The conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today*

Of all George Orwell’s essays, the one to which political bloggers should pay most attention is his May 1945 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that it should be considered required reading for anyone with aspirations of writing on the subject of politics; which is why the Ministry of Truth now proudly sports a copy of the full text of the essay for its readers’ enjoyment and edification (even though I am as guilty of many of the faults Orwell outlines as anyone).

There are any number of good reasons why bloggers should take careful note of Orwell’s commentary on the decline of the English language, which remains as relevant today as it was when first published more than sixty years ago, but for the purposes of this article it is his remarks on the subject of ‘meaningless words’ that merits particular attention, specifically:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different…

…Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

To the cthonian ranks of dissolute political language it seems we can now add the word ‘radical’, if Mike Ion’s quasi-orgasmic paeon to Tony Blair is anything to go by…

[Warning: Regular readers may wish to have a bucket, bowl or sick-bag handy before reading the next bit…]

Blair was and is a radical reformer and the outcomes of this radicalism are to be found in the ordinary, in the mundane daily miracles that are taking place in our schools, our hospitals and our local communities. It is a radicalism that Labour members can be proud of and it is a radicalism that is beginning, slowly, to change this country for the better. If we are to make the most of this then we need to secure a fourth term at least.

[Don’t say I didn’t warn you…]

Political radicalism takes many forms such that no one branch of political thought can, today, lay claim to ownership, although radicalism has for the most part been more associated with the political left rather than the right, but if radicalism has a defining historical characteristic it is that it draws its impetus, it’s motive force if you like, from a deep seated desire to challenge and affect alterations in the prevailing social order. The terms ‘radical’ and ‘radicalism’ entered political discourse in the 18th Century and until the early part of the 20th Century were largely bound up in the various campaigns for electoral reform and extension of the franchise. The Chartists were radicials, as was the Women’s sufferage movement, while in France in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars the term ‘radical’ become synonymous with ‘republican’ during the period up until 1848 during which it was illegal to openly advocated republicanism.

By contrast, the 20th century saw the terms ‘radical’ and ‘radicalism’ debased and largely stripped of genuine meaning, becoming mere euphemisms for political extremism on both left and right and therefore hardly the right kind fo framework under which to assess Blair’s claim (by proxy) to have been a radical, which means that we must seek to return radicalism’s original meaning if we are to adequately consider such a claim on its merits.

To ask whether Blair could genuine be considered a radical is to ask, therefore, to what extent, if any, he has acted over the last ten years to challenge the prevailing social order and, in particular, the social order he inherited on taking office.

And there, my little droogies, we hit upon a problem.

For all that has been achieved over the last ten years, very little actually stands out as actually having challenged or changed the prevailing social order in British society.

As already noted, democracy and the extension of the franchise has historically been the iconic theme of political radicalism and, indeed, prior  to becoming Prime Minister in 1997, this was indeed a theme that Blair outwardly seemed keen to address. There was even talk at the time of giving serious consideration to the introduction of proportional representation in Westminster elections, although that failed to make the final cut of the 1997 election manifesto, which contented itself with a promise to put an end to right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, as follows:

The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered.

Ten years on, Blair succeeded only in reducing the number of hereditary peers down to a mere 92, although another stab at getting rid of the rest of them is in the offing, however on thr one occasion is which Blair had a clear opportunity to enact radical reform of the House of Lords by means of Robin Cook’s 2002/3 reform bill, Blair not only abstained on all options put to the House but that of a fully appointed second chamber (leaving his Prime Ministerial powers of patronage fully intact) but effectively spiked the whole reform process by revealing his personal voting intentions (it being a free vote) at Prime Minister’s Questions on the day preceeding the vote in response to a blatently planted ‘softball’ question from a Labour back-bencher.

Given the choice between maintaining the status quo on appointments to the House of Lords or voting from radical reform, which would have meant either 60%, 80% or the full membership of the Lords being elected by the British people, Blair not only chose patronage over democracy but engineered a situation in which all possible reforms ended up be rejected.

So with Blair a total bust on the issue of the democratic reform of the Westminster parliament, what else could we look to for evidence to hanf his claim to radicalism.

Well, there are a couple of issues we could look at that do have talismanic status amongst Labour members; social mobility and the ‘wealth gap’ between rich and poor, ten years of ‘Blairism’ has produced only retrograde motion.

Social mobility is in not only in decline in the UK but in a considerably worse state than Canada, Germany and the Nordic countries, while his first six years in office saw the richest 1% in British society increase their share of national wealth from 20% to 23% which the poorest 50% saw their share decline from 7% to 5%. One these two indicators alone, Blair has markedly failed to challenge the social order he inherited from the Tories in 1997 and, in fact, has made matters worse be permitting inequalities to become even further entrenched on his watch.

If economic radicalism is not really Blair’s forte, what else can we point to as evidence for his radical credentials?

The Human Rights Act?

Not really. You see, although Blair can take some credit for having introduced HRA into UK law, thereby allowing to challenge the actions of the state in a British rather than a European court, the real credit for HRA, or rather for the European Convention on Human Rights, from which its derived, belongs to the British lawyers who led the formulation of ECHR during the late 1940s/early 1950s and to its leading political advocate, Winston Churchill, who drove its adoption through the then newly formed Council of Europe.

