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Blair's American Daze

A truly curious letter appeared in the New York Times two years ago headed, ‘It’s time to repay America’, by one Tony Blair. In it, he thanked Bill Clinton and the whole of the US for introducing him to the pleasures of governing the American Way. That, he wrote, meant ‘results, not theology… free from preconceptions and bureaucratic wrangling… Government should not hinder the logic of the market!’
As an American, I should have been flattered, but this outburst of affection was a wee bit embarrassing, like getting a Valentine dipped in perfume from an office mate.
And I suspected that, as the poets say, beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate. So what so bugs Tony that he would write this billet-doux to 270 million foreigners? The PM’s acrid reaction to the petrol revolt gives a glimpse of his dark secret: in his heart, Tony Blair hates Britain.
This Prime Minister despises his storybook countryside and its grumbling farmers with their two little pigs and their tiny fields edged with dry stone. He cringes at the little bell ringing over the door of the village post office – so quaint and so maddeningly inefficient. He cannot fathom a nation that weeps over How Green was my Valley and moans when he shuts those filthy coal pits.
He is frustrated to tears by fossilised trade unions which chain workers to dead industries, rather than building new ones, and by the rabid blue-hairs who demand he keep the Queen’s nose on the coinage. Blair dreams of birthing the Entrepreneurial State. Instead, he finds himself caretaker of a museum of nineteenth-century glories made somnolent by easy welfare and low ambitions.
Blair gazes across the water with almost erotic envy at Bill Clinton, chairman of the board of America Inc. This week, the once-arrogant now-jittery New Labour faithful creep towards their Brighton party conference to seek reassurance from above. It is important to understand how Blair’s pathological imitation of Clinton is, in fact, pathetically off the mark. In misunderstanding the source of Clinton’s – and now Gore’s – political magic, Blair jeopardises his party’s majority, and his nation’s industry.
Blair looks for the secrets to Clinton’s economic and political success in all the wrong places. This struck me forcefully last week when I found myself in possession of a World Bank document so confidential even the bank’s board has yet to see it: the latest Country Policy and Institutional Assessment, its internal ‘school report’ for less developed countries. The Bank rates each nation from one to six for their adherence to the neo-liberal ideals of the Bank, the International Monetary Fund and allied agencies.
Bolivia, which deployed tanks and tear gas to quell a public revolt over water price hikes, gets an admirable two and a pat on the head. But Haiti, which is resisting demands to sell off its national infrastructure, gets a dunce’s six, and is sent to bed without supper or access to capital markets.
Highest marks go to nations committed to the five horsemen of the Washington Consensus: privatisation of public services, budget austerity, trade liberalisation, deregulation of industry, and labour market ‘flexibility’.
One gets the impression that Blair wants to be teachers’ pet, to score straight ones in these tests, and bring back from Washington the Promethean fire that will transform Britain’s socio-economic soul and drag it, kicking and screaming, into the third millennium.
US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers told a London audience last December: ‘With a flexible labour force, you too can replicate America’s prosperity!’ The Prime Minister bit his lip with jealousy. By ‘flexibility’, Summers means what the World Bank calls ‘non-wage employment costs’ – from working week limitations to pension guarantees – which hinder businesses’ ability to use employees as they would any other commodity.
Blair doesn’t understand that Summers’ ‘flexible labour force’ prescription is a con. In 1993, I ran into David Lipton, then Summers’ deputy, at a party celebrating Clinton’s signing of a new maternity leave law. Lipton had just returned from Eastern Europe, where he had told Poland’s President to end maternity leave benefits.
Did he note any hypocrisy? He was puzzled. Flexible (read ‘unprotected’) employment is for them – for the Polands and Bolivias – to serve our interests. It could not possibly apply to the US. If Blair were savvy, he’d note that while Clinton’s minions sell modernisation snake oil through World Bank assessments and Third Way seminars, the President sells American voters protection from the risks of the new economy.
