A modest defense of democracy: three cheers for Blair, Cameron, and Clinton

I am not convinced that Leveson Inquiry shows a diminished democracy.  Instead, we have been treated to an eye opening view of how modern democracy works.  In the past, much of this would not be known or understood. Like the Facebook IPO debacle, where small investors could network to realize the big institutional investors had taken advantage of them, we, the public can see how modern politics work. We should welcome the Leveson Inquiry as a chance to awaken us as citizens to our responsibility to act political to support our right to the public interest.

Political deals to deliver the public interest

Instead of diminishing democracy, we have been given a master class by an excellent politician (Blair) and another who aspires to such greatness.  They are demonstrating publicly how they have to work privately to deliver the public interest.  I am not using that statement ironically or satirically.  Before one dismisses Blair, one must pause and consider that no other Prime Minister, in the history of Parliament, has received a standing ovation by both sides of the House. This is not a feat that Churchill achieved, nor Gladstone, nor Disraeli, nor Pitt.

Dyer’s argument but what is neo-liberalism?

John Dyer made an interesting argument to suggest that the UK and the US were facing a crisis of neo-Liberalism.  However, we are left to project our own meaning, prejudice, and fears into what is meant by Neo-Liberalism.  What is often lacking in today’s discussion is an understanding of terms. We use abstract terms to avoid concrete language that can be discussed and debate. Instead, the abstract terms allow our audience to fill it with whatever meaning we want.  I was not aware that neo-liberals promoted or condoned the rampant illegality as seen in Lehman Brothers (see Valukas report) nor did it condone the excessive risk taking, without productive purpose as engaged by hedge funds.  If anything, neo-liberalism has been betrayed. To the extent that people have used it to justify illiberal activities, it has been used more as an excuse than demonstrating a link to the activity.  For example, it is like saying that freedom causes crime so we need to reduce freedom to have less crime.  Yes, to the extent, we can exercise free will; we will have the potential for crime is not an indictment of freedom.

John Major’s revenge?

I would take with a large dose of salt the comments by John Major. He is an excellent politician. However, his statement about Tony Blair does not make it a fact.  Read the other way, does that mean the Conservative Prime Minster was a secret left wing trade unionist?

 Rewriting 1997 does not change Labour’s victory

Let us avoid rewriting 1997 to suit our current political prejudices and needs.  The country understood the choice in 1997 and they chose Labour. They may have rejected the sleaze party or the nasty party, but they vocally, wilfully, and in some cases joyfully embraced Labour for its promises.  Labour followed their manifesto. They met their campaign promises. To say that this was somehow more right wing seems to be stark historical revisionism.  The strong emphasis on public sector infrastructure spending was a strong break from the previous 17 years.  Although Major, belatedly, tried to reverse the spending (for example his spending on education was relatively higher (in inflation adjusted terms) for education (by .1% of Budget ie 4.2% against 4.1% of budget), the differences between the two campaigns and their manifestos was clear.

Borrowing your opponent’s policies is good politics

One could argue that Tony Blair reinvented or “stole” many of the ideas of his opponents, that is a powerful electoral technique, but they were and remain Labour policies. They were not dressed up conservative policies. More to the point, one finds no references to this issue when Hague, Smith and Howard were being crushed during Prime Minister’s Question Times. One has to admire the courage of William Hague to face such an onslaught, and he tried his best, but Tony Blair simply wiped the floor with the opposition. What undermined him in the end was not the opposition, but his own party.  He was not undermined because he had betrayed the party. On the contrary, he could not convince his own party of the Iraq war policy for a third successive election.

Reforming the public sector is not privatisation by another name

I am not sure how we can see Tony Blair as accelerating a neo-liberal approach without understanding what we mean by neo-liberal.  No one expected that Blair or Labour was going to bring socialism to the United Kingdom. The 1997 Labour manifesto had a strong opposition to privatisation of the public sector. The need for reform in the public sector and the NHS was clear even in 1997.  However, that reform, for which Blair and Milburn were being attacked in 2001 for allegedly wanting “privatising” the NHS, was not about privatisation.  It would seem that any reform of the public sector by central government becomes privatisation, which is just not possible. Governments since time immemorial have sought to reform public spending and in doing so they have not sought to privatise public sector.

