Why are they so bossy?

New Labour should stop cracking the puritanical whip, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft

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First the new dawn, then the dark clouds. The Blair government may well prove capable in economic or foreign affairs, but it is also strikingly illiberal and authoritarian in tone. Scarcely a day has passed since 2 May without nagging strictures from some minister or other, or fresh plans to stop someone, somewhere doing something that he or she wants to do. We may not have a government of the left in any serious sense; what we have instead is the rule of the saints, or at any rate a bunch of scolds and bullies.

Despite stiff competition, the worst of the scolds is the Heritage Secretary. Everyone likes Chris Smith. He is intelligent, he is cultivated, and, not least in the way he has defied the tabloids and made his private life a personal matter, he is brave. He is all of those things, and he also turns out to be the most terrible bossy-boots, not to say a man who seems to have only the dimmest conception of what a rule of law means. He is the master now, and he means to rule by ukase like the tsar of all the Russias.

First he told the Camelot directors that they should hand back their lavish bonuses. As Alan Watkins has pointed out, Mr Smith was defeated (though you wouldn't have known it from the more sycophantic organs of the Blairite press): those greedy fellows made a cosmetic gesture, but they kept their bunce.

And I was glad. What was at issue wasn't the greed of the directors but the principle of contract. If a deal is done legally, however avariciously, it should be honoured. The lottery lot either broke the law, in which case they should have gone to prison under the Companies Act, or they did not, in which case their remuneration was a matter for them, their colleagues and their shareholders.

Then Mr Smith told the Marylebone Cricket Club that it should accept women members. Here again, the principle at issue was not sexual equality but the rights of discrete corporations in a civil society. The MCC is a private club, and whom it should admit is a question to be decided by its members, not by ministers. But the most outrageous of all Mr Smith's interventions was his demand that Covent Garden should lower its seat prices.

This was especially offensive since he was willing the ends with no sign of willing the means. Without going into the details of the baroque farce in Bow Street, almost everyone connected with the Royal Opera House would love to lower seat prices, and would do so if they received more than a small fraction of the public subsidy enjoyed by opera houses in Berlin or Paris. Failing that, they are obliged to balance their books.

Once more, there was a deeper issue at stake. Ever since the Arts Council was born under John Maynard Keynes's chairmanship, whimpering liberals have (as one self- styled whimpering liberal, a leading authority on opera, put it to me the other day) prided themselves on the "arm's length" principle. The Arts Council receives its income from the Treasury and decides how to disburse it, without political direction. If, as his junior minister Mark Fisher has hinted, Chris Smith wants to turn his department into a ministry of culture, and himself into its cultural commissar akin to the Soviet Union's notorious Andrei Zhdanov, perhaps he should get on with it, and just scrap Keynes's legacy.

This tendency to meddle, hector and lecture informs the Government's every department and its every policy. No doubt the subjects of handguns and hunting are both dialogues des sourds. All the same, viewed objectively, neither shows up New Labour in a good light. Tony Blair behaved badly in the wake of Dunblane, first of all promising the Tory government bi- partisan support and then breaking that undertaking when he descried electoral advantage.

He exploited the nation's horror and grief. He has now brought in a "total ban on handguns", a phrase as fatuous as any right-wing moralist demanding a total ban on abortion: in reality the ownership of pistols has been confined to the police and to professional criminals. And we end with the ludicrous position where British competitors in an Olympic sport can only practise it abroad, and, if we want to play host to the Olympics in future, we must amend our own laws.

As for fox-hunting, there has always been an element of humbug when anyone but vegans condemn it. Even so, and even as a connoisseur of hypocrisy, I did not foresee that a Bill to ban it would be introduced by an MP whose own idea of fun is competition angling, a "sport" which makes us trout fishermen recoil with distaste. But then who needs intellectual honesty with a majority of 179? And why bother to pretend that the motive is humani- tarianism, when it is so obviously spite and bossiness?

Worthy objects, like reducing cigarette smoking, are pursued with a puritanical zeal which suggests a very low concern for individual freedom. First smoking is banned in public buildings, then in open spaces; why not in private houses? And, following the denunciation of alcopops by ministerial decree, why not enforce the health fanatics' beloved "21 units of alcohol a week" by law? The one motto this government seems to have borrowed from its forerunner of 50 years ago is Douglas Jay's pronouncement: "For in the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better for the people what is good for the people than the people know themselves."

Just as the honest way to reduce smoking is to raise tobacco duty, so the honest way to reduce carbon pollution is to raise petrol duty, not to hector us with prissy lectures. When the nagging comes from people who are driven to their numberless otiose meetings in ministerial motors at the taxpayer's expense, the naggers might be reminded of Dr Johnson's saying that example is always more efficacious than precept.

What makes all this bossiness so unattractive is that it is a form of over-compensation. The idea of socialism has suffered a historical defeat, dramatically illustrated by the story of the Labour Party, old and New. In 1945, every Labour minister and MP talked about socialism at every turn.Mr Blair is now the first Labour leader who does not even pretend to be a socialist, and calls himself a "radical centrist", whatever that may be.

Another way of putting it is that he is not only further to the right than any previous Labour prime minister but further right than some Tory prime ministers. (Talking the other day about the Tory leadership to someone called Macmillan, I said that the first Lord Stockton would now have been more sympathetic to Labour than to Hague's crew. He agreed, except that "I think Grandpapa Harold would have found Tony Blair a little too right- wing".) But then, you don't have to call yourself a socialist or man of the left to be an autocrat, as Louis XIV or Nicholas I might have observed.

So might Peter Mandelson or Ron Davies, and jokes about New Labour's intolerance of dissent are no longer funny. Fifty years ago, Labour was a socialist party, but it was a democratic socialist party, in more senses than one. Under Clement Attlee, the Parliamentary Labour Party expelled fellow-travelling MPs such as DN Pritt for slavishly following the Moscow line; under Blair, the PLP threatens to expel a Welsh MP such as Llew Smith for honourably following his own conscience (and, incidentally, expressing a hostility to devolution which, before the recent reign of terror, was shared alike by most Labour MPs and most Labour voters in Wales).

Ten years after Lord Jay wrote that the gentleman in Whitehall knew best, Anthony Crosland penned another famous passage: "Total abstinence and a good filing system are not now the right signposts to the socialist Utopia: or at least, if they are, some of us will fall by the wayside." Now Labour has quite forgotten the socialist Utopia, but is keener than ever on the very bureaucratic managerialism and bossy puritanism Cros- land derided. It is not a pretty sight.

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