Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Blair Is Not Ready to Send His Ground Troops into Europe

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Blair Is Not Ready to Send His Ground Troops into Europe

Article excerpt

On Monday, there was a defining moment in the history of this government. John Prescott, no less, announced a major initiative to enhance Britain's quality of life. Pollution will be slashed as will bills for energy, while motorways will be unclogged, all in pursuit of sustainable development. According to the Deputy Prime Minister, the whole country will be transformed.

This is to be achieved principally by the use of television adverts. George Best will appear, taking his empties to a bottle bank. Other celebrities will also exhort us to do our bit by, for instance, switching off unnecessary lights. This revolution in our national life will cost - 7 million.

Has there ever been a more brilliant public relations coup? A generation ago, when our energy supplies were threatened by both the miners and Opec, Patrick Jenkin asked us all to brush our teeth in the dark. In response, the nation did not stop giggling for about six months. There used to be a strong, even excessive, element of scepticism and cynicism in the British character. Not any more; the Blair government seems to have painlessly removed almost the entire nation's critical faculties. None of the newspapers asked the obvious questions about the Prescott stunt; no one inquired why, if Mr Prescott can do all that for 7 million, the government needs to devote over M300 billion to the rest of public expenditure. Seven million pounds is not a negligible sum. It might even be enough to pay for teaching John Prescott how to speak the Queen's English. But transform the quality of life? Is there any limit to the frivolity of current public debate?

Mr Blair himself uses `child of the Sixties' as a pejorative. But the history of his government was written by a now forgotten Sixties guru. While the PM was still at prep school, Marshall McLuhan declared that `the medium is the message'. At the time, no one was quite clear what this meant. Thanks to Mr Blair, we now understand. Whether the issue is trivial or tragic, presentation is all. The PM goes to Albania, where he is surrounded by the human wreckage of Nato's policy. For all the benefits his visits will bring to the Kosovars, he might as well have gone with the explicit intention of modelling T-shirts. Yet his ratings have never been higher. Forget the refugees, forget the military and diplomatic impasse, forget Russia, is the government's subliminal message; forget everything that is actually happening, and just look at the pictures. And it works. This is not the sovereign people's finest hour.

But there is one sole area of debate which has remained stubbornly Blair-proof and unMcLuhanised, much to No. 10's dismay. Under all the froth about the Blairite Project, there is a real project, waiting to be unveiled. Mr Blair cannot take the risk of doing so; he is not prepared to hazard his popularity by announcing his euro project.

Tony Blair is as keen on the European single currency as Gordon Brown is. But there is a difference. Chancellor Brown does not only resemble his predecessor, Ken Clarke, in euro-enthusiasm. The two men have a similar attitude to obstacles: biff them aside. Mr Blair is more subtle and more addicted to popular approval. His attitude to the euro is like President Clinton's to Kosovo: he wants a victory, but at nil cost. Above all, he is not prepared to send in electoral ground troops.

A week ago, there seemed to be a change in tactics. Perhaps overcome by the excitement of receiving a European award, Mr Blair appeared to be signalling his intention of using the forthcoming European election to campaign for the euro. …

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