Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem reflects on the political processes in Britain after Blair and looks the fall of Thatcher and the origins of New Labour. Can you imagine, he asks, a similar situation in Africa?
In the past two weeks I have been in countries with a 'new' head. I left Yar'Adua's Nigeria for Gordon Brown's Britain. For the first time in ten years one entered Britain without having to put up with the arrogant and sanctimonious Blair and his spin doctors. The Long Good Bye is finally over. For those who think it is only African leaders who are desperate not to leave office just look at how long it took the Labour Party to get rid of their Savior-turned-Judas of a leader. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, this fraudulent prophet has been made their interlocutor. How a second-hand leader parceled by Bush could be their savior I do not know.
I must confess that I have not made the transition from Blairism to Brownism properly. Seeing Brown on television in Britain I was still looking at him like the Chancellor he had been for the past decade. But being in Britain got me thinking about the many years that I have spent in that country.
It is a big shame that Africans do not write about Westerners the way they write about us; but we keep complaining about their prejudices, inaccuracies and false knowledge about the African condition.
Two weeks safari in the Masai Mara and someone becomes an expert on our foods, lifestyles, culture, history, geography or whatever. Millions of Africans have been in the West from time immemorial, but we do not lay claim to being 'Europeanists'!
It is one of those vicarious 'benefits' of the British imperial past that as 'commonwealth ' citizens, British-resident citizens, immigrants and settlers from former British colonies (except the USA which has its own uncommon wealth in which Britain shares!) can vote and even be voted for in British elections. Being voted for has been relatively easier for citizens from the old White Commonwealth of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, though second generation descendants of the non-white Commonwealth from Asia, the Caribbean and Africa are also beginning to break into the system (though they are more successful at the local levels than in the British Parliament in Westminster).
The visibility of black MPs both in parliament and government positions including the Cabinet only serves to show how uncommon it is. They are so few that we know them all; they become instantly famous just for being black! One of the ironies of uncommon wealth politics is that many Africans have probably had more opportunity to vote and be involved in democratic politics in Britain than in their own countries. I have voted more often in Britain than in Nigeria. And this is not just because I have been away for 'too long', my peer group who did not live outside have never had many opportunities to vote since the military had been in power for most of their lives. Until recently, military rule with civilian interludes has been the order of the day. Thankfully that is now more or less over and we are now in the era of 'voting without choosing' or choosing without making any difference.
It can be argued though that even in more stable societies elections do not change much because there is too much public contentment or governing consensus among the ruling classes, and between their main political parties. Consequently, politics has become more commercialized, money and media driven, with no disagreement on fundamentals therefore reducing politics to forms of presentation largely devoid of substance. Hence the increasing democratic deficit in many Western democracies of voter apathy, especially among the young.
All that taken into consideration, and despite obvious Americanization, British politics in the 1980s and early 1990s still inspired great ideological disputes and debates, essentially because of the Thatcherite Conservative counter-revolution that tore apart the old consensus within the British political establishment. She shifted the politics to the extreme right, provoking moderates, the 'noblese oblige' type Tories in her own party, and all kinds of leftist opposition in the Labour Party, the Labour movement and eventually the whole country.
The main opposition Labour Party swung between left and right for many years, even provoking a split that led to the walkout by more openly right-wing elements who felt that the militant left had taken over the party and made it unelectable. They formed the SDP which initially attracted a lot of support from across the board among people who wanted a different kind of politics from the tribal war between the Tories and Labour. Unfortunately for David Owen and his tiny bunch, the two party system (and its ethnic, provincial and regional voting patterns) is so embedded in Britain that the room for a third party (let alone a fourth one) is extremely limited. They merged with the Liberal Party which had always operated as the halfway lounge between the Tories and Labour. Their hopes of becoming a powerful third force, holding the balance of power in a 'hung parliament', evaporated as Labour became more and more moderate and electable.
What really happened in the Labour Party was that the smarter right-wingers did not leave the party but bided their time and embarked on a long term right-wing counter revolution inside the party, involving a reform of old ideological positions and a loosening of the traditional Labourite, socialist and egalitarian conscience. The emergence of Neil Kinnock as the Party Leader facilitated the right-wing coup. He came from a staunch Labour background, solidly in the left of the party and a credible working-class hero. He sold moderation to the party and the movement and helped to begin the process of Labour recovery and electability by facing down the hard left and Labour militants. Still, he lost two elections to Margaret Thatcher but held Labour votes and increased it as the Conservatives took lower votes. Unfortunately Kinnock did not make it and lost the 1992 elections to a little known John Major after the Conservatives had committed political matricide by getting rid of Margaret Thatcher. That was the last time I was most passionately involved in British partisan politics.
