FEATURED ARTICLE by ANDREW SPARROW
Former PM has written a new introduction to his autobiography – and in it, he more or less says our political system is knackered
Tony Blair has just published the paperback edition of his autobiography, A Journey. The paperback edition of George Bush’s memoir has just come out, too but – perhaps because the demands of the US publishing industry are different, or perhaps because Bush is inherently lazy – it doesn’t contain any new material.
British politicians seem to do things differently. Lord Mandelson wrote a new preface to the paperback edition of his autobiography, and it was full of fascinating stuff.
And Blair has also written a new introduction to his book. In it, he more or less says that our political system is knackered.
He has spoken before about his frustrations with the way Westminster operates, but I’ve never heard him deliver such a comprehensive indictment. He really does seem to think that western democracies are failing. By my count, he identifies six key problems. Here they are:
1 Political parties are bad for politics
Specifically, he says they turn good ideas into “mush”. Given Blair’s relationship with the Labour party, this is not particularly surprising. But he argues that all political parties have a negative impact on the policy-making process.
The real challenge for leaders is how to change their countries, yet first they have to persuade their own party base, since party organisations have the ability to determine the contenders for leadership: and though the people distrust ideologically driven politics, party activists are even more wedded to them.
The party battle then turns into a series of set-piece staged fights, a bit like re-enactments of English or American civil wars. What comes out is a form of transactional politics in which the risk is that, even if you start with the right answer, it’s slowly whittled away into mush.
Meanwhile, in the real world, this unstoppable force of change is beating down upon us, demanding something transformative in order to cope with it.
Elsewhere, Blair says governments have to “liberate themselves from ideology based on left/right and embrace new ways of thinking that cross the traditional party lines”. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that, although he will never say this, at some level he would quite like to abolish political parties altogether.
2 Special interest groups block reform
This is a problem that has got worse in recent years, Blair says.
Over a period of years since the war, as the state has grown and public services and welfare systems have developed, there is a vast network of special interests that have every incentive to defend the status quo vigorously, and virtually none to alter it or even adjust it.
3 Bright outsiders are not involved in politics
For this, Blair partly blames the press.
Politicians – especially when trying to reform complicated systems built up over decades that employ thousands and impact upon millions – require the brains of the best talents.
It should be a national enterprise driven by a shared sense of purpose. Creating the means of achieving this is near to impossible the way we do politics right now.
Outsiders come in usually from a genuine sense of patriotic endeavour. Their motives are rubbished, their backgrounds scrutinised to the point of obloquy, and pretty soon they wonder why on earth they ever got mixed up in it at all.
4 Politicians are too similar to each other
Blair has a vivid way of putting this.
The gene pool going into politics is now frighteningly limited.
Blair seems to be making the point that many people at the top of politics now – like David Cameron and Ed Miliband – have spent most of their adult lives working full-time in Westminster politics.
It is not clear whether he realised, when he used the phrase, that it applies particularly well to his own partly. When Labour chose its leader last year, the two main candidates were, quite literally, from the same gene pool.
5 Civil servants are too conventional
This is an old Blair theme. Here’s how he puts it in the new book.
I found in office there was a real dearth not of conventional policy advice – we excelled in that – but of new thinking, radical policy ideas.
6 Overall, the system is almost incapable of allowing leaders to take good decisions
This is the key charge.
The way our democracies work in the early 21st century is virtually a conspiracy against rational decision-making. In times when the political system needs to roll along because we’re doing fine and, frankly, the less done the better – and there are such times – these flaws of modern democratic politics do not matter so much. Today they do.
Blair says tax policy illustrates this problem. Tax reform is difficult because “each special relief has its own interest group”, he says. “That is why the only way of doing it is to take it out of a partisan fight between right and left, construct a platform of shared national purpose, and make our system competitive in the new global economy.”
And he also cites pensions as another example of an issue that supports his case. “To have debates over whether to raise the retirement age by one or two years with generous pension provisions is next to absurd.
“Life expectancy has dramatically altered, while the birth rate is lower. You simply can’t, therefore, have smaller numbers of working-age people supporting larger numbers of the retired.”
Blair doesn’t specifically write about the coalition’s public sector pension reform plans, which triggered Thursday’s strike. But I think we can guess where he stands.