Politics & Policy

The Trouble With Tony

Don't be so enamored with Blair.

It can be a lonely business being a critic of Tony Blair in this country–outside, at least, the fever swamps of the far Left. Speaking at a crowded debate in downtown Manhattan last week, my myopic eyes could only find one brave individual who agreed that the British prime minister did not deserve reelection As my solitary supporter (thanks Myrna!) writes for NRO, I suspect kindness to a beleaguered colleague played no small part in this welcome gesture of support. Perhaps my feeble, muttered oratory was to blame, or was it the arguments skillfully marshaled by my opponent? Maybe, but it’s just as likely that this result was mainly a reflection of the American infatuation with Tony, the saint, the hero, the Churchill with hair, but no cigar.

Whenever I post any criticism of Blair over on The Corner a few angry e-mails usually come my way. Their gist: Blair is a great, great man, America’s ally; don’t bother us with the internal squabbles of your miserable little islands. This misses the point. In understanding why Tony Blair deserves to lose, remember that he’s the prime minister, not of the world, but only of those unfortunate specks in the sea. He may have been good for America, but he’s been bad for Britain.

And yet, when Britain votes on May 5 Blair will win. The only question will be by how much. But this seemingly inevitable success will owe little or nothing to Blair the international statesman (it will not be a referendum on the war, which, however unfairly, has done little for Blair other than to bolster his reputation for untrustworthiness) and almost everything to an economy that appears, however deceptively, still to be ticking over quite nicely. Critically too, Blair benefits from the weakness of an opposition seen by most voters as unprepared for prime time.

The Party Scene

Beyond the usual ragbag of Celtic nationalists, single-issue campaigners, maniacs, mad hats, and cranks, there are two opposition parties that count, one worse than Labour, and one better. The one that is worse, the Liberal Democrats, is the successor of a party that has not won an election since it dragged Britain into the First World War (thanks guys!) and it is not going to now. Nowadays it is a pro-tax party of the left that calls itself centrist, defines itself by its opposition to the liberation of Iraq, and has an alarming tendency to appeal to the sort of men who like to wear socks with their sandals.

The Conservatives would, at least, be an improvement on Labour. They aren’t much, but they’ll do (come to think of it, that should be their slogan). After the traumas of recent years, they have been reduced to a rather tatty rump, led by a man sometimes compared to a vampire (well he has been endorsed by Christopher Lee), but, given the obstacles they face, this is inevitable. Nobody entirely normal would agree to take on the task of toppling Labour. That this is such a challenge is a measure of the Conservatives’ failure. Labour rule has been marked by sleaze, spin, economic mismanagement, relentless political correctness and a chaotic immigration policy, a record that, given more effective opposition, should be enough to ensure defeat.

Sleaze-fest

Of all the blots on Labour, it’s the sleaze that is the most ironic. Accusations of “Tory sleaze” played a very large part in helping Blair to his 1997 landslide. These were often unfair, but sometimes deserved. The Conservatives had shown themselves increasingly prone to the petty–and occasionally not so petty–corruption that characterizes political parties in power for a long time. Throw in John Major’s ill-advised, and impertinent, family-values campaign (which opened the door to a relentless procession of revelations about naughty Tory MPs), and Tory sleaze, whether it was payments in brown envelopes, numerous adulteries, dodgy foreign donations or, even, an autoerotic disaster, became the media story of the day, the month and the year.

Labour was going to be different–and so it was if not quite in the way (“purer than pure”) that the electorate had been led to believe. Labour scandals may have actually exceeded anything associated with the Conservatives, and might even include the electoral process itself. In an attempt to boost turnout by its supporters Labour has made it much easier to vote by post. To the judge presiding over an election court (the first to be summoned to investigate corruption for more than a century), the new system is an “open invitation to fraud“–an invitation apparently accepted by a number of Labour politicians in Birmingham. And if it’s happening there, where else?

But the most important thing to understand about Labour sleaze is not that the entire national party is corrupt (it’s not), but what it reveals about a government that became too used too quickly to the exercise–and abuse–of power. In eight years in office it has wrecked civil-service neutrality, taken a chainsaw to the constitution, packed the House of Lords with its cronies, and never seen a freedom anywhere that it did not want to crush. Worried about overreach by the “religious Right” over here? Well, take a look at Blair’s plans to make incitement to “religious hatred,” whatever that might be, a crime. Salman Rushdie is horrified and he is right so to be.

