Thursday, May 17, 2007
THE PARADOX OF BRITAIN'S POST-WAR PRIME MINISTER
As is customary, when a political leader has been in office for a considerable period – in the case of British Primer Minister, Tony Blair – the `jury’ is often out. On the one hand, the media is itching to make a meal of his legacy and the public, taking its cue from the media, tend to parrot the analyses, the gaffe and the various nuances that have now become ingrained in modern political debates.
Controversy is the real stuff of hard-ball politics and in every country, leaders and their political parties are praised and ridiculed with equal intensity – from within and without. While to some, politics is perceived as the art of the possible especially for trenchant ideologues like former Tory Leader, Baroness Margaret Thatcher, and Labour Leader, Tony Blair, human nature teaches that certain things in life can be impossible, and one of them is the art of political leadership.
National leaders are often elected first, by their Political Parties and secondly, by the general electorate. There are expected to perform based on an approved Election Manifesto. This document sets out in some detail, policy issues, whilst leaders and their Parties present the broad vision of ideas, and the Executive is responsible for fleshing out the details via the implementation process. So that education, health and economic reforms that were expected of the Blair administration post-1997, enjoyed mixed fortunes, with various sections of the British public giving their verdict.
During Labour’s wilderness in opposition for over 20 years, it was obvious that it had to shed its old socialist ideological skin – get rid of Clause IV, reduce trade union power and denationalise sections of the `commanding heights of the economy’. The Party had to rebrand itself to appeal to Middle England voters since the organisation was founded on working class values and these were regarded as a fractured continuum of Labour Party politics in the post-war period. Then there were those who voted for the Conservative Party most of their lives; they had to be wooed too. In effect, the priority for the Labour Party prior to 1997, was to reposition its `ideological products and services’ and appropriate a modern political culture befitting the 21st century.
For a little while, the death of Scottish lawyer and politician, John Smith, seemed to have derailed or hindered somewhat Labour’s fortunes, and it was left to the fresh-face lawyer, Tony Blair, to prepare a programmatic platform that would catapult the Labour Party to victory with the hope, that it could dominate the centre-ground of politics for a long time. The successes and failures of the New Labour project, however, should be properly contextualised, lest they appear to be analysed in the wider scheme of media spin and sectional bile from a disaffected British public.
Politically, Mr. Blair offered the British nation a glorious opportunity to rewrite its cryptic history via the parliamentary machine and the legislature. He invented a presidential or magisterial style of governance, displaying at times, irritation and impatience to the slow process of law-making. Such frustrations were evidenced in various law, education, health, business, environmental and other reforms. Commentators suggested that Mr. Blair was not very keen on consulting with parliament over reforms which he believed were necessary to `push through’. He showed little appetite for lengthy debates on policies such as education, health and the economy. Of course, the Blair-Brown political partnership had its fair share of criticisms, but space instead, would be dedicated to the impact of the PM's legacy on selected areas of governance. Quite frankly, personality should not to override pragmatism and the opportunities politics offers to make a nation better, in its capacity for tolerance, respect and compassion for citizens irrespective of their colour, race, creed and related socio-economic persuasions.
As Prime Minister, Mr. Blair demonstrated sterling qualities as political leader. As a consummate tactician and brilliant communicator of visionary ideas, he had the uncanny ability to respond to discord through amicable means or the use of force in the case of Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. Tomes have been written (and still are being written) about the Iraqi fall-out – a conflict that will define and redefine the PM’s political legacy for a long time to come. The world has been consumed by the paradox of Western-type democratic ideology versus economic expediency, and this has sapped a genuine debate on progressive thought which is further underpinned by logic, tact and diplomacy to achieve the ends that may justify the means.
At home, we witnessed signs of partial equality in the corridors of power, and apart from Peers, we saw the emergence of distinguished British Caribbean citizens staking their claim. Lady Valerie Amos was appointed Leader of the House of Lords, whilst Baroness Patricia Scotland and David Lammy, two brilliant legal minds, were also appointed Government Ministers, with a growing number of other ethnic representatives serving as `First Citizens’ in municipalities throughout England in particular. Yet, there is still a high level of under-representation among various ethnic groups in the country at the local, regional and national legislature compared with the overall percentage of minorities in the UK.
One of Mr. Blair’s major political successes, was the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict that contributed to loss of human life, property and almost dismantled the Belfast economy. It is here that he invested huge political capital, using charm and acuity to win support from members across the sectarian divide, coming on the heels of his predecessor, Conservative Leader, Sir John Major.
