Saturday, September 09, 2006

For the virtues of faithlessness

Blair's long goodbye looks finally to be drawing to a close. Yet there still remain, and will perhaps for ages yet, caves in which his shadow may still be seen. For some loyal souls are keeping the faith; they enjoin others to do so. Should you decline, these do not understand you for your faithlessness, your lack of loyalty.

I don't understand them. Theirs is the politics of faith but with regards Blair I am both unclear about what it is they believe and why they believe it.

One facet of this belief seems to be the idea that Blair should be rewarded for his foreign policy. Naturally this would be impossible for someone who opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq but even for someone like myself who supported both I find this inexplicable. The left has always been obsessed with foreign policy in general, and with the Middle East and Latin America in particular. It is because it is felt that it is here that political conflicts are played out in primary colours - in a way that demands that no-one can remain neutral.

The former I recognise in myself; the latter less so. Those who are insisting that Blair be rewarded for his stance against what some of us have no hesitation in calling fascism should, I believe, ask themselves the following questions. In the admittedly unlikely event that Ian Duncan Smith had been Prime Minister, should he have been rewarded for supporting the American foreign policy? Because there can be no doubt that he would have followed the same course as Blair. Or historically, were the working class voters of Britain wrong to turn their backs on Winston Churchill in 1945? And if so, would there be a Labour tradition for them to claim to be the true heirs of?

If the answer to any of these is yes, declare yourself to belong to the right and be done with this appeal to the legacy of British socialism and social democracy. If it is yes, it is because you believe Blair - independently of his foreign policy - represents in some way the incarnation of these traditions.

If you believe this, you are wrong. For Blair, in the position he has taken on the twin pillars of liberty and equality, has been on the wrong side. Blair, as both his public utterances and his policies show, believes in neither. Do we have to demonstrate this? Blair has explicitly said he does not believe in greater 'equality of outcome' preferring instead the spurious notion of 'meritocracy'.

One of the key mechanisms by which British citizens are to gain this equal right to pass by on the other side is through education, education, education. Fortunately I don't have to work in the English system but the means by which this to be achieved under New Labour has been to renew the Thatcherite war on teachers. The notion that one might possibly improve educational standards in this country by enlisting the support of people who actually work in it is dismissed as 'unreconstructed', wankerish and so, like, yesterday man.

Instead we have a brave new world where the Thatcherite micro-management of the classroom pursued by a remorseless diet of continuous assessment has been embraced with great gusto, replete with the fear and loathing of that mythical creature, the 'trendy-teacher'.

The only criticism that many of the true bearers of the left tradition can find to make of Blair's project to turn our education system into a supermarket is that it simply doesn't go far enough. More should be done to allow people to escape the contamination of the 'bog-standard comprehensive'. Of those left behind? These are the undeserving poor. And if you like me should be unfortunate enough to feel it your vocation to teach such as these, understand that these new 'progressives' despise you for it.

So much, so personal - but is it really so difficult for the Blairistas to grasp that his limited improvements notwithstanding, what has disappointed so many of us is the sheer waste of it all - the squandering of two colossal Parliamentary majorities behaving as if to all intents and purposes like the election campaign was still on? Were they never squeamish at the way in which this regime sought to ingratiate themselves to the proud and the powerful? Did they not share a sense that these Labour governments have achieved less in the way of redistribution that one might expect of a Christian Democrat administration on the Continent? One anecdote had it that Blair and Chirac, during a conversation where they failed to agree on reform of the EU, had the latter saying, "You see, the basic problem is that whereas I am a man of the left, you are one of the right". What has been said of George Bush in a different context can be applied here: just because it is Chirac saying something, it doesn't mean it isn't true.

