Four more years?

Tony Blair (picture European Commission)

Tony Blair declared that his would be a government of “high ideals and hard choices”. Richard Laming reflects on whether that promise has been kept.

Shortly after the 1997 general election, Federal Union hosted an international seminar that discussed, among other things, how pro-European was Tony Blair. Now that the British people have their four-yearly month of political influence, it seems appropriate to reflect back on the record of the Labour government. Let’s do this from the perspective not of opinion polls nor of establishment satisfaction but of democracy and subsidiarity. Measured against these principles, how did they do?

The domestic agenda provided some of their biggest achievements. Certainly, the establishment of the first Scottish parliament in almost 300 years and the first Welsh assembly ever ranks pretty highly. In Northern Ireland, too, difficult steps towards a settlement were taken on the basis of democratic principle rather than nationalist dogma, following the brave path set by John Major’s Downing Street Declaration. In the Irish Republic, the Good Friday agreement and the Amsterdam Treaty were ratified by referenda on the same day, demonstrating the point that north and south in Ireland have more in common than just a border.

In England, too, faltering steps towards some kind of regionalisation started to take place. London got an assembly and a mayor, other regions got Regional Development Agencies, they all got MEPs. Andrew Duff noted at a Federal Union seminar in April 2000 how people had started to look to him, as a regionally-elected MEP, to provide an elected political voice on a regional scale.

The European Convention of Human Rights is now law, a mere fifty years later than in most of our European neighbours. And most of the aristocracy have now lost their place in parliament, although their replacement by the People’s Peers hardly fills one with democratic pride. Reform of the House of Lords has been botched. The obvious need to make way for representation of the various national and future regional administrations has not been recognised, let alone put in train.

There hangs a common thread behind all these domestic reforms. Long overdue and even historic changes have been made to the constitution, but nowhere near the scale needed nor even expected.

“The Tube debate is not so much about how to run a railway as how to run a country”

The Scottish parliament is less powerful than envisaged by the Scottish Constitutional Convention – this did not become clear until after the referendum had approved its creation. The Welsh assembly has no tax-raising powers at all. The London mayor will get to run an underground system as designed by the Treasury rather than as preferred by his voters. The well-publicised objection to bond finance has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with the Treasury’s control of public expenditure. The debate is not so much about how to run a railway as how to run a country.

For while the institutions have changed considerably, the political culture has not. Tony Blair’s disastrous attempts to impose his own nominees in Wales and London demonstrate how far we still have to go.

A simple anecdote tells the story. The BBC was content to report that the result of the general election will not affect policies on devolved matters such as health and education in Scotland and Wales. Of course, given that the financial limits are set by Westminster, this statement is bluntly untrue. But no-one in the Westminster system notices.

Barely anyone in Westminster notices European developments, either. Recent research showed that only a tiny proportion of EU legislation receives any scrutiny by the House of Commons. The Council of Ministers remains out of control.

On the plus side of the European balance sheet, the Labour government concluded and ratified the Amsterdam treaty and signed the Treaty of Nice, neither of which the Conservatives would have done. Commission officials have commented on the extent of the turn-round. British ideas and the views of the British government could now be taken seriously in European discussions again.

“Whatever Blair’s private thoughts may be, he did not discuss them with the British people”

We also finally reached something resembling a common electoral system for the European Parliament, but we are no nearer joining the euro. The official reason we have not yet joined is economic rather than political, but looking at an opinion poll 3 to 1 majority against and a somnolent campaign in favour does make one wonder. After all, permissive referenda were held in Scotland and Wales on devolution in advance of the elaboration of the detail. The same could have happened on the euro. The fact that Tony Blair’s two big speeches on the future of the EU took place in Ghent and Warsaw shows that, whatever his private thoughts may be, he did not dare discuss them with the British people.

If leadership was absent on the European question, there was a valiant effort to exercise it on the global stage. There was welcome progress towards an international rule of law in British support for the International Criminal Court, the trial of the Lockerbie suspects, and the stand taken against Slobodan Milosevic. Of course, an ethical foreign policy turned out to be harder to implement than it was to proclaim, and the list of foreign policy failures is still too long.

The approach to the debt owed by the world’s poorest countries is a perfect example. Important steps have been made towards reducing the repayments demanded from the debtors, but nothing has been done to get the money back from the governmental thieves who stole it. And the way in which former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet escaped prosecution seemed rather too orchestrated to be wholly convincing.

But let’s look at the overall picture rather than just the details. Summits in both Nice and the Hague ground to a halt in the middle of the night, trying to take the biggest decisions in the worst possible way. After Nice, Tony Blair remarked that such a method should never be used again, but so far he has done nothing about it.

“There has been a shift of executive power without the corresponding democratic control”

Whenever he has been faced with the transfer of decision-making power, he has tried to minimise the transfer of legitimacy. Whether we look at London, Brussels or the World Trade Organisation, the story is the same. There has been a shift of executive power without the corresponding democratic control. This is bound to leave federalists unsatisfied.

But the best is the enemy of the good. The fact that the Conservatives feel compelled to give such prominence to their defence of our out-dated and undemocratic constitutional traditions means that Tony Blair must have been doing something right.

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