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Peter Cuthbertson: A Britain less at ease with itself

Peter lives in Washington D.C. and writes regularly on politics and foreign affairs.

Just before Christmas, Matthew Parris chose to devote his Times column to the "one good thing" he had to say about Tony Blair:

"Mr Blair will leave a happier country than he found. Something tolerant, something amiable, something humorous, some lightness of spirit ... a changed, kinder, gentler Britain."

It would be unfair to claim Blair has done his country no good, and I could list more than one example of positive effects of his ten year premiership and thirteen years as Labour leader. But none of them would include the national mood, the climate of opinion he has bequeathed his successors that goes beyond policy details and tax rates. On these measures, Blair's Britain is less British, less tolerant, less free and less at ease with itself than the Britain of a decade ago.

The clearest evidence of this is seen in small cases which directly affect few, but which represent the climate in which everyone lives. John Humphries' book Devil's Advocate includes a vivid recollection of the climate of opinion at the time of Princess Diana's death: flamboyant public grief from countless Britons who knew the deceased only from television, and a fierce intolerance for those less moved. Humphries noted that in those weeks people who simply did not grieve for a stranger had a whiff of what life is like in a totalitarian society where no diversity of opinion is permitted. The Diana hysteria has passed, but in far more serious areas, that little whiff of totalitarianism is now a regular part of life.

In 1997, a Bishop who recommended therapy for homosexuality and a street preacher who declared it sinful would have been viewed by many as unkind and intrusive, but under Blair, these cases merited police investigations - and in the latter case a conviction. In 1997, we would have gasped with disbelief at the very idea that ten years on opposing a religion would be termed a 'phobia', questioning this label could mean suspension from one's job, and arguing against Muslim neighbours who praised the September 11th hijackers could mean court appearances. As far back as 1989, Britain was disgraced by the sight of some of her Majesty's own subjects demonstrating in favour of Salmon Rushdie's murder while the police took no action. But in 2006, the chief defender of the Rushdie fatwa in Britain was knighted, and subjects of the Queen walked the streets of England carrying signs calling for a 'real holocaust', as the police manhandled and threatened with arrest those with the decency and courage to shout their disgust at such a distasteful display.

This is not merely a question of zealous political correctness and criminal prosecutions for those with controversial views. Every successful prosecution encourages many more that do not succeed, but nonetheless frighten into compliance those who might otherwise have dared to speak out, taking away from serious debate and discussion and preventing the proper refutation of falsehoods and the discovery of truths. If political correctness began in the 1960s, and became a force in mainstream politics in the 1980s, it was in the early 21st century that it triumphed and began to impinge on the basic liberties of private citizens.

The inflammation of Islamic passions touches also on questions of race relations in early twenty-first century Britain. Does anyone seriously believe they are better after ten years of Labour government than before? No one could blame Tony Blair's government for the way the attacks of September 11th politicised British Islam in such a powerful way. But years of kowtowing before rather than sidelining groups that equivocate on suicide terrorism, back global sharia law and support executions for apostates was a policy choice, and a hugely detrimental one.

Nor is it only a question of Islam. Common sense has always suggested that good race relations depend upon immigration occurring at levels that can be assimilated, along with serious efforts by the host nation to aid and encourage migrants to do just this. Under Blair, numbers exploded while the notion of a common culture rather than multiculturalism was until very recently condemned like never before as racist and small-minded. Dozens of BNP councillors - another thing unimaginable in 1997 - sit in Britain's town halls as testament to the consequences for race relations.

Perhaps most damningly, Tony Blair has overseen the emergence of a situation where decent, law-abiding Britons and the habitually criminal 'underclass' face a legal and criminal justice system formidable to the former but laughable to the latter. Hoodlums whose chief delight is to terrorise those without the wealth to escape them have little serious prospect of being caught, convicted and serving long prison sentences. But those with enough spirit to act in self-defence will encounter a police response more immediate and unsympathetic than any other.

In practice, Britain now boasts two parallel systems of law and punishment: one for those with jobs, careers and reputations, whose lives can be ruined in a moment of anger - like Bill Clifford, the World War II veteran who scared off with a replica handgun the thugs who had long plagued him as they broke down his door, and hanged himself the day before his subsequent court appearance; another for the hooligans and louts with no jobs or reputations to worry about, who fear no law but know all their human rights.

Because real criminals such as muggers go largely unpunished while action in self-defence is prosecuted so stringently, we must all live in a country where police signs warn against 'advertising' that you carry a mobile phone or Ipod by using them on the move. Even as technology allows us to make telephone calls and listen to music anywhere, authority smugly suggests that unless we treat these devices purely as landlines and home CD players, we brought any muggings on ourselves.

All of this is an inescapable part of the mood and feel of Tony Blair's Britain. None of it was entirely of his creation, but it all happened under his watch, when his duty as Prime Minister was to resist these noxious trends.

It can be said with much justification that the above is a repetition of the gloomy pessimism with which the Conservative Party has allowed itself to become too much associated in recent years. But there is more than one way to be positive. One is to speak in apparent blissful ignorance of real problems and hope that your cheer and satisfaction will endear you to the listener. Another is to identify the real challenges and ills people face and to explain in your rhetoric how you can and will make things better. It is this sort of positive agenda for which Conservatives must reach if we hope to connect again with sufficient numbers.

Middle England, the silent majority, has been under siege for many years under Tony Blair: not necessarily in a way that they can easily articulate, but in a way that extends far beyond the extra taxes and the stagnant public services and into the sort of country in which they live. By speaking as if we are ignorant of this rather than know how to reverse it, conservatives appear not so much in touch with modern Britain as blind to its needs.


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