‘A new dawn has broken, has it not?’ Tony beamed that morning, even brighter than he had all the time before that the camera clicked. His smile, so parodied along with those overly sincere hand movements, symbolised mid-nineties politics. Against all the odds, against the ravages of the previous eighteen years, the systematic assault on our cities and society, there was hope in that smile. For millions of people, myself included, from May 1997 we believed things could only get better.
We were right.
And we were wrong.
New Labour bought a new hope for politics to Britain. In a time of economic boom, there was the opportunity to rebuild, to care not only about our immediate families’ prosperity but for the rest of the country’s wealth as well.
And yet despite the unprecedented funding being washed into education, the NHS, the establishment of the minimum wage, reductions in child poverty and a significant improvement in the standards of living for most people, you can’t help but wonder: With a majority that big, was it enough? If the terror attacks of September 2001 hadn’t happened, if Blair hadn’t become distracted – and ultimately all his and Brown’s good work overshadowed by – costly and of dubious morality wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, should they have done more?
Maybe it’s because 1997 was my election, or rather the one in which I (almost) could vote in. Four days too young, I watched the majority of my friends head off to the polling station and palatable change, for the first time in our lives, was in the air. No wonder I’ve become increasingly disappointed, to the extent that, for years, I carried around an outline for a short story in my head about someone who assassinated Blair for letting him down. I eventually discarded it as too teenage, too emotionally narrow.
Military misadventure took over from social reorganisation and then the financial catastrophe of 2008 swept into town distorting our view of what had gone before. Sure, a ruling party which wins successive elections, while its once imperious majority ebbs away, will inevitably be seen to be hanging on too long, but we forget how dreadful our social infrastructure was in 1997. We forget how drastically the country improved, but still, there’s that question: was it enough? Though neither of them, or any of the other New Labour architects, would ever admit to it, I imagine them privately kicking themselves that the system reforms introduced didn’t go further. If we’d been marched even further into a fair society, would we have so meekly allowed the Conservative government of the past five years to dismantle it?
Of course, too many changes too soon and we could have seen a different story in 2001. I remember, being approached in the pub where I was working, in suburban Birmingham, by an elderly chap telling me I that I knew which way I had to vote, didn’t I? To save the soul of the country? Make no mistake, he wasn’t supporting the then incumbents of Downing Street.
With the era of Blair and Brown, though, there seemed to emerge a new phenomena: the professional politician. Examples of this species, such as Jack Straw – more of whom later - who was elected to his safe seat in Blackburn aged just thirty-three have always been around, but since the nineties parliament has been overrun by ex-spads, political heirs and party machine-smiths with a media profile. And of course, those who never needed a job in the first place.
When Cameron took the top job five years commentators said that he looked the part, that he appeared to be prime minister material. Old Etonians, they’re all born to rule and they know it. The House of Commons is awash with white upper-middle-class men with Oxbridge degrees and private schools, flush with confidence and an easy manner on the grand stage, but far removed from the daily worries of normal people. Ian Duncan-Smith can see the spare bedroom tax as just way of reducing the benefits bill, because being married to a multi-millionaire he has no concept of tight finances. Ed Miliband, for all his positive attributes, talks the right talk about a fair and equal society, but growing up in Primrose Hill, the child of professional academics, he doesn’t have any idea what it is to be a manual labourer living in Mold, any more than I do. Hopefully he at least recognises that.
In a week where we see long-term politicians, both former foreign secretaries no less, Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind get caught pimping themselves out for access to the halls of power one doubts any of them ever recognise their own failings.
No, that’s unfair. The self-interested snouts in the trough world view of Nigel Farage does us no favours. It is better recognise that most MPs are hard-working and there for the right reasons. There have always been foolish men whose time in power has gone to their head, their belief in entitlement shakes their common sense.
Rifkind even had the audacity to claim he was self-employed, dismissing his £67-£80-odd thousand, depending on the source, salary as not sufficient. Maybe. He is, after all, MP for Kensington and he’d near more than that to afford a shoebox around there. Of course this does ignore the fact of all those other non-executive directorships he holds, which are unlikely to be unpaid.
