My mother used to say, ‘The Bible tells us to turn the other cheek, but there are only so many cheeks in a day.’
How true. How long will the British people go on forgiving Tony Blair? All the signs are that patience is running out. My own patience ran out when Blair took us to into war without a mandate from the British people or from the United Nations. At that moment Britain became Little America.
We are properly concerned about too much interference from the European Union in British daily life, but in foreign policy we have handed over control to the USA.
Bush doesn’t listen to Blair. Blair listens to Bush. We have got ourselves caught in a situation where we have lost leverage in Europe and gained nothing from the USA. Blair may not be Bush’s poodle, but in the eyes of the world, Britain has become the underdog.
Blair took us into war in spite of the country’s misgivings, because he believes that what seems right to him, is automatically right for Britain. Of course, there are parallels here with Margaret Thatcher, who had an instinct for the mood of the nation, and for about six years she was spot on.
It may be that the strength and the weakness of all charismatic leaders is their preference for instinct over argument. The details, the reasoning, can be left to speechwriters; the leader’s job is to show the way. This is all well and good until the leader’s instinct is no longer in tune with the people or in touch with the facts. Thatcher crucially misjudged the Poll Tax – and triggered the long slow decline of her party’s electoral credibility. Blair has crucially misjudged the invasion of Iraq, leaving us with a destabilised Middle East, and a Government we can’t trust. Now he is trying to win us back with the power of personality.
In Brighton this week, Blair was big on charisma, low on facts and reasoning. He wrote his own speech, and he admitted his own fallibility, which is not the same thing as admitting he was wrong.
He asked us to trust him – trust him, trust him, trust him, as though he were Henry on the night before Agincourt, as though he were the religious leader of a rebellious faith. We have to stop doubting him – that was the real message. We have to let him do what he wants – he’s our King, our prophet. He foresees things, he’s troubled, he acts out of Inner Conviction. He talks as if we voted for him the way people put up their hands to be saved in a Gospel Tent.
I was brought up in a Gospel Tent. We toured the seaside towns of the Northwest, preaching the Word, and we sounded just like Tony. If more people in Britain went to Revival meetings, they would be les impressed by political demagogues.
I’m not saying that Blair is insincere – he’s utterly sincere, which is why he’s dangerous. He’s as sincere as the Preacher who knows the way to Heaven and the way to Hell. There is no debate. There is black and white, right and wrong. Never mind that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. Never mind that he lied about the forty-five minute deployment. Never mind that Iraq, however much we loathed Saddam, was a sovereign state, with no proven connections to Bin Ladan or to the ruthless bombing of the Twin Towers.
There were no connections, but Tony made a leap of faith. At the start of the war he played the practical tough politician, acting on the hard facts of a difficult situation. He convinced us that we had no alternative to war. Now he agrees with his opponents that there aren’t any ‘facts’, but he tells us that he is doing something he ‘believes in’. Facts have been replaced by faith. This is bad news for everyone. I do not doubt that our instincts matter, or that a sense of natural justice is important. Progress always begins with someone somewhere challenging the status quo, which usually means breaking the law or defying social taboos. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, the Suffragettes, the Chartists, all acted out of deeply held beliefs that were against their own time and ahead of it.
New Labour came to power as the outsiders with a vision for change. Like Thatcher in 1979, Blair was utterly convincing. Like the Tories in 1979, New Labour had a winning combination of heart and head. They had a feeling for what people wanted and they had impressive intellectual armoury. It’s no secret that New Labour owned more to Thatcherism than it did to old-fashioned Socialism; that’s why even people who didn’t vote for Tony were prepared to give him a chance. He had the right arguments and he was genuine. Now he’s genuinely wrong – about Iraq, and about what’s good for Britain.
I voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 because I was a working class kid who had got myself to Oxford at a time when there was no such thing as helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I hated Labour for culling the Grammar schools, just as I was about to enter the sixth form. Education was my only hope, and along came Labour telling me it was ‘fairer’ if I didn’t have any. My school was ruined, and I went to a College of Further Education to get some A levels.
