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27 Jun 2007 - Bruno Prior

JG has posted on the subject of Tony's legacy. This post started as a comment, and grew so large that I decided to post it separately.

I must see things through an inverting lens.

  • Reagan: Never a buffoon in the eyes of those old enough to see through the Spitting Image caricature, and intelligent enough to understand the mess the Western economies were in in 1980. Heard an excellent example recently of how well Reagan "got it", better than any American president for a century, from a woman who worked in his administration. Her husband also worked for him, in the Department of Agriculture. Invited to see the President, he told Reagan how efficient he was going to make the Department. Reagan's reply: "Now listen, don't make it too efficient. Can you imagine if we got all the government we pay for?" That's a smart cookie.

  • Thatcher: Cruel to whom? The British government had spent decades being cruel to those who wanted to improve their lot, and generous to those who just wanted a wage for a day's attendance or better still a wage for no attendance, regardless of whether they contributed to the economy. She reversed that, and although far more people benefited (then and now) than suffered at the time, all people talk about is how hard it was on the people who had been screwing the British economy for decades. I'm sorry, but they had it coming to them. And as for megalomania, her biggest mistakes were when she left people like Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson (and her European counterparts) to lead her up the garden path on the Single European Act and the ERM. I bet she regrets being too soft, not too hard.

  • George W Bush: The good part - lower taxes. The bad part: bigger government. If he had managed to rein-in government spending to match the tax-cuts, he could have been remembered as another Reagan (domestically). Instead, he will be remembered as a contributor to one of the biggest economic imbalances the world has ever seen. Unless, that is, the intellectuals find a way to rewrite history to blame the coming collapse on something else (that better suits their view of the world, e.g. it was nothing to do with fiscal irresponsibility). Combine that with his failure in the clash with Islam (let's not call it a clash of civilizations, that is too good a word for the state of modern Islam), and he ought to go down as one of the worst presidents in their history. Not for what he wanted to do, a lot of which wasn't too bad, but for what he actually did, which was a lot worse.

  • Blair: His principal legacy is the bureaucratization and re-socialization of Britain; the restoration and extension of the leviathan state - more layers, more powers, more employees and sub-contractors, more welfare-dependency, more intervention in business and charity, more intrusion into personal and family affairs, more central-planning and micro-management, more regulation, more taxation....

    • Constitutional change. Hopefully the emasculation of the Commons is temporary, but the politicization of the House of Lords is a long-term change for the worse. The halfway-house on devolution is an unfinished legacy - the current position is unstable, and will resolve itself either into more complete devolution or a retreat to a more unionist approach. It's a close call, but I'd say probably the former, so probably a significant part of the legacy. The London mayoralty also looks like a significant change, the London Assembly less so, and other regional administrative bodies utterly irrelevant, apart from the bureaucracy and cost.

    • Politicization of institutions. Not only the civil service, through blurring the lines between professional civil servants and political advisers, but also organizations like the Royal Academy, the CBI (and other trade associations), the LSE (and other academic bodies), the Met. Office, etc have been indoctrinated with Third-Way "philosophy" through infestation with Third-Way henchmen and learning that the way to attract funds is to wrap one's appeals in stock NuLabSpeak cliches. The BBC's institutional bias has been reinforced. Charities and businesses have been forced to get political by their greater dependency on successful lobbying, thanks to greater intrusion of government into all areas. Quangos proliferate, run by overpaid journeymen with the "right" (that is, left) political views, and reach their fingers into every pie. Even the Royal Navy has got "wet", in the wrong sense.

    • Restoration of state-dependency. As Gerard Baker pointed out in The Times last week, "Leviathan is now so large that, outside London, half the population is dependent – either through public sector jobs or benefits – on taxes". Once you reach that point, it becomes a self-reinforcing process.

