We must be freed from this elective dictatorship

We are, as one wit in Downing Street put it, in transition from a feudal to a Napoleonic state
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AT LAST we are beginning to get a measure of the extraordinary phenomenon of the Blair government. It can best be described as Corporate Populism. The special, "Lazarus" issue of Marxism Today contains a debate about Blairism. This ranges from contributions that see it as an attempt to domesticate Thatcherism, to others which endorse the practical character of its radical reforms.

It is not a rerun of Thatcherism. For a start it has a progressive belief in the power of government; it seeks to end social exclusion, and it wants Britain to be integrated in Europe. On the Constitution, its first action was to make the Bank of England independent, a proposal Thatcher vetoed. Likewise, she opposed a Scottish parliament. Equally, these reforms demonstrate the distance of Blair's government from Old Labour, which loved the traditional ways of the regime. Already, Blair has achieved more than Harold Wilson ever did, though Wilson won four general elections.

But if not Wilsonite, and if not Thatcherite, then what? The Blair government has embarked on one of the most mysterious exercises in post-war history: while it modestly claims that "the system" is unchanged, it is "modernising" everything. A master of publicity, from welfare reform to the Third Way, the Prime Minister insists on his command of the big picture, when the movie isn't even in the projector. When it comes to the Constitution, however, where he has delivered reforms that plough up the landscape in a manner worthy of Cinemascope, do we hear it? Do we see it? Do we get the big picture? No, we do not.

Instead, New Labour seems to be engaged in what can only be called constitutional interruptus. It has unleashed the national question in Scotland, but argues that the existing "British nation" will not be altered. It has committed itself to join the euro, but not yet. It will abolish hereditary peers, only to replace them with a Royal Commission. The clearest expression of the Government's own view of itself can be found in The Government's Annual Report. The Prime Minister hailed the document as "a major innovation", that will allow members of the public to "hold us to account, year by year". Changing a government, he wrote "is like sweeping away the entire management of a company". And he makes another revealing comparison. He explains that the report is designed to help the public pass judgement on the Government, because: "Trust matters. In all walks of life, people act as consumers, not just citizens."

The three words, "not just citizens" are revealing. They have pride of place in the Prime Minister's account of himself. He sees himself as our CEO. He views ministers as his divisional managers, while we, the people, are his customers. No, not even that. For we cannot take our custom elsewhere.

It is "Welcome to UK plc - the global player". The Government is being modernised. Unwilling any longer to be subjects, they will be consumers. This attitude pervades Labour's approach, not least to the constitution. Loss-making subsidiaries will be disposed of (Northern Ireland, hereditary peers), or rationalised from the centre (task forces, the regions). Close competitors are being incorporated through joint-stock enterprises (Liberal Democrats). Problem areas will be decentralised into subsidiaries that enjoy local autonomy, but follow the strategic direction of the centre (Scotland, the Law Lords, London). "Closed shops" such as the Cabinet and the Commons, are bypassed and allowed to wither. And the corporate logo, the Monarchy, will be subjected to a ruthless makeover.

A progressive government should seek to replace Thatcher's authoritarian approach with democracy and decentralisation. Instead, the Blair government is updating her centralisation, but on corporate lines. As a consequence, the country is threatened with what can be diagnosed as a new variant of elective dictatorship. Or, as a wit in Downing Street put it, a transition from a feudal to a Napoleonic state.

It should not be forgotten that Napoleon got things done. But today's Napoleon runs a multinational corporation. New Labour admires not the market place of neo-liberalism, but the key players, the corporations themselves. They are how New Labour sees itself: conscious, informed, networked, decisive and centralised.

The corporate approach inspires Downing Street's can-do, joined-up approach, which is a break from the traditional culture of the service. It also justifies the astounding control the Government exercises over targets, incentives and punishments. And it sets the scene for the kind of popularity Blair seeks.

For Blair's "corporation approach" to government seeks to modernise "the people". Like any ambitious multinational, it wants everyone to be its consumers, rich and poor alike. Guided by polls and focus groups, the corporate approach excludes no one from its calculations, as its advertising department seeks market dominance. Blair's personal style and non-ideological charisma fit perfectly with such corporate populism.

Corporate populism does not passively follow opinion. It demands an active effort to reshape attitudes. New Labour wants workers to regard themselves as local employees who will be decently trained, provided they show a sense of duty. There will be promotion by merit for those who strive and succeed along the lines laid down. Super-teachers, super-nurses and now, on tough estates, according to the Prime Minister, even super-caretakers, will symbolise achievement and enjoy special rewards. As for local agencies, if they do not deliver according to the standards required of them, hit squads will arrive from the headquarters of UK plc to replace them, cheered on by the tabloids.

Britain is not a corporation. British voters wish to be citizens, and not just customers. Corporate populism cannot be sustained. For its legitimacy, it relies almost solely on the vulnerable popularity of Tony Blair himself. For its implementation, it leans heavily on party discipline, which will crumble without the self-belief that comes with genuine debate. As with Scotland, we can hear the corporate approach giving way already. For what it misses is not the will to change, but an understanding of the need and desire for democracy in Britain today.

Anthony Barnett's latest book is `This Time: Our Constitutional Revolution'. A longer version of his argument appears in the special issue of `Marxism Today'