LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair could be suffering from the first signs of the madness of princes. It is paranoia, and it afflicts almost every political man who has ambition but does not have the security of the divine right of kings (the madness of kings being grandiosity or megalomania.)
When the madness grows unchecked as it did, say, with the late former U.S. President Richard Nixon, and any dictator you can think of, the prince believes that the crowd of people all around him harbors every sort of malign plotter; if he hears dissent, he knows he’s found treachery and must stamp it out. If he doesn’t hear dissent, he merely assumes the plotters are being more clever than usual. The only people, therefore, that he wants around him are those who have passed a loyalty test and utter only the words that express the prince’s thoughts.
The paranoiac prince loses the ability to distinguish between ordinary argument, the sincerely held beliefs of another person, and a collective, secretive campaign to annihilate him in name if not in person.
Some people thought Blair was mad not to sack his transport minister, Stephen Byers, last September. Byers resigned from government on May 29 after many months of criticism, insult, demands that he go, accusations of lying, paralyzing warfare within his department and an apparent inability to institute any lasting plan for transport improvements in Britain.
Byers temporarily pleased the left in the party last October by taking back the actual rail track (though not rail services) from private ownership and putting it “into administration,” but then was hounded by the rail track private shareholders with accusations that he had lied about this decision and with demands that he pay them compensation. To which he eventually agreed.
Byers was, however, utterly loyal to Blair and his “project,” always defining himself as a Blairite or New Labour man. Blair did not want to let such a man go. If loyalty becomes the password, it works both ways between leaders and led.
In turn, Byers had refused to sack his media adviser, a young woman called Jo Moore, who on Sept. 11, after watching the twin towers in New York collapse, e-mailed her colleagues suggesting it would be a good day release any unpopular information, since it was sure to be ignored in the global hullabaloo about the terrorist attack.
Moore’s e-mail was leaked, there was outrage (much of it synthetic); Byers supported her — perhaps because Blair himself also regarded her as the one of the chosen few, and he would rather have a flawed Blairite than a crisply neutral professional. Moore stayed, Byers stayed, the problems of the department got worse.
So far, the madness of princes is not raging amok through the British government. But the problems hinted at by the protracted Byers affair can only get worse. Following Byers’ resignation, Blair reshuffled his Cabinet, promoting Alistair Darling, a very safe Blairite without a challenging ego, to the Ministry of Transport. The department of Blair’s deputy, John Prescott, has been shrunk to man-size proportions, consisting only of local government. Responsibility for chasing up policy delivery has now been taken over by the prime minister’s office.
The problem that Blairism has created for Blair is that progress in health, education, law and order must be delivered, but cannot be entrusted to anyone who might work outside Blair’s small sphere of personal command. This means that time and time again he appoints “cronies” to important positions (and the charge of “Tony’s cronies” is perhaps the most effective the Tories have made) to ensure his whole government works as one man, and is not riven by dissent or power jostling. And it means he has to pull more and more responsibility for governing into his own office.
It would be unfair to say that Blair, like former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who really seemed to have been destroyed by her own paranoia about enemies), will not tolerate ideological opposition. The strength and fatal flaw for New Labour from its first minute in office is that there has been no developed ideological dissent in the Labour Party. It became official dogma that Labour had been out of office for 18 years for two reasons: (1) It was too leftwing, having had its constituent organs (branches and unions) captured by the far left; and (2) it was too internally divided.
Removal of the powers over policy once exercised by unions and branches, the shrinking of the party’s annual congress to a rally of the faithful and loyal, the appointment by Blair of the party chairman — another most loyal Blairite called Charles Clarke — have effectively immunized the party from political infiltration or capture or independent political thought. But this is not just testament to the effectiveness of the Blair project. It is also testament to the worldwide disappearance of socialist alternatives to social democracy. In the face of the single superpower, the United States, lesser forces either join the anarchistic fringe of increasingly violent opposition, or they nestle in for a place in the American tent.
Yet for all the elimination from Labour of strong political thoughts and strong political interests, New Labour has not succeeded in becoming part of “the people.” The gulf between people and Labour is almost as large as that between Conservatives and people.
It is probably true that the football enthusiasms of Blair, his press secretary Alistair Campbell and Chancellor Gordon Brown are accepted as authentic. If Labour ministers popped up in Japan or South Korea during the World Cup to cheer England, no one would be surprised. But football, well that’s real life. Politics is just a game.
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