How to follow a great leaders? The Oak casts a long shadow.

The problem for any opposition is that it cannot escape the shadow of success.  Thatcher  dominated the conservative party to such an extent that rivals could not emerge. The same could be said of Labour.  The internecine warfare kept any alternatives from emerging, just as the conservatives could not field a potential rival to Blair until the party “purged” itself of its previous links to successful leaders.  However, none of this is new. What we are seeing is simply the electoral process and party politics being played out as it has been for centuries. To put it differently, is not coincidental that Thatcher preferred Blair and Blair preferred Cameron. Who is left out are the immediate successors (Major and Brown).

Voters are not rats! They have to take responsibility as citizens

As to a change up, I would doubt the voters see themselves as rats. They know what is being said and done.  To suggest otherwise does a disservice to politics and democracy in particular.  As to framing policies and procedures, the parties are careful to support their links to their manifestos.  To be sure, they are plastic documents that can be ignored as necessary. However, parties explain to themselves why flexibility is needed and when necessity requires a shift. Once in power, the necessity becomes clear. However, party discipline for the party’s goals weakens with each successive election victory.

 Blair and Clinton were excellent politicians.

As to comparing Blair and Clinton, I think it is a fair comparison but not for the reasons intended. Blair and Clinton were (are) master politicians. Even their harshest critics and opponents cannot deny their success. [link to may analysis of Blair] Clinton overcame huge losses in office, scandals, and a challenging economic situation to return a surplus, be elected, and outmanoeuvre the Republican opposition.  What he was displaying, and Blair displayed, were consummate political skills.  What we miss when we use abstractions like “neo-liberal” is what it means to be a politician. We cast off our responsibility for being a good citizen and understand the political process. What we have been invited to see, to some extent, is how politicians make “deals” to deliver the public interest. [1] They have to convince the voters they should be given their vote.  The Leveson Inquiry has shown us how that worked in one area.  What we have seen is Tony Blair offering a master class in his skills.

 What makes a good leader?

To put it in context, Blair was able to keep the press at bay during his time in office.  He left on his terms and despite a deeply unpopular war, the press never, quite, turned against him.  By contrast, David Cameron has his hands full trying to keep the press tamed and the opposition in check. What we see in Cameron is a potentially great politician. He is showing his skills in maintaining the coalition and leading his party through a difficult public inquiry, the likes of which have rarely been seen in the UK.  This is the first social media public inquiry, which makes it harder than any previous one, which would have been filtered through the mainstream press before the public could judge it.

 Is the excuse now that democracy simply hollowed out by neo-liberalism?

The final paragraphs of neo-liberalism just do not ring true. Yes, neo-liberal economic policy favours reduced regulations. However, it does not support or promote inappropriate risk taking and criminal behaviour. To claim that neo-liberalism ushered in or condones unregulated greed is simply to ignore human nature.  (Are we to have regulated greed?)  Regulation does not stop or hinder greed.  All that it changes is how that greed is manifested.   Over the past 20 years the infrastructure and highways spending in the United States, for example, increased.  It did not decrease.  The welfare state expanded even though it was modified.  More people were brought into the welfare state over the past 20 years many of whom had been previously excluded.   Labour changed the UK and the UK wanted those changes.  Bill Clinton changed America and America wanted those changes. To say that they did not is to distort the historical record.

What has changed between the relationship between public and private sector?

We need to look at the reasons why the relationship between the public sector and the private sector collapsed. Why is it that the reforms that brought more people into the welfare state were not assessed for what they may have as their effect? Was it that we the public were happy to go along with the project because was saw the benefits, we wanted the benefits, and were unwilling to look too deeply at how they were being financed.  If that is the case, then we need to look at how the politicians, did what they did best, which was reflect our needs and wants and reflect them back to us within a political framework.

