Monday, January 15, 2007

Podcast: A follower, not a leader

Script of Week in Politics podcast, Episode 52.

***

On the face of it, there would appear to be little connection between this week’s row over the Prime Minister’s “carbon footprint” and the ongoing controversy over the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Both are moral issues, for sure, but while one merely concerns the fate of a reviled dictator, the other concerns the future viability of the entire planet.

In one vital sense, though, Tony Blair’s failure to take a lead either in curbing greenhouse gas emissions or in condemning the manner of Saddam’s execution are one and same story, in what they show us about his character.

For both highlight what I have always regarded as his primary deficiency as a politician and a Prime Minister – that he is, essentially, a follower rather than a leader.

Take first, then, the case of Saddam. This issue has been causing discomfiture for Mr Blair ever since the Butcher of Baghdad was initially condemned to death in November.

He doesn’t, of course, agree with the death penalty, but he sure as hell wanted it applied to Saddam lest the former dictator emerge as a rallying-point for the Iraqi insurgents.

Mr Blair sought to extricate himself from this tricky little moral dilemma by saying nothing and hiding behind the coat-tails of his Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, whose views about capital punishment are no different to his own.

It was too much for one television interviewer, who told Mr Blair contemptuously: “You’ve been Prime Minister for ten years, she’s been Foreign Secretary for five minutes.”

So when Saddam was finally executed on December 30, it was scarcely surprising that it was poor old Mrs Beckett who was once more wheeled out to give the Government’s response.

Choosing her words with her customary care, Mrs Beckett said the deposed tyrant had been “held to account.”

Then mobile phone images started circulating around the internet demonstrating that the execution, far from being a dignified, behind-closed-doors affair, had been a shameful public humiliation.

To his very great credit, John Prescott for once showed himself to be the moral conscience of the Government by condemning the scenes as “deplorable.”

Still, though, Mr Blair said nothing, his official spokesman briefing the Lobby that the Deputy Prime Minister had been “expressing his own view.”

And doubtless that is where he would have left it, had it not been for Gordon Brown deciding to weigh in on Mr Prescott’s side in his interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr last Sunday.

The following day, the official spokesman changed his line, revealing that Mr Blair now thought the manner of the execution had been “completely wrong” and that it “shouldn’t have happened in this way.”

Was that really the action of a leader, to be forced to concede the moral high ground not only to his hated rival at No 11, but also to his discredited deputy?

But if that episode shamed Mr Blair, even more contemptible was his performance over the issue of air travel and the growing damage which aviation is doing to the environment.

Once again, it was a less senior figure, environment minister Ian Pearson who took the lead, singling out no-frills airline Ryanair as “not just the unacceptable face of capitalism, but the irresponsible face of capitalism."

The degree of political courage required for a junior minister to make a comment such as this should not be underestimated.

Ever since Peter Mandelson told the CBI that the Government was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich,” this kind of criticism has been off-limits for New Labour.

But what did Mr Blair do? Not only did he fail to back up Mr Pearson’s brave stance, he attempted to reverse the growing political consensus on the aircraft emissions issue.

Asked whether people should make sacrifices by taking holidays closer to home, the Prime Minister said it would be wrong to impose "unrealistic targets" on travellers.

"You know, I'm still waiting for the first politician who's actually running for office who's going to come out and say it - and they're not," Mr Blair says. "It's like telling people you shouldn't drive anywhere."

He had clearly already forgotten that Mr Pearson, who unlike him actually is running for office at the next election, had actually said something very similar just a few days’ before.

But these are merely two small topical examples of a depressing theme has run throughout the lifetime of the New Labour project.

The aim of that project should have been to bring about an irreversible shift in wealth, power and opportunity in favour of the many, not the few, and indeed, in its early years, it was billed as such.

But it has been clear for some years now that its true purpose was not to shift the country to the left, but simply to shift the Labour Party to the right.

As a result, Mr Blair’s eventual successor now risks being portrayed as “Old Labour” by the resurgent Tories if he so much as attempts to shift one millimetre from the Blairite path.

And there, in a nutshell, you have Mr Blair’s precious “legacy.” Not Iraq, nor even the fact that he has presided over widening inequality, though both of those things are part of it.

No, Mr Blair’s legacy is that despite three election wins and a Tory Party which was incapable of being elected to run a whelk stall, he failed to build that progressive consensus.

It is a failure borne of the same tendency to seek to follow public opinion rather than lead it that we have seen manifested in the events of the past seven days.

And when all the dust has settled, it is a failure that may well go down as the greatest missed opportunity in the history of progressive politics.

1 comment:

Alan D said...

In contrast Liberal Democrat run Uttlesford District Council recently refused BAA planning permission to expand its destructive business at Stansted not simply for narrow, selfish local reasons but because aviation growth has to be curbed if climate change is to be limited. Will the Pearson's in the government back this decision or the Blairs overturn it at appeal?

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