Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Tony Blair and Old Labor

Freedom News Service

Most weeks I read through my favorite British magazine, The Week. There is now an American version, but I get mine from the UK, so it contains lots of news from that side of the Atlantic.
One of the more interesting series of reports recently concerns Tony Blair’s difficulties with his Labor Party, where he is widely seen to be a leader of New Labor. And Old Labor frowns upon this good and hard, judging by the editorial commentaries and news reports summarized in The Week.
Perhaps the most damning thing being said about Blair by Old Labor partisans is that he has sold out on the principles of socialism and has compromised with the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, the Tory MP who managed to reacquaint Britain with the principles of classical liberalism, especially in the realm of economic policy. His chummy relations with President Bush and his complicity in the Iraqi aggression did not endear him to most Brits either.
Thatcher’s leadership – inspired by her reading of F.A. Hayek and other free-market economists and her witnessing of the demise of Soviet socialism – led to a good deal of privatization and elimination of the policy of nationalization of industry that was all the rage in England after World War II. Having learned a thing or two from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was perhaps the fullest development of the Labor Party’s vision of political economy, Thatcher counseled Britons that markets are better at allocating resources, creating products and services, than any top-down political management of the economy. Not that Thatcher could have her way, what with people all over the island having gotten used to the promise of being taken care of by the government, of being shielded from risks, never mind how much it cost them. Thus, under Thatcher, much of privatization was half-baked, at best, some of it even worsening some services (e.g., those of certain rail lines).
Some folks never learn, of course. Just as in the United States we have top-notch universities teaming with socialist or near-socialist academics, so in Great Britain there are many people who dream of returning to the days when socialism reigned and the country’s economy was sluggish, at best. But these folks had enough political clout, via their trade unions and academic friends, that they could usually squeeze the rest of the population for various benefits from Britain’s redistributionist economic policies.
Still, Tony Blair saw the writing on the wall and decided to relax the grip on Britain’s subjects while still holding on to elements of the welfare state – what he calls The Third Way – to please quite a few of the rank and file of the Labor Party. As it goes with all compromises with statist policies, Blair’s project wasn’t a principled change of the country’s system, and so those who preach socialism galore have kept the rhetorical advantage.
They have now taken the moral high ground by preaching a return to the policies of Old Labor. They have even managed to convince many of England’s pundits that Blair is but an opportunist who just wants the limelight and cares nothing about a functioning society and government. Only they, with their pure-at-heart vision of running the country in support of the people (which means becoming economic managers of society), have integrity, of course.
Now it is a cheap trick to have integrity when you need not make policy, need not have things actually work. Blair, whatever his flaws, has tried to keep to the policy of "putting England first," sometimes by way of using his youthful charisma and his oratorical skills. Yes, he is unprincipled – neither all the way Left, nor near enough to the classical liberal Torys – but given the realities of his constituency it is difficult to see how he could have survived without engaging in this kind of torturous balancing act.
In my view, Blair ought to have gone all the way out to follow and even extend much further Thatcher’s ideals, at least once he became PM and stayed in office for a while. That would have done the UK a great deal of good. And he might just have managed to bring this off because of his skills, his potential for leadership. But that is not the course he took. Instead, he stayed with his incoherent, mixed system.
Still, a little freedom is better than none. If the Brits go back to Old Labor and completely forget the lessons from the Soviet bloc – namely that top-down management gets you no growth and eventually no security either – it will be a bleak prospect for the country. Blair’s halfway house of compromised liberty may just avoid the demise that Old Labor is most likely to usher in.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu

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