One also has to balance any claim to radicalism founded on HRA against the overwhleming weight of illiberal and reactionary legislation passed by the current government, particularly, since 2001; 37 criminal justice bills alone over the last 10 years with yet another one promised this week in his valedictory address to the party conference; idenity cards and the growing database state; anti-terrorism legislation now a permanant fixture on the statue books where even at the height of the ‘Troubles’ in Northerm Ireland it was always temporary and subject to annual renewal; ASBOs, dispersal orders; summary justice, the end of ‘double indemnity’, the extension of detention without charge… the list goes on and on and is anything but radical unless one wants to take in terms of a radical shift of power to the state and away from it’s citizens.

The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, another potentially radical reform, has been, likewise, denuded of it’s radical credentials by everything from the five year delay in its implementation to its twenty-three clauses (fully a quarter of the Act) dealing with exemptions from disclosure, some of which are so broadly frames, e.g commercial confidentiality and prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs, as to render it promise of a new era of open government near meaningless.

What of devolution, Blair’s other major bout of first-term radicalism? Well, yes we do now have a functioning Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly (and a distinctly non-functioning one in Northern Ireland), but has any of this genuinely changes or challenged the prevailing social order? Only in a marginal sense insofar as some powers have been devolved to democratically elected bodies that could be considered somewhat more representative than the Westminsiter parliament by virtue of having been elected by means of a system of proporional representation. But again on has to look at the question of political power in its fullest context and note the fact that the overriding trend over the last ten years has been both to centralised political power and authority on the Executive, and especially the office of Prime Minister, even to the extent eating away at the accountability of the executive to Parliament itself.

Of all the self-serving acts carried out by this government few stand as a greater indictment of its democratic and radical credentials than its response to the embarrassments caused by the Hutton Inquiry.

Less than two years after Hutton, the independent public inquiry was quietly put to its final rest by the Inquiries Act 2005, which was passed with little public notice and without a third reading vote in either the Commons or Lord just prior to the dissolution of parliament for the last general election on the back of a backroom deal with the opposition parties.

In case you missed it – and most people did – the Inquiries Act places the whole process of public inquiries under Ministerial control to the extent that a minister has the full authority to…

  1. Decide whether there should be an inquiry.
  2. Set its terms of reference.
  3. Amend its terms of reference – at any time before or during its proceedings.
  4. Appoint its members.
  5. Restrict public access to inquiries – at any time before or even during its proceedings.
  6. Prevent the publication of evidence placed before an inquiry
  7. Prevent the publication of the inquiry’s report – all inquiry reports are now to be submitted to the Minister who then decides whether to submit it to Parliament. Previously inquiry reports were automatically submitted to Parliament, Minister had the right only to access in advance of any debate on the inquiry’s findings.
  8. Suspend or terminate an inquiry.
  9. Withhold the costs of any part of an inquiry which strays beyond the terms of reference set by the Minister.

Little wonder, then, that the government has steadfastly refused to accept calls for a full public inquiry into the events of July 7th last year, as with Hutton still fresh in people’s (and especially journalists’) minds any such inquiry would only serve to alert the public to the full extent to which one of the key planks of governmental accountability has been effectively emasculated to the point of worthlessness.

Is there, then, anything on which it could genuinely be said that Blair has actually lived up to a definition of radicalism predicated on the concept of challenging or changing the prevailing social order without there having been a later bout of reactionary backsliding?

Well, yes… sort of… almost…

To find a genuine, honest-to-goodness example of radical reforms that have changed the social order in Britian for the better, one has to look to Labour’s track record over the last ten years in its dealing with the gay community.

There, Labour has enacted a series of genuinely radical reforms; giving the gay community parity in terms the age of consent, the repeal of ‘clause 28’, the right to equal treatment when it comes to adoption and, most important of all, introducing civil partnerships .Its not a 100% perfect record as there is rather a blot on Blair’s record as a result of his surreptitious kowtowing to religious prejudice when introducing legislation outlawing discrimination in employment on grounds of sexual orientation (and it remains to be seen whether the current Single Equality Bill will be subjected to the same kind of careful filleting in order to pander to religious bigotry) but it is a track record that could genuinely be considered both radical and progressive and which has certainly effected significant positive changes to the social order in Britain.

It’s still not much to show for ten years at the top, though, is it?

Will history judge Blair a radical leader and reformer?

Only if Blair takes Churchill’s advice and writes it himself or we come to accept that the word ‘radical’ has joined ‘fascism’ and others identified by Orwell in 1945 amongst the ranks of the semantically feckless.

[Note: The title of this piece ‘The conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today’ comes from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and is his definition of radicalism.]

4 thoughts on “The conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today*

  1. A slight correction. “it should be considered required reading for anyone with aspirations of writing on the subject of politics” should read “it should be considered required reading for anyone.”


  2. So what do you make of Blair naming himself a ‘progressive’ then? I smelt something very large and rodent-like. [Insert cheap joke about disliked New Labour politician here]

  3. I take it that you don’t think our Tony has been radical. An elegantly written post but… Independence to the Bank of England? Civil partnerships? Minimum wage? Debt cancellation? Lords reform (unfinished business I agree but a more radical step than any previous government).

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