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Sinking or swimming with the irresistible tide of globalisation
Philip Stephens

          ONE of the easier ways of measuring Tony Blair's political success is to take a look at Britain's Conservatives. Recently, as Mr Blair mounted a podium to address his ninth Labour conference as prime minister, the Tories were launching the contest to choose yet another leader. That will make five since Mr Blair first took Labour's reins in 1994.
Back then, the Conservatives were still seen, much as, say, the LDP in Japan, as Britain's natural party of government. Victory in the 1992 general election, after all, had assured them of 18 continuous years in office. Now, the party that dominated the nation's politics during the 20th century finds itself reduced to arguing not just about who should lead it but how he (it will not be a she) should be chosen.
There is more to this than Mr Blair's victories in three general elections since 1997. The Tories have lost their political compass. They have been left behind by modernity, torn between clinging to past verities and coming to terms with the prime minister's reinvention of his party as New Labour. Only a supreme optimist would predict that the new leader -- whether it be the right-leaning David Davis, the centrist Kenneth Clarke or one of several outsiders in the race -- will resolve the internal conflicts.
Today's politics divides between those willing to ride the wave of globalisation and those running in fear of it. The irony is that, like many parties of the centre-right across Europe, the Conservatives have found themselves in the second camp.
I say irony, because Margaret Thatcher's ruthless determination during the 1980s to liberalise Britain's economy explains much of its relative success in coming to terms with global competition. Politicians elsewhere in Europe are often heard lamenting that their electorates had experienced no such brutal encounter with economic realities.
Yet the party Mrs Thatcher left behind has refused to face up to the implications of economic liberalism writ large. Instead it has discovered that globalisation tramples over all its familiar points of political reference: the sovereignty and institutions of the nation state, social hierarchies and traditions, cultural and religious cohesion and national economic independence to name but a few.
Conservatives have always had to live with a tension between a commitment to freedom of the individual and an instinctive respect for social tradition, not to say deference. Never as acutely, though, as in an era in which citizens of London may have more in common with those of New York or Shanghai than with their neighbours in England's sleepy home counties.
Mr Blair has grasped the magnitude of the shift. His central theme at his party's Brighton conference was whether New Labour would ultimately fare any better than the Conservatives in this unnerving new world.
The parochial politics and, inevitably, most of the headlines from Brighton focused on a clear signal that he intends to remain in 10 Downing Street at least for the next two or three years. He is pledged to hand over the keys before the next general election, which will most likely be held in 2009. Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer and an ever more impatient heir apparent, wants to hustle him out within a year. He will have to wait.
If his premiership thus far has been defined by his role on the international stage and not least by the bloody conflict in Iraq, the prime minister worries as much about his domestic legacy. He wants to be remembered as the leader who equipped Britain for globalisation.
That is not to say that Mr Blair is in apologetic mood over Iraq, or anything else. One of the more unpleasant traits among Labour's rank and file is anti-Americanism. On the left of the party, legitimate opposition to the Iraq war and, for that matter, to a Republican administration in Washington have merged into a visceral loathing of the US. At its worst and most chillingly perverse, this had some in Brighton quietly cheering the murderous insurgency in Iraq.
The prime minister could have skirted such ground. That is not his style. He had no regrets about the war and no intention of cutting and running from Iraq. As for his alliance with George W. Bush: "I have never doubted after September 11, 2001 that our place was alongside America and I don't doubt it now."
The guts of his speech, though, lay in a section about globalisation; in the argument that his government and party could embrace change or be overwhelmed by it. There was no purpose in pretending that Britain could avoid the harsh truths of global competition: "The dam holding back the global economy burst years ago." Britain, in Mr Blair's terms, could compete or be swept away.
Nor was there any mystery about what worked: "An open, liberal economy prepared constantly to change to remain competitive". Those calling for the government to debate the pros and cons of globalisation might just as well call for a discussion about whether autumn should follow summer.
The challenge this presented to parties of the centre-left was to modernise and adapt their welfare systems and education and health services to reinforce the nation's economic competitiveness as well its social cohesion. Education, long New Labour's mantra, would unlock the apparent contradiction.
The glib interpretation of Mr Blair has long been that he has simply stolen the best of his opponent's clothes. The Conservatives are disorientated because the prime minister has elbowed them off their own territory.
It is an explanation as beloved of the left of his own party as of some of Mr Blair's opponents on the right. Yet it does not bear the most cursory scrutiny. Public spending in Britain has been rising faster than anywhere else in the west. His government has invested more in health and education in recent years than any before it and done more to alleviate poverty.
Doubtless some of the money has been wasted and the government's performance rarely scales the dizzy heights of Mr Blair's rhetoric. But politics has changed for everyone. Parties of the centre-right can regain their balance only if they acknowledge that the old emblems of nation and tradition must be recast for a world of falling frontiers. Those on the centre-left must accept that the quest for a fairer society lies in the spread of knowledge, skills and talent rather than in preserving yesterday's welfare state. Mr Blair is a politician who at least understands that.
FT Syndication Service


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