Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Ten Years On...

Thursday May 1st 1997 was a glorious day in the far west of Cornwall. I spent election day working for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Andrew George. I remember being at a school at Penbeagle in St Ives at 7am. I did two hours telling there, then two more hours at the Ayr Playing Field (glorious day, me and a Tory who worked as a waiter at the Porthminster Hotel).

A break for lunch, a spell of early afternoon knocking-up and then two hours at Carbis Bay in the early evening. I spent the second hour with Malcolm Baker, who owns the excellent Carbis Bay Hotel and was then (and still is) a local Tory grandee.

Finally, at 9, I headed to Zennor the voters departed, I could scarcely see my telling pad. BY the light of my yellow rosette, I called it a day at 9.45pm. I was sure Andrew George had won but how we had done nationally was unknown.

I heard the first unbelievable exit poll on the way back to St Ives but was so tired I went to bed at 11pm and missed the election night excitement.

I woke at 7am the next day and immediately checked the results. My whoop of delight when I saw we had taken Carshalton & Wallington (where I was then living and had done a deal of leafletting and canvassing for Tom Brake) was audible in Lelant, apparently. After breakfast it was off to Penzance for the count (the St Ives Constituency includes the Isles of Scilly and the boxes from there come over on the morning helicopter). Another glorious day and of course a huge win for Andrew George - the delight tempered by the fact we had narrowly lost control of the County Council (Menheniot had been lost by just two votes on a 67% turnout).

I was delighted the Liberal Democrats had advanced from 20 to 46 MPs and happy to see the Conservatives routed. As for Blair, I hoped it would be different and better than the disastrous Major years but I was no supporter of New Labour then or now. I knew then that they were an authoritarian party, controlled and controlling. The size of the landslide meant we had a new elected dictatorship and Blair had almost unlimited power.

That was then...

Today I don't know how to summarise the Blair legacy. The Conservative blogsphere such as Benedict White is uniformly negative and that's understandable. Tony Blair has thrashed the Conservatives at three successive elections. He was able to persuade millions of people who had always voted Tory to vote Labour. He convinced almost everyone that Labour was a non-socialist progressive party of the centre-left and for much of the last decade the Conservatives (and Liberal Democrats) have been marginalised.

In economic terms, we have enjoyed stability in terms of low inflation and low interest rates which were not generally a feature of the Thatcher/Major years. Foe those in work, incomes have risen steadily - for homeowners mortgage rates remain low while house values have appreciated almost exponentially. We remain more than ever a consumption society and that has had consequences which may become more dramatic with time and our dependence on regular supplies of fuel has been demonstrated too.

For very many people, the Blair legacy is synonymous with Iraq. To be fair, the events of September 2001 transformed the international geo-political environment. A superbly-planned and co-ordinated action by Al-Qaeda murdered 3,000 people and changed the world. The invasion (or liberation) of Afghanistan was an inevitable response but even that is incomplete. The Taliban still exist and although driven out of Kabul, remain strong elsewhere.

The tragedy was that George Bush, whose faltering Presidency was spectacularly revived by the events of September 2001, now saw an opportunity to finish what his father had failed to do and remove Saddam Hussein from power. The fact that Saddam had opposed Al-Qaeda and had little or no involvement in the attacks on America was irrelevant. The removal of Saddam and the establishment of a pro-Washington Government in Baghdad became the foreign policy objectives of Washington and London. We COULD have stayed out of the fighting and allied ourselves with France and Germany. We COULD have continued the policy of containment of Saddam. We COULD have acted under the banner of the United Nations. None of that was good enough for George W. Bush and so Iraq was invaded in 2003. The decrepit Iraqi army quickly folded, Saddam was removed from power and for a moment, the world celebrated. However, the tragic events of the last four years show that such planning as existed for a post-Saddam Iraq was woefully inadequate. Into the vacuum has flowed Al-Qaeda. With Baathist terror gone, Sunni and Shia militants are free to maim and slaughter in attacks that make the sectarian violence in Ulster in the 1970s pale into insignificance. Islamic terror has not been destroyed - if anything the anger that brings recruits to the terrorists has been fuelled. London itself was attacked on July 7 2005. That is part of Blair's legacy.