To me, Labour felt like an out of touch elite, controlled by the muscle power of the Unions. It had nothing to offer someone from my background with my ambition – and it still doesn’t. This is the tragedy of Tony. He came in promising a raft of reforms and he hasn’t delivered. Our education system is a disaster; what is the point of all this talk of ‘access’ to higher education, when primary and secondary education is so poor? Friends of mine who teach in universities are offering remedial reading and writing – even though these kids have all got good grades at A level.
Ambitious children who want to get on are being failed by Labour, just as ordinary kids who need basic skills will be hard pressed to learn them in our schools. No wonder so many parents are trying to send their children to private schools – something Labour would love to abolish because it shows up the extraordinary difference in standards.
I send my godchild to City of London School for Girls. She is eight, she has a reading age of twelve, impressive IT skills, passable French, and best of all, she loves Monday mornings. I’m trying to give her back what Labour took away from me. I’m lucky because I can afford it, and I am furious that our children, who are our future, have been so neglected by this Labour government. It is possible to sort out our education system, but for Labour, too much ideology gets in the way of real change.
There were no real policies on offer at Brighton this year. The facts – and Tony doesn’t like facts anymore – are that taxes have risen in all sorts of underhand ways but our quality of life has not improved. Public services are a joke, roads are clogged with traffic, the railways are a maze of delayed, over-crowded trains, the Post Office can’t even manage to deliver mail, and we are at the beginning of a pensions crisis. It’s going to be difficult for people to achieve the work/life balance so movingly talked about by Tony, when Gordon is telling us we shall have to work until we are seventy and save every penny we can.
Quality of life, utter disillusionment with the failed new dawn of failed New Labour, and a stubborn antipathy to becoming Little America, have crystallised into a simple practical decision for me; live half the year in France.
I love my country and I want to work for change here, but I also want a perspective on how we live and how we might live – with the right political leadership.
The French are exasperating in many ways, but I admire their stance on Iraq, and I am in sympathy with their determination to recognise Europe as different to America, with different goals and values. France, unlike Britain, has fiercely protected its culture and its way of life. Unlike Britain, it spends its money on an impressive health and education system, its trains are a joy, its food is delicious, and no one in France is ashamed to be intellectual, artistic or free-thinking.
Above all, the French are not afraid to criticise American foreign policy or George Bush. France does not want America to rule the world. Tony Blair’s Britain is already colonised – not by force, as in Iraq, but by a more sinister ‘soft power.’ The Romans ruled few of their territories by force, they persuaded people to adopt the Pax Romana. Bush has persuaded Blair to adopt the American Way. Until Britain re-asserts her independence, I’d rather be elsewhere.
France has serious problems with immigration and intolerance. It is not perfect. It is far from ideal in many ways, but I do not agree with those political analysts who believe that Europe must make common cause with America. We must have difference, we must have debate.
Britain could have been the leader in that difference and debate and formed a genuine bridge between Europe and the USA. As it is, the French are taking the lead in Europe, and Britain risks isolation. UKIP, which sounds like a low-grade chain of motels, has done damage here. I believe that our future is in Europe, not outside of it, but we need to be strong and independent. Ironically, Blair’s version of the Special Relationship makes us look weak and colonised.
What is the point of keeping the pound when we have been bought by the American dollar? Bush has promised Blair oil and technology opportunities in the new free Iraq. Instead we have dead soldiers and desperate hostages.
Women in Iraq are worse off under the new religious fundamentalism than they were under Saddam. Blair talks about the twenty five per cent of seats allocated to women on the governing council, and fails to say that sixty percent of Iraqis are women.
Bush talks about freedom after Saddam and fails to remind us how much support Reagan gave to Saddam, or that before Saddam was helped to power by the West, Iraq was the progressive of the Middle Eastern countries.
Never mind. Blair and Bush ‘have faith’ in what they are doing. Like the Fundamentalist fanatics they oppose, what do facts matter when you have faith?