Carthago delenda est

7 06 2009

[You can listen to this radio letter here, or search ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes Store]

“Carthago delenda est”

That was the repeated cry of a fellow named Cato the Elder. He was a Roman, who lived in the Third Century BC. At that time, Rome found itself in a drawn-out and vicious conflict with the Phoenecians of Carthage – it was the Third Punic War. The exact details of the war are unnecessary here, and anything I did give you on the matter would only be drawn from Wikipedia – I am not, you see, a classicist.

Cato was a senior member of the political world, respected and influential. Even as a young man, Cato was making vigorous speeches on all manner of subjects. One subject about which he felt particularly strongly was the matter of the Carthagnians. He believed that Rome would never be safe until the threat from Carthage had been wiped out. He believed it so passionately that he would end every speech, regardless of the subject, with the now famous phrase: “Furthermore, Carthage must be destroyed”.

Downing StreetThis simple rhetorical technique, of repetitive and insistent use of a simple phrase, proved successful. In 146 BC the Third Punic War was brought to an end when Roman troops marched into Carthage, enslaved the Phoenicians and burnt down their houses. The destruction of Carthage was so total that some people believe the Romans ploughed salt into the ground, so that it could never produce crops again.

Well, in the past few days we have been seeing the final act in a drama that would be worthy of any great classical storyteller. The story began way back in 1994, with the death of John Smith. Smith was at the time Leader of the Labour Party, and Leader of the Opposition. He was widely expected to succeed John Major as Prime Minister, but was brought down by a sudden, and fatal, heart attack.

This left the leadership of the party open, and a pair of rising stars, with great ambitions were tipped to take over. The only question was which one – Tony Blair, the public school boy and barrister, with questionable Labour credentials, or Gordon Brown, a scot with Labour to his bones? As it turned out, the question was settled at a fashionable Islington restaurant. And in what became known as the Granita pact, Blair made Brown a promise that if he stood aside, and let Blair take the leadership then Blair would, in turn, make way for Brown after the first term of a Labour Government. Brown agreed, and New Labour was born.

The policy understanding of Gordon Brown, the political savvy-ness of Tony Blair, combined with the presentation skills of Peter Mandelson and the rumbustousness of John Prescott made a dream ticket. Nothing could stand in their way.

Very quickly the traditional socialist elements of the Labour party were defeated in Blair’s triumphant battle over Clause IV.  The tax and spend policies were abandoned and a new, ‘Third Way’ was established.

By the time of the 1997 election, New Labour stood not just for a different set of policies. They represented in the public mind an optimism – that things really could ‘only get better’. Nobody was surprised when on the 1st May, Britain chucked out a tired and corrupt Conservative government, and replaced it with the glossy sheen of the Labour party.

In their first term, it seemed like nothing could stop this Good News machine. Almost immediately, the Bank of England was granted independence. Great pots of money were thrown at the dilapidated public services, especially education. A national minimum wage was established, granting a fair deal for millions on the lowest incomes, and a winter fuel allowance was introduced for pensioners.

After nearly a century of inertia, the House of Lords was reformed to remove the presence of all but a handful of the hereditary peers. Wales and Scotland were finally granted their own forms of political assembly, and a Human Rights Act was placed on the statute books.

What is more, the economy was booming. Those who had feared a return to the economic failure of previous Labour governments were proved wrong. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was the man with the Midas touch.

When terrorists turned the world order upside down on 11th September 2001, Tony Blair spoke for the nation. Leading the rest of the world, he stood by the newly elected US President George W. Bush and within a few months the vicious and cruel regime of the Taleban had been defeated and the search for Osama Bin Laden had commenced.

Well, that’s where the fairytale ended.

Bin Laden could not be found, and for some reason – a reason we will probably never fully understand – Blair and Bush embarked on a fateful project: the removal of Saddam Hussein from the government of Iraq. The now infamous claim, that Saddam had the necessary tools to launch a nuclear attack on Britain within forty-five minutes of the order being given, divided the nation.

And it divided Parliament, it divided the government, and it divided the Cabinet. One of New Labour’s brightest stars, Robin Cook was unable to support the invasion of another country without UN support and had to resign.

From that moment on, the New Labour project began to unfold. The war was a success, in that Saddam Hussein was defeated. But it also caused an even greater mess of the Middle East and, it turned out that there were no weapons in the first place.

Back home, people started to ask difficult questions. Seeing as we were putting so much money into public services, when would we start seeing an improvement? Why had the gap between the richest in the country and the poorest got even bigger? How had the style of government become so untrustworthy, so informal, so unreliable?

Well, one thing led to another, and Tony Blair was disgorged from Downing Street by a carefully co-ordinated coup from Gordon Brown. But the problem with Labour was bigger than Blair, who had become tainted and discredited. After a few months of positive poll ratings, it became clear that Brown simply wasn’t up to the job of Prime Minister.

Of course, he wasn’t helped by the largest economic crisis the world had seen since the Second World War, but neither had he helped himself by building his economic success on a culture of reckless lending.

So, it became clear that the Labour party would lose the next General Election. And we come to the closing chapters of the New Labour project this week:

A comprehensive collapse in the public’s confidence of the political system.

A parliament exposed as a house of corruption and self-interest.

The forced resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

An unprecedented seven resignations from the cabinet in just a few days.

Calls the resignation of the Prime Minister from very senior members of the Labour Party.

We do not need the media to tell us what the public mood is. We see the evidence of it firsthand. We see it in our friends, and in our colleagues. We see it in overheard conversations between strangers.

The public is angry. The political system, not just the government but Parliament, politicians, politics itself, no longer has the respect and confidence of the people it is supposed to serve.

New Labour has finished. The Prime Minister cannot continue. Parliament has lost its mandate.

If Cato the Elder were with us today, he would end every one of his speeches with a different cry:

A General Election must be called.

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One response

15 03 2012
Dan

Hey. You might have found this article useful: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/3289867.pdf?acceptTC=true. Take care, Dan. (I hope you can access it.)

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