One hundred days after the election of May 1997, Tony Blair, the head of a Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, addressed a hastily convened audience of trade unionists, representatives from civil society groups, journalists and members of the public. Billed as a radical change in direction, the event excited enormous speculation. The talk was all of a ‘Big Society’. Now read on …
Friends, comrades, fellow citizens,
I should begin with a confession. I had planned to mark the first hundred days of this Coalition administration with a series of fatuous initiatives – as part of a program of news management in which friendly coverage in the right-wing press took precedence over the substance of responsible government. I look now at the speeches that were drafted for me, with their verbless chains of upbeat abstraction –
“Change, renewal, a fresh start for a young country”
I think now of the approach we so nearly took, of surrender to finance and to the United States, the strenuous vacuity of 24 hour campaigning, and I shudder. I think of Peter Mandelson and our childish games of let’s-pretend-we’re-the-Kennedys, and I shudder.
I think of how close I came to letting the City of London determine our future as a nation.
And I shudder.
(Blair at this point pauses and looked particularly, maddeningly, sincere.)
Britain cannot continue on its present course. The path of least resistance is also the road to disaster. Though we did not win an outright victory in the recent election, and are in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, we have no choice but admit that the pledges we made in the campaign – to keep to Conservative spending plans, to leave the top rate of tax unchanged, to govern within the economic and social consensus established by Margaret Thatcher and John Major – all that we signaled in the campaign will have to be abandoned.
In these last three months Paddy Ashdown and myself have been looking carefully at the prospects for the national economy. We have come to realise that the financial sector in Britain has become too big. Far from directing resources to fund innovation in industry and to help build a competitive manufacturing sector, the banks are gearing up to increase household debt. It is already clear that their actions will inflate a property bubble and further reduce the country’s ability to pay its way.
Though we ran on vague slogans and made reassuring noises about keeping on the same track as the previous administration, we will have to change direction sharply if we are to avoid national disgrace and an economic meltdown in a decade’s time. Accordingly we will raise the top level of taxation to 50% immediately. We will create a network of regional banks that are owned by the publics where they operate. These banks will have an explicit mandate to develop an investment strategy in partnership with the relevant local government institutions.
The large private banks will, over a five year period, be weaned off central bank support, which will instead go to three new national banks. One of these new banks will be nationally owned, the other two will be mutuals. The control of the state’s money-creating power will shift away from a handful of private owners and managers to the population as a whole. We are collectively responsible for the debts the central bank creates – we must have the power to ensure that a small minority of insiders do not exploit the Bank of England’s ability to create credit.
What we propose for the financial sector is not radical – it is the minimum necessary to avoid a credit bubble and to direct capital and talent towards sustainable and socially useful production.
Industry has been lagging now for at least a generation. We have therefore decided to pass an Enterprise Act that will link limited liability to specific ownership forms. Only private companies, co-operatives, mutuals and employee-owned corporations will be entitled to the benefits of limited liability. Those who wish to sell their companies will be offered generous tax incentives to ensure that entrepreneurs are rewarded for their efforts and that successful companies come under employee control. The controlling interest in publicly quoted companies will be bought by trusts controlled by their workers over a ten year period. Changes to the tax system will encourage individual enterprise while strengthening the employee-owned sector.
The large publicly traded corporation has proved far too vulnerable to manipulation by the financial sector. Only those companies that are controlled by their employees can deliver the kinds of long-term planning that the country needs. They will also justify the benefit of limited liability that they receive from the state by providing a training in democratic decision-making.
Industrial policy will now come under review. We will look at the patterns of subsidy that certain sectors of the economy currently enjoy and begin to assess the costs and benefits of our approach in pharmaceuticals, weapons manufacture and finance.
Our aim is to channel support more efficiently into areas that promise to deliver real human benefits, that protect the environment and that provide stable and well paid employment for the majority of the country. The development banks will accordingly channel state support to areas chosen by democratic deliberation. To support this widening of decision-making by citizens we will also reform the media.
