At Large

Blair’s Britain Turns Ten

On the tenth anniversary of his accession to power, the failures of Tony Blair's government greatly outweigh the successes.

By 4.12.07

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Since Tony Blair's New Labour government took office on May 1, 1997, Britain has had ten years of buoyant economic growth, exceeding 3% for the last quarter of 2006 alone. Britain has a higher GDP than France or Germany. It has the fourth biggest economy in the world and its people are now rich enough to spend about $40 billion per year on Internet gambling. The stock market continues to outperform expectations. Unemployment is low.

But Britain under Blair and New Labor has also had 10 years of social and cultural decline, with huge increases in crime and family break-up, shrunken and desperately overstretched defense forces and massively out-of-control and barely-policed immigration, with many pockets of exploited sweated labor including forced prostitution, as well as what has been called the "forcible dilution of the majority culture."

The Muslim population of Britain has grown to about 1.6 million, and the government, while keen enough on encouraging or condoning culture-war against conservative traditions and values, did nothing for years, even after 9/11, to combat the spread of Muslim extremism. British-born Muslims tend to be more extremist and to consider themselves less British than their immigrant parents. According to recent surveys, 80% of Muslims in Britain consider themselves Muslim rather than British and 45% believe the Jews were responsible for 9/11. Another survey found 75% of Muslims aged 16-24 want women to be compulsorily veiled, and 40% want Sharia law. A third believe those who convert out of Islam should be put to death. It was officially reported recently that some schools refuse to teach about either the Holocaust or the crusades for fear of conflicting with the lines being taught at Muslim academies.

Blair came to power disavowing the socialism that had previously made Labour unelectable, and set out to give the impression of being a managerialist, pragmatic heir of Thatcherism. In 1997 the Economist described him memorably as "The Strangest Tory Ever Sold."

In fact, Blair has not given Britain exclusively old-style socialism, but something more complex and ambiguous.

THE DESTRUCTIVE CHANGES in Britain have been primarily concerned with culture rather than economics, and have been largely imposed by governmental authorities at local rather than national level, though with the national government's general connivance.

The Blair government has been friendly -- in some instances too friendly -- to big business. But petty bureaucracy is rampant, and decision-making is hamstrung by masses of often-conflicting regional agencies, task forces, strategic action plans and so forth.

There have been big tax increases -- Britain is one of the few industrial countries still raising rather than lowering taxes. Although absolute poverty has probably diminished, raids on private pension funds guaranteed to give millions of private-sector employees poor, bleak, State-dependent old ages, and not some time in the future but now. When I was living in Cheltenham, one of the most genteel of English cities, beggars were becoming an increasingly common sight. Columnist Andrew O'Hagan wrote in the Daily Telegraph of January 23, 2007: "There's a cold snap on the way. Last winter, 31,250 people over the age of 65 died from cold-related illnesses during the season in England and Wales (that's about 10 pensioners an hour). Many of them did not have the ability to put on an extra jumper or were worried about the cost of putting on an extra heater." British basic state pensions are the worst in Western Europe. This is combined with privileges for the public sector such as index-linked pensions with early retirement, and the addition of about 700,000 to the public payroll since 1997, creating a locked-in Labour-voting constituency. New affluence mixes bewilderingly with poverty, begging and some environments of third-world lawlessness, rather as there is a strange close mixture of some of the most beautiful and some of the ugliest landscape and architecture in the world.

A recent UNICEF study placed the UK last among 21 industrialized nations for the well-being of its children, factors considered including the quality of family life, the number living in relative poverty, vaccination rates and the time spent with parents. The report says children are better off overall in terms of health and happiness in every other industrialized country, including poorer nations such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Official figures show marriage-rates are the lowest since records began being kept in 1862. Teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in Western Europe -- twice those of France and Germany. Britain has 1.9 million single-parent households, an increase of more than 200,000 since Labour came to power. The Institute for Public Policy Research recently published a report, "Freedom's Orphans," stating that British youth were the worst behaved in Europe and that their elders lived in fear of them. They got drunk more often, got into more fights and were more likely to have illegal and underage sexual relations than their counterparts in France, Germany and Italy. One study suggested 38% of 15-years-old had tried cannabis compared to 7% in notoriously permissive Sweden. A far smaller number of British adults -- 34% -- would dare to interfere with teenage vandals than in Germany (65%), Spain (52%) or Italy (50%). About 1.5 million British people in 2006 thought about moving away from their local areas to escape the young people who hung about there, and about 1.7 million avoided going out after dark for fear of juvenile gangs.

