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Any community activist will tell you that the sure sign that “community involvement” is a con is when the powers that be announce: “We have to take this decision. We know something you can’t know.”
When an elected government justifies itself by reference to some power or authority beyond the people, the chain of democratic decision-making has been broken. However strong the bonds between the US and British people, this government’s special relationship with the gang of election snatchers now occupying the world’s most powerful office is not an acceptable justification for being denied the truth. The promises of people power now seem more hollow than ever.
From the first days of Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party (following John Smith’s death in 1994), there has been a recurring pattern to New Labour spin. It presented its “project” as part of a radical, pro-grassroots, pro-community, pro-civil society, even pro-feminist tradition on the British left.
In his first years as leader Blair talked of ‘the new politics”, drawing on the language of the new left. Then there was the talk of a third way, an alternative to the narrative of the paternalist state and the unregulated market, which again echoed (without quite following through) the themes of the libertarian left.
In policy proposals, New Labour’s language centred increasingly on community – often as a substitute for the state. This line has been seductive and genuinely believed by some. After all, people are rightly searching for democratic alternatives to overly statist models of socialism. No doubt Blair half believed the New Labour spin himself.
But the rhetoric of “people power” does not describe the truth for two reasons that are now beginning to converge. The first (as seen with foundation hospitals, the part privatisation of schools and the attempt to sell off council housing) is that community representatives on the various boards set up to manage what are meant to be public services find their power frustratingly circumscribed not by elected politicians who they can challenge come election time, but by businessmen, bankers and financial markets. Thus, community involvement becomes not the first step of a process of democratic participation that can feed through to influence the allocation of public resources at all levels, but the enforced management of a public service as if it was a commercial business.
Second, with the decision to go to war millions of people became passionately involved in what seemed like a real debate: was Saddam such a danger to justify military intervention? These people were only to discover later that their government had already taken the decision to support a pre-planned US invasion. Again the process of democracy linking people’s local engagement with each other, and then with their MP or local council, was broken by the government’s loyalty to another power – the US.
But one reason why Tony Blair should be panicking is that people take promises of increased power seriously. Offered it, they tend to claim it as a right and use it, rather than accept it with gratitude and deference. MPs know that their voters want to watch the prime minister’s slow, secret and cumbersome trial.
Another reason Blair should be scared is that an alliance with the US president could backfire. The president is subject to a scrutiny that the British government would find unacceptable. In Red Pepper this month (Could WMD become Bush\’s Watergate?), the highly respected US journalist Bob Dreyfuss details each step of the investigations by which committees of the US Congress could expose the workings of the Office of Special Plans – the inner cabal that drove America to war.
The problem for Blair is that he and his government went along with the plans that came out of this sinister office.