Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Labour MPs ask Blair such challenging questions as, "Would you not agree that you're the greatest living Englishman?" or, "Would you not agree that you have solved all the world's problems?" '
I'm told that Tony Blair is repeatedly done over by William Hague in their exchanges across the despatch box at prime minister's question time. This seems extraordinary. I'd have a few bob on my cat winning a debate with William Hague on just about any subject imaginable. So how is it that the smoothest, sharpest, most media friendly prime minister ever cannot cope with the singularly most lightweight leader of the opposition the world has ever produced?
Partly, I suppose, there is a limit to how far you can out-Tory a Tory, even a hopelessly inadequate one, but I think there is more to it than that. I think Blair finds parliament a tiresome inconvenience to the job of being prime minister
This does not entirely surprise those of us who have always believed that real power lies outside parliament, in the boardrooms, the CBI, the Bank of England, the upper echelons of the civil service and state bureaucracy, but, dammit, Blair's meant to be a champion of the parliamentary system.
Nevertheless, almost the first thing he did when he became prime minister was to cut prime minister's question time in half. He spends less time in parliament than any postwar prime minister and is far happier when in the company of the movers and shakers' of the business world.
When the Tories were in power, Labour accused them of making a mockery of parliament through bypassing and abusing it. The Tories, it was said, had abused question time by having many of their own MPs ask Thatcher/Major puffball questions, thus blocking real and hostile ones.
They had not, it was said, debated out their differences in parliament. Rather they had used their press secretaries to brief the press against one another. Furthermore, they had blackened the great and glorious name of the British parliament by some of their number taking cash for questions. Lastly. they had shown contempt for democracy by taking more and more power out of the hands of elected reresentatives and placing it in the hands of timeservers and bureaucrats operating through quangos.
All this was true, and yet not only has Labour copied or left unaltered many of these practices, it has in some instances magnified them or replaced them with something even worse.
So 17 months into a Labour government we find that quangos have control over the distribution of a greater amount of money than local councils and other elected bodies.
As for prime minister's question time, new heights have been hit in the puffball stakes. Horribly ambitious, obsequious and oily men and women of the new intake of Labour MPs ask Blair such challenging questions as, 'Would you not agree that you're the greatest living Englishman?' or, would you not agree you have solved all the world's problems?' We can only hope that Blair never goes off his rocker or no doubt one of them will be on their feet asking, 'Would you not agree that you are the Emperor Napoleon?'
The press briefings carry on, except now they don't even appear to be about policy differences. Blair doesn't like/trust Brown, Brown doesn't like/trust Blair, the ambitious Brown aides hate the ambitious Blair aides and vice versa, so smear and counter-smear are issued to favourite journalists at will.
True, there have been no cash for questions allegations, but as Derek Draper made clear to his clients, you don't need to bother with a parliament full of MPs. No, there are 17 important people in the Labour hierarchy (not all of them MPs, let alone ministers) that you need to make contact with to get favours done. Draper was summarising the Blairite contempt for what is meant to be their own sacred institution.
Funnily enough, many of Blair's whizz kids and rising stars are products of student politics and the National Organisation of Labour Students. Their attitude to democracy was moulded and defined on the campuses. Their number one aim was to get elected. President of their local students' union or full time union executive member was a great prize. Executive member of the NUS or, joy of joys, president, was the ultimate goal, a passport to a glittering Labour career.
The job of the mass of students was to vote for them, and then...leave them alone! They cut the number of national conferences. They hated union meetings; they made them boring; they aborted them by calling quorum counts; they reduced them to a constitutional minimum. That way they could get on with their careers without noisy and dangerous interruption, which is exactly how one feels Blair views parliament.
Revolutionaries have always regarded parliament as something of a sham because it negates participation of the mass of people and therefore 1eaves wealth and power in the hands of extra-parliamentary forces. Blair is coming from exactly the opposite view--he regards it with contempt because he has little time even for this tiny element of participation in the system.
Strange games, because they want us to
believe we have a say in the system, and
parliament is as close as they get to
convincing us. Close it may be, but, as the
Americans say (and if Bill Clinton will
pardon the expression) close, but no cigar!