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Goodbye To All That (August 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

The munchkins and bean counters who fill Westminster today are colluding in the eclipse of an entire political class.


Coping with house repairs in the country probably encourages Horatian reflections on the condition of the state: terrorists, mega-crime, sky falling in etc, with the politicos out to lunch. A couple of lucubrations in these columns from Roy Hattersley and Peter Wilby - big enough fish - prompts the question: just how good have New Labour's ministers, and indeed its whole cultural milieu, been?

German politicians are always churning out would-be philosophic works about the future of the country - some of them of high quality. Erhard Eppler, out of office since Willi Brandt resigned, remains the conscience of the SPD, Helmut Schmidt presides over Die Zeit, and Heiner Geissler nags away for the Christian socialist element of the CDU. Both Eppler and Geisler are products of the Tübingen seminar, which employs me, so there is a tradition to keep up.

In contemporary Britain, however, the quality of such discourse is dire: biographies and memoirs of the vote 'n' tell sort and some bad novels. Crosland, Jenkins, Foot and Benn have no successors. Robin Cook's Point of Departure had style and ideas, but he is dead.

Tony Blair will get millions for his memoirs, which will be as bland and flatulent as his speeches. Gordon Brown was an ideas entrepreneur 30 years ago; he has now repented, and his current output makes Stanley Baldwin look a blazing radical. The Tories are not better: there is no one on the level of Iain Gilmour or the bumptious but clever Nigel Lawson. If Westminster has scoundrels, they are Archers rather than Clarks.

This reflects the steady eclipse of the British political class - something masked by its sedulous promotion of the myth of the 70s, when unburied corpses walked the streets and trade unionists ate their young. It was indeed a bloody, difficult decade. But it started with the Open University and ended with the black stuff flowing from the North Sea oilfield. What has New Labour to offer in comparison? What depth is there to Straw, Kelly and Darling? - or Osborne and Gove, on the other side? This is a family with the wrong set of policy wonkers in charge.

The likes of Healey and Benn, and even middle-ranking figures, such as Joel Barnett or Edmund Dell, had a weight and character none of the current munchkins can match. The decay extends to other para-state institutions: the media, transport, academia. The Carleton Greenes, Denis Formans and Peter Parkers have been replaced by bean counters waiting for the point where they accumulate enough beans to bugger off to the Algarve, while in the City we are bought and sold for oligarch gold by masters of the universe whose Rolexes are better calibrated than their consciences.

Globalism, Europe, regionalism: none of these are exactly powering along, but they function. They have sucked strength out of British institutions, and the result is, fairly aptly, represented by Hattersley and Wilby. The first niggles; the second cannot see beyond Westminster. Hattersley's "family" has been rumbled: his Britain isn't there any more. Wilby thinks the old show will stay on the road, Tadpole replacing Taper. It won't.

If he had looked at the current Scottish opinion poll he would have seen that together Labour (29%) and Tory (10%) didn't even reach 40%. Assume that an SNP-led Scottish executive takes over next May and decides to hold a referendum on independence while English opinion polling follows Wilby's pro-Tory trend. What then?

I've tried - God knows, I've tried - to get the left to think federally, but it doesn't work. The United Kingdom of London is too big, too rich, too seductive, even if its connection with the rest of England, let alone the British Isles, is dwindling; even if it requires Scots janissaries, from Murdoch to Livingstone and Reid, to keep itself going.

Enough: next May let's cut the Westminster drip feed, take the oil, do a deal with the Norwegians to conserve it and use it as collateral for the equipment we need to set up an ecological, hi-tech economy. This is divorce, Hattersley, but it's also survival - for the English as much as for the Scots.

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