I was there on the foot steps of the Old Labour Party Headquarters on Woolworth Rd in South London when Kinnock conceded victory to Major and announced his resignation to crying party supporters. The second day you could not find many people who would admit that they had voted Tory. If it was in Africa opposition supporters would have cried 'rigging' because the media and popular opinion widely predicted a Labour Victory. From then onwards I never really bothered about being active in British politics anymore even though I remained a passive supporter of the anti-Tory movement. After Kinnock it was John Smith who unfortunately died very early in his leadership. His sudden death made it possible for the brewing right-wing coup to be brought forward with Blair emerging as the Leader. Had Smith lived longer who knows if Blair would have been that fortunate? Smith was very much to Kinnock in opposition as Gordon was to Blair in power. One does the politics and the other the economics.
The party was hungry for power and in Blair they found a winner even if it was at the expense of their ideological souls. Brown continued Smith's number-crunching that made business interests to begin to take Labour seriously as managers of British capitalism. The Labour party became more middle class.
In power Mr. Blair was more of an adopted political son of Margaret Thatcher, more at home when battling the Labour party and so called OLD Labour values. The Thatcherites used to sing: 'If it is not hurting it is not working' to justify their assault on the poor and to subsidise the greed of the rich and powerful. In Blair's Britain it was punned to mean: If the Labour Party is not complaining, it cannot be right. Even when he seemed to have conquered every tendency, save for a small group of non- conformists, he would deliberately pick quarrels with the Party. He was the closest Britain got to having a truly Presidential PM and the Peoples' Party became the Leader's Party. For a few years it seemed he could walk on air and water. He took on the party and won, took on the Government and won, and then he took on the British people on many issues- but Iraq was to be his Waterloo from which his authority never quite recovered. In politics, as in real life, once an elephantine problem knocks you down then all kinds of crawling crawlers will climb on to you. Like Thatcher he was kicked out after 'winning' a consecutive third-term electoral victory.
Blair's fall from grace is proof, yet again, that whatever goes up will come down; but politicians like other human beings never learn. When they are up they never think they will come down and they always do. However there are important lessons. One, a politician is the servant of the people not their master, no matter how popular he or she may be. In a genuine democracy, as in a real consumer driven society, the citizen (i.e. customer) is always right. Two, political parties, parliament, judiciary, the media and other autonomous institutions are necessary for democracy to take root and democratic culture to be nurtured. Strong leaders influence people and institutions and sometimes destroy them. But for sustainable democracy these institutions must endure. It was not the electorate that threw out Blair or Thatcher before him, but their own political parties on whose behalf they were acting.
Can you imagine a similar situation in many African countries? The President will dissolve the party and dissolve the Parliament! Three, there must be credible alternative leaders, whether within the ruling party or outside of it, deliberately nurtured without being considered traitors or disloyal. Can you imagine if Gordon Brown had been a Cabinet Minister in some African country? Would he have retained his post breathing down the President's neck for so long? In the worst of cases he would probably be dead by now or hounded out of cabinet or politics or be in exile.
However, there are encouraging signs in some countries like Ghana, Botswana and Tanzania. The immediate Foreign Minister of Ghana, Nana Akuffo Ado had never hidden the fact that he wanted Kuffour's job, having been beaten to second place by him in 2002. Similarly, the current President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, was a runner up to his predecessor and remained Foreign Minister for ten years before becoming President. However in many countries up to now even mere suspicion of the ambition can land you in 'hot soup'. These are countries where the people are not supposed to even imagine life without the current occupant of state house. However, no matter how long it takes they will all become 'former current chairman' as Idi Amin famously said of himself!
Blair's exit also shows that sometimes people may just want a change for the sake of it. I am not sure there is much ideological difference between Blair and Brown, but there is a difference in style and presentation. In the end people just got fed up with Blair and his lectures, his missionary strictures and braggadocio. The truth though is that Brown even takes himself more seriously as an intellectual politician than Blair. Both domestically and internationally there may be more action than words, and probably less of the razzmatazz and media obsession of the Blair years. But it may well be the same difference on many issues.
With huge apologies to the Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, It's the God of Small Changes. The Conservatives remain unelectable because thanks to Blair and Brown all their clothes have been stolen by New Labour. Just like the Tories prevented a Labour victory in 1992 by having a change within with John Major. Labour may have guaranteed itself a fourth term by being rid of Blair. Unfortunately, David Cameron sounds more like a Blair clone. May be he should just vacate his post and give it to the real Blair, currently wandering like Moses in the Middle East as Cameron is getting lost in Rwandan villages in the name of showing Africa he cares. Blair did the care for Africa, and this never led him or those Africans naïve enough to trust him, anywhere.
* Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is the Deputy Director for the UN Millennium Campaign in Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya. He writes this article in his personal capacity as a concerned Pan-Africanist.
* Please send comments to or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/
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