Brown, Blair, and Labour's legacy in Britain
After a 13-year run, Britain’s Labour Party is out of power. How should we assess its legacy?
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Other far-reaching mistakes were made. The experiment with spin and media management during Labour’s early years in power backfired: It helped to create the impression that Labour was all about presentation rather than policy content.Skip to next paragraph
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Blair did not succeed in integrating Britain more closely into the EU, and some of his closest relationships with other European leaders, notably with Silvio Berlusconi, were puzzling to say the least. It was right to argue that Labour should become business-friendly and to recognize the importance of the city to the economy. It was a fundamental error, however, to allow the prawn cocktail offensive to evolve into a fawning dependence and turn the UK into something like a gigantic tax haven.
Concern with social justice
The idea that Labour “should be relaxed about people getting filthy rich” not only exacerbated inequalities at the top, but helped create a culture of irresponsibility. The bosses protected themselves from the risks they asked their employees to bear. I don’t accept the simplistic idea that New Labour was simply a continuation of Thatcherism – that Blair and Brown were the “sons of Mrs. Thatcher.”
Labour’s policies involved extensive government intervention in economic life, although mainly on the supply side. There was a genuine preoccupation with increasing social justice, a notion alien to Thatcher and Keith Joseph, along with their guru Milton Friedman.
Yet the party’s leaders should have made it much clearer than they did that recognizing the virtues of markets is quite different from prostrating oneself before them. Market fundamentalism should have been more explicitly criticized and its limitations exposed. As for PR and wider constitutional reform – well, surely Labour should have endorsed these as a matter of principle, not as a result of political expediency.
The other parties have had to respond to the agenda that New Labour set. The Tories now endorse gay rights, accept the necessity of reducing poverty, support the Climate Change and Energy Acts that Labour introduced, will continue most of the labour markets reforms that were made, and have no truck with Thatcher’s assertion that “there is no such thing as society.”
In propagating the idea of the ‘big society’, the Conservatives are drawing upon the same communitarian traditions that Blair also endorsed. Of course, in government there could be a retreat from these emphases, but at the moment they look genuine.
A different world today
Along came the global financial crisis, foreseen by very few, if anyone. It seemed to put an abrupt end to the world that was the backdrop to the evolution of New Labour. Suddenly all has gone into juddering reverse: Keynesianism and government economic intervention are back; not only can we seek to regulate financial markets, which once seemed so omnipotent, we must do so; severe spending cuts dominate the domestic agenda, the opposite of the expanding social investment upon which New Labour policy was built; fiscal prudence has ceded place to massive borrowing and very large accumulated debt; a tax on world financial transactions, previously dismissed as unrealistic, is now on the cards; it is, after all, possible to elevate the tax rates of the rich; there is talk among all the main parties of a return to active industrial policy and of a renaissance of manufacture; climate change and other environmental risks, which Labour did little to confront until late on, now intrude into the heart of mainstream political concerns; planning, for years in the shadows, is once more on the agenda.