has, until last week, been equally sluggish in implementing Seac's recommendations.

Even if, like Lord Justice Scott in his report on arms-to-Iraq, we assume that ministers have acted at all times "honestly and in good faith", the government deserves to be condemned for its absurdly Panglossian optimism, for its rank incompetence and for its extraordinary procrastination. But that is the bare minimum of which it can justifiably be accused. All the evidence points to the conclusion that ministers have not been acting from the purest of motives, but have been pawns throughout of the powerful agribusiness lobby. The most convincing explanation of their behaviour is that, from the first appearance of BSE, they have been less concerned with public health than with maintaining the profitability of Britain's pampered beef farmers and of the food processing industry. It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that there are nearly 40 Tory MPs with direct interests in farming.

Now, however, the deranged cattle have come home to the cowshed. The past week has seen a collapse in demand for British beef worse than the government's worst nightmares. Sales of beef in butchers' shops and supermarkets have slumped, and beef prices at every level are tumbling. McDonald's and the other big hamburger chains have announced that they will no longer be using British beef, and the export market has vanished, as first Europe and then the rest of the world have put up the shutters. Thousands of workers look set to lose their jobs.

All this is the government's fault. It is fatuous for John Major to blame Labour "scare-mongering" for the panic that has swept Britain in the past week: people would have been scared whatever the opposition had said, for the simple (and very good) reason that CJD is a frightening disease with no known cure. And now the government must pay the price.

In cash terms, that will be at very least between £400 million and £700 million a year for five years in compensation to farmers – the estimated cost of the (wholly inadequate) compulsory slaughter scheme favoured by the National Farmers' Union, under which only older dairy cows would be destroyed – and could be as much as £20 billion if every single one of the 11 million cattle in Britain is killed. Politically, the price is likely to be that Major will have to kiss goodbye to any hope of winning the next general election. Whether that means a new government that will tackle the agribusiness lobby head-on, however, is another matter entirely.

Friday, 15 March 1996


New Statesman & Society, 15 March 1996

The Labour leader has decided that he needs a dialogue with the centre-left intelligentsia. It could be a tricky business, writes Paul Anderson

The participants in last month's private meeting at King's College, London, between Labour leader Tony Blair and what the Guardian described as "80 intellectuals and businessmen" are not keen to talk about it – at least on the record.

"It was done on the basis that we wouldn't be identified," says one abruptly. "All I'll reveal," says another, "is that the people named by the Guardian were all there." So Stuart Hall, Anthony Barnett, John Gray, Geoff Mulgan, Andrew Adonis and Vernon Bogdanor are all considered worthy of the Labour leader's attention – but there are no surprises there. "It would be fair to say that Blair did most of the talking," says yet another. "He said he wanted a dialogue about ideas. I think that's a good sign. But I really can't say any more."

Big deal, you might think. But the secrecy speaks volumes, even though the participants won't. The official explanation is that Blair didn't want to burden the invitees with the tag of being tame party stooges, which is fair enough. There was also, no doubt, a certain wariness in the Labour leader's office about the mischief the Tory press would make of the event –  although in fact the only hostile mention that has appeared since news of it broke last week is one sarcastic diary paragraph in the Sunday Times. It was headlined "Blair says goodbye dearies, hello drearies", an allusion to his alleged preference for boring academics, rather than the literati and glitterati cultivated by Neil Kinnock.

But the low-key approach also reflects Blair's worries about the lukewarm reception new Labour has been getting from the intelligentsia. It's easy to see why he's concerned. After nearly 17 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule, his party is so far ahead in the opinion polls that just about everyone thinks it will form the next government. Since his election as Labour leader in 1994, he has consistently stressed the importance of "new ideas" to his political project – and he has made an extraordinary number of speeches outlining his thinking. New members have flocked to Labour. Blair believes, with some justification, that the impending end of a political era should be generating excitement among intellectuals – just as it did in Britain in the run-up to Harold Wilson's first general election victory in 1964 or in France before Francois Mitterrand became president in 1981.

In fact, there has been little sign of any such thing. The depoliticisation of the intelligentsia that was the most marked trait of British intellectual life in the 1980s has not been reversed. Little of the left-leaning intelligentsia has survived the wreckage of its projects since the late 1970s: the scrapyard contains not just the social democratic corporatism of the Wilson-Callaghan era and the "actually existing socialism" of the Soviet bloc, but also the left-wing Keynesianism of the Alternative Economic Strategy, the "57 varieties" of Trotskyism and neo-Leninism, quasi-syndicalist "class politics" and all but the most supple libertarian leftism of the 1968 generation. Feminism is no longer the sole prerogative of the left; environmentalism never has been. Postmodernists of various hues have long replaced Marx and Gramsci as undergraduate fashion accessories.

