There is an eerie void behind the politicians behind the Dome

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The Independent Online
I don't suppose many now people remember the name of Bernard Hollowood, who was editor of Punch after Malcolm Muggeridge. Well, I don't suppose many people were aware of him then, and I wouldn't have been aware of him either if he had not been editor of Punch at the time I joined the staff, and as he was my boss, it seemed only tactful to be aware of him.

This was somewhere about the time that Alec Douglas-Home was leaving office and Harold Wilson was entering No 10. I remember that particularly, because Bernard Hollowood was a convinced socialist and was cockahoop that at last a left-wing government was coming in. It seems hard to imagine now, but Harold Wilson was seen then as bringing the same kind of fresh air into Downing Street as Tony Blair is now. I am not sure if he was seen as young and fresh-faced - after all, he had been kicking around Westminster since the 1940s - but he was certainly seen as a new broom and all that kind of thing. Goodbye, fuddy duddy old establishment Tories! Hello, white-hot technological revolution! Goodbye inertia, hello progress!

It didn't quite work out like that, and now we remember Wilson's government as just as fallible and floundering as all the others, and twice as dreary. But Bernard Hollowood would have known why. He would have said - because I remember him saying it - that when a left-wing government got into power it always made the same mistake: it tried to make friends.

"They always try and play themselves in, try to kid everyone that they are a nice cuddly bunch who wouldn't do anyone any harm. This isn't the way to do it at all! What a socialist government has got to do is do as much damage as possible in the first few months while they can get away with it! Nationalise everything while they can, take things away from the capitalists while they can! It'll make them unpopular, but all governments become unpopular after a while, so it's no use trying to avoid it. Ignore it and do your damndest while you've got your chance ..."

Well, how would Hollowood have judged Tony Blair's government after the first nine months ?

He would have been puzzled, I feel. New Labour has shown no appetite for nationalisation, no urge to get the railways back, for instance. The only big sign of change has been Blair's commitment to the idea of reforming the welfare system, which is radical in its own way. But that is not what has marked out Blair's first near-year in office, and given it its character. What stands out is the way it has gradually lost popularity through a series of petty measures designed to stop people doing things. The outstanding example is "Dr" Jack Cunningham's decision to ban the sale of beef on the bone, simply because he was advised that there was a one-in-a-billion chance of catching CJD from it. But it has been followed by a series of proposals to ban the use of raw milk in cheese-making, to help ban fox- hunting, to refuse to consider unbanning cannabis, to ban almost every kind of gun imaginable, to increase the severity of the drink 'n' drive limit ...

This isn't a series of political safety measures. This is a wave of puritanism sweeping over the Government and thus over the country. It doesn't attack any big problems - drugs problems, CAP problems, bureaucracy problems, arts funding problems, Northern Ireland - but it makes it look as if the Government is doing something.

(If you examine any of the measures closely, each one seems ill-judged. Personally, if I were told that the chances of catching CJD through beef on the bone were one in a billion, I would enact a law forcing people to eat beef on the bone, on the grounds that it actually reduced the chances of infection to one in a billion ...)

I am not sure, though, that the Government is doing anything. Take away all the high-minded ordinances which try to stop us from doing things, and I wonder if anyone can name something positive the Government has done, something constructive and forward-looking. Anyone ...? Yes, at the back ?

The Dome.

The Government has been positive about the Dome.

The Government has poured millions and millions of pounds into the Dome.

Thank you.

Anything else ?

No, I thought not. It has merely issued a series of bans and prohibitions. It has acquired a Puritan, prohibitive flavour. Tony Blair may have marched into Downing Street looking like a young Cavalier, but he has been acting in an increasingly Cromwellian fashion ever since.

This article was written entirely without the use of the phrase `nanny state'