Books: Blair's maybes

THE AGE OF INSECURITY by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson Verso pounds 16
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PITY THE poor sod who voted for New Labour last May in the hope that it might prove to be old Labour in disguise. A year down the road, he is becoming more than a little anxious. He has read his leader's lips: no new taxes. Poor Old Lefty can only grumble into his pint of real ale and wonder why he bothered.

It is to the credit of Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson that their criticism of New Labour is fairer than that of Old Lefty. After all, Blair vowed to embrace the free market: he has lived up to his pledge. He promised a clampdown on everyone from noisy neighbours to thoughtless smokers: again, you can hardly fault the man. As a result, say Elliott and Atkinson, the citizen of Blair's Britain finds that his money has been set free while everything from his dietary habits to his sex-life have become a matter for public inspection. Further, the latter follows from the former. It is precisely because the citizen is insecure about his job and his mortgage repayments that he makes easy prey for a regime concerned to protect him from the alleged dangers of his lifestyle pursuits.

The swipe at New Labour's authoritarianism in The Age of Insecurity is as welcome as it is overdue. Here are two left-wingers who have put enough critical distance between themselves and the New Labour project to begin to understand what that project really is. Moving on from a potted, and slightly eccentric, cultural and political history of post-war Britain, they attempt to excavate the meaning of Blairism from his flirtation with Clinton and his proposal of marriage to all things European. The chapter on Europe is a masterpiece in polemic, exposing the lack of nerve of a Labour government which would rather bind popular democracy with a continental exchange rate and Bill of Rights than take robust arguments for social change to the people back home. What is more, New Labour's love of constitutional tinkering and its "control culture" are intimately connected: their instinct is to place limits on what Joe Public can get up to, whether he is in the pub or in the voting booth.

The easy journalistic style of the authors - laced with a dry and often bitchy wit - helps to make The Age of Insecurity an invigorating read. Herein, however, lies a problem: Elliott and Atkinson are so keen to keep their story accessible that their homespun concepts can often confuse the reader. They alone know how a quest for "authenticity" - described here as "herbal medicines and wooden furniture" - can explain the vogue for monetarism in the 1980s. More fundamentally, it is doubtful whether the concept of "insecurity" alone can explain the rise of Blair's authoritarianism. Insecure about my performance in bed, I might well resolve to get more practice and experiment with new techniques. Blair, however, would probably suggest I play safe and tie a knot in it. It is not insecurity per se which creates the market for New Labour's protection-racket, but a risk- averse strategy in the face of that insecurity.

Confusion about how to respond to insecurity might well help to explain why our authors seem to run aground when they come to pose their own alternative to New Labour. Their appeal to resurrect Keynes and economic protectionism sounds well-rehearsed and uninspiring. Interestingly, though, theirs is a Keynes with distinctly modern flourishes. Thus, in the name of environmental protection, they advocate "putting the squeeze on motorists" with higher taxes on petrol, together with free rail vouchers in an attempt to cut down short journeys. And since fast trains only create a "psychological dependence" on fast cars, the motorist who has kicked the habit and taken his free voucher will find himself chugging along at a speed no more than 40 kilometres an hour. The real plus in greater use and staffing of public transport, however, they save for an encore: women and old people will feel safer when they are standing on the platform late at night.

By now, the perceptive reader will have smelt a rat. Having seen off the public-health police, Elliott and Atkinson end up letting Blair's busybodies in through the back door by playing on our anxieties about crime and the environment. Time was when policy-makers would have sought the answer to the problem of pollution in technological advance and a more dynamic economy producing better and cleaner cars. But since our authors have already bought the increasingly fashionable notion that there are limits to the value of growth itself - including unexplained "psychological and philosophical" limits - they are stuck with a Blairite campaign to promote "responsible" motoring. If these two think that nothing more than a mental block can be said to put the brakes on economic growth and social progress, you start to think, maybe they could benefit from some time spent facing up to their own insecurities.