In the reign of Charles I, the new religious group of the Arminians, enjoying royal favour, appeared to be carrying all before them while people did not yet know what they believed. An aspiring politician asked a clerical friend what the Arminians held, and got the reply: ‘all the best bishoprics and deaneries in England’.footnote1 One suspects that Tony Blair would enjoy that story. His appetite for power led me long ago to think of him as ‘Napoleon’—and John Prescott is perfectly cast as Boxer.
It is still extremely hard to know what Blair wants to do with power. The message that he is ‘new’, however, is ceaselessly reiterated. In order to check this message, it is necessary to begin by taking it at face value, and consider only Labour policy pronouncements since July 1994. Anyone who was ready (as I was) to cooperate with Labour on the strength of their policies before July 1994 must wait to see how far, and with what degree of clarity, they are repeated. Since the bonfire of policies is still burning brightly, it would be unwise to rely on any policy simply because it has not yet been consumed by the flames. Tony Blair must be judged by his own phrases since he became leader.
The only other member of the Labour hierarchy who needs individual consideration is Gordon Brown, and he is not New Labour—he is an all too painfully recognizable type of Old Labour. He is Philip Snowden reincarnated. He is the Labour politician who wants to prove his party’s fiscal rectitude by the unrevised and unamended economic criteria of his predecessors.footnote2. Since these people have to make more effort to prove their Tory credentials than their Tory opposite numbers, they tend to come out, for practical purposes, to the right of them. It is very hard to see what useful purpose is served by putting them into office.
In Tony Blair’s speeches, we find two constantly recurring themes. One is the intense desire for power—not only his party’s power in the country, but equally his own power in his party. He says the charge of ‘autocracy’ is ‘ridiculous’. That reminds me of the passage in Helen Waddell’s Abelard, where St. Bernard exclaims in outrage, ‘it is possible that any man can call
In any ideological contest, it is essential to explain one’s own standpoint. This article is written from a Liberal, not a socialist position. I make no complaint of Tony Blair’s abandonment of socialism: the abandonment of Clause Four and of the party’s class base were welcome, not unwelcome, to me.footnote4 My complaint is that he has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I do not hear in him the gut hatred of poverty, oppression and injustice which I used to hear and respect in Neil Kinnock. He seems to believe that the alternative to socialism is conservatism, and that is a view which no Liberal can stomach.
The central concern of liberalism is reducing inequalities of power. In that concern, reducing inequalities of income and property is a part, and the reference in our party constitution to the possibility of being ‘enslaved by poverty’ is not a figure of speech. There are too many cases in which it is sadly real. We are not so utopian as to believe we can abolish inequality of power: not even anarchism, and perhaps least of all anarchism, can achieve that. Our concern, right back to the days when we sponsored our first Bill of Rights in 1689, is to make power accountable, first to the rule of law, and second to a two-way political process.
That means we must begin with the need to control the arbitrary power of the uk executive. In the words of the Scottish Claim of Right, ‘we have now reached the point where the Prime Minister has in practice a degree of arbitrary power few, if any English and no Scottish monarchs have rivalled...Against all this there is in the United Kingdom not a single alternative source of secure constitutional power at any level’.footnote5 This has been recently illustrated in the sad story of the attempt to preserve benefits for asylum-seekers, in which the Government was so easily able to push aside the Court of Appeal.