Except when it comes to the constitutional questions raised so effectively by Charter 88 and others, those one-time left intellectuals who have not simply given up politics are, for the most part, engaged only peripherally: the dominant mood is one of pessimism about the powerlessness of political action in the face of a triumphant global capitalism. Worse, there is no influx of enthusiastic young people, keen to seize the initiative from the sad old fifty-somethings who are still hanging on in there banging away, to the left intellectual milieu. With the partial exception of the peace and environmentalist movements, the "new social movements" of the past two decades have done little to rejuvenate or enlarge the left intelligentsia.

It's true that the surprise success story in British publishing in the past year has been Guardian economics editor Will Hutton's elegant statement of the case for Germanic corporatism and radical constitutional reform, The State We're In. For the first time since 1980, when Edward Thompson and others launched the movement against the stationing of American cruise missiles in Britain with Protest and Survive, a serious forward-looking political book has been riding high in the bestseller lists for several months. Blair himself has embraced the idea of "stakeholding" that is central to Hutton's argument, although he has steered clear of his detailed poliq prescriptions.

It's also true that Blair is not short of supporters in senior editorial position; on the quality newspapers. The Independent is the most pro-Blair daily (his fans include columnist Andrew Marr, political editor Donald Macintyre and political correspondent John Rentoul, the author of a sympathetic biography of the Labour leader), and he has plenty of admirers both on the Guardian (notably, political correspondent Patrick Wintour) and on the Observer, at least as long as Andrew Jaspan remains editor – which might not be for very long.

But one best-selling centre-left book and a gaggle of broadsheet journalists hardly constitute a wave of intellectual enthusiasm for new Labour. The most important point about the success of The State We're In is precisely that it was wholly unexpected, and the Blairites and the newspapers are, for the most part fans of the man rather than his programme. Even the Independent's enthusiasm has been noticeably muted since last autumn, when its management dumped Ian Hargreaves as editor and former Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques as his deputy; while Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has maintained; fiercely independent line, on occasion running stories deeply embarrassing to the Labour leadership. The Financial Times is as sympathetic as any international journal of record can be; the Independent on Sunday no more reliable than the Guardian; the Times even worse; and the Sunday Times largely hostile, despite the recent return of Robert Harris (a close chum of Peter Mandelson) as a columnist. That leaves the two Telegraph titles, both wildly Tory, and the weeklies. The Economist, under the influence of its political editor, David Lipsey (an aide to the last Labour government), is sympathetic but critical, as is NSS; Tribune and the Spectator are vitriolically antipathetic.

Blair's problem is simple: if there's anything that approaches a consensus among Britain's centre-left intellectuals, it is that a Labour government would mean a welcome change of personnel but that, certain constitutional reforms apart, it wouldn't be able to do very much that is radically different from the Tories under John Major and Kenneth Clarke.

There are, of course, important dissidents from this view – and they number more than Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle, whose much-hyped The Blair Revolution was published earlier this month. The most significant is a group of writers who see constitutional reform as the key to all sorts of other changes: eloquent examples include Will Hutton, Charter 88 founder Anthony Barnett, Labour MP Tony Wright and former Liberal Democrat adviser David Marquand. But it's remarkable how small this group is, and even within it there are big frustrations with the way new Labour has played its cards, particularly over Freedom of Information legislation and the promised referendum on electoral reform, neither of which are now considered immediate priorities for a Labour government.

It's also notable who doesn't feature in this circle. Stuart Hall, during the 1980s (through his pieces in Marxism Today) the most influential proponent of the idea that Labour's class-based political culture had lost touch with the real world and needed to be radically transformed, has written witheringly of the absence of big ideas in the Blair "project" (although he welcomed Blair's reduction of the role of the trade unions in Labour's organisation and his removal of the commitment to common ownership in Clause Four of the party constitution).

Anthony Giddens, probably the second most influential left-of-centre "moderniser" social theorist in recent years, has been equally critical, as have the intellectuals around New Left Review, which has made a particular point in recent years of engaging critically with western European social democracy.

Blair gets upset by the charge that new Labour lacks intellectual beef, but he shouldn't be too surprised by it. Labour has consciously opted for a responsible, minimalist programme. The intention is worthy – to avoid scaring off affluent middle-class voters while preventing trade unionists and Labour Party members from building up unrealistic expectations of a Labour government – but the side-effect is that there isn't too much for intellectuals to get worked up about.