 We can have democracy and responsible citizens, or we can have despotism and no responsibility.

As such, the democratic process worked.  Now, we may not like the outcome, but we certainly cannot blame the process. To argue otherwise is to forget the elections and policies that lead us to this point. It is to assume that the elections, and choices that we will need to resolve the issues for the next generation can be avoided.  One thing is certain, we are not going to get to that future until we can stop using abstract language like “neoliberalism” and the “diminution of democratic governance”, that allows us to project our political prejudices, fears, and belief.  We need concrete language that explains what happened, why it happened, and what the government intended to do to fix it. In sum, we need more democracy, not less. To have more democracy, we need to understand the political process so that we can respect and honour the public sector was expressed most emphatically and nobly in the elected representative.

Democracy is the answer because politicians work in the public interest

We can recover and we will recover. What it will take is a willingness to make and accept the choices.  Until we can do that, we stay in denial. The alternatives to democracy that are lurking in Europe will not give the answer, they are a false hope that makes us believe that we can somehow restore the past without having to change our present. The 20th century showed us the horrors of such “political illusionists” let us not exchange hope for despair, democracy for despotism. Let us instead, embrace the political responsibility that we have as citizens and let our voice be heard.



[1] Why is it ok for a reporter to exploit a drug addict and justify it as being in the “public interest” but an elected politician who has to make a “deal” to deliver his programmes for the public is *not* in the public interest?  The two positions strike me as democratic hypocrisy that seeks to avoid a citizen taking any responsibility for their role in politics and the public interest.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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2 Responses to A modest defense of democracy: three cheers for Blair, Cameron, and Clinton

  1. John Dyer says:

    Hi Larry

    Thank you for taking the time to craft a response. As a recovering neo liberal I have the deepest empathy and sympathy for what you must be going through. A couple of points:
    1) My piece was long enough without explaining neo liberalism, so I referenced another article on the subject. You will find it isn\’t vague.
    2) Democracy is diminished by sleaze. Teapot Dome has been etched on the American consciousness. So will the epic scale sleaze revealed by Leveson.
    3) Leveson is indeed an example of democracy working. Judge Leveson and Counsel Jay have my unbridled admiration.
    4) No we are not rats and I agree we have a responsibility. But that word responsibility has an interesting origin. It is the ability to respond, and like the rats if at a more complex level we can be spun till our heads spin and we don\’t really know what to do. Voter turnout demonstrates that and whomever is at fault it denotes voter alienation from the process. That is democracy diminished just as Leveson shows democracy dishonoured.
    5) What is on display at Leveson is not \”normal\” and \”ok,\” It is not what a responsible leader \”has\” to do to get the job done. It is, I agree, an all to common feature of modern leadership. I have been there, Larry, if at a more modest level. My job for years was to protect against just this sort of sleaze. There is no excuse for it. It isn\’t great. The men who practice it may be complex and complicated. They may achieve great things but the sleaze isn\’t.
    6) Neo-liberalism does have much to answer for, not the least of which is fostering the conditions that led to this economic crisis. It is subverting democracy in Europe. That too is not ok.
    Again thank you for the interest and attention you show. You do a good job of setting out arguments with which I am very familiar. There are individuals who I respect, indeed like very much, who stand for the principles of neo liberalism. I just cannot go there with them any longer. It has failed.

    • John,
      Thanks for the quick response to my blog.
      I will respond as well as I can to your excellent points. First, I do not consider myself a neoliberal. I am uncertain what that label means or implies. .
      Second, I cannot find the article to which you mentioned regarding your definition of neo-liberalism. Was there a hyperlink within the article?
      I am not sure democracy is diminished by sleaze. If it is, then please point to a time democracy, or politics for that matter, was without it. Democracy is messy and it is dangerous to assume or wish otherwise. Some messiness (or sleaze) is obvious (like Mayor Daley (or LBJ) and using political patronage to win elections), but other messiness is criminal, which is dangerous.
      Third, I have written a fair bit on Leveson and Jay (and I intend to write more) so I will agree with you on their quality.

