Tuesday, March 22, 2005

New Labour's divorce from liberal England

Martin Kettle writes movingly in today's Guardian about the memorial service for Anthony Sampson:
This was unmistakably a gathering of English men and women of a particular kind. They seemed to me to be the stubbornly principled, occasionally self-righteous bearers of the English imagination of which Peter Ackroyd writes so movingly - people haunted by the landscape and above all by the language, people permanently aware of the past, but people adaptive and comfortable in diversity, practical and pragmatic carriers of a mixed culture. Call them the recusant establishment of literate and liberal England.
I find this a good description of the kinds of liberalism and Englishness that I find particularly congenial. I had these ideas somewhere in mind when I chose the title of this blog, which probably explains why it has been consistently been more interested in rural Shropshire than, say, the reform of social services.

Kettle continues:
On the steps of the church afterwards, I looked for the politicians and saw only a few of any stripe. Shirley Williams and David Owen were there; Margaret Jay and Helena Kennedy too. But none of the thinking ministers you might expect to want to mark the passing of the anatomist of Britain. No Peter Hain, no Tessa Jowell, no David Blunkett - and no Gordon Brown or Tony Blair.
In fact, he notes, "there was not a single Labour minister or MP there".

Kettle sees this absence as evidence of a recent divorce between the New Labour project and liberal England, contrasting it with the efforts senior ministers made to pay tribute to Paul Dacre on the tenth anniversary of his becoming editor of the Daily Mail. David Blunkett, for instance, turned up to propose a toast to a man who "reflects the best of journalism". For there was a time, says Kettle, when Blair felt comfortable with liberalism, and cites his 1995 Fabian lecture on the 50th anniversary of the Attlee government as an example.

I wonder. I sensed the fundamentally illiberal nature of New Labour early. In the winter of 1996-7, a few months before Blair became prime minister, I attended a lecture given by Gordon Brown in the heart of the City of London. His theme was the rediscovery of a sense of shared national purpose through work.

This sounded at once cheerless - stemming from what Andrew Roth has called Brown's "mixture of Presbyterian doom and self-satisfied righteousness" - and sinister. Can a free nation have one purpose? Surely free citizens have many different purposes and a good society enables them to pursue these in some degree of harmony?

It happens that I spent some time this weekend researching the eugenics movement in Britain for an article I am writing. I knew that this movement had enjoyed a wide following, particularly in the Edwardian era, but what struck me most was how familiar the views of its advocates sounded.

Like New Labour, they believed that we are faced by a vast underclass that is frequently criminal and is such a drag on the national economy that it threatens our future survival in an increasingly competitive world

In 1905 the answer was to sterilise the unfit and to encourage the right sort of people to have more children. In 2005 it is to have childcare professionals train parents and to make the socialisation of children the business of the state. What these two approaches share is a fundamental fear and contempt of the poor.

So while Kettle is right to say that New Labour is fundamentally divorced from Liberal England, I suspect that this divorce was inherent from its inception and is not a recent development.

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