Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Queen's speech: an appointment with fear

Blair's legacy will be a government defined by insecurity, internal confusion and the petty regulation of our lives.

Today's Queen's Speech is almost certain to be Tony Blair's last as prime minister. In many ways, it is his attempt to establish his legacy. The speech will sum up neatly Blair's premiership because the unifying theme of his legislative programme for the next year is fear. Fear of uncontrollable people in our society both criminal and terrorist; fear of too many people coming from the wrong countries; and fear of the weather.

Or, to put a positive spin on it, security from the 'front room to the global level' as home secretary John Reid put it on Radio 4's Today (1). That means a new criminal justice bill allowing on-the-spot fines for minor offences, possible fines for parents where their children have misbehaved, and reducing sentence discounts for pleading guilty. There will also be an organised crime bill to restrict the movements and freedoms of 'Mr Bigs'.

There will be a terror bill - although exactly what it will contain depends on what the government feel they can get past Parliament. For example, the government would like to extend detention without charge to 90 days from the present 28 days. Ministers also have to wait to see how much of their current legislation is thrown out by the courts. There might also be a religious hatred bill, particularly given the acquittal of BNP leader Nick Griffin last week. Apparently it depends on who wins the argument: the chancellor, and leader-in-waiting, Gordon Brown (in favour) or John Reid (not just yet).

The other high-profile bill will be on climate change. This will pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. However, the opposition parties and many Labour backbenchers want to see mandatory annual targets, too. Blair believes this is unworkable. Some might see the whole thing as surreal. What's going to happen if they fail to meet their own targets? On-the-spot fines for government? Anti-climate behaviour orders?

There's no shortage of other legislation, though: road transport, pensions, welfare reform, the child support agency, switching over to digital television, consumer protection, further education, and local government are all likely to feature in the coming session. Who says politicians don't earn their money?

It's a wonder that MPs ever see their families with the volume of legislation passed by this government. According to figures prepared by the Liberal Democrats and quoted by Philip Johnston in Monday's Daily Telegraph: 'Labour has, in nine years, brought in five Acts on immigration, seven on terrorism, 10 on education, 11 on health and social care and 23 on criminal justice. It has also created more than 3,000 new crimes at a rate of nearly one a day and passed more than 32,000 statutory instruments, which introduce new regulations by secondary legislation.' (2)

As Johnston notes: 'The problem is that this Government, more so than its predecessors, uses legislation to make statements that would be infinitely cheaper to deliver by way of a press release – and probably just as enduring.' He's not alone in his criticism. Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning, described this government's approach to legislation as 'the highest form of spin'.

There is a lot of truth in this. Blair's government, even more than the chaotic Conservative administration of John Major before him, has adopted a 'legislate first, ask questions later' approach. This has organisational consequences for the state where those who actually have to implement these laws spend a disproportionate amount of time feverishly trying to implement one reform, only for another one to come along 12 months later. Those who are foolish enough to criticise this obsessive legislative disorder are condemned as the 'forces of conservatism'.

As spiked editor, Mick Hume, pointed out over five years ago, the first thing the Labour government did when elected in 1997 was hand over much of their influence on the economy to bankers and 'independent' economists: 'With what was once the major arena for state intervention now off limits, the authorities have turned instead to a restless programme of rolling intervention in new areas of life... The government now has such an itchy legislative finger that it cannot resist announcing new initiatives in response to daily developments. One schoolboy is stabbed to death? Something must be done. Two babies are bought for adoption over the internet? Something must be done. Body organs are found in hospitals? Something must be done.' (See For fewer laws not more, by Mick Hume.)

The problem has been that the government has no organising principle. As a result, it is reduced to mere managerialism. This is not simply a problem for Labour, either. The entire political class is now so devoid of any positive mission that there is very little real debate in public life. All sides are agreed that terrorism, crime, immigration and the environment are huge problems that must be tackled. In fact, the major parties nick each other's ideas so often that there isn't even much disagreement on how these problems might be solved.

The root of this difficulty is in the disconnection of political life from everyday life. Politicians no longer have access to extended networks with influence over society. That means that they have lost any feeling of control over society that doesn't involve legislation; long gone are the smoky back rooms where deals could be hammered out with union leaders or big business or the like. And just as they have been forced to rely on the sledgehammer of law-making to crack every little nut, the role of these same networks as sounding boards for the practicality of their ideas has been diminished, too.

That disconnection with everyday life also encourages an exaggerated sense of danger that creates a mountain out of every little molehill. Like young girls freaked by every little thing that goes bump in the night, politicians are increasingly spooked by every little thing that goes bump in a council estate or mosque. Only a government utterly divorced from society could come up with the gimmick, announced this week, of providing a free online service to allow individuals and groups to petition the government. A practice, which was previously regarded as an irritation to politicians facing demands upon them from the public, is now recreated as a kind of automated consultation exercise. The message from on high is 'tell us what to think because we haven't a clue anymore.'

Which brings us back to that lack of an organising principle: in the absence of a vision for the betterment of society, fear has taken on the role of tying together and underpinning the work of government. When some argue that the politics of fear is being used to scare us into line with authoritarian measures, they only tell half the story. In truth, governments are acting out of fear, too.

Indeed, some now present that fear as a positive thing, something that can give some impetus to politics. As Madeleine Bunting wrote in the Guardian recently, imagining looking back from the future on the current debate about climate change: 'The idea that the most precious freedom of all was freedom from fear gained force much later... Fear in the end was the only mechanism that was able to cut through the complacency and force the cultural change, the political pressure and the global cooperation necessary. (3)'

So there we have it: the Blair legacy is a government defined by fear (and considerable internal confusion), promising us more and more petty micro-management of our lives backed by an endless series of fines and penalties, often at the expense of long-standing legal principles. Clearly, he'll be missed.

Originally published on spiked.

(1) Today

(2) Home front, Daily Telegraph, 13 November 2006

(3) It's hard to explain, Tom, why we did so little to stop global warming, Guardian, 6 November 2006

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