Editorial from the October 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard
Tony Blair has declared that “the era of big centralised government is over”. Given this, the question that now needs to be asked is: why does a power-crazy government with a huge majority that was prepared to do almost anything to get elected want to devolve power, update the constitution and “democratise” Britain?
The only logical answer is that Tony Blair is looking to the long-term. Because of the intense pressures on government expenditure in Britain (as elsewhere) he knows that real social and economic reform is a non-starter—hence the government’s interest in fripperies like devolution and constitutional reforms. Blair is clearly aiming to preside over a new left-of-centre “consensus” politics that will spell the end of the modern Conservative Party The drive for “democratic renewal” is the linchpin of this strategy, naturally made all the more attractive because it will cost little if anything to implement. It provides a focal point for centre-left campaigns, will isolate the Conservatives (and keep them out of power after PR has been introduced) and it deflects attention away from economic paralysis, social failure and anything else that demonstrates the government’s real impotence.
Through promoting devolution in recent weeks the Prime Minister has cleverly provided a basis for cutting social transfers from the owning class to the poor workers of Scotland and Wales, and to some of the subsidised capitalists there too. The entire debate has emphasised the disproportionate amount of subsidy per capita in Scotland and Wales compared to other poor regions of Britain such as the north-east.
Devolution, particularly in Scotland where the Parliament is to have tax-varying powers, will sooner or later mean a cut in block grants from the Treasury. Furthermore, Blair’s government will be largely absolved of any responsibility over troublesome Scottish social problems and no will no longer have to sink as much money as before into a bottomless pit. (That this was going to happen was spotted months ago by the Conservatives, a party that knows a thing or two about double-dealing and political chicanery.)
This, not by coincidence, is precisely the sort of thinking which led the government to make the Bank of England independent during the summer. It is illustrative of the government’s strategy to raise political smoke-screens and shift responsibility from those aspects of life it thinks it probably can’t affect for the better in any meaningful way (e.g. the economy, social problems in Britain’s regions). By doing this it hopes to coat itself in political Teflon. Whatever goes wrong will not be the government’s fault, but something or somebody else’s. And the small and superficial bits that go right can keep the “forces for democratic renewal” in power for a very long time indeed. That is, of course, unless the working class wake up to the social chaos and political trickery paraded before their eyes daily and organise democratically to do something fundamental about it.