The Greasy Pole column from the February 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
If there was a sense of relief when the twenty-first century finally dawned it must have been partly because we would no longer have to endure those comments about society which unfailingly began with the words: “With the approach of the Millennium”. It seemed that any plans to do anything about the crisis in the NHS, or about making rail travel safer, or reducing pollution, were given an added urgency because we were approaching a new century. By the year 2000 we had to get it right.
This was irritating enough, especially as those making the comments were usually trying to impress us with the historical sweep of their intellects. It might have been hoped, that the first of January would have brought some relief, the nonsense would have stopped and we would be back in what is called normality, when social problems and deficiencies are described in more commonplace terms, without any added significance by the turning of another page in the calendar. But it was not to be. The celebratory fireworks had hardly died away when we were being assailed with comments which began with such words as “Now that we have entered the new Millennium . . .”
Perhaps enough people were deceived by this into thinking that the arbitrary process of passing from one year to another—or in this case one century to another—would really affect how the world is organised so that the new millennium would bring evidence that people were becoming safer, healthier, more optimistic about their future. If so, they were critically deluded. They would have forgotten that we are treated to the same kind of nonsense every December, when the first seconds of a new year are a time to assume that the next twelve months will be better than the last when reality encourages the conclusion that if anything they will be worse.
We have been here before. As the year 1969 drew to a close the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson made several references to the approach of the 1970s, rather in the same style as all those hopes and plans for the 21st century. The Seventies, Wilson assured us, would be better than the previous decade. He was, in fact, in difficulties because by then his government, which had been elected on the promise to oversee the blossoming of a great new age in which technological advance and planning would solve problems like poverty, disease and poor education, had been largely discredited. Such was the disillusion among his supporters that at one stage it was reasonable to speculate on whether the Labour Party was about to disintegrate. Wilson was desperate; by encouraging us to look forward to a new decade of the Seventies he hoped to deter us from inconvenient memories of the Sixties.
Well of course it did not work out as he had hoped. The Labour government staggered from one crisis to the next. Soon after the dawn of the new decade they were ousted from power, then a few years later returned in the wake of Heath’s calamitous three-day week. By then the much vaunted technological revolution had faded into the disreputable history of politicians’ promises. It was replaced by Labour’s assurance that its special relationship with the unions could smooth the way for their policy of forcing down our living standards which, by some mysterious process, would make us all better off. A few of the party’s more deranged supporters believed this but a lot of them did not—particularly those trade unionists who got fed up with the constant struggle to prevent their standards declining and defended themselves with the strikes which were later damned as the Winter of Discontent. This was followed by glorious spring for the Tories, as Thatcher romped into power, consigning the Labour Party and all its blather about a new decade into the wilderness for almost twenty years.
And what about now, with a New Labour government and its promises of a new society with new values, new priorities, new achievements . . .? Well there is nothing new about the NHS being in crisis, with nurses and doctors worked into the ground and sick people having to wait for months just to be examined so that they can be allowed onto another waiting list. There is nothing new about this deplorable experience existing at the same time as the rapid and effective treatment available to anyone who has the kind of money needed to pay for a team of the best doctors and a stay in the most exclusive hospitals. There is nothing new in the situation recently summarised by Alistair Darling, whose job as Social Services Secretary is supposed to make him responsible for alleviating poverty: “. . . a child can still be born poor, live poor, die poor”. He did not also say that a child in another class will be born rich, live rich, die rich.
What about other ministers? How are they grappling with the problems of the new millennium? Well Home Secretary Jack Straw plans to prove how tough he is on crime by threatening the legal rights of people charged with minor thefts while he protects the welfare of General Pinochet, who is not one of those youths washing your windscreen at traffic lights without you asking for it but a man who, as dictator of Chile, oversaw the murder of thousands of people there. Straw has bent the rules on admissible immigrants to allow Mike Tyson into this country although he should be disqualified by reason of his prison sentences for rape and assault. The reason for Straw’s generosity was clear: Tyson was due to fight here and if anything was allowed to stop that happening a lot of money would be lost, particularly by the fight promoters and the owners of the TV rights, who are such close buddies of Tony Blair.
And as Straw was engaged in grabbing the headlines for his battles for his version of a better life for us all in the 21st century he was in competition with Sheffield’s Labour MPs, among them Education Secretary David Blunkett. Since his days as leader of Sheffield City Council Blunkett has undergone something of a change. He is no longer the challenging left-winger but a man who wants to hound out teachers who display any human frailty in overcoming the difficulties of teaching kids whose extreme impoverishment has extended into their conduct in the classroom. Blunkett has begun the new century by showing that his zeal for sacking people will not stop at schools. With the other MPs, he has demanded the head of the manager of Sheffield Wednesday because the team are stuck at the bottom of the Premiership. Blunkett is pitiless to the idea that, after all, some team has to come last and it does not seem to have occurred to him, that campaigning against a football manager is hardly revolutionary activity for an ex-firebrand of the left.
Nothing new about poverty then, nor about avoidable sickness. Nothing new about class-related degrees of access to wealth. Nothing new about capitalism and how it degrades and represses the very people who are useful and productive while it nurtures its parasites. Nothing new about Labour ministers trying to hide their impotence in smoke screens of deceit.