Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Of Blair And Brown

By Cernig

I suppose I should say something, as the resident Brit, about the change in British leadership from Blair to Brown. It's a massive subject that can't honestly be tackled in a little blog post or even in the praiseful op-eds appearing in American media outlets. To get a real flavor, start with the Guardian's coverage of the stories. Their reporting on Brown's move next door to No.10 starts here and their stories about Blair's era, his legacy and what happens next starts here.

But what I can give in a short blog post are some personal thoughts on the whole Blair era and the Brown era to come.

Blair was always an ambivalent figure for me, mostly because I knew too many of his fellow-travellers too well. I first met up with the Scottish wannabe-powerful who would one day become Blair's chosen cronies in Scotland while involved in student politics in the early eighties. McConnell, Connarty, Ritchie - the whole crowd- were part of a dynasty of "new labour" leaders of the student Labour party during my time at Stirling University.

The New Labour slick-willies could easily be told apart from the standard "old labour" folks - they dressed in suits and what Americans would call "preppy" style even when hanging around the student pub while the "old labour" folks would wear a two-week old T-Shirt to meet the Principal. They supported the administration against the cleaners and janitors in a pay dispute, then spoke sneeringly to local media of how it wouldn't solve anything when the students took the union's side and occupied the administration's offices in protest. (The cleaners got their pay rise after two weeks, when the professors were unable to get their own pay-checks processed in those occupied offices.) They clearly didn't, and never would, inhale. And they would change their polices in a heartbeat if they thought it would get them further along their chosen career track in politics.

Yet New Labour was organised and clean-cut and acceptable to the media in a way that Tony Benn, Roy Hattersley and the rest of the old guard simply weren't. It was Blair's careerists or more years of Thatcher's ideological children. So I, like droves of other voters, swallowed our unease and voted for Blair's promises. The Blair era began with a landslide and celebrations in Scottish streets that the hated Tories had finally been ousted. Many of us felt a frisson of returned unease when Tony's first act on winning was to visit Thatcher herself for a chat, but that was soon gone in the feelgood moment of victory over the Tories at last.

Blair had promised that he would listen to any idea, no matter the political source, as long as it was a good one. For years, he delivered. Employment rose, the deficit fell and was soon in the black, social programs got a kickstart but no-one was getting such an easy ride that it was easier just to stay on welfare. The health service began a slow pullback from the budget massacre it had suffered under the Tories (one it still hasn't completely recovered from). Racism and class bigotry dropped, Scotland and Wales got their devolved parliaments (headed by Blair stalwarts, of course), the UK's international standing was no longer of that "damn handbag woman". The killers in Northern Ireland stopped butchering innocents on the pretext of disagreeing how to bend the knee to their mutual God.

Even when the world was shocked by 9/11, Blair kept the nation focused. The terrorists would beat us if we changed our way of life for them, he said. He was right. We all supported intervention in Afghanistan, going after the terrorists and the rogue regime that had sheltered them. Even the hundreds of Muslims I knew in business were all for that. Still no sign of the surveillance state and trampling on civil liberties that were to come. the nation was still giving Blair its support. What could be done in Northern Ireland could surely be done elsewhere and Blair was someone who might just manage to do it.

Then came Iraq. Despite screams from many that the intelligence was being sexed up, the media got behind the invasion in a monolith and Blair got behind George Bush and stayed there. In time, leaks proved the screamers to be right and that intelligence had indeed been "fixed around the policy" of invasion but we were all told it was old news now and we had to "stay the course".

Iraq was the undoing of Blair. As I recall events, it wasn't until Iraq began to go South - in the quagmire that was unplanned and incompetently created by Bush's chosen handlers - that Blair showed the nation he was still (always) part of that old clique of "power for powers sake at any cost" that I had observed in my student days. It was only when Iraq dissolved into a fiasco that Blair trotted out surveillance of everyone as an aim, began his push for identity cards, began trampling on British concepts of freedom, liberty and justice for all. I submit that, no matter what he said, those measures were purely symptomatic of his desire to hold onto his power. It wasn't until those unpopular measures and his own lapdog status as Bush's crony in the quagmire became so negative that the Party bosses saw the labour party in danger of being vast into the wilderness for decades yet again that the pressure on him became too much for Blair to ignore. He would not have stepped down voluntarily, he was pushed. Now he's got himself a McJob carrying Bush's water again. Feh.

And so we now have Brown. He's my local MP back home and undeniably a bright bugger. More true to his working-class Labour ideals than Blair's suits ever were too, by all accounts I've had from local insiders. Most of Blair's successes were actually Brown's work - all the economic and poverty-reduction work, all the social safety-net rebuilding, the 13 years of a budget surplus. He's a taciturn Fifer who doesn't suffer fools gladly (watch out, Dubya) and has all the charisma in public forums of a lump of Kircaldy coal. But he's a workhorse and a thinker, he should do well - especially on domestic challenges.

Still, I've niggling worries about Gordon too. He and I differ on the path for Scotland - I think independence is the fair end-point of centuries of political process that began with a bribe-job and continued with wholesale ignoring of the terms of the deal. He doesn't. I worry that he might be just a better disguised version of Blair's power-hungry clones, when push comes to shove - after all, he's been quiet as a mouse on Bush's debacle so far. He says he will change things, though, and one of the things I hope he will change is to push for more effective hearts and minds policies in Afghanistan, where the paradigm of military counter-insurgency badly needs such a change of emphasis (forget Iraq, it's lost).

I guess we'll see soon enough.

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