The future's Brown, the future's bleak
There's seldom anything funnier than
the self-obsession that precludes self-knowledge. As Labour meets for
its 10th conference since winning the 1997 election, it's fair to say
that the party has attained that state and all the fuss of the coming
days would indeed be a comical if its record on foreign policy and liberties
had not been so damaging to the interests of the British people.
That is probably true, but it doesn't make the party any more lovable. A glance over to Gordon Brown, sitting there seething with some of the worst vibes in the business, makes one feel several degrees warmer towards the Prime Minister, even while acknowledging that he went along with Guantanamo and rendition and told an American audience this summer 'that civil liberties arguments are not so much wrong as made for another age'.
Blair is all that and more. But he has been open about himself. He hasn't bothered to hide his migration from centrist reformer to neocon missionary. He says what he intends to do and attempts to do it, frequently describing his thinking on the hoof. On the major decisions, Brown has gone along with him and so has the party. Brown arranged the money for the war in Iraq and, 10 months later, the party duly voted for invasion. This was New Labour's war just as much as it was Tony Blair's. The attack on civil liberties is Labour's as much as it is Blair's.
In finding itself a new leader, the party is fixing its smile for the next election. It will probably be Gordon's, but Alan is standing politely at the back of the hall with his hand up and Jack might allow himself to be pushed forward to do a turn, if Gordon hasn't already promised the slippery little fella the Foreign Office. Charles? Dr John? Who knows? Who cares?
New skin, same reptile. Labour's neglect of the people's opinion still persists, its addiction to power is intact and nothing seems to dent the sense of due entitlement which you find in so many MPs and which everyone knows faded along with the merchandise from the Millennium Dome celebrations.
We should think twice before allowing New Labour to rehabilitate itself simply because Tony Blair has been shoved off to join Bill Clinton in a poverty/environmental/Aids kind of thingy. New Labour is New Labour; its deep flaws will remain unchanged because moral leadership from the senior members of the party is absent. Some backbenchers have spoken out against Iraq, Lebanon, torture and the erosion of civil liberties, but they were sat upon, sidelined and made to feel at the end of their shelf life.
What the party must do to redeem itself is something akin to the glimmer of opposition mounted in Congress against President Bush over the last 10 days. First came the Senate Committee on Intelligence where Republicans sided with Democrats to force the committee to release the documentary proof that the CIA categorically told the administration before the war that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
Second came the stand by three Republican senators - John McCain, John Warner and Lindsay Graham - on proposed new legislation governing the treatment of terrorism suspects. Their achievement in their confrontation with the administration is arguable, but at the very least they have aired the fact that under the proposals, America will be the first signatory of the Geneva Conventions to sanction the inhuman treatment of prisoners by law.
We are now at last starting to hear a little from senior Labour figures about Guantanamo and the arbitrary powers claimed by the executive in the fight against terrorism. The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, has spoken out against Bush's proposal to ignore Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and has, together with the Director of Public Prosecutions, supported the use of phone tap evidence in court.
The latter is important, as Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty has pointed out, because it means that the authorities may gain a conviction on the basis of intercept evidence whereas they might not have tried to bring a case to court before. This is infinitely preferable to bringing back internment of 90 days.
I find myself believing that Lord Goldsmith is well-intentioned on these issues, perhaps because I suspect he regretted the advice he gave on the legality of the war. But I cannot say the same of another unelected member of the cabinet, Lord Falconer, who has also recently attacked the US over Guantanamo.
If, as Britain's senior lawyer - the nexus between government and the judiciary - Falconer had really felt strongly about the issue of torture and extra-judicial punishment, he should have argued with the Prime Minister in private and then gone public when he had failed to get satisfaction. That is what is known as political courage.
But Lord Falconer is a trimmer, a finesser of principles. Ten days ago, he was in Sydney to give the Magna Carta lecture, a ripe irony for a New Labour Lord Chancellor. On the surface, the lecture seemed reasonable enough until you realise that he sets up an Aunt Sally by suggesting the courts have wanted to decide how to fight terrorism. This is simply not true. At one stage, he asked: 'Where is the legitimacy for courts to challenge and indeed strike down the acts of the executive... where it is plain those acts would have the majority support amongst the electorate?'
I'll tell you where the legitimacy lies: sometimes, judges are the only ones to match the perceived needs of the present against the standards of the past and the moral force of a constitution, and long may they do so. It is astonishing that a lawyer, let alone a Lord Chancellor, does not appreciate the role of judges to defend rights and the constitution, even in a country where Parliament is sovereign.
My views on Lord Falconer are barely publishable. Suffice to say that this is a man who, while spouting in Australia about values and basic rights such as privacy, was preparing legislation in Britain to water down the privacy laws so that the electoral roll may be used to police the ID card database and levy fines of £2,500 from people who fail to register.
Like the rest of New Labour's high command, Falconer is simply interested in the exercise of power. There seems no reason why Tony's flexible friend should not survive into a Brown administration, for they are both New Labour to the core and share an instinct to reduce the individual in relation to the state. Gordon Brown is in favour of ID cards and has already suggested that he would be willing to extend the 28-day period of interrogation for terrorist suspects.
These do not bode well. The more I contemplate Brown's sullen obsession with power and control, the remoteness of his inner circle, the obscurity of their intentions, the more I fear that it is with him that we will truly come to know the dark heart of New Labour.
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