New Labour has created a new "corporate populist" style of governing. It gets things done. But it is no way to run a democracy, especially one embarking on a big programme of constitutional reform. The exit of Peter Mandelson-the father of corporate populism-may strengthen its opponentsby Anthony Barnett / February 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
One of the great puzzles of the English is the way most of us still insist that nothing really changes. Even after Thatcher upturned the economy and modernised British society with exceptional brutality, we still tell each other that politics will continue much as before. Even as the Scottish Parliament and the Human Rights Act alter 300 years of parliamentary rule, we reassure ourselves that such reforms do not interest people and do not really matter. Even when Peter Mandelson rockets to the height of fame and influence and then plunges back to earth in an 18th century parabola of pride and fall, we say knowingly that it is all about personalities, not policy.
Such insouciance is a familiar hallmark of Mandelson’s own version of history. Once under his spell, no divisions of substance within the New Labour “project” could be discerned. There was only one message; all else was a matter of personalities.
But there are big differences over policy within the Blair government, and even among the New Labour modernisers. For example, Mandelson proclaimed that the government “is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” He presented his White Paper on a knowledge-led economy as heralding the end of government belief in state regulation. By contrast, Tony Giddens, also in Blair’s camp, argues for a society which limits inequality of incomes and learns to regulate in a “reflexive” fashion suitable to a cosmopolitan society. Thus New Labour contains an unfinished argument over whether intervention in the market is to be reshaped or jettisoned.
A second, more pressing, difference among the modernisers is over the nature and destination of its constitutional reforms. Here, the prime minister has so far followed Mandelson’s approach in preference to that advocated by Gordon Brown-or that implicit in the sweeping constitutional radicalism of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. Instead of Labour celebrating the energy unlocked by its reforms, Mandelson’s line was to insist that the centre remains in control. He was confident that the national question would be safe in Blair’s hands.
In Scotland, Northern Ireland, and now also in Wales, the hubris behind this assumption is evident. To read the newspapers in the “other” countries of the United Kingdom is to enter a different political universe where everyone knows that the foundation of politics is changing. But, at the heart of England, the London media remains cynical and disbelieving. There are thus…