Dr Eamonn Butler is director of the Adam Smith Institute and author of The Rotten State of Britain, which is published on Tuesday by Gibson Square Books. The book offers a damning account of what the successive Labour Governments have done to Britain over the last twelve years and here he looks in particular at the perils of the state having accrued increasingly draconian powers.
How did we get into such a state? We’re spied on by the world’s biggest array of CCTV cameras. We’re bullied by the world’s most expensive police force, who are quite willing to arrest us for dropping an apple core. We seize the assets of our best friend in Europe – Iceland – under anti-terrorism law. Nannying officials say we can’t feed our dogs grapes or give our kids a sip of wine. The average worker has to save 60 years to get the same pension that an MP clocks up in just 13. The government’s total liabilities are three times the national income. The IMF says we’re the country least well placed to survive the downturn, not the best, as Gordon Brown insists.
Strikes, stagflation, even snow – it’s like the 1970s all over again. It took Mrs Thatcher to pull us out of that mire. Unfortunately, Gordon Brown seems to have bought us a return ticket.
We can’t blame the international economy, or terrorism, for the state we’re in. As I explain in my new book, The Rotten State of Britain, it’s rooted deep in the psychology of New Labour.
Traditionally, governments accepted that they were only temporary custodians of power. And that their power was circumscribed – by Parliament, the civil service, the courts, local governments, and even the media. They tried to work within those constraints. Mrs Thatcher got extremely annoyed when these institutions stood in her way. Not always, but for the most part, even the Iron Lady accepted their constitutional right to do so.
New Labour blew this consensus apart. Labour had suffered terribly
through its long war between those who wanted to cherish its socialist
ideology and those who wanted to get it elected. It had seen what
happened to John Major when he too faced a fractious party, airing its
disputes in public. New Labour’s new principle, and what got it
elected, was control. It would be crisp, businesslike, and united. It
would achieve that by having strict central control over policy and
action. Dissent would not be tolerated.
It won the campaign. And New Labour thought that the same principles
would win government as well. All policy was cleared through Downing
Street. The civil service press officers, who prided themselves on
being independent, were replaced by ones who would stay on message. MPs
and ministers who muttered any doubts were humiliated, briefed against,
and demoted. The press was taught to follow the line by being rewarded
with inside information and interviews for helpful pieces, and being
frozen out for harmful ones.
You have to hand it to Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Tony
Blair and the others. The machine they created was brilliantly
effective. Nothing stood in their way.
But leaders need someone to stand in their way, to challenge them,
to restrain their excesses. Otherwise, they soon use their power to
serve their own whims and interests, rather than the public good.
Today, power is concentrated in Downing Street – with Gordon Brown and
eighty-odd unelected, unaccountable Party appointees. Parliament is
powerless, because so many MPs owe their ministerial careers and
pensions to Gordon Brown’s patronage. Debates are routinely
guillotined: but the government has the votes, so why talk? The civil
service is told what to do by Party officials: civil servants know that
their careers too depend on following the line. Even the judges are
slapped down by ministers if they deliver unwelcome verdicts –
something that politicians would once never dare to do. The entire
apparatus of the state has been subverted. It no longer protects us
from our rulers. Rather, it simply deepens their power over us.
New Labour really believes that it knows what is good for us. But
when such belief comes with unlimited power, it is hugely dangerous.
The government has voted itself sweeping powers, in the genuine belief
that it will use them wisely. But it has led to people being arrested
for heckling the Foreign Secretary, staging a one-man protest in
Whitehall, and indeed dropping an apple core. Soon the police will have
powers to arrest anyone taking a picture of them.
I had great difficulty getting the major publishers to take my book,
because nobody seemed to realise how far we had slid into a police
state. But now, with former MI5 chief Stella Rimington and David
Blunkett both saying exactly that, I feel vindicated. Just stand back,
and you will see how far it is gone.
Will a Conservative administration rein back its own powers and set
us free once again? I can’t say I’m confident. Power is intoxicating.
Politicians almost never give it up. But it will take a radical shift
of power, from the politicians at the centre to the people in the
localities, to pull us out of this rotten state.