Saturday, January 01, 1994

Being an Attempt to Work Out My Pathological Dislike of the Leader of the Opposition

I am, I confess, prejudiced against the President in Waiting. He has been something of a personal bogeyman ever since that month of national derangement which followed the conviction of two school-boys for the murder of little (as journalists are legally required to say) James Bulger. It will be remembered that the judge, without apparent evidence, decided that two entirely innocent boys and been turned into 'freaks of nature' (Daily Mail) and 'evil, pure evil' (Daily Mirror) as a result of watching a horror movie. According to Peter Mandleson and Roger Liddle's comic masterpiece The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver?, (which I use throughout as my only available source of information about Tony Blair's beliefs) (1) he thought that this murder was 'the ugly manifestation of a society that is becoming unworthy of the name', as opposed to, for example, an exceptionally unpleasant murder by two clearly disturbed children. The Conservative Home secretary felt that society could be saved, and moral chaos presumably averted by fining video shop owners who supplied 15 and 18 certificate movies to children below the ages of 15 and 18. This seemed a not unsilly approach. But the blessed and holy Mr Blair ('Christianity is not enough by itself' ibid p 33.) felt the supply of such videos to anybody at all needed to be prohibited. How such legislation would have worked was not made clear: I do not know whether Wandsworth Library would be subject to a fine or imprisonment for having supplied me last week with a copy of Terence Davies' sublime movie The Neon Bible (cert 15) or whether I myself could have been fined or sent to jail for possessing it. (2) I find it hard to support a politician who seeks to criminalize me; let alone one who is willing to advocate the curtailment of free speech. On the afternoon that John Smith died, I remarked 'Not Tony Blair, please God, not Tony Blair' thinking that I was making a great joke.
Politicians, by definition, make laws, and laws, by definition, curtail freedoms. The law which says that we drive on the left hand side of the road curtails my freedom to drive on the centre-right. But since it is obviously sensible that we should all drive in the same direction, we have no problem with empowering a police officer to pull-over and arrest a maniac driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Similarly, since we all want schools, public toilets and atomic weapons, and since it would be very difficult for a private individual to purchase a Trident submarine for his personal protection, it seems sensible to empower leaders to raise and spend taxes on our behalf.
Again, governments must be allowed to do things which citizens are not allowed to do; or, put another way, it is morally right for us to do collectively what it would be morally wrong for us to do individually. Pacifists and opponents of capital punishment will often argue that Alfred Pierrpont was the moral equivalent of a serial killer, and that we should arrest the entire RAF for murder. This is absurd: one might as well say that a prison officer is a kidnapper, or an employee of the Inland Revenue is running a protection racket.
In principle, therefore, it is hard to deny that Tony Blair, in government, has a perfect right to punish me for watching videos which he disapproves of. However, many of us believe that rights of this sort ought only very rarely to be exercised. Government in a free country should only curtail its subjects freedoms under the most exceptional circumstances. I would call this 'liberalism', and it is about as close as I come to a political ideology.
Of course, these two types of powers—the power to raise money and the power to punish—are not unrelated (3) One of the reasons I pay my taxes is that I know that if I do not, I could be sent to prison. Prisons are one of the things that my taxes pay for.
Blair intends to make much use of his power to coerce: his political sin is not that he has moved his party away from economic socialism; his sin is that he has embraced state-authoritarianism. I do not know whether this authoritarianism could be justly described as 'fascist': certainly Blair seems to value something called 'the community', defined as 'ordinary hardworking families who play by the rules' (i.e the middle classes) over and above the individual. Certainly, there is nothing in the book that could be construed as racist or militaristic, although I do wonder how homosexuals will fair under a government that defines community in terms of families.
New Labour is very concerned about improving something called 'standards' in 'our' schools. Given that it is state schools that we are talking about, and given that state schools are funded by government, we would expect that this improvement of 'standards' to be brought about by the raising and distribution of money. If children are fat and lazy, then money will be earmarked for sports fields and gym teachers; if they can't spell, than more books will be provided and better English teachers will be hired. Indeed, unless Tony Blair is going to personally go into classrooms and start teaching facts about English (e.g. that Mandelson is wrong to use 'enormity' as a synonym for 'huge size') then one would have thought that this was pretty much all a government could do. New Labour sees things differently.
'Each child should have his or he own individual learning plan devise by the teacher and reviewed with a parent at regular six-monthly meeting attendance at which would be a new legal requirement.'
(p93, emphasis added)
It is New Labour's contention that parents who do not turn up to parent-teacher consultation evenings should be prosecuted. Presumably the offending parent is to be cautioned, then fined, and, if the fine was not paid, sent to prison. Or perhaps she would be sent on community service, given probation, or electronically tagged. Or does the President have something even more sinister in mind?