Of course, there is plenty of Labour policy-wonking going on, particularly on the welfare state, and a key role here is played by the Institute for Public Policy Research, the independent-but-Labour-leaning think-tank created when Neil Kinnock was Labour leader. The IPPR oversaw the work of the Commission on Social Justice, set up by Blair's predecessor John Smith to examine the future of welfare, and it publishes New Economy, a quarterly edited by former Labour economic policy adviser Dan Corry that is the closest Labour gets to a forum for public debate on economic policy.

But the IPPR's work does not really amount to a ferment of ideas, and there's not a lot that is useful to Labour coming out of the other think-tanks. The most important exception is Demos. Set up by another former Marxism Today stalwart, Geoff Mulgan, once an adviser to Gordon Brown, Demos has been responsible for the only significant import of recent years in the field of political ideas, the communitarianism of the American polemicist and activist Amitai Etzioni. Etzioni's emphasis on responsibilities as well as rights chimes with the austere Christian socialism of Blair and shadow home secretary Jack Straw, and the Labour leader has declared himself a communitarian.

Communitarianism has articulate advocates in John Gray, the Oxford political philosopher who was a key thinker of the new right in the early 19808, and Observer columnist Melanie Phillips – but the wider left intelligentsia is suspicious of what it sees as the conservatism, or even authoritarianism, of communitarian prescriptions for dealing with family breakdown and crime. Whatever else left intellectuals might have abandoned since the 1960s, they remain as strongly committed as ever to social liberalism, if not libertarianism. And that almost inevitably means that most of them will keep a respectable distance from new Labour, no matter how much Blair urges them into the fold.

Friday, 8 March 1996


New Statesman & Society, leader 8 March 1996

Labour's modernisers are going to have to do a lot better than Peter Mandelson if they are ever to convert the left intelligentsia to their cause

Labour used to have intellectuals: now it has Peter Mandelson. Because of the influence he has in his party's upper echelons – as great as that once enjoyed by Sidney Webb. G D H Cole, Hugh Dalton Harold Laski or Anthony Crosland, if rather different in nature – the publication this week of his new book, The Blair Revolution, co-written with ex-SDPer Roger Liddle, is a politically significant event. But the book itself is a disappointment.

There's little in it by way of prescriptions that is not already Labour policy – apart, that is, from the bizarre plan to lend young couples £5,000 as a deposit for a mortgage if they get married. One can just see the happy couples laughing all the way from the bank to the divorce lawyer. Moreover, for the most part, it takes the most conservative interpretation of what Labour policy would mean in practice. Although there's much of sense in it, it does not offer a "radical, exciting vision", as its jacket blurb promises. Rather, The Blair Revolution is an exercise in trying to make "safety first" sound daring. Labour's modernisers will have to do a lot better if they are ever to fulfil their dream of dominating not just their party's machine, but Britain's political culture.

Nowhere is the caution more apparent than in The Blair Revolution's sections on constitutional reform. In the week of shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook's triumphant performance in the Scott debate, it is notable that Mandelson and Liddle do not even press the case for a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act, which until recently Labour was promising to pass in its first year of government.

Instead, they back "a public right to know, underwritten by legislation, unless there is a clear stated reason why something cannot be disclosed on grounds of national security, personal confidentiality or strict commercial confidence". Documents made public should not "include private office working papers and advice to ministers from senior officials", disclosure of which "would fatally prejudice the political independence of the senior civil service". Such a mandarin's charter could not have been bettered by Sir Humphrey Appleby himself. lt would not help a bit in exposing a future government that operated an arms sales policy of the kind revealed by Scott. The House of Lords gets similarly soft treatment.

Mandelson and Liddle back Labour's plans to remove voting rights from hereditary peers, but are circumspect about what happens after that. "In the long run," they write, "it maybe that the second chamber needs to be made more representative – perhaps there could be a directly-elected element with an avowedly regional flavour." Wow. On electoral reform, they are sceptical about the need for change, but back the alternative vote – a system that would do nothing to ensure the representation in parliament of minority opinions – as the best option if a change has to be made. Labour's promised referendum on electoral systems doesn't get a look in.

So one could go on through the sections of the book on economic policy, Europe, the future of the welfare state or reforming the machinery of government. Everywhere, the message is the same. New Labour really is a different party from old Labour, it really wants change, it really is radical – but it won't do anything to frighten the horses.

