McTernan on politics

Having led the country into an initially unpopular war and won both
a military victory and a rapid reverse in public opinion, the Prime
Minister last week returned to the domestic stage. It is clear that
Blair is intent on cashing in any war dividend by pressing on with
public services reform. The question is, how radical does he intend
to be?

The indications last week were that the pace of change will
quicken, with reform wider and more ambitious. Foundation
hospitals, it turns out, are just the beginning. Blair told the
Financial Times that the entire welfare state would have
to be recast – and that would include pensions. This is, in part, a
return to the early days of his government. Then his aim was to
emulate President Clinton who boasted of “ending welfare as we know
it” when he destroyed one of the Democrats’ greatest welfare
programmes – and the legacy of Roosevelt’s New Deal Aid to Families
with Dependent Children.

Those ambitions ran into the sand but now Blair seems less likely
to flinch from radical reform. First, there is the personal
strength he draws from having defied public opinion and been proved
– in his own mind – to be right. We may see a prime minister
unshackled from the short-term timescales dictated by following
every eddy and flow of focus groups. But second, and more
important, there is a clearer philosophical underpinning for
Blair’s long-term thinking.

Last summer Philip Bobbitt published The Shield of
, a highly influential analysis of the future for the
nation state. The core of his argument was that the old-fashioned
state made certain promises to its citizens – we will educate you,
look after your health, find you jobs and provide a pension for you
and we will defend you from your enemies in other countries.

That world, Bobbitt argues, is gone for ever. In its place is the
market state – one which recognises that no individual government
can protect you from global forces. All they can do is equip you to
look after yourself in a richer, yet more uncertain world. The
implications for welfare are obvious. Education provides you with
the skill set and qualifications you need to manoeuvre through the
new world – though increasingly at a price. And life-long learning
becomesthe new social insurance against unemployment. When you lose
your job, retrain or move or both. As for health and pension
provision, it is up to the individual to make flexible provision
for themselves.

The battle about foundation hospitals is almost an irrelevance when
set against this backdrop. It will be interesting to see whether
Blair starts to share the broader framework of his thoughts with
us, or if it remains elliptical.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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