In February 1993, I visited Northern Ireland for a week, with a team from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the height of the troubles there, and I met leaders from various political parties, except Reverend Dr. Ian Paisley Snr (I met the Junior Paisley instead). I was tremendously impressed by the consensual desire for political unity and social cohesion, not forgetting, economic prosperity. I observed the peace and tranquility at Lagan College between students from the Catholic and Protestant community and then I witnessed the savagery on the streets by adults. There was certainly no real appetite for invading the country. The view was, `give peace a chance’, let diplomacy reign supreme. Indeed, Northern Island, in spite of its anxieties, pain and human frailties, proved like the new South Africa, a true beacon for modern democracy, where the rule of law is not decided by a gun or hammer, but by patient dialogue and discussion, as well as compromising negotiations which engendered confidence in the peace process, despite divergent views.
Another brilliant achievement of Mr. Blair’s Administration, was devolution – the Scottish Executive and the new Welsh Assembly respectively - and the modernization of the regional democratic system. Success breeds its own enemies and it is important to underscore that devolved government is not a panacea for historical ills such as inequalities, deprivation and exclusion affecting tens of thousands of both white and non-white communities. Some English inner-cities have the highest deprivation indices in the whole of the UK and this situation has attracted considerable criticism as to whether huge investment in regeneration has really helped to counter this vexed issue.
Since the 1990s, considerable sums have been spent on redeveloping industrial cities and other urban derelict sprawls, but swathes of communities have benefited little or at worst, being excluded from the process. To compound the situation, local and regional Boards and Committees have a disproportionate number of ethnic representatives and this situation does not seem to be getting better.
The claim that the UK economy is in a better shape than it ever was, can be seen through macrocosmic and microcosmic lenses. The general state of the economy is pretty sound, with large investments being made, the evidence of which can be attributed to increasing international company mergers and other joint ventures nearing the trillion pound mark. But as the political sage, Tony Benn, rightly acknowledged, the `rich have become richer’ and the `poor seem to be getting poorer’. The inequalities are primarily due to the artificial nature of the British economy where house prices and consumer spending are used to measure economic trends. Consumer borrowing, as well as manufacturing output in selected sectors, is also used as a barometer to measure either a healthy or ailing state of the economy. These trends however, have been mixed since little account is taken of the productivity of small businesses especially ethnic firms that are underperforming statistically, but may have potential growth if investment in machinery and equipment, human capital and consumer markets, are given a boost in the form of commercial and industrial incentives.
Perhaps a disappointing feature of the Blair’s policy on the business reform agenda was the plethora of numerous enterprise agency-type organizations that did little for micro and small businesses. The volume of regulations, bureaucracy and limited technical support for potential growth sectors and the lack of a clearly defined and coherent policy for ethnic firms, including young entrepreneurs, have undermined efforts to create a culture of social cohesion and inspire community confidence in the political system. Irrespective of its inherent faults, the 1980s-Tory inspired enterprise agency system benefited many ethnic businesses in London, the Southeast and the West Midlands. It was during that period that over half of all such firms were established despite recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And yet contradictorily, there has been nearly 5% of growth in the number of black businesses since the late 1990s across the UK.
When he won the last elections, Mr. Blair was determined to lay claim that New Labour was the new `Law and Order’ Party, but over the past few years there has been an increase in the incidences of crime, with the reporting of crime climbing inexorably and gun crime threatening to tear communities apart. The spate of shootings in London, Birmingham, Nottingham and elsewhere, have offered little respite for criticisms levelled against the PM and his government for failing to tackle problems of discrimination, prejudice and disaffection experienced by young people and their communities. Even the `Respect’ agenda, which was nationally acclaimed, has failed to tackle anti-social behaviour. The Anti-Social Behaviour Order scheme has been ridiculed by many communities because it is yet to prove an effective deterrent against under-aged youngsters who create mayhem on our streets. The sentencing system itself is problematic with eminent members of the Judiciary, the Probation Service and other agencies arguing in favour of greater parity and consistency in both law-making and a more common sensual approach to justice.
Generally, Mr. Blair tried to make amends in his farewell speech to his Sedgefield constituents on Thursday afternoon (10th May 2007) just over 10 years when he was elected as Britain’s longest-serving Labour Premier. The legacy of his premiership will be debated infinitum by politicians, the media, the academic community, civil servants, business people, students and even our children, will deliver their verdict. In the end however, what really matters, is whether Mr. Blair can convert his influence and power into crucible assets of progressive thought and action in a world bitterly divided by religious hatred and ideological bigotry in the 21st century that is supposedly, that great period of Modern Enlightenment.