Just like His Pal Silvio: Tony Blair, Assisted by a Posse of Unelected Advisers, Propaganda Paid for by Our Taxes, and a Subservient Civil Service, Is Building a One-Party State, a la Berlusconi

By Cohen, Nick | New Statesman (1996), November 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Just like His Pal Silvio: Tony Blair, Assisted by a Posse of Unelected Advisers, Propaganda Paid for by Our Taxes, and a Subservient Civil Service, Is Building a One-Party State, a la Berlusconi


Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


Tony Blair's friendship with Silvio Berlusconi is proof, if proof is still needed, that he hasn't a particle of social democratic principle left in his body. He has no qualms about scraping the friendship of an Italian government that includes "post-fascists" and the equally racist and unhinged separatists of the Northern League. Britain and Italy have united with Spain against the common enemy: the employment protections and social benefits of European workers. (Spain is doing well out of the deal, incidentally. It has been offered joint sovereignty over the inhabitants of Gibraltar as a present from an appreciative Foreign Office.)

After this, I find it hard to understand how anyone dares call Blair a centre-left politician, however fuzzy the concept of "left" has become. But many do -- and miss in their complacency how Berlusconi is a model for the Italianisation of British politics. Blair's friendship with him shows how the democratic component of new Labour's social democracy has become as nugatory as its social aspirations.

The Italian prime minister is more sinister than his coalition partners. Fascism and the Northern League look back to the medieval Lombard state of Padania -- even though it never actually existed -- and dream of recreating it. Berlusconi is a new force that may represent a possible future. He is Europe's most powerful plutocratic populist, a politician who is free to deploy private and public resources to undermine democracy. He used his control of much of Italian television to win power. Once in office, the remaining state-controlled channels became his to manipulate, while his control of the legislature allowed him to amend the law to frustrate investigation into allegations that his companies provided the loot to bribe judges. Berlusconi's private interests allow him to control the state. The state protects his private interests. If there is away out of the double lock Berlusconi has around the neck of Italy, the opposition has yet to find it.

In Britain, new Labour's most lasting constitutional innovation has been to accelerate trends begun under the Tories and make the state the helpmate of the private interests of a political faction. Attacks on Blair's misuse of public funds have concentrated on the explosion in the number of special advisers, and for good reason. There are now 80 of them and their role is explicitly political.

One of new Labour's first acts was to legitimise the transformation of special advisers into propagandists and enforcers. Barely had Blair wiped his feet on the Downing Street doormat in May 1997 than a new contract for special advisers was issued. The old clause prohibiting the use of "public funds" for "party political purposes" was dropped. Instead, the contract asserted that "the government needs to present its policies and achievements positively, in order to aid public understanding and so maximise the effectiveness of its policies, and that is a legitimate use of public funds and resources". Special advisers were also given the power to tell bovine backbenchers what to say and do on the grounds that "it would be damaging to the government's objectives if the government party took a different approach to that of the government itself, and the government will therefore need to liaise with the party to make sure that party publicity is factually accurate and consistent with government policy". In short, a nything goes except scrutiny of special advisers by the eunuchs in parliament.

Beyond the paid party appointments lie the unpaid advisers in Blair's Forward Strategy Unit and elsewhere. They can afford to work gratis because they are, Berlusconi-style, fantastically wealthy. All Blair would reveal in response to questions from the Lib Dem MP Alan Beith were their names: Adair Turner, vice-president of the investment bank Merrill Lynch, which in May paid a $100m fine after an investigation by the New York attorney-general into its misleading of investors during the dot-com bubble; Arnab Banerji, chief investment officer of F&C Management, which describes itself as a "pan-European financial services conglomerate"; Penny Hughes, former president of Coca-Cola in the UK and a director of Vodafone and Trinity Mirror; Nick Lovegrove, a partner at the management consultancy McKinsey, where William Hague once worked; and the inimitable Lord Birt, who refused for tax reasons to become an employee of the BBC even though he was its director-general.

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