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The Cyberhoodies That Blair Made (May 2006)

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

Metropolitan political culture's failures are to blame for the venom in which our public life is awash.


Behind the issue of bloggers behaving badly seems to be something a lot deeper: the sense that the crisis of New Labour masks a far deeper crisis in the British state.

The ill-suppressed anger of some of our Comment is free cyberhoodies - who, incidentally are far more widely scattered geographically than the commentators - implies that metropolitan political culture ignores many problems these people see in close-up.

We have moved beyond the last chance saloon that put Blair-Brown into power in 1997, and things have not worked out. Where do we go from here? We know not, and we are afraid.

I recently reread two pieces from the Financial Times's greeting to the new millennium on January 1 2000. One was a jokey story by the then editor, Richard Lambert, about financial villains from Whittaker Wright to Robert Maxwell; another was an upbeat encomium to "Britain Inc" by Sir Geoffrey Owen, his predecessor. "Welcome to a sceptred isle bursting with entrepreneurial spirit," Sir Geoffrey wrote.

Of the promising companies he named, ARM Holdings of Cambridge is still British, BT jogs along and Vodafone has lost two-thirds of its 2000 value. But where are Psion, Marconi, Celltech and Powderject? Shrunken and sold off while our City slickers flourish like the green bay tree.

Some lines from Tennyson, in Locksley Hall (1842), keep coming to mind:

Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion, creeping nigher,
Glares at one that nods and winks besides a slowly dying fire.

The hunger is not the hideous squalor of Friedrich Engels' Manchester - though the impact of drugs can produce something similar - but the even more agonising drift of power from ordinary people and their communities.

The sense of hope and trust betrayed means many of the bloggers lump the commentators together with the oligarchic power of the metropolis, regarding them and the great PR machine as being simply too close together and inhabiting an area New Labour has shown itself to be too clever at manipulating. I So let's have a closer look at not-very-social capital. Tim Worstall made an apparently effective point about my piece on gambling, arguing that the lower net returns to promoters of gambling (his fruit-machine "constant" 10 %') should count as their contribution to gross domestic product. But in aggregating GDP out of itemised household expenditure, gambling will still figure as the gross sum spent.

This might be matched by winnings coming back as income, but it is not what gambling's about. Cash staked could also clear off in quite unequal terms to lottery winners and in the form of bonuses for directors of gaming firms, and so on.

This gross stake will still involve a transfer of household resources from potential "social capital" outlays - house insulation, say, or further education, pension provision, investing in small and medium-sized enterprises etc. - to something that is random, dependent on emotion and compulsion and, as some of your other bloggers have commented, associated with the wilder shores of finance and the windy side of the law.

The problem is that if you tot up gambling, booze, "going out", the notional value of drugs and so on and look at how all of these have increased in the last couple of decades, then my estimate of perhaps half our total growth figure is probably borne out, and "social capital" has taken a fair battering.

We are dominated by big firms and big entertainment, to which our civil society is of secondary importance. But this is not always visible from the centre.

Here are two expats arguing, I trust politely, over a pretty basic definition of the wellbeing of our society. On May 10 the former Spiegel man in London, Matthias Matussek, brother of the former German ambassador Thomas Matussek, did an accomplished demolition job on Blair and New Labour. Not even I have been so scathing about anyone or anything at such length, and this probably overdid the venom, but it held to the same civil but incisive debating style that parliamentarians such as Robin Cook deployed brilliantly.

Richard Cobden's routing of Robert Peel's famous surrender to Richard Cobden should be the blogger's goal: "Sir, you answer him, for I cannot."

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