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Will the British election work
to change the British?




June 6, 2001

LONDON - You can blame part of it on Margaret Thatcher. It was she who brought some of the worst characteristics of the British temper to the surface and made them respectable: parochialism, petty nationalism, distrust of strangers (the Americans excepted), dog eat dog, and that long tradition of petty-bourgeois stoicism, tolerating the second rate in the government and the public sector - hospitals, trains, schools and so on.

Her originality was to shake the moribund British economic tree until its leaves fell off, revealing a new hard working, thrifty, go-for-it populace - only 20-30% of the population, but that was enough - that would, by earning more, be able to buy privately what it did not really like in the public sector.

All this still lives on after four years of Labour government and will be, doubtless, alive and healthy at the end of another five year term, unless Prime Minister Tony Blair is suddenly struck by lightening on the way to Buckingham Palace.

You can blame some of it too on John Major, Margaret Thatcher's successor. It wasn't so much he carried on the Thatcherite revolution of privatisation with an earnestness that led to the terrible mistakes of the rail system, it was the way he resigned immediately on losing the election. If he had hung on for six months as leader of the opposition, Chris Patten would have had time to finish his term of office as governor of Hong Kong, return to Britain, win a seat at Westminster in a by-election and then assume the leadership of the Conservative Party.

It was both an act of betrayal and an act of small mindedness. The former because it was Patten who, as chairman of the party, had won Major his second term in office against all predictions. The latter because it threw the Conservatives into the hands the narrowest of ideologues, led by little Englanders who seem totally out of touch with the realities of an emerging European that celebrates both its strength and diversity through its unity and who hark back to some bygone age when closeness to Washington was Britain's only political option.

If Patten had led the Conservatives then a referendum on Europe would have been by now long over and done with and Britain a signed up member of the Euro-currency from the onset, taking its place as one of the major creative forces in building a war-free Europe, which is what all this binding and building is ultimately about.

As it was, Blair, despite an enormous majority that should have enabled him, as far as the electorate was concerned, to walk on water, became frightened at the prospect of calling a referendum with the Conservatives against him and, more important, the conservative press, owned by North Americans - itself a quite ludicrous state of affairs since neither Rupert Murdoch nor Conrad Black have any compunction about using their powerful organs to tell the government and a good slice of the electorate what to do over Europe.

This tells us a lot about Blair, a "nice guy" as Polly Toynbee, the shrewd commentator of the Guardian tells us. "Not cynical, not world-weary, his easy sincerity is entirely convincing: he plainly wants to do good. But at each meeting the puzzle is always the same: what holds him back from a great leap forward?" Blair does not set out to challenge long held British attitudes, now alive and well again after the renovation work done on them by Margaret Thatcher.

As Toynbee says "A bolder leader might challenge popular apathy, ignorance, indifference, unambition and intellectual idleness by offering something more than amelioration". An attitude of caution perhaps more understandable with Bill Clinton who for most of the time had a hostile Congress arranged against him, but less explicable for Mr Blair who commanded an enormous majority and who has never seemed in doubt of winning another one.

I have watched this election from the home of my dying mother-in-law in Sweden, at peace that my vote won't count and knowing that for the first time in my 40 years of voting that there is no party on offer I really want to vote for.

But Sweden sparks another thought as yet one more time family events lead me to observe close up how another nation run their public services. How, for example, Swedish old people's homes and hospitals manage to maintain such high levels of medical excellence, the kindest of nursing care for the dying, coupled with very pleasant surroundings that would shame even the top-notch of the private sector in America.

I have long wondered why Mr Blair doesn't hop on a plane for a 90 minute journey here, followed by the press pack, while he spends 2 weeks educating himself and the media behind him on what can work in the public sector, how it works and why it works. Mr Blair could do anything he wants and get away with it. He could put Britain at the centre of Europe. He could challenge - and change - the British tolerance for second-ratedness. He could give the country something to aim for and, as Toynbee says, "seize the imagination of a phlegmatic population [because] out there is still an outdated, unmodernized, semi-static nation, encrusted with phoney traditions, resistant to change, even in the face of glaring social and economic lassitude."

Good natured as he is Mr Blair is probably too young and too inexperienced to be prime minister. He came to office not having travelled much except on holiday, with few encounters with life outside his studies as a student and later as a parliamentarian. If he knew how Britain could be, he surely wouldn't be quite so complacent, unassuming and diffident about his country's future.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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