      Fourth, you may not be aware of it, but the word responsibility has its origins in the Federalist Papers. It was not used before the American founding. I was thinking of it in how it was used in a republican sense, for a citizen to have responsibility and for politicians to have responsibility. In the United States, politicians rule and are ruled in turn. By contrast, the UK has a different system, in part one that does not encourage the same “political” responsibility because it is not a republic.

      The complaint about spin is just an excuse to stop using our judgement or educating ourselves to defend democracy. If we fail to engage critically with a politician’s, or government’s view, then it becomes propaganda (an old word), because it is unchallenged and does not have to justify itself. In doing so, we abdicate our responsibility as citizens and return to being a subject or, in a worst case, a slave. Democracy requires us to exercise our reason or it will fail. The 20th century politics was riven with the politics based on a flight from reason. If someone is making an argument, then challenge the warrants that join their claims and their evidence. Yet, how many children today are taught the critical thinking skills to take an argument apart? How many adults?

      Fifth, I am not sure what you mean by “normal” and “ok” regarding politics. Ok by what standard? We see politicians working in the public interest. We may disagree with their decision. Yet, we need to articulate the standard for judging their decision. In hindsight, one could say, “Blair did not have to court Murdoch”. There was nothing wrong, as such, with his approach. To criticise Blair now is to remove the context for which his decision made, and makes, sense. We may think that this is “all corrupt” but having to make the decisions and get the best decision possible is not easy. Politics, especially successful democratic politics is very hard work. It is that much harder during a time of austerity. One only has to listen to LBJ’s tapes or read the transcripts to hear a politician conducting politics. Politics is like horse-trading and that is not easy if you want to get a healthy horse. Just because someone makes deals, that does not make it dirty or dishonourable. They are acting in the public interest to the best of their ability. When they betray the public interest, and confuse the party interest or their own interest for the public interest (pace Murdoch) then it becomes corrupt. Blair was very astute in his dealing with Murdoch to make sure he was pursuing the public interest, to promote his policies and programmes, and thus can avoid the overt taint that many wish to apply.
      Sixth, I am not convinced neo-liberalism is responsible for anything. We have people and politicians who made decisions. I am not aware of anyone being a doctrinaire neo-liberal quoting a little Red Book on neo-liberalism for the answers. The system was showing prosperity and the prosperity was being distributed, perhaps not evenly or correctly, but enough to return parties to power for several elections. Again, neo-liberalism becomes shorthand or a proxy for something else. I do not think you have defined it yet.
      We endanger our democracy when we rely on simple phrases or worldviews to explain what is happening. Life, and politics, is too complicated to be reduced to a single term or ideology. One could just as easily say that Neo-Scholasticism failed or post-modernity failed. We cannot even say they failed until we know what it is that they were trying to do and then know whether they could have done what they set out to achieve.
      As for the failure of the west, we are seeing that states cannot maintain a vibrant welfare system and stimulate the economy. Instead of speaking in abstraction and I propose we use concrete language to explain what is happening.

      While the West was prosperous, the wagon (society) was picking up more and more passengers (larger and larger welfare state (because people needed more help) and the passengers were not concerned about the destination as long as there was enough food and the ride was not too bumpy. Now the situation is that we are very low on carrots and we are far from the nearest market. We can either eat the carrots or feed them to the horse. If the horse dies, then we will have to pull the wagon. What we need is more carrots, but to get more carrots we have to get the cart to town. So, what are we being asked to do? Most of us, the relatively able bodied, are being asked to walk so the cart can get to town faster. In addition, it is freeing up more carrots for the horse to eat. What is in question though is whether we have the right criteria for being on the cart and whether the people leading the horse and the cart are going in the right direction. In addition, we may be asking if everyone has provided their fair share of carrots as some people have been hoarding carrots. We may also be asking whether they are taking the shortest route or the safest. The issue though is that we need more carrots to feed the horse and ourselves.

      Thanks again for a robust response, what do you propose to put in neo-liberalism’s place if it has failed?

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