Always keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse (Belloc)
After weeks of fine weather, it has barely stopped raining since Tony Blair’s resignation speech confirmed that Gordon Brown will be Prime Minister, possibly for three long years until May 2010.
Even those of us who despised almost everything about Blair feel a metaphorical chill to match the weather. It was not that there was ever much doubt about Gordon Brown’s succession, but hearing Blair actually say that he was off somehow killed the last ray of hope.
The gloomy feeling does not necessarily reflect any tangible fears that things will get even worse. Taxes will continue to rise and their proceeds pour into the bottomless pit of badly-managed public services. Government interference will grow in every aspect of business and personal lives. We will be lied to, controlled and spied upon. Our streets will remain the unchallenged domain of thugs; our hospitals will still be filthy, over-administered and under-staffed; another generation of children will emerge from school innumerate and barely literate. We expect this because Gordon Brown has set most of the domestic agenda for a decade anyway and is unlikely to change his spots.
The gloom derives from a less tangible feeling. I last felt it strongly during Harold Wilson’s last government of 1974 to 1976. I was an undergraduate, and more or less immune from most of the economic trials of that time, or at least from their direct effects. Taxation, hospitals and schools do not worry students; the big issues – oil prices, trades union power, Northern Ireland – were too remote to have an impact on the world-view of a 20-something. We had not learnt to despise the cultural vacuum we now see that period to have been.
We did not know it, but we were the last generation through Oxford who could enjoy it without the pressure which came for those who followed. The main practical concern arose from the 7:1 ratio of girls to boys. Life, as it was lived from day to day, did not seem bad.
And yet my over-riding recollection is one of a cloud hanging over the country which I, at least, attributed to the government. This was not a patently political feeling, although my politics, such as they were, were Conservative. Nor was it directly attributable to the personalities of politics – Denis Healey seemed a jolly enough cove even as he made the pips squeak, Callaghan and Jenkins were decent men, and I can even remember a pang as I watched Wilson leave Downing Street in March 1976.
I think the answer lies in the palpable coarsening of life under Wilson. I have said above that I blamed neither the politicians nor – directly – their policies but that, in retrospect, was probably because I did not appreciate closely enough the nexus between their decisions and what I saw around me. I also did not really see the equally true opposite – that the control of government over the forces it unleashed was minimal.
High taxation drained money out of businesses and individuals, yet public services were cut from year to year. Local government grew in power as well as size and became detached from local people – the anonymous bureaucrat gained a power he was not fit to handle at the expense of locally elected representatives. Developers ripped the fabric of the towns apart in a way which paralleled the government’s destruction of old forms and conventions, and neither replaced what they had destroyed with anything better. The education revolution which destroyed the Grammar schools in favour of Comprehensive schools was all but complete and its adverse effect on both opportunity and learning was clear. Public life felt grubby, even before Wilson’s Lavender List.
Now I’ve got that feeling once again
I can’t explain
You would not understand…
…and nor do I. Ten years of New Labour has brought us all these things again, and how – high taxation for little result; the ever-more pervasive power of unelected authorities; the destruction of constitutional norms, rights and safeguards for no advantage; the fast erosion of the landscape and of peoples’ way of life; the decline of secondary education in a welter of directives and dumbing-down and the dilution of tertiary education; above all the emergence of corruption as an open tool of government in a way which makes Wilson look naively pure.
But that much is all down to the Blair years. Why does the imminent arrival of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister induce the feeling that world is suddenly a greyer, gloomier place?
The weather seems wholly appropriate.