Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Blair's blurred vison on US

The East is Redder

Last week, Tony Blair landed in Washington, possibly to discuss with Bush how a quick war on Iran might take people's minds off the debacle in Iraq. He should have stayed longer. There is nothing like living in America to heighten appreciation of Europe.

A year or so after Labour won office, a New Labour Minister met the New York Labour Party branch and asked what they saw as their role. The comrades told her that it was their fraternal duty to confiscate the rose-coloured glasses off visiting New Labour cabinet members as they landed at JFK, and not to return them until departure.
Clearly they failed with the Prime Minister, who consistently looks across the Atlantic for points of unsocialist emulation.

Reinforcing the point, recently there was a study that showed that British people were healthier - about ten years worth - than their American counterparts. It refrained from suggesting reasons. Diet and obesity were mentioned, but that is far from sufficient rationale for the better health of a nation whose gastronomic repertoire includes the chip butty and the fried Mars Bar. Indeed, if anything, the report understated the case, since for reasons of comparability it excluded minorities, who in the US are disproportionately poor, uninsured, and unhealthy,

In the end, two of the reasons suggested in the perplexed debaters in the US carried most conviction. One was that for more than half a century Britain has had a national health system, and let us emphasize system, since private medicine in the US does not provide the systematic and routine preemptive care of the British ante and post natal clinics and children's health model.

The other suggestion was that the disparity was a result of stress: even Americans with health insurance never know whether they will keep their jobs, and thus their insurance, or even their houses.

While on a public level most Americans treat poverty as a something that happens to others, usually because of their moral failings and fecklessness, on an instinctive level, they have, repeated election results notwithstanding, enough of a connection to the real world to know that poverty could indeed happen to them - and that there is only the flimsiest of safety nets between them and the gutter if catastrophe strikes.

Even the most progressive American employers cut off pay after a few weeks of sickness and most American workers have no recourse against unfair dismissal, unless they can prove racial or gender discrimination. That is narrowly defined. .One of the few progressive measures that Bill Clinton authored was unpaid maternity leave. Before then women could be sacked for having the temerity to take time off to give birth,

But even after this Clintonian great leap forward, the US remains the only industrial country in the world that has no provision for paid maternity leave.

In short, most Americans are a pay-cheque or two from catastrophe: lose a job, you lose health insurance. If you do not pay medical bills, your credit rating goes down the river and with it your claim to all the credit that the philanthropic Chinese are extending to the nation as a whole.

Even litigation can kill. As one lawyer I asked at the time of the O J Simpson case summarized - if you are rich and guilty, you want to be tried in America: if you are poor and innocent, in Europe.

The comparison with Britain is not an isolated one. Two years ago, a similar study showed that the average Hollander, who at the end of the war was much shorter than the average American, is now taller by several inches. The most convincing explanation was the success of the postwar Dutch welfare state.

Similarly glowing statistics, whether on health, rising living standards and even productivity per hour, come from most North West European states compared with the United States, it does really raise the question of why so many in the Blair government look to the USA for a model.

Perhaps it really is time for the remnants of the democratic socialists in the Labour Party to remember that Orwell predicted that democratic socialism would come into its own in Western Europe.

It is time for the soft left to stiffen up and decide that compared with the rest of the world, Europe is a worthy model. There are doubtless some recidivists out there in the party who are still fighting the Wilson-era wars against the European Union, but they should have learnt their lesson by now. Although the EU is a far from perfect institution, it is considerably more attractive than all the currently feasible alternatives. It is a safe bet that this government would have regressed even more towards an American model if we were not part of it.

The soft left should also be putting its democratic instincts to work. In the face of attempts to rip up recently won Human Rights protections, sending British citizens to vigilante justice in Texas, introducing identity cards and the other Big Brother proposals, surely it is time to give a cheer or two for democracy, not to mention fighting for the introduction of European style labour protection for British workers: freedom from unfair dismissal, union rights, pension rights and all the other measures on which New Labour has seen itself as the champion of the Confederation of British Industries against its own party and electoral base.

It is surely better to work with partners who see the benefits of social democracy (even Christian Democrats in Europe are far to the left of any American party) than to throw in our lot with an increasingly authoritarian, militaristic and theocratic state that only believes in Darwin when it comes to social relations.

No wonder the PM feels at home in Washington. A Prime Minister who admires Margaret Thatcher, took us into Iraq, wants faith-based schools funded by millionaire wannabe peers, wants to throw out the human rights act and introduce a new civil and military nuclear program without consultations, is indeed likely to be happy with a special, supine, transatlantic relationship. But it is certainly not, in its present form, an alliance that democratic socialists should cherish in preference to Europe.
A version of this appeared in Tribune, London, 26 May.

1 comment:

BrianClarkeNUJ said...

Once as a young Labour activist, I had a polite visit from the secret services in London, very polite but I had no doubt the message and purpose of the visit. I was left in no doubt about their surveillance capabilities.I have often wondered how many other activists had the same visits and indeed who pulls the strings in New Labour. The John Kelly affair,pre Iraq, confirms my worst fears. The imagination boggles. A good reporter might enlighten me.