We will pass 10% of the television license fee income to the English regions, to Wales and to Scotland. People will be able to use this money to support investigation and research through regular votes. Knowledge is power and without the means to inform ourselves we are not capable of democratic citizenship.
Though high-technology and high value manufacturing will be given targeted support, the state will also use its powers to develop sectors that will provide useful and rewarding work for millions of people. We can’t compete with the emerging economies on the price of labour, and nor should we seek to do so. Instead we should make the most of our enormous situational advantages.
We’ve identified three areas of employment growth – tourism, education and fisheries. With proper subsidies we can expect to see a major increase in the numbers of people visiting this country in the coming decade. As the oldest modern nation on earth, with unparalleled natural and human resources, we stand to provide both education and leisure to many millions of people from around the world. An integrated approach will see landscape management and planning, conservation and agricultural policy shaped by the desire to make Britain into a wonder of the world – a place where the past and the present are finally reconciled and where the delirium of global empire has given way to modesty, hospitality and the quiet determination to be a great and pacific people.
We will unveil our full plans in six months time. But for now I would like to announce the creation of a Museum of Empire, which will provide a focus for visitors and will signal the end of our pretensions to an imperial role in the world. From now on, our power will be the power to encourage, to assist and to advise, as a friend acting in good faith.
Conscious of past mistakes, humble in the face of new challenges.
I’m sorry, I was starting to go off on one of those irritating rhetorical flights.
Education. Britain still has an awesome technical and educational infrastructure. This great resource is an inheritance from our industrial and non-conformist, as well as from our commercial and Anglican, past. The program of institutional renewal outlined above will strengthen the frayed bonds between universities and the societies. It will give us a new magnetism as the birthplace of global capitalism becomes a testbed for democratic inquiry and participatory science. We have it in our power to create a new society – a society that is innovative and sophisticated, for sure, but also egalitarian and free. We will invest in our educational institutions and create a cosmopolitan student culture where people from around the world can meet and learn. This will require an unprecedented program of library-building, of course. We have therefore begun to draw up plans for a network of national libraries to complement the British Library in Euston. You’ll find details in the information packs under your seat.
We will also convene a conference of North Sea powers to discuss the creation of the largest maritime conservation area in the world. By prohibiting fishing in large areas part of the North Sea we will create a rich biosphere that will benefit all the countries that currently fish there, and provide the resources to encourage a large in-shore and deep water fishing fleet. We will similarly seek to see the creation of an East Atlantic maritime reserve. Naturally, the Royal Navy will be re-purposed to support these efforts.
We have reviewed our foreign policy and, reluctantly, come to the conclusion that President Clinton’s efforts to globalize the economy are irresponsible and harmful to all but a tiny handful of rich investors. Premature liberalization of markets, especially financial markets, is dangerous and unnecessary.
Indeed I fear that the course set out by the Americans will lead to growing financial instability and eventually to collapse.
I have asked accordingly asked Ha-Joon Chang from Cambridge University to take up a dual role at the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, where he will be responsible for drafting a new outline for Britain’s engagement with the world. Given the change in our approach, this afternoon I informed the Americans that their representatives would no longer be invited to attend meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and that intelligence-sharing would be subject to further review. The so-called Special Relationship is over.
All this will come as a shock to many of you. Some will argue that we have no mandate for what we are doing. Nevertheless it is the right thing to do. It is time now to build a big society in Great Britain. The Tories will complain. But they would tear up their manifesto promises and give finance and America everything they wanted if they could.
Of that I am somehow sure.
So, there it is.
New Labour was a silly idea. We need to be serious about governing the country for the benefit of all its people. Our success requires that we break the hold on the economy and on society currently enjoyed by an unaccountable few.
An American once said that to form itself the public must break existing political forms. We have a great task of creative destruction ahead of us. I am sorry we gave no hint of this in the recent election campaign. But things are much worse than we thought and we will have a disaster on our hands if we don’t act now.
So let us …
The speech descends into the usual tearful Blairite nonsense for a few minutes before the Prime Minister leaves the stage and gets on with saving the country from spiritual and material collapse.