    • Decline of law-and-order. No one believes the statistics that claim to show that crime is falling, do they? Inner-city teenage kids get killed every night. The homicide and violent-crime rates crawl inexorably upwards. Paedophiles and foreign criminals go missing routinely. Our prisons are full and unable to rehabilitate/train their occupants so we are giving criminals early release from what would anyway have only been half their sentence, and telling judges not to lock people up even if they deserve it. ASBOs have become a badge of honour for young thugs. Town centres are no-go zones on Friday and Saturday nights, if you don't want to risk being attacked or vomited on. The message is being sent through sentencing advice and police priorities that shoplifting and other non-violent theft isn't that serious. And the police spend most of their time filling out forms or extorting money from motorists. The decline of respect for authority is dangerously close to a point of no-return, and the Government's answer is a Respect agenda and czar.

    • Underfunding and overstretch of British military capability, leading to lower standards. Let's hope the falling standards are just in parts of the navy. The majority is undoubtedly still of a high standard, if given the resources. But how long can they keep it up at this level of overstretch and underfunding, and with real trouble recruiting? I wonder why they have trouble? Does it look like a good life to you?

    • Confusing the boundaries between business and government. Public-private partnership, PFI, huge government services and consultancy contracts, outsourcing of "non-essential" government activity, etc. have created an unhealthy confluence of interest between the politicians and civil servants who put these contracts out to tender and the corporations who bid for them. This is further confused by the Government's predilection for taking policy advice from the senior management of many of these corporations. The relationship between government and corporations is heading for the relationship that existed between those groups in Nazi Germany. The symbiotic relationship between big business and big government has turned into a feeding frenzy under Tony's watch. This has led to:

    • The concentration of corporate power. In many sectors, the Government has allowed mergers and acquisitions that have left three to five players controlling most of the market. Combined with widespread vertical-integration, this creates substantial barriers to entry, which the Fat Lazy Bastards exploit to minimize competition, and maximize profits.

    • Bank of England. Moving the Monetary Policy Committee to the bank, and giving them responsibility to set interest rates in order to meet the targets set for them by the Chancellor is almost universally praised as a bold and wise move (though more attributable to Brown than Blair). I disagree. We have been living in an atypical global economic situation since 1997. The Bank and its independent status has got a lot of credit for holding inflation down, but global (e.g. the rise of the BRICS economies) and regional (e.g cheap Eastern-European labour) pressures have made that job pretty easy. It has allowed the Government to pursue inflationary policies without producing wage- or consumption-good inflation. If those downwards pressures ease, which they will, we will find out how difficult it is for two separate groups to manage different parts of an interlinked economy using separate tools. It will be like trying to drive a car with one person controlling the steering and the other controlling the acceleration and brakes - possible for a while, but bound to crash eventually, particularly when under pressure and travelling at speed.

    • Levels of debt. The increase in public-sector pension liabilities, shortfalls in private pensions, personal indebtedness (credit-cards and mortgages), mortgaging public-sector contracts on PFI deals, funding tax-revenue shortfalls through the sale of government debt, extreme leveraging of mergers and acquisitions activity in the stockmarket (e.g. private equity and hedge funds) etc. has seen us sink once again into terrible debt, just as we finally pay off the last of our debts from the War. The debts this time are spread across the board (personal, commercial and public), rather than affecting mainly one sector as in previous booms. The consequences of the inevitable bust will be more severe than ever before. The sale of most of our gold at the bottom of the market ensures that we have little to fall back on during the bust. The large differential between "inward investment" (the sale of our capital assets in the form of our businesses) and "outward investment" (the purchase of other countries' capital assets) means that we have been gradually selling the family silver in that regard also. Under Blair, Britain has been living like a junkie single-mother on a council estate, selling the furniture, or even breaking into properties in the more well-endowed neighbourhood, to pay for the next fix. It will take generations, or a hideous crash, to unwind this legacy.

    • Rural England. Policy has been resolutely focused on the urban heartland of Labour support. From symbolic issues like the hunting ban and the closure of rural post offices, to the structural issues of agricultural decline, and unaffordability of housing, the rural way of life is barely sustainable. With the surrender of further powers to Europe (see below), some of this will be hard to reverse.

