The Left Can Seize the High Ground

New Statesman (1996), June 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Left Can Seize the High Ground


Take a deep breath, grit your teeth, put on a cheery smile: next Thursday, there is no alternative. This Labour government has been an outrage to many decent, liberal minded people. Its record on civil liberties is execrable; its attitude to immigrants borders on the racist; its approach to criminal justice would have seemed beyond polite debate throughout the 1980s. Its prosecution of the Kosovo war was a bungled exercise in arrogant do-goodery; its support of US policy on Iraq has caused untold deaths and misery. Devolution has been besmirched by a record that, in almost every other respect, mocks democracy: the use of the union machine vote to impose its favourites; the insistence on an appointed House of Lords; the extension of the quango state; the apology for a Freedom of Information Act. The courting of big business and the Murdoch press has been almost comical in its intensity. The failure to form a coherent environmental policy (which, after a fashion, even President Bush has managed) argues a lack of courage and vision.

On all these issues, the Tories would only outrage us more. Yet a vote for Tony Blair on Thursday is not a vote for the lesser of evils. This government has achieved a profound shift in terms of British political debate. Anybody who doubts that should look across the Atlantic, where a new president has revived the Reagan-Thatcher tax-cutting agenda and the drive towards a smaller state. His proposed tax cuts, moreover, will benefit the rich to a hugely disproportionate extent. (According to one estimate, the richest 1 per cent of Americans would get 45 per cent of the value of the cuts.) Here, by contrast, a shadow minister flees into hiding when he hints that the Tories, if elected, might go beyond the [pound]5bn of cuts that they have publicly proposed. Labour, however belatedly, has made the link between improved public services and taxation. It has decisively halted, though not yet reversed, the ideological drift towards a smaller state.

This is of far more importance than is generally acknowledged. …

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