Leading Article: No cause for Tory gloating

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The Independent Online
CHRISTMAS CAME early for the Tories. If their celebrations had an unseasonal ring of Schadenfreude, that was not surprising. The achievements of the Thatcher and Major governments tended to be overshadowed by the cloud of corruption and sleaze which mushroomed over the Conservatives during their over-long period of office. Repulsive as the Tories so often showed themselves to be, they can almost be forgiven for gloating over the latest proof that human frailty knows no party lines. Nor is it only Tories who will sense that the departure of Peter Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson from the Government marks, in most lurid fashion, the end of Tony Blair's honeymoon. And not only enemies of the Government will see that this episode goes to the heart of New Labour's weaknesses as well as its strengths.

The essence of what is known as the New Labour project consisted of coming to terms with the political success of Thatcherism. Few voters want to return to the 1970s, with hyper-inflation and union stranglehold. Thatcherism understood that both traditional command-economy socialism and traditional "Labourism" were historically exhausted. Labourism had assumed that "the poor", the masses, or at least the industrial working class, were the majority of the population, and that is no longer true.

Yet all but Lady Thatcher's most grovelling admirers recognise that there was an unpleasant tone to her years of office, what with "bourgeois triumphalism" and naked materialism. In the 19th century, Englishmen created the greatest commercial society on earth. But even then, and even though they were unashamed of making money, they were still partly restrained by the ethic of evangelical puritanism, a sincere belief that they owed a final account more important than the ledger book. By the 1980s, that ethic was dead. The spirit of the age was "get rich quick" - and don't worry how you do it or who gets hurt, since there is no such thing as society.

Although Mr Blair sometimes attacked the Tories, it is startling how much he was in awe of his penultimate predecessor. It was one thing for him to say that "I believe Margaret Thatcher's emphasis on enterprise was right." To say also (in a bizarrely repetitious or pleonastic sentence) that "Britain needs more successful people who can become rich by success through the money they earn" was taking neo-Thatcherism beyond the call of duty or ambition. It was one thing for Blair to make clear his contempt for most of the traditions of the Labour Party, from Clause Four to the unions, from the left to the "unreconstructed wankers" in Scotland. It was another to make equally clear his admiration for the rich and their money. That adulation was not only unseemly, it was always asking for trouble, which has arrived at last.

To be blunt, what was a man like Geoffrey Robinson doing in a Labour - even New - government? There have been rich socialists before: Marx himself was supported by Engels's proceeds from Manchester capitalism, and a millionaire like the late Harold Lever, whom Alan Watkins mentions opposite, was a genuine adornment to Labour. To be sure, Mr Robinson is a successful businessman, but then so, for a time, was Robert Maxwell, who was likewise, for a time, a Labour MP. And Mr Robinson's curious commercial dealings with Maxwell are among the numerous matters the DTI - Peter Mandelson's department until noon on Wednesday - is investigating.

For that matter, why was Peter Mandelson living the life he led? No one expects him to exist on bread and dripping in a garret (it really wouldn't suit the lad), but his addiction to high life and the beau monde, not least to some of the nastier Tory specimens floating in it, is inapt in a politician of the centre left. Everything about Mr Mandelson's downfall seems like the revenge of an ironical Providence. The great media-manipulator and arch-communicator spent a desperate day failing utterly to manipulate the media or communicate with the public at all. And the "Labour" Trade Minister who boasted in the Daily Telegraph the other week that "we are all capitalists" now learned the hard way that there are limits to the friendship of capitalists, and to reverence for successful people who can become "rich by success through the money they earn."

There are still three years of the Government to run, and for all the Tories' gloating this Yuletide, there are few people who would back them winning the next election. But if Blair is going to consolidate the start, in many ways fruitful, his Government has made, he must grasp that, while most people don't want to go back to the 1970s, they did not vote in May of last year for a return to the 1980s, either. Margaret Thatcher's emphasis on enterprise was right, sometimes; but so was C R Attlee's emphasis on society, community and integrity.