'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial
A view from SQUALL central
Squall 15, Summer 1997, pg. 4.
Even those not normally disposed to nocturnal marathons popped corks in the cathode-ray flicker, erupting as each of the arrogant mighty fell. Portillo be gone! Maitland be gone! Howard? Ah, if only the Folkstone massive had gone tactical with this one.
The morning after had a surreal summer feel; a dark grey cloud, so familiar it was almost part of the accepted scenery, had lifted.
But for many, the overnight inflation of the feelgood factor was due more to the rout of the Tories than the succession of Tony Blair. Following the last election in 1992, the majority of the electorate were left groaning over their cornflakes when the Conservative’s superior media machine steered them back to power. In the five years since, much has changed on the political landscape. The Labour Party now runs a whole Westminster office block solely devoted to media, whilst Labour parliamentarians attend media workshops to hone down their script deliveries.
In many respects the British general election now bears more resemblance to the Oscars than it does to a democratic consideration of political substance; perhaps one of the reasons why Tony Blair, Labour’s most proficient media tart in living memory, could sweep into power with such a dramatic landslide.
Ask many people why it was they voted Labour and the most common answer comes back: “To get rid of the Tories”.
Those who did vote displayed the most advanced form of strategic voting witnessed in recent times. Portillo lost his seat directly as a result of a last-minute campaign inspired by a poll published in The Observer on the Sunday prior to the election. The Enfield and Southgate Liberal Democrats seized the opportunity to unseat the unsavoury Michael Portillo with a voraciously enthusiastic last minute switch of support to Labour. God bless ’em.
In fact this election drew the lowest electoral turnout since 1945, a significant indication of the cynicism with which many people now view the British electoral process.
Despite emphasis on Tory divisions over Europe as a primary cause of the electorate’s dissatisfaction, it is undoubtedly the case that ‘sleaze’ was a more significant factor; a reflection of the public’s weary disgust with the arrogant hypocrisy which comes with too much power for too long. Although most commonly associated with just one MP, Neil Hamilton was but the tip of a sleazy iceberg. And only the tip was exposed.
Although Jack Straw has concorded with the Home Affairs Select Committee recommendation that a full register of freemasons in the police and judicial system should be collated, he has stopped short of agreeing that such a register should be publicly available. And yet it is vital that this powerful network of privileged favouritism is outed if cynicism in British politics and the judicial system is to be properly addressed.
Those who watched draconian legislation like the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act and the Asylum and Immigration Act pass with barely a squeak from the Labour Party, are still waiting to see whether there will now be a political redress. Some defer to the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law as a move which will counter the long list of civil liberty clampdowns introduced by the Tories. However, the extent to which rights to privacy, assembly and a home will be incorporated into the British justice system remains to be seen. What is clear is that any such incorporation would have a long timescale. A Bill of Rights, on the other hand, would establish British human rights in a far more immediate and accountable form. Despite dangling such a Bill before the electorate prior to the election, it has now been pushed down the agenda of priorities.
Significantly, some of the worst blanket erosions of civil liberties such as those contained in the 1997 Police Act, were actually passed with the help of the Labour Party. Indeed, the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is the least appetising addition to the new list of political heavyweights. Having swung across Michael Howard’s parrot cage for so long, Straw’s law and order proposals are barely distinguishable from the Home Office’s previous incumbent. The Police Bill, which introduced statutory powers of intrusive surveillance to be used against “conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose”, had run out of parliamentary time. Jack Straw ignored concerns from the likes of the Law Society, about the unspecific targeting of such powers, and negotiated with Howard to get the new law rushed through before May 1st.
Welfare has been another subject of much concern. The Job Seekers Allowance introduced by the Conservative Government at the end of last year looks set to be taken further by the new Labour Government rather than overhauled. The JSA allows for the cessation of benefits if a claimant’s “appearance” or “attitude” “actively militates” against finding a job. Harriet Harman, the new Social Security Secretary, immediately announced she will not allow benefit to be used to support “alternative ways of living”.
There are, however, several reasons to be cheerful about the arrival of the Labour Party in government. For a start it has doubled the amount of women in the Commons. British politics has traditionally been dominated by a dismissive and arrogant male dialogue. Frank Johnson, editor of the The Spectator, spoke for all disappointed misogynists with his appraisal of the general election: “The result is terrible for the country but great for newspapers. We will wait until Labour start messing up, and they will. Just look at all those women in there, for a start. God knows what they’ll get up to.”
Without a doubt the 101 new female MPs represent a sorely needed concentration of female expressiveness in what has rather inappropriately been described as the ‘mother of all parliaments’. The likes of Clare Short add a refreshing potential for honesty which nearly, but significantly did not, cost her a place in Blair’s new cabinet.
There are other reasons to be cheerful. The Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, setting workers’ rights in a new contract of conditions, was of course rejected completely by the previous government. After all the Tories had spent so many years strategically eroding conditions of employment they weren’t about to allow Europe to over-ride all their hard work. The new Government has signed up immediately.
However, with Tony Blair prepared to pose for the cameras in a McDonald’s bar in Coventry, concerns have yet to be met over what kind of employment conditions will be negotiated from a Social Chapter, much of which still remains abstract. Indeed, if the British electorate has its fair quota of media-worried sheep, politicians hardly qualify as shepherds. Their role is more the sheep dog, with big transnational concerns like McDonalds’s or global media-barons like Murdoch pursing their mammonian lips to issue the whistle. What part will corporation’s like McDonald’s play in keeping Tony Blair’s commitment to a minimum wage down to not much more than £3 an hour.
By the end of this century McDonald’s will be one of the biggest employers in the UK, whilst their decision to quit buying British beef instantly took £350 million out of the beef market. Such clout is courted, rather than checked by politicians from both sides. Any nationalist concerns about paling British power in a new Europe are merely academic compared to the march of the transnationals. Such global power was alluded to recently by James Cantalupo, president of McDonald’s International: “McDonald’s is a symbol of international maturity. I don’t think there is a country out there we haven’t gotten enquiries from. I have a parade of ambassadors and trade representatives in here regularly to tell us about their country and why McDonald’s would be good for them.” Recent changes to the regulations governing the activities of transnationals in host countries, incorporated in the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the upcoming Multilateral Investment Agreement (MIA), ease the global-expansion plans of transnationals at the expense of host country accountability and control. Meanwhile public criticism of this cultural and consumer foist is an open target for corporate libel suits such as the McLibel trial. Freedom to speak out about such corporate invasions is but one of the rights yet to be established with a Bill of Rights.
It will also be interesting to see the extent to which the powerful Tobacco lobby will smother Labour’s stated intention to ban tobacco advertising. And similarly, how the British Arms industry - the second biggest in the world - will be allowed in to neutralise Robin Cook’s stated intention to put ‘human rights’ at the forefront of foreign policy. The general election was but one theatrical battle; the behind-the-scenes power war is far more significant.
The point from all these observations is not to denigrate or stand negative to a new feeling of political optimism, but rather to make sure that such optimism is manifest in real terms. The landscape of British politics now lies more open to being populated with genuinely new ideas than it has done in many people’s living memory. If the latest feel good factor is not to be dashed on the rocks of reality, it will be up to the British population to play an active part in steering its course, not merely abdicating the wheel to Admiral Blair.
Whether you put a cross in a box, consciously spoilt your ballot paper or refused to vote altogether, the future depends not on the benevolence of politicians but on an active population.