Blair Economic-Spin Project

And then there’s Britain’s economic performance since 1997, supposedly the definitive proof that “new” Labour has shed the caveman economics of the party’s past. Writing a panegyric to Blair in a recent edition of the New York Times, Tom Friedman managed to conjure up a portrait of Britain so misleading that Baron Munchausen would have been proud to call it one of his own. In between sips of Kool-Aid, Friedman gushed about the strong economy “engineered” by Blair and his “deft” finance minister, Gordon Brown. New Labour had, he argued, embraced the free market with such gusto that the resulting prosperity had enabled the government to deliver much-needed improvements to public services: “And these improvements, which still have a way to go, have all been accomplished so far with few tax increases. The vibrant British economy and welfare-to-work programs have, in turn, resulted in the lowest unemployment in Britain in 30 years. This has led to higher tax receipts and helped the government pay down its national debt.”

Oh really?

Now, it is certainly true that Britain has continued to prosper since Labour took over, but with one exception–the bold decision to give the Bank of England operational independence–this is despite Labour, not because of it. In 1997, Blair and Brown took over an economy that was already in excellent shape. The only surprise has been how long it has taken them to mess it up. Contrary to the fears of many skeptics (including this one), they had learned from the failures of previous Labour governments. The traditional smash and grab has been replaced by something subtler, but the consequences will, in the end, be just as poisonous.

Much of the blame for this lies with that “deft” Gordon Brown, the oddball Scot to whom Blair has delegated control of the British economy. Brown is living, snarling, and sulking proof of P. G. Wodehouse’s observation that it is “never very difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” To cut a (very) long story short, Brown believes that Blair reneged on a promise to hand over the premiership to him at some point during his second term and, while he bides his time, impatiently waiting to play Brutus to you-know-who’s Caesar, he is taking out his rage and disappointment on the luckless British taxpayer.

Brown is an intense, slightly loopy son of the manse, a weird blend of Karl Marx and Ken Lay, whose term in office has been marked by messianic egalitarianism, excitingaccounting and resistance to the real reforms needed to bring Britain’s crumbling public services into the 21st century. Rather than challenge the existing model (which dates back to the 1940s) his only remedy is to throw people and pay rises into what has become a bottomless pit. Overall public spending has increased by over a quarter in real terms since 1999, and there’s much, much more to come. Half the new jobs created since 1997 have been in the public sector, twice the rate of job-creation in the economy as a whole. The state now employs one in four Britons, a handy constituency, doubtless, for future Labour governments, but a powerful brake on future attempts at reform. Needless to say, Brown is beloved by Labour-party loyalists and he will almost certainly be Blair’s successor. A vote for Blair now is a vote for Brown in a year or so.

Paying the bill for Brown so far has sent Britain’s tax burden heading for its highest levels in 25 years and government borrowing is accelerating alarmingly. In 2001 Brown forecast he would borrow 12 billion pounds over the following six years, the actual figure will be (touch wood) 112 billion pounds. Include Brown’s, um, off-balance sheet financing, and government debt has increased by 13.4 percent of GDP under Labour, a dismal achievement at a time of consistent economic growth. The tragedy is that all this spending has produced little in the way of results. Education standards have barely budged and productivity in the National Health Service may have actually declined. That’s not a lot to show for all those taxpayer billions.

And the cracks are beginning to show: crippled by one of Brown’s stealth taxes, the occupational pension system is in crisis, private savings have fallen by a half, inflation is rising (the day Brown took over it was 2.6 percent; it is 3.2 percent today) and the trade balance has deteriorated. Allocating all those resources to the public sector has taken its inevitable toll, made even worse by the imposition of a massive regulatory burden (now priced at ?75 billion): productivity growth is slowing (2 percent to 1.5 percent), and GDP growth is slightly lower (2.75 percent) than in the Major years (3 percent).

Bye Lady T, Bye England

And if, as Blair intends, Britain signs up for the draft EU “constitution,” matters will only get worse. The U.K. will be forced to give up what is left of Thatcherite deregulation in favor of micromanagement by Brussels and the adoption of the Franco-German economic model, a sure route to economic stagnation.

Just as damagingly, once enmeshed within the EU’s constitutional system, Britain will rapidly lose the right to an independent foreign policy. It’s this freedom that has enabled Blair to stand so resolutely alongside the U.S. over the last few years, the stance that has won him so many admirers over here. To his credit, the prime minister has been prepared to react to the threat represented by Islamic fundamentalism far more forcefully than most European politicians and to his credit, and at considerable political cost, he also understood what had to be done in Iraq.

But taking such positions will be all but impossible once the UK is subject to the disciplines of the EU constitution. Article 1-16 commits all member states to a “common foreign and security policy.” Member states are required to “actively and unreservedly support the Union’s common foreign and security policy in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity and shall comply with the Union’s actions in this area. They shall refrain from action contrary to the Union’s interests or likely to impair its effectiveness.” This is quite clearly designed to pave the way for a European defense capability owing little to the Atlantic alliance, and everything to the agenda of Paris, Berlin, and Brussels.

For Brits, that’s another good reason to reject Blair, and it even ought to make his American fans pause for thought.

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