Friday, September 03, 2010

Me and Tony Blair - and his gods

This blogger spent a restless night flicking through the pages of Tony Blair's unforgivable autobiography. Unforgivable? Well, I wasn't expecting an apology for Iraq, or the loss of civil liberties in Britain. I also didn't expect any insights into the policy divides between Blair and his long-time Chancellor of the Exchequer. What I was looking for was some inkling that the financial crisis that blew up during Blair's tenure might have given him some insights into why governments must intervene in markets in the public interest. I searched in vain.

Many years ago, long before the advent of New Labour, this blogger briefly met Tony Blair for a 45 minute interview. It was 1983. Blair was a newly elected MP, I had just graduated in economics and was looking for a job. He was only three years older than me, and at the time I was struck by how little he knew about economics. He seemed to see markets, above all the financial markets, as metaphysical beings, gods to be worshipped and obeyed, rather than sophisticated tools to be shaped and regulated to serve the public interest. In other words, even as early as 1983, long before Blair joined the Labour shadow front benches, it was clear to me that he had totally bought into Margaret Thatcher's "you can't buck the markets" brand of political surrender to capital.

So the history of Blair's tenure as prime minister can be summed up as one of capitulation, capitulation, capitulation. Especially to the interests of the City of London. He - and others associated with the New Labour project - sneered at the idea of reviving 'smokestack' industries which had no future in a modern Britain, and chucked all their eggs in the City of London's basket.

Judging from his book, it still hasn't occurred to Blair that much of the financial engineering that the City specialises in might be "socially useless". Apparently, it also hasn't occurred to Blair, whose key adviser famously said "we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", that the flip side of London's excesses might involve a disastrous increase in social and economic inequality. The adviser in question, Peter Mandelson, qualified his comment about people getting filthy rich, by saying "provided that they pay their taxes", but the truth about New Labour is that their leadership was intensely relaxed about tax avoidance, so the filthy rich became even richer and still didn't pay their taxes. Further evidence of Blair's craven capitulation.

Like Clinton, Blair became the epitome of Davos man, crawling the carpets of the World Economic Forum to kiss the rings on the hands of Big Capital and feed their endless appetite for tax cuts and other forms of fiscal subsidy. The New Labour project held together for an astonishingly long-time, but as the high-street cash registers boogeyed and the masters of the universe strode like colossus amongst us, personal and corporate debt in Britain built up ominously and economic activity became increasingly concentrated in the service sectors.

The inevitable crash, which perfectly coincided with Tony Blair's standing-down from the prime ministership, should have caused at least a few moments reflection on whether his long attachment to neo-liberal economic policies might have been at least partially at the root of the crisis. Not a bit of it. Judging from his autobiography, Blair remains a neo-liberal by conviction (is it his religious beliefs that pushes him in the direction of blind faith in the invisible hand?). And his reaction to the crisis makes it clear that when it comes to tax justice, he just doesn't get it: "We should have taken a New Labour way out of the economic crisis: kept direct taxes competitive, had a gradual rise in VAT and other indirect taxes to close the deficit, and used the crisis to push further and faster on reform"

In other words, shift the tax burden further onto the backs of middle and low income households, incentivise rich people with further tax cuts, and continue with the mindless frenzy of "reforms" of public services involving massive and largely useless expenditure on external consultants. The hidden sub-text throughout the book reveals Blair's contempt for governments that "tax and spend". But if governments don't tax (wisely) and spend (wisely) in the public interest what purpose do they serve?

I stopped reading at about two this morning. My mind was a jumble of thoughts about missed opportunities, unforgivable errors of judgement, and political spin. Back in 1983 I formed a low opinion of Tony Blair and turned down the research post offered to me. Reading his memoirs has reinforced my initial impression: this is a man who is incapable of thinking for himself in a structured and critical way. And as for the sex scenes: well, Yuk!

POSTSCRIPT: Its much worse than I thought - I've just noticed Blair's opinion of Bono as a potential prime minister (see here). Bono's position on tax justice is neatly summed up here. If you can judge a man by the friends he keeps (Berlusconi, Bush, etc), his assessment of Bono's capabilities shows the astonishing weakness of his judgement.


Blogger Demetrius said...

Personally I think you are being too kind. There is the smell of evil about too much that was going on and its purpose.

11:04 am  
Blogger Physiocrat said...

There is more than a whiff of anarcho-capitalism about the whole Blair project. People are sucking it up without realising it.

Pity nobody thought to ask how a few people were getting stinking rich and where this wealth was coming from. They might have been a bit less relaxed if they had been working with a coherent body of economic theory.

If you dig down, you will almost certainly find that if it isn't outright fraud, this source is economic rent of land. Collect it and use it as public revenue, and these parasites would have to do something useful with their undoubted talents. Or even a spot of breaking-and-entering would have done less harm and some of them would have been behind bars, where they belong.

3:40 pm  

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