A house divided

Prescott — Miliband claims ‘divide Labour’ (BBC)
Gordon Brown’s Labour Party is a shadow of Tony Blair’s. Blair ran his party with a combination of charisma, implied promises, and the fear of missing out. Brown doesn’t so much run Labour as survive it. He is the eternal Mr Bean of British politics: no matter how hard he tries, things just keep happening to him.
People are beginning to remember Tony Blair with fondness — something no-one would have expected two years ago.

But, strangely, the bumbling honesty of Gordon Brown (despite his alleged ‘dark heart’, whatever that is supposed to be), is the exact antidote to the Blair spin machine that everyone wanted while we were all being Campbelled and Mandlesoned.

Once again, the public knows what it wants — until it gets it. At that point, it wants what it had before.

But there’s a serious point here. No matter what the home-spun virtues of Brown’s ‘what you see is what you get’ government — generally what you see is a comedy of chaos — a house divided can in no sense stand. Blears, Smith and Flint (the window-dressing trio) have caused him no end of harm. Milliband(s) have not really helped. Mandelson’s leaked email from earlier in the year has hardly improved things.

So, which would you rather have? Or perhaps neither. It’s interesting to see how Cameron is modelling himself on Blair and presenting himself as Blair’s true spiritual successor. But do we really want to go back to the Blair years? Even Blair-lite?

Margaret Thatcher changed British politics for ever. Not through her (in my opinion) authoritarian economic policy, nor (though its impact on society was profoundly damaging) her exaltation of greed, but through the dismantlement of the power of the civil service. The rise of special advisers — political servants of the party in power, paid for by the taxpayer — has brought a different shape to politics, and a particular cycle of power.

Before Thatcher, a prime minister could lose office, go back into opposition, win again, and remain an MP afterwards. Since Thatcher, this has become unthinkable. The cycle of government is now as follows: landslide victory, confident beginning, in-term change of direction, in order to ensure a second or even third victory, but, as an inevitable consequence of increasingly opportunistic policy change, a collapse of the authority of the prime minister, ending in the reign of a new, weak figure, who can neither lead his own party nor inspire the nation. Thatcher to Major is exactly replicated in Blair to Brown.

I am not suggesting that we should try to go back to the days of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. Times have moved on. But we must do something to avoid the destructive cycle of Thatcher-Major and Blair-Brown. Major’s term and Brown’s coincided with economic recession. The confidence of Thatcher and Blair had as much to do with the rising world economy during their time in office as with anything they did themselves. They were confident times, and the nation found it easy to believe that things could get better.

Our boom and bust economy is not an inevitable consequence of the world economic cycles. But it is an inevitable consequence of governments who exploit all the power of the state — power beyond anything available to a mere prime-minister in the pre-Thatcher days — to hold on to power to the very last moment possible.

In the Major years we believed that his problems were down to his perilously narrow majority, which made him vulnerable to every back bench rebellion. But threatened men can live long. Brown still has an enormous majority, and yet can barely command his own cabinet reshuffle.

Labour is tired-out, completely exhausted by its efforts to maintain power at all costs. But Cameron, for all his promises of reforming politics, really has no ambition beyond emulating his heroes Thatcher and Blair — acquiring power as firmly as possible, and then husbanding a diminishing majority over two, perhaps three terms.

As Britain, we do not need to play this game, and we cannot afford to. With each cycle, engagement in politics among the electorate drops dramatically, and interest in extremist, sometimes anti-democratic, parties grows.

I could play the Liberal-Democrat card and say that the problem is our electoral system. There is some truth in that. But the much greater problem is the ambition of our politicians.

And, in the mean time, the house that Tony built, and his successors divided like Alexander’s generals, cannot stand, if it remains thus divided.

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