And to think that the modernisers wonder why what there is of an intellectual left in Britain hasn't rallied enthusiastically to their cause. The reason is not that there is some diehard old-left clique yearning for the good old days of the 19703 and desperately hanging on to its positions of influence at the Guardian, at the BBC, in the universities and even, God forbid, here at NSS. It's that the modernisers' "project", as they like to call it, isn't particularly inspiring to anyone with a penchant for radicalism, at least as it has so far been spelled out.

Caution is caution, however it is packaged. And although there are undoubtedly grounds for it in Labour's case in the run-up to the election – the voters are worried by the prospect of change, and it would be foolish for the party to promise more than it can actually deliver – it can never send the mind or the pulse racing. That might come if there were some grand overall long-term strategy – precisely what the modernisers have yet to elaborate.

Until they do so, and do so convincingly, the majority of the intellectual left will maintain its scepticism about the "project" – as indeed it should. Intellectual political cultures are not like parties: they cannot be captured by skilful manoeuvring and they cannot be disciplined into subservience. It's the quality of argument that counts – and, so far, the modernisers have not come up with the goods.

Friday, 1 March 1996


Leader, New Statesman & Society, 1 March 1996

Last weekend's defeats of social democratic governments in Australia and Spain will embarrass new Labour. But it's the Tories who should be really worried

It is hardly surprising that the British Tories have seized upon last weekend's election defeats for the Australian Labor Party and the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE). Australia and Spain were the two biggest countries in the world with social democratic governments (assuming, that is, that you don't count Bill Clinton or Japan's bizarre coalition as social democratic). And the fact that both will now be gov­erned by the right is undoubtedly embarrassing for new Labour in Britain.

Most obviously, Australia has been something of a model for Tony Blair and his colleagues. He went there twice last year, got on famously with Australian Labor prime minister Paul Keating and praised Australian Labor for creating "a fair society and a prosperous econ­omy". Other senior Labour figures  – notably Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Chris Smith – have also made the trip down under to study welfare reform, economic policy and the business of government.

Labour in Britain has been less than enamoured of the corporatist accords with the trade unions that have been a hallmark of the Australian Labor regime since 1983 – and Blair's slapping down of Welsh spokesperson Ron Davies for saying that the Prince of Wales was unfit to be king shows that there is no room in new Labour for Keat­ing's vigorous republicanism.

Nevertheless, British Labour has been inspired by the way Keating and his predecessor Bob Hawke managed to combine liberal economic policies with maintenance of the welfare state. British Labour's policies for getting single parents off welfare benefits and into the labour market owe much to Australian Labor's Jobs Enterprise Training Scheme (JETS), and Blair and his colleagues are looking closely at Australian approaches to pension provision and infrastructural investment. Keating's defeat, in economically favourable conditions, is a defeat for the nearest thing existing anywhere else in the world to what Labour wants here.

Spain has been less of a model for Labour in Britain – which is not altogether surprising, and not just because most Labour politicians' Spanish is a little ropey. At least for its first decade in office after 1982, the overwhelming priorities of Felipe Gonzalez's PSOE administration – the entrenchment of democracy in a country that had only recently emerged from fascism, the reform and modernisation of its creaking corporatist economy, and the integration of Spain into Europe politically, economi­cally and culturally – found few echoes in the concerns of Labour in Britain.

Nevertheless, until last weekend Spain was the last socialist government in a "big five" European Union country. Barring victories for the centre-left in Italy's forthcoming general election or (improbably) the Ger­man Social Democrats in an early poll, his defeat means that an incoming Labour government in Britain in the next year or so will have social democratic allies only among smaller EU governments.

Yet it would be foolish to take this argument too far. A major factor in Labor's defeat in Australia was voters' growing dislike of Keating's personal style, and the PSOE was at least in part the victim of widespread revul­sion at its corruption. Both Australian and Spanish gov­ernments were beaten not so much because of their com­mitment to social democracy – which actually didn't amount to very much in either case – but because voters felt that they had run out of steam after long, uninter­rupted spells in office and that it was time for a change.

Seen in this light, the two election results should cause as much concern for the Tories as for Labour. Like Aus­tralian Labor and the PSOE, the British Conservatives have been in power for a long time – and voters are fed up with them. There is a stench of corruption about them at least as powerful as that surrounding the PSOE; and in John Major they have a leader at least as unpopular as Keating. Even though, like Australian Labor, they are approaching a general election with the economy com­ing good at just the right time, and even though, like the PSOE with Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party (PP), they face an opposition that they have hitherto found easy to scaremonger about (although there's a difference between spreading fear about Labour's tax plans and frightening the voters with tales about the PP's murky origins in Francoite fascism), they look doomed. Last weekend's elections say more about the difficulties fac­ing tired incumbent governments than they do about social democracy.