THERE HAVE BEEN SOME SUCCESSES. With only one major successful terrorist bombing incident, and several major terrorist plots thwarted, it looks as if the security services are effective in preventing terrorism, although Britain has had an appalling reputation as a safe haven for terrorists operating elsewhere. A peace-settlement for Northern Ireland seems to be holding, achieved by making major concessions to the IRA and also because after 9/11 the IRA lost much of its U.S. support. The real efficiency of the National Health Service is hard to judge, and much of the evidence is anecdotal. Complaints and horror-stories about it are offset by praise of it. Certainly the treatment I myself received when ill in Britain left me no cause for complaint. But many public utilities are performing badly.

Crime rates have soared and the contrast between ineffectuality in combating criminality and Draconianism for petty or non-existent regulatory offenses and offenses against political correctness is glaring: a man had spent two nights in jail -- the charge was eventually dropped -- for having allegedly revved his car in a racist manner. In another case six carloads of armed police descended on an 77-year-old farmer in poor health and arrested him with physical violence in front of his family after he had fired a shotgun to frighten off a sheep-worrying dog. A police chief inspector was presented with a Swiss Army pocketknife by police colleagues on retirement. He was subsequently arrested, charged and prosecuted for carrying the pocketknife. Retired banker Arthur Bulmer was threatened with a 50,000 pound fine or six months in prison for having returned windblown sand from his garden to the beach across the road. The local council also threatened to take away his wheelbarrow. This comes not from Westminster so much as from local and other semi-government authorities apparently intoxicated with power.

Labour Environment Secretary David Millibrand claimed: "In 2007, constitutional reform should see 'double devolution' with more money and control held by local authorities and neighborhoods." This sounds like more money and power to the leftist activists and political correctness extremists who have already done so much in such a short time to damage British culture and society.

Conservative leader David Cameron's office has also stated: "The thrust of our policy should be towards greater local autonomy, greater local accountability, and less interference from central government in local affairs." In November 2006 Cameron introduced the Sustainable Communities Bill in Parliament, following demands from the Liberal Democrats, which would give town halls new powers to redirect taxpayers' money. Officious intrusion into personal life and a presumption that the bureaucracy has a right to dictate behavior and ways of thinking emphasize the social totalitarianism that has never been far below the surface in Blair's Britain.

COLUMNIST RICHARD LITTLEJOHN REFERRED to the case of Sir Ibqhal Sacrannie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, who expressed disapproval of homosexuality in quite moderate terms. He was visited by the police on a possible charge of homophobia. Shortly before this, the government had enacted legislation that made it illegal to deride Islam. "So you can be charged under the law for expressing a central tenant of a religion, and also ... for challenging the validity of that religion." For the first time in centuries, and after bloody wars over freedom of religion, the government appears to be claiming power to dictate religious consciences.

In this simultaneously overbearing and dirigist but often weak and dysfunctional State, defense spending has been at about 2.5% of GDP for the whole period. How much of this has been productive is another matter. Britain's armed forces, having had the highest level of war commitments in at least 50 years, are greatly overstretched, with endless complaints about equipment and with personnel badly paid and housed. It is hard to know who to blame for the recent kidnapping of 15 British sailors by Iranians, but it seems another pointer to things amiss.

After 300 years the break-up of the union with Scotland has never looked more probable. It would have been out of the question ten years ago. The British Spectator commented: "It is unsurprising, perhaps, that many Scots should wonder whether Edinburgh deserves a place alongside Vilnius or Bratislava as a world capital. But such pretensions are dangerous rather than quaint."

Nearly a third of university physics departments have closed since Labour came to power. In 2005 there were only 3,000 undergraduates studying physics, and less than a third of teachers in state schools had qualifications in physics. The number of school physics candidates at A-level has collapsed from 46,606 in 1985 to 28,119 in 2005 (It had been about 50,000 in 1980 with a smaller population). The number of trainee teachers with physics qualifications fell by 70% between 1993 and 2000. Chemistry departments have also closed at some of Britain's best universities. Destroyed science-teaching, a boom in astrology, and Islamism may make a great combination for the future. Niall Ferguson, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, wrote recently that: "The more that has been spent on British secondary education, the worse the outcomes have been. According to an OECD study published in 2005, fully a quarter of the UK population aged between 25 and 34 are 'low-skilled' in terms of their educational attainment -- five times the proportion in Japan.â€

"It's the economy, stupid," has seldom been less true. Despite economic growth, there are long-term social and cultural crises, which it may or may not be the responsibility of government to tackle, but which government is certainly able to influence.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.