'Where a parent failed to meet this obligation, this would be prima-facie evidence of a child at risk of educational failure.'
How this 'evidence' would be acted on, we are not told. Would the parent be forced to attend Parenting Classes— enforced with the threat of fines and imprisonment? Or would the 'at risk' child be taken into care—for his own good, of course?
Getting parents to attend parents evenings is as nothing compared with problem of getting children to attend schools in the first place. 'School attendance is to be made the legal requirement that it formally is', opines Mr Mandelson. 'Where truancy persists, prompt legal action should be taken against parents.' (p135) As I understand it, at this moment, a parent who keeps his child away from school can be prosecuted, but this must be a fairly rare problem. 'Truancy' according to Mandelson, is not uncommon, and part of the problem of break- up...moral vacuum...etc. It follows therefore that, under this new system, relatively large numbers of parents will be fined or imprisoned because their children keep bunking off school. If asked to justify this, New Labour would presumably say that the average poorly educated underpaid estate dweller could very easily force his sixteen year old son to attend school, but chooses not to: the threat of a fine would eradicate the problem overnight. Does anybody believe this?
Of course, once the problem of truanting is solved and you have a school full of teenagers who do not want to be there, then the teachers are going to have even more problems maintaining discipline than they do at present. But New Labour have a solution to this, as well:
'Schools require a new, much tougher set of disciplinary sanction to deal with unruly and uncooperative pupils, such as compulsory homework on school premises, weekend and Saturday night detentions, and the banning of favourite leisure pursuits such as attendance at football matches.'
How, we ask ourselves, is attendance at these detentions to be enforced? Presumably by threatening to fine or imprison parents whose children do not show up. What the hell does an individual schools disciplinary regime have to do with government in the first place? There is, at this moment, nothing stopping any individual headmaster from keeping a child in after school to do his homework. Is Blair proposing that legislation be put in place to force headmaster to impose whatever rules and punishments this ex-public schoolboy thinks are a good idea? (And if so, what coercive measures will back this legislation up? Ah— but he tells us the answer to this one: he will sack the offending teachers or close the offending school? (p92)) It might also be worth spending a few minutes considering the use of the word 'new' to describe the idea of Saturday Morning Detentions.
One could continue to multiply examples. Crime will be reduced if policies are put in place which will 'increase the likelihood of conviction in the courts'. Mandleson doesn't say 'the likelihood of the guilty being convicted' but this is, perhaps, a slip. Teenagers who break their probation orders will be obliged to work at weekends. Or what? Or be sent to prison, presumably. It is striking that leisure only comes into New Labour's view of the universe in so far as it is something to be taken away from naughty people.
Training schemes are to be provided for the unemployed, but these are to be backed up by coercive measures to force people to go on them:
'Clearly, society has a responsibly to ensure that children in all circumstances are cared for, and there is no sense in applying rules to able bodied males which force families apart, but childless young people who are of sound body and mind cannot expect to continue to receive full benefit if they decide not to take up these new opportunities.' (p102)
Note that full benefit (at present, £49 per week plus rent) means 'the absolute minimum that you need to live on'. Hence 'not receiving full benefit' means 'receiving less than you need to need to live on', or, plainly 'not being able to afford to buy enough food'. This is explicitly referred to as a 'carrot and stick' approach. The unemployed, or some of them, are lazy: for some of them, only the threat of starvation will force them to work.
Last week, that strange intellectual void of the Ceefax straw-poll and the PM Letterline was awash with the terribly important news that Tony Blair believed in beating his children. He felt bad about, had only done it when they were very bad, and, doubtless, he had offered them a carrot beforehand. But he had done it.
May I suggest that the Labour party should adopt 'This will hurt me far more than it will you' as its campaigning slogan?
NOTE 1: I wrote this article before the publication of 'Road to the Manifesto', and on the evening of the phone in
party political broardcast, the miserable so-and-so refused to talk to me. However, if a book which began every third sentence with 'New Labour would...' and 'New Labour will...' was not a pretty good picture of Blair's beliefs, then he would surely have denounced it very loudly.
NOTE 2: A friend of mine who works for the Civil Service has pointed out that legislation is not a form of vodoo. To prohibit something by law means 'to make it possible for the courts to punish those who do the contrary. At present, there are only two types of punishment available, loss of liberty (prison, community service, probation) and loss of
earnings. To his credit, Tony Blair has not suggested the re-introduction of hanging, flogging or crucificixion.
NOTE 3: The double negative is an important part of New Labour's outlook. 'Phil's experience is by no means untypical' (p 68) 'Tracey's experience is not uncommon' (p111).)