Comment: Simon Jenkins:
Respect starts with you letting us run our lives, Godfather Blair
Respect. That’s what this community needs, a bit of respect. It’s no more Mr Nice Guy, no more Bambi. This is Don Corleone speaking. I got a third term and I want respect. Specially from you, Fingers. Tony Blair clearly means to go out as he came in, with an image shift, a buzzword and general chaos in the personnel department. Yet as he emerges from his third election victory it is hard not to admire his achievement. There is only one word for Blair and that is chutzpah.
Last week his election night demeanour suggested a man humiliated and on his last legs. He made a 67-seat majority seem like a defeat and an invitation to party sceptics to tell him goodbye. Yet by last Thursday he was turned out in a smart suit and mauve tie. He looked like George Galloway trumpeting his latest acquisition, “respect”, as if it were a new designer drug. Blair is the only man to get a narcotic rush from an abstract noun.
Respect is to be the theme of Blair’s third term, but what does it mean? The superficial metaphor is obvious. The public may cut Labour’s majority by two-thirds but the prime minister wants respect from his cabinet, backbenchers and party. He has now given them three terms at the pork barrel. The least they can give him in return is a clear run to apotheosis. He wants a bit of omerta from cosa nostra.
But Blair seeks to promote other kinds of respect. Hence his appeal to that icon of middle-class politics, neighbourhood insecurity. During the election and again last week he identified his own fears with those of right-thinking citizens generally. The portfolio of dread embraces terrorists, muggers, hoodies, teenagers, Labour MPs and Robin Cook. He remarks with sweeping exasperation, “Look, I can’t raise someone’s children for them”, as if that is what the world expects of him. Blair nowadays takes the nanny state for granted. He has duly appointed David Miliband as his minister for respect.
Third terms are dangerous. They start in complacency and end in tears. Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher both crumpled within three years of their party’s third victory in a row. A combination of physical exhaustion and solitary confinement in a limousine erodes the sanity of any minister. Democracy finds it hard to tolerate more than eight years of anyone in power. Whereas Thatcher in 1987 at least had a revolution to sustain, Blair has nothing else to do but act as ongoing custodian of that revolution. The historical truth is that May 6 was Thatcherism’s seventh election victory in a row.
Indeed, looking back to 1987 I notice that Thatcher’s third prospectus was virtually identical to Blair’s. She, too, presented her programme as a sudden burst of social reform, finally “to give power to the people”. Her two greatest challenges were the same as Blair’s, in purpose and content: to reorganise the National Health Service so as to “put patients first” and schools so as to give “more choice to parents”. Head teachers would have more control over budgets. Hospitals would have more freedom from bureaucrats. Thatcher declared war on antisocial behaviour and bad parenting. She bewailed the fact that “the streets are more, not less, violent in spite of large increases in police numbers and prison places”.
Either Blair’s Thursday speechwriters simply copied out Thatcher’s policies or, as I suspect is the case, every third-term British government sticks in the same groove. The weary leader utters a cry of anguish over the state of hospitals, schools and law and order and promises to stem bureaucracy and give consumers more choice. It is the finale of Pagliacci. The sense of impending doom is written in the stars. Our hero dies in a welter of broken pledges and the comedy is finished. But there is always another singer and another NHS reorganisation round the corner.
Blair has, like Thatcher, grasped at some vague supra-political abstraction: respect. Like her he believes that it is his mission to go beyond the routine business of government, to restore discipline to the nation and bring himself into the heart of every British family. But whereas Thatcher confined her messianic zeal largely to conference speeches, Blair has given Miliband the awesome task of delivering it. He has created for him two titles: minister for communities and minister for local government.
These two responsibilities would be considered the same in any normal country. The trouble for Miliband is that his boss regards them as complete opposites. To Blair “community” is sugar and spice and all things nice, pink, soft and politically neutered. Local government is snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails. It is sweaty civic rooms and old Labour councillors, the hoodies of the public sector. It is where people like John Prescott have punch-ups. Thus Miliband’s task is to promote community but suppress local government. He must not tolerate any subsidiary democracy that might challenge the legitimacy of the centre and its regional viziers.
This is a paradox that Miliband cannot possibly resolve. The giveaway came in Blair’s explanation of how he would resolve it: through the police and law enforcement. There will be more police and more prisoners than ever in history. There will be cameras everywhere with no hiding under hoods, like those in 1984 from which concealing one’s face was a crime. Indeed, comparing Blair’s view on community with Thatcher’s in 1987, I find her emphasis on “the poorer, weaker members of society” and “demoralised communities” the more liberal. She was aware that interference from people like Miliband would “discourage individuals and disorientate communities”. Blair is the purer neoconservative. His nanny state is something run by the 82nd Airborne.
There is a wealth of evidence that parents do feel they are struggling to bring up their children in communities that are out of control as never before. Beyond their front doors they see only an urban (and suburban) wilderness of gangs, drugs and menace. Authority is represented only by screaming police cars and CCTV cameras. But the bonds of community discipline cannot be the police. That is only a last resort before anarchy. The police are not parents or teachers or accident ward staff. They cannot be everywhere, even if it would be nice if they were somewhere.
What has been lost in Britain is the tier of neighbourhood control which, in most countries, is supplied by the little platoons, what de Tocqueville called democracy’s intermediate associations. British politicians laud the success of community policing in America and Scandinavia. These successes were not imposed from above. They emerged from what Blair most abhors, local government.
Directly elected police chiefs in America were the catalyst for a return of street patrols and zero tolerance. Devolution to elected municipalities yielded the more effective crime regimes now operating in most northern European states. In both cases, public discipline is underpinned by elected (not appointed) neighbourhood and civic leaders. Without them, community policing has nothing on which to bite.
Communities without chosen leaders are mere composites of frightened families and demoralised professionals. They cannot be held together by police, any more than they can by regional offices, quangos and overnight Whitehall initiatives. If he is to do anything but platitudinise, Miliband has to revive local leadership by granting it more discretion. He has to galvanise local devolution and disband his army of regulators and inspectors. The public realm has to be repopulated by willing doctors, teachers, lawyers, clergymen and other informal leaders such as farmers and businessmen. Their contribution to local life in Britain is barren compared with abroad. Yet the government is about to declare Anglican clergymen “employees” of a state church.
Britons should ask why communities seem so much stronger in America, France and Germany. The answer is that people in those countries vote for two or three tiers of powerful local authorities and those votes matter. They affect decisions and are not overwhelmed by the centre. National presidents and prime ministers do not regard local schools, hospitals, street patrols and teenage clothing as their responsibility. They would laugh at the idea. They regard community and local government as synonyms. So should Blair and Miliband.