But neither Rifkind nor Straw are, despite their long service in the House, the sort of bland professional I’m talking about. Both, at least, are identifiable characters and have some ideological beliefs (aside from their own wallets). They are not delivered flat packed, assembled at party headquarters and inserted into some smart shoes and a grey suit before being deployed to the provinces. Somehow, this is another way in which Farage has managed to pull the wool over people’s eyes. The privately educated, former hedge fund manager is somehow presenting himself as a man of the people, as something different to the establishment he is so embedded in. It seems that people are fooled that, because he likes a fag and a pint of bitter, he’s of working class stock.
If politics is, partly, the magic of making people think they agree with you, then this is the ultimate example of the art. It’s nothing but people on the inside, trying to pretend they’re on the out. It’s a confidence trick, that’s all. It’s not real change.
In the second half of the twentieth century, you had miners inventing the NHS and working class kids from Brixton running first the economy and then the whole country. In the 1970sthere were 150 teachers in the House of Commons. Now, it’s like we’ve travelled back to the regency – as though the prime minister could as easily be from the house of Lords as not. As though elections barely matter. It’s just changing the badge on the same people.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with professional politicians. You would expect those with whom you entrust the maintenance of, say, your car or your boiler to have the requisite experience. Maintaining the country is a little more complex, but it seems to generate people who are professional election winners, which isn’t quite the same thing. In a representative democracy we want people to act on our behalf, not just to offer the blandest least dangerous opinions, scampering towards the middle ground. It’s starting to look crowded in the centre and it’s hard to discern a difference at times.
Put it another way, I can’t seen Aneurin Bevan having to answer charges as to whether the adjustment made to his Father’s will around the inheritance of the central London property constituted illegal or legal tax avoidance.
But it’s okay, because Labour are deploying John Prescott to “bash heads together”. Whether that is the heads of Labour party workers, ministers and prospective ministers or the voters themselves remains to be seen. Prescott is old school Labour, one of the highest ranking politicians of the late nineties, early twenty-first century and as far from what we mean by professional politician as its possible to get and yet we mock his rough edges, we ridicule his speech patterns and that he doesn’t conform into the anonymous dark suit brigade. The poor beggars can’t win, can they?
Part of the problem is that MPs aren’t alone in being greedy. The whole HSBC scandal encapsulates one of the growing problems in this country, which the Conservatives seem perfectly happy with: Greed, wealth and the acumination of more booty at the expense of others. It creates the haves and the have nots. It gives us the likes of Rifkind and Straw seeking their enhanced pensions, either through a desire to be one of those who have or through envy of them. It’s perfectly natural, but the more Ed Miliband talks about creating a country which is fair, the more it feels as though his challenge will be to reconfigure people’s natural instincts for self-advancement and preservation. I think he’s right; I just worry not enough other people do.
Even my wife and I argue about this, despite both being comfortably on the left hand side of the political spectrum. I see the payment of tax as a social obligation and would be happy to pay more. This is not to say that my wife is pro-tax avoidance, but that she has more sensible – and significantly less pious – views of things like whether having an ISA constitutes secretly wishing to privatise the NHS.
(To be honest, I just couldn’t be bothered to do the paperwork and this was a clutching at straws defence, but ssh, don’t tell her.)
I’m easily impressed by people’s stance on taxation. JK Rowling – for all her literary faults – at least has the decency to stay in the UK and pay her taxes. As she says, the state was there for her when she was at rock bottom, when she had absolutely nothing. It’s only fair that she gives something back.
Blair’s 1997 new dawn did herald in a political day of socialism-lite. An awful lot of good in their thirteen years in office, but that term was twice that of the post World War Two Labour government which created much of the social infrastructure which dragged our country into the modern world, there will always be the question of whether they could have, should have, done more. We’re still having the same introspective arguments we have had for generations, squabbling over high or low taxation rather than finding a system that works, rather than accepting that to get a better future for all we have to be good citizens now. We should have sorted all this out. Instead we find ourselves missing the really important things, like the Ukraine is being torn apart by the sorts of expansionist aggressive military zeal not seen in Europe for more than half a century. Russian bombers over the coast of Cornwall, for Christ’s sake. Who knows what happens next, but our council tax rate isn’t going to make any difference.
And, of course, the problem with Blair’s dawn analogy is that night must also fall. Darkness shrouded us five years ago, under the cover of which the Tories has systematically pulled apart systems which it took fifty years to develop, trying to finish the job started in the eighties. The only question we need to ask ourselves is whether this is a summer’s night or a winter’s one?