“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” Sir Walter Scott
Blair has spun many a tangled web during his reign. It is precisely the term spin with which he has become synonymous. As for deceit, Blair and co have certainly had plenty of practice, from the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and the supposed threat of Britain being attacked by Iraq in just 45 minutes, to secretly borrowing millions of pounds behind the back of Labour’s treasurer. As he ponders his ‘legacy’ he can rest assured that it will be lies, debt and the war in Iraq for which he will be remembered.
Yet when Blair was first elected he promised his government would be ‘whiter than white’, a phrase meant to distance himself from the sleaze of the Major years. As usual this has proven to be Orwellian newspeak. Incorruptible evidently meant rotten to the core, in the same way that ‘education, education, education’ (Blair’s great priority) meant privatisation, fees, loans, and trust schools.
The political hue of New Labour’s policies on every front has been true blue. Now, for the first time, the Labour leaders have discovered the colour red. Unfortunately, it features not in their policies but in the party’s accounts. Blair and co have landed the Labour Party in the red to the tune of £14 million.
The party’s Old Queen Street headquarters is being sold to a private company for £6 million. However, the sale will only raise £500,000. In a parody of debt-burdened Britain, the building is heavily mortgaged to the Co-operative Bank, with two loans already covering most of the £5.5m paid for it in 2002. Officially Labour had over £12 million in loans outstanding even before the leadership’s secret borrowing came to light. Blair has brought Labour to the edge of bankruptcy, mirroring the record level of personal insolvency that has accompanied the credit bubble boom of Blair and Brown.
Some of the dozen millionaire lenders who have been named had offered to give the money to Labour, out of an altruism that, they insist, should not be linked to any promise of personal gain. So why were Blair’s big business backers told to convert their pledged donations into loans? There is no other conceivable answer than to hide the identity of those giving, and the amounts, in order to obscure the link that would inevitably be made once they were given the peerages for which their were paying.
Why were these big business backers giving Blair money, anyway? Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune. In today’s rotten borough of Westminster it seems they also decide the policy, win the contract, and get a title into the bargain. Now they are not getting those titles they want their money back, with interest.
One such millionaire was Ron Aldridge, the boss of a company called Capita, which provides a wide range of contracted-out public services, including call centres for the BBC and the NHS. Coincidentally, Capita has made millions from the government contracts it has been awarded.
Today’s ‘cash-for-coronets’ scandal is only the latest in a litany of lies, intrigues and deception. From Mandelson (twice forced to resign, and now an EU Commissioner), to the million pound donation from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, Blair’s government has been mired in one scandal after another almost since its first days. More recently, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has been desperately trying to distance herself from the dubious financial dealings between her husband David Mills and billionaire Italian Prime Minister (and holiday companion of the Blairs) Silvio Berlusconi.
Why the prime minister was so willing to defend her now becomes obvious. Her mortgage misdemeanours were trifles compared to Blair’s own secret borrowing, and the sale of peerages. Whilst such scandals are not new, the sheer size of the sleaze-swamp, in the context of a changing situation in Britain, threatens to engulf Blair and co.
Blair has recently claimed that his religious beliefs convinced him it was right to go to war in Iraq. Exactly how this moral piety (that is, sending thousands off to their deaths) squares with the underhand spivvery of ‘loans for lordships’ is hard to say. His sanctimonious sermonising about crime and respect now jars heavily with a Metropolitan police investigation into the selling of titles to pay for his re-election.
SNP MP Angus MacNeil, one of three people to refer the loans affair to the authorities, told the prime minister: "Even before the loans scandal, before the Metropolitan police investigation, 80p in every pound of individual donations to the Labour Party came from people who were subsequently ennobled by you."
The business of selling influence and titles has gone on for many years. The cash-for-questions controversy undermined Major’s Tory government. There is something rotten at the core of British politics. The corridors of power stink of degeneration and decay. The real scandal is that these feudal anachronisms still exist in the 21st century. Labour now has a majority in the House of Lords for the first time in its history – hardly surprising given the numbers that are evidently buying their titles from the government.
This loans for lordships scandal is not just a squalid mess, it illustrates the decline of British capitalism and its institutions. It also has important repercussions. It represents another turning point in British politics, which has entered the first stages of a major period of change.
Blair and co, in alliance with their friends the Tories (past masters at such sleaze, who even now will not reveal the source of their own million pound loans) will argue that the only solution is state funding of political parties. In reality this is just a cover for an attempt to break the link between the trade unions and the Labour Party. This is what Blair, and the ruling class have wanted all along, but the Blair project failed, and it must not now be allowed to sneak in the back door.
The pressure is mounting on Blair to resign. He now leads what is effectively a minority government, forced to rely on Tory votes to defeat the Labour opposition behind him, as we saw over the education bill. This is not the Labour government of 1997-2005 with a big majority and little effective opposition. Blairism was a phenomenon based on past defeats and demoralisation, but that period is now over, and Blairism has had its day.
However, this is more than just an attempt to install Brown into Number Ten. It is also preparing the way, later on, for the return of a Tory government. Capitalism is becoming nervous at the opposition developing in the trade unions, and the opposition on Labour’s backbenches. New Labour no longer represents a solid enough base to carry through the measures they require. At some point they will want to reinstall their first eleven. Blair has served them well. Brown will try to. He prostrates himself daily before the City, Murdoch and co to demonstrate that he is worthy of their support. They are convinced of his good intentions, but not of his ability to deliver in the new situation that is developing.
In Blair’s final days he is apparently concerned about what will be seen as his legacy. There is so much to choose from. The countless dead of Iraq. The NHS billions in debt – while PFI corporations rake in the profits, beds and wards are closed and staff sacked. Civil Rights torn to tatters. An education system increasingly based on ability to pay. The Labour Party half the size it was when he was elected, and millions of pounds in debt.
Blairism will be remembered as a low point in the history of the labour movement in Britain. Even as it draws its last breaths, a new period is being prepared, not in the leadership of Gordon Brown – which represents the most minor cosmetic change – but in the public sector wide strike over pensions. The conditions are being prepared for almighty battles in Britain, economically, socially and politically. Through the course of those struggles the working class will transform and retransform all their organisations. The trade unions have the power to clear out the cliques of Blair and Brown from the Labour Party. The end of Blair must be the beginning of the struggle to reclaim Labour, as part of the struggle for socialism.