Must we keep on slaughtering all of our political leaders?

Mr Blair is loathed - I encounter nothing but the deepest cynicism about him and all his works
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WELL, THERE goes the Blair honeymoon. Again. In fact, so many times has Tony's post-nuptial celebration had "finis" scrawled all over it by the press, that his metaphorical relationship with the country is beginning to resemble Elizabeth Taylor's to tall men over 30. Previously, the Blair honeymoon, you may recall, has ended with the Welsh referendum, the Ecclestone affair, Prescott versus Mandelson, single-parent benefits, the misnamed "cash for access" story, the rise of the SNP and high interest rates. If I've somehow missed one, do feel free to write in and remind me.

This time, however, there is something more to base this on than just the feeling in our journalistic waters. There is a poll. And such a poll is it, that The Guardian - which commissioned it from ICM - headlined the results on their front page as "Blair bubble bursts". This may have led some of the paper's more casual, less thorough readers to assume that Labour had dropped dramatically in the polls, and that the voters were very fed up with the Government.

Indeed the accompanying article does invent something called "the disaffected electorate", only to reveal that that the figures of those believing that the health service and education service are getting worse have in fact fallen (in the case of health, substantially), and that Labour is currently nearly 20 points ahead of the Tories - though that may not be saying much.

Nevertheless on one key area, that of Mr Blair's "specialness", the results are pretty clear-cut. A year ago people thought that he was different from other politicians - tougher, more in touch, much more honest, and less arrogant. Now he is just a fair bit tougher, a goodly amount more understanding, and - bear with me - only 6 per cent more "more honest than other politicians" than Paddy Ashdown is "more honest than other politicians". Which is to say that 34 per cent think that Mr Blair is more honest. (Incidentally, the Ashdown "bubble" has burst too, but that was always a smallish little frothy thing by comparison with Mr Blair's big, shiny, round, soapy bubble.)

I think that there are two important lessons here for Mr Blair. The first of these is that - in the eyes of the electorate - he is rapidly losing his claim to be the usherer-in of Young Britain, that place where politicians are not manipulating, desperate, mendacious characters, but are you and me in limos with red boxes. Let us return to that in a minute.

The second one he already mostly knows. And that is that we are out to get him. By "we" I mean journalists. This is no exaggeration: it is nearly a year since I heard any scribbler, researcher or producer say anything even vaguely complimentary about Mr Blair. He is loathed.

For all the talk of New Labour being given an easy ride, I encounter nothing but the deepest cynicism among my colleagues for him and all his works. The fact that all his interns are male, and that their suits remain obstinately stain-free, is adduced to his awful primness, rather than his admirable moral compass.

In many ways this would have happened to any government. After all, we slaughtered the last one. If Mr Major ever did anything right, then you wouldn't have found out in the press. (This newspaper was, naturally, an honourable exception.)

For nearly 20 years we were scared witless by Mrs T, but then in came hapless John, and after Black Wednesday we practically ran the show. We saw off old Mellor (despite the fact that he was a good minister) and forced the removal of a whole succession of bonking Tories. We took six Europhobic "rebels" and paraded their views relentlessly in every bulletin and edition. In the last year Blair has annoyed us by failing to fire Geoffrey Robinson when we told him to.

But the biggest problem with the way politics is discussed in this country is that we are averse to talking the adult language of choice; we prefer the baby gabble of "I want" and "gimme".

There is little encouragement, in our public discourse, of candour about the dilemmas faced by those who govern. The thing that we desire is always, somehow, cost-free. The minimum wage will lead to no unemployment, nurses must have much more money, waiting-lists should come down. And where shall we find the cash? Easy. Something must be done about BSE in lambs; nothing must be done about beef on the bone; fox-hunting must be banned; dangerous dogs shouldn't have been. And so on. Each decision is presented as hermetically sealed from consequence.

It is interesting in this light to consider The Guardian's claim that its poll "also shows Britain as a country which favours higher taxes to pay for better public services". It doesn't. In fact, the poll asked respondents to agree or disagree with this statement: "It is better to pay higher taxes [note the passive case here] and have better public services, than [have] lower taxes and worse public services." Remarkably, one fifth of those polled disagreed with this utterly consensual sentiment.

Such wishful thinking also afflicts intellectuals. Last weekend saw a conference, under the ambit of the now-defunct journal Marxism Today, called to discuss the world and Tony's place in it. (For some reason I was not invited; the organisers have obviously never read The Sleeping Beauty).

I was not surprised to be told that the gathering was long on crit and short on alternative. Blair had, they agreed, capitulated to the now discredited system of free market capitalism. And instead, he should... At which point the screen went fuzzy. It only remains for the Bad Fairy Maleficent to remind the conference organisers that, as recently as two years ago, one of them was extolling the virtues of an end to direct taxation, and a belief in fundamentalist, American-style anti-statism. Miaow!

In other words we don't know, we aren't always sure. Governance in the modern world is a difficult business. And isn't it a pity that, when they were in opposition, Labour failed to reflect on just how awkward it is?

I could take a million examples, but why did Labour promise to stop open- cast mining in certain constituencies, when it knew that to do so would lose jobs? The reversal of policy on this has caused understandable anger. And, when in power, why is it that no one in government has been prepared to admit that, though they do not like the idea of fox-hunting, the alienation from the law of many otherwise upstanding hunting citizens would be bad for Britain?

Imagine this scenario at the time of the last reshuffle. Tony Blair goes on telly and tells his interviewer that it's true, he is in a real bind over the future of pensions. On the one hand there is the problem of distress and poverty, and on the other the difficulty of immense cost. He is sorry, he says, but he hasn't been able to decide yet. Perhaps, he muses, there should be a referendum. He'll sort it out as soon as he has made up his mind. Sorry.

Would that be weakness? Or would it be a sign of strength if politicians and we of the press began to treat the electorate as though they were adults?