But it is on liberty that Blair's failure has been the greatest. This is because he clearly does not believe in it. That the Freedom of Information Bill is a genuine advance in liberty, I would concede - we know this because of the negative way in which successive Labour Home Secretaries have responded to revelations made under the auspices of this Act. And there is no point in holding the equalisation of the age of homosexual consent as an example of New Labour 'tolerance' because there is no need for tolerance for things you approve of. In contrast, wherever there is something this government disapproves of - they have never failed to attempt to circumscribe the autonomy of British subjects. Like with jury trials; like with the right to protest and demonstrate; like with the right for the accused to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and to hear the evidence that the state holds against them; like with the right to live and move and have your being without being watched and recorded by the state; like with the right to express one's contempt for organised religion without the fear that in doing so one is committing a criminal offence.

Disgreement with one or any of these points on a rational basis you could cope with. What is insufferable is the notion that to do so is in some way a betrayal of the working class - who, we are reliably informed by people who I suspect are acquainted with these only through descriptions - are only too happy to have their liberty sold for around a fiver an hour. Because they have this - or possibly the benefit of tax credits, if they can negotiate the Byzantine world of mean-testing - the dumb proles are blissfully unconcerned about issues such as religion in schools. I would like to take this opportunity to cordially invite the Blairite blogger who suggested this contemptuous and fatuous idea to me to a guided tour of the city of Glasgow. Re-acquaint yourself with the place, y'know?

Behind this whole thing is TINA - the notion that there is no alternative. It's better than the Tories, don't you know? So Blair's illiberalism is beyond criticism because, well, he's lifted all these families out of poverty, he's done as much as he can. Leaving aside the impossibility of the Blairistas ever crediting the hard-pressed working families of lifting themselves out of poverty (which is odd, since they are obviously fans of Samuel Smiles) there's a slight philosophical problem I have: even if this were so, since when are we obliged to welcome something simply because there is no alternative to it? And even within the narrow confines of what is believed to be inevitable by the Blairistas, why so little imagination? They believe 'globalisation' has forever limited the range of fiscal options open to the state. Very well - so why not advocate a smaller state that taxes less but redistributes more? Because as it is just now the least wealthy are paying a disproportionate share of their income towards the Treasury. And this might actually bring some reality to the cant spouted by the government about 'empowering communities'. Has it never occurred to them that this would require them to do less?

It hasn't - because the extent to which the Blair regime seeks to manage the lives of British citizens knows no bounds, for it extends even unto the womb. I'd like the Blairistas to consider this: as the Labour party under Blair has lurched to the right, British politics has increasingly resembled the American situation where ever-smaller differences in economic policy has been accompanied by a partisanship that is increasingly shrill, hollow and personal. But if the Blairistas insist, I'll play the politics of personality too. Blair once said, with his usual air of exasperated righteousness, "I mean, I can't bring up people's children for them", as if this was obviously the ideal solution. If for no other reason, I am glad this sanctimonious twerp who has never understood that he is not our President but merely the Queen's first minister is leaving office. Blairistas may accuse me of being irrational about this but to date I've yet to read an argument of theirs that could be considered rational. All I can see is the politics of blind faith. Here's Hitchens on Blair's departure:
"When I first interviewed Blair, as newly elected Labour leader in 1994, he answered my question about the role of his Christianity in his politics by saying, "I can't stand politicians who go on about religion." If I had to date the moment when my own misgivings about him began, it would be the time - starting after September 11, 2001 - when he began to emphasize his own "faith" as a motivating factor in his moral stand.

A saving element in British politics is that such appeals are usually considered embarrassing. They may also suggest a slight tendency, on the part of those uttering them, to believe in some kind of supernatural endorsement.

So Blair's concession that he must leave office, a decision so long postponed and so disastrously protracted, represents among other things a triumph of the mundane over the permanent temptation to believe that politics is about anything else."
Quite so. And not for the first time, I find I'm chronologically ahead of Christopher Hitchens in my thinking: I cannot point to a date on which I started to have doubts about Mr Blair because I never had any faith in him in the first place.

[Cross-posted at DSPTFW]

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