Reality bumps while the vision bounces

Best for Britain?

The End of Decline

December 21, 2007

Instant history is really just journalism with chutzpah, and here are two examples about contemporary politics that come to strikingly different conclusions on central questions. Simon Lee is so up to the minute that he even covers the Brown bounce on becoming Prime Minister, but not the Brown bump that immediately followed it. Brian Brivati's essay takes a much longer perspective. His verdict on Gordon Brown is optimistic and upbeat, while Lee is still biting his fingernails about the future.

Brivati thinks our political class has been "obsessed by" problems that are "largely irrelevant to the lived experience of the British people in the first decade of the 21st century". He is referring to the status of the pound, the future of Britain as a union and defence of the unwritten constitution. What really counts for him is that the Blair-Brown regime had politically less transformative aims than those of Attlee and Thatcher, and that it achieved them: Britain is at ease with itself and walks tall in the world.

Lee, by contrast, is deeply preoccupied with the consequences of the Blair-Brown devolution of powers to Wales and Scotland. In two crisp pages, he analyses Brown's "vision" for the UK: Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are understood as nations, while England's future is to dissolve into a set of regions. In this vision, "England does not - and must not - exist as an autonomous distinct political community". There is a major problem of democratic accountability in Britain, and if Brown fails to address it, Lee concludes, Brown's British way may be best for Britain, but not for England.

There's no doubt that Lee has the better nose for coming trouble. The Brivati test of relevance to the lived experience of British people is precisely the kind of illusion that makes one despair of contemporary politics. The level of contemporary political discussion (we call it "debate") has degenerated into stale military metaphors in response to things called "challenges" - globalisation, world poverty and the like. There's lots of vision, with metronomic invocations of "change" such as might appeal to dim-witted teenagers looking for novelty.

We ought then to be grateful to these intrepid academics willing to descend into this rhetorical sludge in order to make some sense of it for us. Brivati's essay locates "Blair-Brown" in the context of British concerns about decline after 1945: loss of great power status, empire dissolving and productivity forever falling behind our European rivals. The troubles of the 1970s dramatised all these ghastly expressions of doom, and Thatcher did much to put an end to them. But Brivati thinks that it is only with Blair-Brown's "victim-centred" internationalism and growing multiculturalism that Britain at last became a country at ease with itself and an influential player on the world scene. One consequence of this is that Brivati spares us the usual frothing at the mouth about Iraq. That dubious adventure is seen in the context of Tony Blair's role in trying to improve the world by liberal internationalism. What is refreshing about Brivati is that you can't always quite see where he's coming from, but that may only be because he often trails clauses modifying what he is saying in rather inexact ways.

Lee is much more acute in pointing to the problems Brown faces. Brown may talk the talk about decentralising power, but all this amounts to is multiplying the insane levels of managerial bureaucracy to which we have submitted since 1945 - the international agencies, the European Union, the quangos, the regional bodies and so on. Letting people spend their money as they like offends his every instinct.

Contemplating the set of Brownite chickens coming home to roost - the rising levels of private and public debt, the endless failures in "delivering" overfunded public services, the scandals about pension mismanagement and the concealment of how Britain's gold reserves were sold off at giveaway prices, not to mention government departments mired in administrative incompetence - Brivati's optimism cannot but look complacent.

An interesting issue here is the changing reputation of Thatcher. The days when no one contested the spluttering indignation of actors and artists - Jonathan Miller hating her as a toxic bacillus - seem to be passing. Even amid the sentimentalism of current rhetoric, her capacity to do the painful right thing rather than the glib shortsighted thing - repelling the Argentines, getting "our money" back from the EU, saving Britain from endless subsidising of hopelessly uneconomic industries - is coming to be recognised as passing long-abandoned reality tests. In a coup notably upstaging David Cameron, Brown invited her to visit him in Downing Street. In the end, reality does sometimes penetrate the rhetorical fuzz.

Kenneth Minogue, emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics, is finishing a book on democracy and the moral life.

The End of Decline: Blair and Brown in Power

Author - Brian Brivati
Publisher - Politico's
Pages - 192
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 97818451718

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