Blair's got the builders in, but hasn't any plans

Click to follow
The Independent Online
t the core of Blairism there is a contradiction. It is accurate, by the way, to give Tony Blair the dignity of an "ism", even if he was only 46 last week. Like Margaret Thatcher, he stands for something: in his case conveying uplift, as purveyed by the better class of Victorian headmaster.

Holy Tony is my name,

Moral uplift is my game.

Lady Thatcher was not like this. With Lord Copper's Daily Beast, as related in Scoop, she believed in strong, mutually antagonistic governments everywhere, in self-sufficiency at home and self-assertion abroad. If there was a contradiction at the core of Thatcherism, it lay in her combination of social authoritarianism and economic liberalism.

But it is by no means self-evident that this is a contradiction at all. Both beliefs can be accommodated comfortably by the same person and put into practice successfully within the same state, as Lady Thatcher herself demonstrated. By contrast, Anthony Crosland believed in economic authoritarianism and social liberalism, neither greatly in evidence in the Government today.

The Blair paradox is different: he believes in having his own way in the cause of righteousness. At the same time he deprives himself of the means to achieve this end.

The bombing of Yugoslavia provides an illustration. For this criminal enterprise to be undertaken, he had first to secure the support of Mr Bill Clinton. This enabled him to display himself before our admiring eyes as leader of the free world.

Alas, it now appears that Mr Clinton is tiring of the whole operation. This is not because he is at all jealous of the position Mr Blair has secured for himself in this country. Those who have neither visited the United States nor read its press do not realise how insignificant we are over there. Rather it is because he foresees difficulties in his own country. Mr Blair will then be left to put the most heroic interpretation he can devise on what Mr Clinton has already decided. Those who live by the special relationship take the risk of perishing by it.

There are other illustrations closer to home. It is doubtful whether Mr Blair believes in Scottish and Welsh devolution or has thought much about it. In this he is not alone among leaders of the Labour Party. On the contrary: the only one to embrace devolution wholeheartedly was John Smith.

Smith occupies a curiously equivocal position in the People's Party of today. On the one hand, there are figures from the past whose names even now can be relied upon to suffuse a receptive audience with a comfortable glow: Keir Hardie, in fact an inadequate leader of the party; Nye Bevan; Clem Attlee, correctly so called because he was never referred to as "Clement" and signed himself "C R Attlee". On the other hand, there are those whose photographs have been removed from the top of the piano in the front parlour and whose names are no longer mentioned in polite society: Hugh Gaitskell; Harold Wilson; inevitably Ramsay MacDonald, though he was perhaps the best leader after Attlee.

The present regime does not know quite how to deal with Smith. It was he, after all (assisted by Mr John Prescott and impeded by Mrs Margaret Beckett), who proposed and implemented those internal changes with which Mr Blair is associated and of which he was to become the beneficiary when he was elected leader. But, there is no getting away from it, Smith was distinctly on the old-fashioned side. The entourage suspect he might have lost the last election. Some of them, such as Mr Philip Gould, are not afraid to say so. But he did die too young. Best say as little as possible about him but, if a reference is absolutely necessary, make it brief.

Certainly Smith did not invent devolution. It was the consequence of two by-elections in Scotland and Wales lost by Labour in 1966 to nationalist candidates in, respectively, Hamilton and Carmarthen. Scottish devolution brought down the Callaghan government in 1979. My fellow countrymen and women, by contrast, have never really wanted devolution at all. They have been saddled with an assembly which is a poor relation to the Scottish Parliament. Why, I wonder, do we Welsh allow ourselves to be palmed off with shoddy goods?

Even so, the Welsh Assembly, deprived as it is, remains capable of causing Mr Blair inconvenience. The Scottish Parliament, however, is able to give him big trouble. There was much comment immediately after the election about the embarrassment caused by the success of Mr Dennis Canavan, whom I congratulate. This will be as nothing compared to the difficulties brought about by Scottish education.

Three of the parties in the parliament, Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, are opposed to the tuition fees introduced by the present administration. They will be entitled to abolish those fees and, if necessary, pay for abolition by increasing income tax by up to 3p. Mr Blair will not like this one bit. He will like it even less when the parliament by legislation, or the appropriate minister by regulation, lays down who is and is not eligible for the restoration of this benefit. Will the Scottish universities be overwhelmed by applicants from England? Or will they have to come from Scottish secondary schools? Or - as with the Scottish rugby team, which contains several New Zealanders - will the fortunate students have to be in a position to claim at least one Scottish grandparent? And how will the members of the Welsh Assembly respond if they want to make the same change but are told that, unlike the Scots, they have no power to do so?

Mr Blair is rather like a well-meaning citizen who has got the builders in with a general idea of what he wants them to do with his house but without any detailed plans for them to work from. This is as true of the House of Lords as it is of devolution. Mr Blair's defence is that he is fulfilling a commitment which was itself imprecise.

It was clear that the hereditary peers were to be abolished: though there was no mention of the 91 of their number who were retained following the subsequent negotiations of Lord Cranborne and Mr Alastair Campbell. What was not clear was what powers their successors should have and how they should be chosen. The manifesto promised a joint committee of both Houses. This has now been replaced by a royal commission under Lord Wakeham.

Lord Richard, the leader of the Lords that Mr Blair dismissed at the reshuffle, favours an upper House which is two-thirds elected, one-third appointed. Mr Blair prefers - or he insists on - a House which is wholly appointed, even if by a committee rather than by him personally, and which possesses no greater powers than the present chamber. An almighty row is promised. Mr Blair has spotted the danger to his future freedom and is trying to take evasive action.

He is doing the same over the most powerful illustration of Blair's paradox, the Human Rights Act. This could lay every single ministerial act open to review by the courts. It was originally intended to come into operation at the beginning of 2000. Now it is being delayed until the middle of 2001. But Mr Blair cannot get out of it now - any more than he can escape the troublesome consequences of devolution. Blair's paradox lives!