My main impression of Blair's legacy is around me in East Ham and elsewhere in East London. The invasion of east Europeans (Poles in particular) is fundamentally and significantly changing the social and cultural make-up of London and elsewhere. We are moving away from "Londonistan" to "Londongrad". The decision to allow Poland and the other former Warsaw Pact countries into the EU was and remains, in my view, a grotesque error. Those who opposed membership of the Euro because the British economy was "incompatible" with other European economies must have cheered heartily but the result, in terms of the movement of population and capital, has been grotesque. While the British eagerly buy up vast tracts of Poland, Bulgaria and Romania (pricing the locals out of the market and forcing them to migrate), the wave of East European migrants now distorts the housing and job market in London. Demand from migrant families keeps the housing market artificially buoyant while the influx of workers keeps wages low. That is also part of Blair's legacy.

David Cameron is part of Blair's legacy just as Tony Blair was perhaps Margaret Thatcher's greatest achievement. If and when Cameron becomes Prime Minister, Blairites can be happy that nothing will really change. The Cameronites may disagree but to me Cameron IS Blair repackaged and relaunched in a way Gordon Brown could never be. Blairism will survive Blair AND Brown because Cameron will pick up the baton.

That too is Blair's legacy.


snowflake5 said...

I read your assessment of the Blair years with interest.

I disagree that allowing Poland and the eastern europeans into the EU was a mistake, and I disagree too that waiving the transitional arrangements and allowing them to work in Britain straightaway was a mistake.

On the contrary, I think history will judge this to be one of Blair's most courageous decisions.

People overlook that Poland was/is a mess and had an unemployment rate of a staggering 18% in 2004 when they joined the EU. To us in Britain used to the New Labour prosperity, this is just a number, we don't recognise what it means in our gut. But to put it into perspective, the USA had an unemployment rate of 15% during the Great Depression, and it took all of Roosevelt's guile and leadership to prevent his country from being seduced by the extremes on the left and right. In Germany of course, unemployment was even higher, and they had no Roosevelt to lead them....

The EU and Britain in particular have acted as an enormous safety valve for Poland and the eastern europeans. Poland has still ended up with a weird and extreme government, but it could have been much worse, they could have gone the way of the Russians. As it is, the EU acts as a restraint (because of the EU treaties) on illiberal laws the Poles may pass. Being able to trade within the EU and receive transfer funds has already had an effect on the Polish economy - unemployment has dropped to 15%.

And instead of sitting at home in despair and getting ever more radical, young Poles have had the chance to go west and work and earn and experience a mature liberal democracy in action (something Poles have no living memory of, as few were adults in the 1930's and in any case, democracy in the 30's wasn't as open and vibrant as it is now, in terms of information, lack of deference and tolerance of differences, whether sexual or of race). They will go back to Poland the better for it, and in a few decades will take control of Poland and make their country into a successful stable place. And it will have happened because of us in Britain extending them a helping hand. In preventing a catastrophe, our generation has done something as important as the war generation did in cleaning up after the disaster of the 1930's - only we've done it cheaper and no one has died. A few people have been discomforted by some strangers coming to London, that's all.

loadofoldstodge said...

Thank you for your comment, snowflake, and I do understand what you are saying and where you are coming from.

My contention is that Blair, like almost everyone else in British politics, misunderstood what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 which, in my view, was a far more seminal event than September 2001.

After nearly fifty years, the Russians unilaterally withdrew from their "empire" of Eastern European states. However, welcome though their departure was and mercifully free of strife (apart from Romania) as it was (in comparison with Britain's withdrawal from India), the fact remains that no one in the West was prepared for these countries and peoples.

The economic and environmental state of these countries was (and remains in many areas) precarious. The departure of so many people to the West is NOT the blessing you claim it to be. First, it has created significant demographic and economic inbalances within the countries themselves and second, it has caused economic inbalances here as well.

The response of the West to the end of Soviet rule should have been a "Marshall Plan" aimed at economic and infrastructural reconstruction prior to bringing the countries into the EU. Of course, the Right welcomed these countries as it effectively killed off the idea of political union. However, the economic disparities which already existed were magnified many times when the eastern European countries joined.

I think we should have aimed at a 20-year programme of reconstruction and investment to bring the eastern economies closer to those of southern Europe before they were admitted to the EU club.

That would have also allowed time for democracy and democratic institutions (and a non-corrupt bureaucracy) to become established and flourish. I maintain that Blair compounded Major's folly (and liberals were just as culpable) by not understanding the historical and economy context of the events of 1989.