    • Planning/housing/infrastructure. The failure to provide proper incentives and powers for local authorities to approve the amount of housing they judge to be required for their area has resulted in a severe shortfall in the housing stock and unnecessary house-price inflation driving people into further debt. The failure to provide similar incentives on commercial, industrial, and infrastructure development has led to severe delays in necessary improvements and inadequate productivity improvements. The results include potential shortfalls in energy capacity and severe pressures on the transport system. This cannot all be fixed tomorrow by the centralization of planning powers and an injection of cash that we can't afford. Having squandered a large part of the bonus from unprecedentedly favourable global economic conditions, the money will be hard to find to make up for this missed opportunity. We could be looking at decades of post-imperial standards of decay in our infrastructure and development, and a democratic deficit in the improvement of these conditions by central diktat, when what was really needed was to align locals' interests to those of the developers.

    • Sell-out to Europe. Future leaders won't have much to negotiate on, once the powers surrendered to Europe are confirmed by ratification of the latest treaty. The bloated British bureaucracy will become, even more than it already is, a tool for the implementation of European decisions - decisions which may increasingly be inflicted on us without our agreement. It is very likely that a major legacy of the Blair years will be Britain's withdrawal, several years down the road, from the European Union. Either that, or Britain abandons its liberal, individualistic, common-law heritage and adopts the social-democratic, collectivist, Napoleonic model of our continental neighbours - and ceases, to all intents and purposes, to be British.

    • Education. The ramming of unsuitable teenagers through sixth-form and often college has resulted in grade inflation, and a superfluity of pointless degrees. Conversely, training and jobs in the trades, crafts and industry have been gradually eroded. The legacy will be far too many over-educated and under-intelligent school-leavers and graduates with few basic skills, qualifications that nobody wants, and high student debts, and insufficient tradesmen, craftsmen, mechanics and other manual workers to keep the economy actually working. Perversely, this should be good news for the working classes still engaged in manual jobs, as their scarcity should push up their value. A minor legacy may be an increased entrance of middle-class kids into manual careers. An unintentional positive legacy may therefore be a further reduction in class distinctions (though accent will continue to be a divider in a way that it is not in most countries).

    • Northern Ireland. Let's give him credit for one undoubted and hopefully long-lasting success. It will be interesting to see how long it takes before the pressure starts for devolved Northern Ireland to begin to align its policies with the Republic. The scale of British funds being poured into Northern Ireland will have to reduce at some point. I wouldn't want to bet that Northern Ireland will still be part of the UK in 2050. But if that is achieved peacefully, it will not be the end of the world. If the Republic of Ireland manages to preserve its economic success, and the UK carries on running itself down, even a Protestant might look at the two countries and wonder which one they'd be better off in. That's a big if, though. They look pretty vulnerable to any global economic downturn. So maybe Northern Ireland will still be in the UK in 2050. As long as there's peace, it's not that important. Blair's legacy is certainly a much higher chance of that.

    • A part of Blair's legacy will be the things that he or others think are part of his legacy, but are not. The legacy in these regards will be in the conditioning of people's responses on the assumption that he has made a bigger difference than has really been the case, and their assumption that they either cannot or need not make significant changes to what he has put in place.

    • Not climate change. Blair would like action on global warming to be part of his legacy, but, despite his best efforts, the main products have been hot air and fig-leaf policies that are designed more to look good than to have an effect. Emissions are still going up, and will carry on going up until people either realize the impotence of the policies that they think have been the greatest successes so far in this field (e.g. EU-ETS and the Renewables Obligation) or an energy price-shock makes government mechanisms irrelevant. His legacy will be chiefly in putting in place sufficient dud mechanisms that successors will think that they can only make marginal improvements. In which case, his legacy will be either rampant global warming if he is right, or a byzantine network of pointless incentives and rules if he is wrong.

