British Politics after the Election
Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review
THE most extraordinary British General Election since at least 1945 has resulted in the most extraordinary British government of modern times. The election's results grew increasingly unpredictable as it developed and those results outstripped the wildest imaginations, be they dreams or nightmares, of virtually every participant or observer. One thing is certain: British politics are now changed forever.
For three decades political life has revolved round two lengthy periods of dominance by one party. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher began a period of eighteen years of Conservative government. This was brought to an end by Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997. If Thatcher harkened back to the traditional past, Blair looked forward to an American style of leadership. Sometimes described as Britain's first 'American prime minister', he came in on a tide of enthusiasm where only hardened realists or perhaps cynics (I am pleased to have been both) dared to doubt that a new glorious dawn had arisen accompanied by a suitable rock 'n' roll ditty of 'things can only get better'. Yet many things got far worse. The self-lauded 'straight kinda guy' embarked on a glitzy government that led to disappointed hopes, unfulfilled dreams, increasing corruption and a disastrous war all camouflaged by a troop of disgusting 'spin doctors' and ruthless manipulators of truth. Undoubtedly there were some reputable achievements and some improvements in public services, especially the NHS which has an array of impressive new buildings and equipment. Some sensible policies such as the Minimum Wage and Civil Partnerships dealt with genuine problems in a typical, old-fashioned pragmatic British way. Yet throughout, the Blair premiership was riven by the bitter rivalry between the Prime Minister and his all-powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, a man of far greater intellect but a man conspicuously lacking the facile charm of Blair. As the product of a genuinely Socialist background, Brown fumed at the deprivation of what he regarded as his birthright, the leadership of the Labour Party.
Brown was given almost exclusive control over financial policy and therefore of much of domestic policy while Blair concentrated on what increasingly became his obsession, foreign policy, where he embarked on a messianic mission in the 'war on terror'. Brown had some notable achievements as Chancellor. On his first day in office he restored to the Bank of England the freedom to set interest rates but he also made the fatal decision to remove its regulatory powers over the banks. It would take a decade before we saw the consequences of the unrestrained lending that this unleashed. Brown's other good decision - now evidently obvious to all - was to keep Britain out of the euro to the annoyance of Blair, always anxious to clamber aboard any idealistic bandwagon. Brown seemed to succeed wonderfully as Chancellor and for once Blair's usual hyperbole proclaiming him the 'greatest Chancellor' in British history seemed not entirely outlandish. Brown continually boasted in every Budget speech that he had 'ended boom and bust'. What he actually did in the middle years of the Blair government was to embark on vast programmes of government spending adding almost one million new people to the government payroll, all equally recruited to Brown's client state. He who works for the government tends to vote for the party of government growth. Everything began to go wrong shortly after Blair resigned when a Brownite coup drove him from Downing Street in 2007. Brown liked to argue that the credit crunch and bank failures were the result of a global problem made in the US but his long-term polices had already laden Britain with a huge annual deficit and a vast mountain of debt which makes the UK uniquely ill-placed to withstand the financial storms.
One result of Blair's victory in 1997 was the weakening of the Conservative Party, which had been the dominant force in politics for most of the twentieth century. …