Clinton – and his heir apparent, Al Gore – are proud to stand as bulwarks against the privatisation of the US social security system. They campaign on commitments to spend trillions on investment in public services, rather than cutting taxes, and they crow over new controls on employment and new restrictions on ‘big tobacco, big drug companies and big polluters’, to use Gore’s phrase.
By contrast Blair, in his snarling response to the petrol tax protesters, showed his commitment to ‘the logic of the marketplace’. How unClintonesque.
Blair should have noted how, during the November uprising in Seattle, even when ruckus-makers vandalised the President’s favourite eatery, McDonald’s, Clinton resisted the urge to go into Blairish scold mode. He praised the honourable intentions of the protesters, felt their pain and, to the horror of the UK contingent, effectively ended the World Trade Organisation meeting.
Clinton is not above abusing Blair’s naive desire to boost US corporate interests. For example, internal US Department of Commerce memos state that in 1997, Clinton’s commerce secretary, William Daley, leaned on Margaret Beckett, Blair’s first Trade and Industry Secretary, to grant US energy companies waivers to Labour’s moratorium on building new gas-fired power plants. Daley’s notes say Blair overruled Beckett and ‘watered down the moratorium’ to help US investors.
This effectively sealed the fate of Britain’s coal mines (and, I note, left the nation with no alternative energy source to counterbalance the current oil price rise). Given such consequences, why did he hop like a bunny to Clinton’s bidding?
For the answer, we must step back for a wider view. The US power companies that cashed in on Blair’s policy exemption were merely the first of a battalion of adventuring American operators that wiped their feet on the golden doormat at Number 10.
Wal-Mart swallowed Asda after its executives held an extraordinary closed meeting with the PM himself. Special privileges were extended to Wackenhut, the private prisons corporation, to Columbia private hospitals, to Monsanto, and to GTech, the bribe-tainted lottery operator. And today, the Government is hoping to lure in Edison, the schools privatisation company.
Yet in the US, these companies are not fondly treated. Blair seems unaware that Edison is withering under Gore’s attacks on privatisation. The Clinton administration has ground down Columbia with investigations and new regulations. Wackenhut has yet to recover from criminal investigations. No matter: to Blair they are a thrusting American stud pool which will breed with the mangy local stock. If the Wal-Mart dragon torches the high street, that too serves the higher purpose of economic Darwinism.
Clinton is a class warrior. His commerce department’s calls to Beckett indicate that, when push comes to shove, he will do the bidding of corporate America. Gore blasts the drug companies in paid political adverts, then plays their poodle to yap at African nations that dare to demand cheap Aids drugs.
Gore, but not Blair, has learnt from Clinton how to play it both ways: working class hero and Wall Street’s friend. Clinton’s not bothered by cumbersome convictions or hifalutin theories.
But Blair is a believer. He has none of Clinton’s cynical cool. The PM has been wrongly tagged a philosophically empty bionic election machine, a box of poll-driven gears with a smile painted on the front. In fact, Blair may be the most idealistic, principled leader in the non-Moslem world, committed fanatically to the transformation of his nation’s socio-economic soul. And that’s frightening.
But Britain is not Bolivia – yet. Blair cannot understand that the Washington jabber about flexible workforces and globalisation is a gloss for the projection of American commercial powers and privileges. Its aim is to make weaker nations’ assets and labour accessible, cheap and compliant to US investors.
Yet Blair sincerely believes that if he turns over Britain’s high streets to Wal-Mart, its fields to Monsanto and its schools to Edison, they will sprinkle American commercial know-how over his laggardly island and – presto! – enterprise will take off.
How profitable for American and local capital. And how sad to see the PM’s affections abused. Only in electoral defeat will he realise that, as they say in Arkansas, he’s been kissed, but he ain’t been loved.
Gregory Palast writes the award-winning column, “Inside Corporate America” fortnightly in Britain’s Sunday newspaper, The Observer, part of the Guardian Media Group, where this first appeared. For comments or request to reprint, contact

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