LONDON – The last couple of weeks have been eventful ones in British politics. Last month, Prime Minister Tony Blair was faced with what was being touted as the “toughest week yet” of his leadership.
On paper, it looked to be the case. The prime minister was due to be confronted with a Jan. 27 parliamentary vote on the highly controversial and unpopular proposal to increase university fees, which the Labor Party had pledged not to introduce in its 2001 election manifesto.
The plan would see all students confronted for the first time by fees for their courses, initially costing up to £3,000 (about $5,600). This was to come on top of existing yearly tuition fees and existing levels of borrowing for living expenses, which are seeing students leaving universities with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt.
Critics attacked this as a further step in the marketization of higher education that would shut Britain’s poor out of university education, arguing that income tax would be a far fairer way to pay for any shortfall in funding.
The following day, Jan. 28, was to see the report by Lord Hutton into the death of Dr. David Kelly. The antiwar and progressive movement had already assailed this inquiry as a smokescreen to avoid the key question of why Britain joined the U.S. in an illegal invasion of Iraq, pointing out that Lord Hutton’s terms of reference were far too narrow.
The fee vote was clearly scheduled the day before Hutton in order to give Labor Party members of Parliament an easy excuse to vote “Yes,” claiming that defeat would potentially hand the opposition Conservative Party a double “victory.” So much for principled politics. The vote was closer than had been expected, though, with the government getting its way with only a five-vote majority.
The Hutton report, which the government had seen days before its release, was even more one-sided than had been predicted. The judge almost entirely blamed the public-service broadcaster BBC for Dr. Kelly’s alleged suicide.
Kelly’s death came after he had been identified by the government as the source of a leak to a BBC reporter that called into question Blair’s claim to Parliament that Iraq could deploy weapons within “45 minutes.” The BBC report alleged that the truth had been “sexed up” to help encourage MPs to vote for war.
The trouble for Blair and Co. is that the Hutton report was so one-sided that many people saw it for what it was – a whitewash.
The sickening grin that had been painted on Blair’s face after Hutton became a distant memory when George W set up an inquiry into the intelligence used to justify the war. This triggered an embarrassing U-turn by the British government as it followed the U.S. lead and announced its own inquiry into pre-war intelligence.
The whole Hutton affair has deeply damaged trust in the prime minister and led to further calls for a real probe into why Britain went to war, something the government is not willing to do.
The government’s “Butler inquiry,” which will focus on intelligence (if Britain’s spies are willing to go quietly), will clear the British government and Blair of any wrongdoing.
Sadly, there is little that the millions that have turned out on Britain’s streets against the war in Iraq over the past year and a half can do within the current electoral system to voice their opposition to government policies both at home and abroad.
Although Blair has probably been mortally wounded, his most likely Labor replacement, Chancellor Gordon Brown, has been an equal driving force behind many of the government’s right-wing policies. The even more right-wing Conservatives are a worse prospect for ordinary Britons.
With elections likely within two years, there is plenty more time for the government to force through its neoliberal agenda of private-sector involvement in almost every area of the state – with the BBC itself a potential target.
These policies will bring it into conflict with Britain’s trade unions, but Labor has already made clear that it is not afraid to impose its will in the face of any opposition. A largely hand-picked set of MPs ensures support in Parliament whatever the mood outside.
It is likely that there will be low voter turnout in local and European elections this June and any general election beyond that. Parliament, too, will be even more detached from opinion on the ground.
The challenges for progressive forces in Britain are therefore massive and linked to the neoliberal agenda faced by the left worldwide. But there is still hope for the future, with potential for the politicization of thousands of alienated people across Britain – something which the huge antiwar movement suggests is possible.
Richard Bagley is a journalist for the British-based daily newspaper, Morning Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.