    • Not international relations (apart from negtively in Europe). Blair has bestrode the international stage. But he has achieved little (apart from some important humanitarian interventions). Both he and his interventions will be forgotten as quickly as the next international shindig. Meantime, the Doha round of trade negotiations has collapsed, Europe is committed to greater protectionism, Russia is returning to its old authoritarianism and sabre-rattling, Israel and the Arab world are still in confrontational mode, large chunks of Latin America are going various shades of red, Africa is in no better state than he found it, and if poverty is reducing in other parts of the world, it is because of changes that the government of those countries are themselves introducing, and not thanks to any efforts of Mr Blair.

    • Not Iraq. The clash with Islam has been looming for a century, and will probably last for another century. Iraq is a lost battle in a long war (which ought to be a defensive war). Single battles don't make legacies. You couldn't even say that Suez was Eden's legacy. People may associate them with their Alamos, but that is not the same thing as a legacy. A legacy is something you leave behind. Events like that happen and then we move on (or at least, I hope we do - it won't be his fault if we don't). It is structural change - change to institutions or change to the popular view of the world - that constitutes a leader's legacy.His legacy by that test is greater than people think.

    • Not spin (as many commentators have suggested). All politicians have tried to spin policy to suit their version of events. It is up to the media to accept or challenge their version, it is up to the public to demand more independence and insight from the media, and it is up to the intellectuals who shape public opinion (teachers, doctors, academics, business-leaders and so on, as well as journalists) to encourage different perspectives and independence of thought. There's not a lot Blair could do about that - it's a hard one to put on him altogether, though he has encouraged the process along. He has been the beneficiary for much of his career, but I don't think it's his legacy. The soft-left perspective of most intellectuals, which lies at the heart of this phenomenon, is a legacy of the twentieth-century and the absurd respect paid to that berk Marx and other socialist fantasists, not just of the last few years. Complaints about spin have come to the fore when people got what they wanted, found it didn't work, and wanted something to blame so they didn't have to recognize they'd got it wrong. "It's not the approach that's wrong, it's the way it is implemented and dressed up." WRONG, it's the approach.

    • Not the concentration of all mainstream parties on the centre-ground. That also (see previous point) is a response to where the public are at, not Blair. It may turn out that his legacy will be the death of one or both of the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democratic Party, as they serve no more than a tribal purpose nowadays; all three political tribes are shrinking, and his, as the dominant one, is most likely to survive and incorporate the remnants of the others (perhaps this is what Quentin Davies realised). It may be that events (e.g. economic collapse) will reveal the hollowness of this centrist philosophy before they die, and they will return to more principled positions. Or it may be that they die before then, in which case new parties will fill the vacuum when reality bites. Let's hope there's still a classical liberal strand in British political thought by then, or those new parties may be very unpleasant.

The funny thing is, I think Blair's legacy is disastrous, and yet I believe him when he says that he did what he thought was right. And I don't even blame him for all of this. I reckon his first term was when he was most in charge, and we have seen the growing power of Brown since 2001. And while received wisdom nowadays is that his first term was a wasted opportunity and he left it too late by waiting until his second term to make the changes that were needed, the view through my inverting lens says that the first term was pretty good, because he made a few good changes but didn't make any of the big mistakes that we will come to regret and kept the size of the state in check, by sticking to his pledge to honour the Tory spending commitments. The second and third terms have been when most of the damage has been done, and a lot of that damage (expansion of state powers, intervention and micro-management) looks like Brown's handiwork. It may be that a sound, alternative view of Blair's principal legacy is his failure to keep Brown in check.

P.S. I don't believe this is the benefit of hindsight in the case of Thatcher and Reagan. I remember having arguments with my brother-in-law ages ago, when he claimed that Reagan was a fool who didn't know what he was doing and all credit for the collapse of communism ought to go to Gorbachev. It's people like that who have gradually rewritten history, as events showed how foolish their received wisdom was.


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