Eamonn Butler is joint head of Britain’s premier libertarian think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute. In his very readable, well-informed book, The Rotten State of Britain, he explains how rotten a state Britain turned during Labor’s thirteen years in office that began with its election victory in 1997.
On the night that ended seventeen years of Conservative rule, Labor party activists celebrated by dancing until dawn to the strains of their campaign song “Things will only get better.” In reality, as Butler shows, they were about to get progressively worse, if you’ll pardon the expression.
As he plaintively laments:
We were promised Cool Britannia and a People’s Government, but instead, we got boom and bust, injustice, surveillance, regulation, stealth taxes, interference, sleaze, lies, hoodies, and binge-drinking ladettes… Our whole relationship with the state has become adversarial, rather than collaborative. (30)
In fourteen pithy, well-documented chapters, Butler guides the reader through the maze of political, economic, and social changes to which New Labour subjected Britain during their period in office. After noting that “the rot starts from the top,” Butler summarize the main political changes the country was made to undergo so:
From Magna Carta in 1215, our rights and liberties have been built up over the centuries. Trial by jury, habeas corpus, the presumption of innocence – all these and more grew up to restrain our leaders and prevent them from harassing us. Yet within a decade almost all these protections have been diluted or discarded. Our leaders are no longer restrained by the rule of law at all …The Prime Minister and colleagues in Downing Street decide what is good for us and then it’s nodded through Parliament. It’s hardly democracy: it’s a centralist autocracy. (31)
One by one, Butler explains how each of the country’s traditional constitutional restraints on uncurbed executive power was deliberately weakened, if not altogether discarded, by New Labor in pursuit of their master political project which was, having come to equate the national good with that of their own party, to perpetuate their hegemony indefinitely. Their first step was to effect a massive centralization of power in the hands of the prime minister and a small clique of unelected advisors that led to a systematic downgrading of Parliament, the Cabinet and civil service. As Butler explains:
In Blair’s Downing Street… Cabinet ministers had no pretense to status or independence. They knew they were just cogs in the New Labor Project. Party strategists would make the important decisions, not them… Downing Street strategists [also] have no time for the traditional role of Parliament — scrutinizing legislation… and holding the Executive to account. So Parliament… [was] sidelined along with the Cabinet… Blair’s team [also] … seized control of the whole civil service structure… Party nominees sidelined officials and took charge of administration as well as policy. (37)
As a result, Butler claims, much badly needed practical experience was lost to Britain, as were equally much needed political restraints. To illustrate how deleterious were the results of New Labor in office freeing itself from traditional restraints on executive power, Butler cites its several ill-fated forays into constitutional reform. He writes:
[Under] Tony Blair… [reform of the constitution] became entirely tactical. House of Lords reform would demolish a Conservative bastion. Elected mayors would keep key cities under Labor control… Devolution would undermine the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. English regional assemblies would bottle up the Conservatives in the South East and drain local power from the Liberal Democrats… [A] ragbag of random, opportunistic, self-serving, partisan measures [were adopted] which pass for our constitution today. (38)
Symptomatic of the political rot to which New Labor rule subjected Britain were the regular leaks by ministers and press officers, and the spin routinely put upon official government reports and press briefings. Above all, there has been its unrelenting cynical news management, notoriously exhibited on September 11, 2001, by one ministerial press officer who emailed her boss: “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.”
September 11 also served New Labor, Butler argues, as a pretext for making a power-grab in the name of security that turned Britain into “a surveillance state” where “freedom exists only in name” (106). He chillingly observes:
Of course, the terrorism threat is real… But in response, we seem to have given our government powers to track us anywhere, stop and search us in the street, arrest us for any imagined offense, imprison us for peaceful protest, hold us without charge for 28 days, extradite us to the United State without evidence, ban us for being members of non-violent organizations that they don’t happen to like, export us to other EU countries to stand trial for things that aren’t a crime here, take and file our DNA samples before we’ve been convicted, charged or even cautioned for any offense – and much more as well. In the name of defending our liberties against terrorism, we seem to have lost them. (92–93)
Under New Labor, so Butler further argues, Britain also became a nanny state in which its citizens have been confined within a straitjacket of regulations issued in the name of their health and safety. He writes:
There’s data protection rules, groundworks regulations, working time regulations, student loan bureaucracy, part-time worker initiatives and flexible working schemes, the stakeholder and occupational pensions system, age and sex discrimination rules, disability law, maternity and paternity rules, buildings regulations, rules in the use of animal products, water use and environmental regulations, statutory dismissal procedures, new financial accounting rules, corporate responsibility requirements, working at height codes, and many, many others. (127)
Some of these regulations would be amusing, were their human cost not so grave:
Nursing homes don’t allow you to bring in home-made cakes for your granny’s friends because that breaches the food hygiene rules… Restaurants have to apply for an entertainment license before they can have a violinist serenading the tables on Valentine’s Day. (128–29)… Durham education chiefs banned sack races from a school sports day in case children fell and hurt themselves. Schoolyard football was stopped at a Burnham Grammar School, to avoid anyone being hit by stray balls. (139)
The cost of this scale of public regulations goes well beyond social niceties or even economics. As Butler wittily observes: “When it comes with huge powers of surveillance, CCTV, databases, spot fines and powers to arrest people on any offense whatsoever, the line between nannying and oppression becomes no wider than a cigarette paper. Not that you will be allowed to buy one of those” (143).
As befits a think-tank bearing the name of his, Butler is keen to detail into what terrible a state New Labor reduced the British economy. When the international banking crisis first blew up in 2008, Butler reminds readers, it was the boast of Gordon Brown, by then Prime Minister, that “thanks to ten years of his ‘prudent’ economic management, Britain was in an enviable position… to weather any passing economic storm” (7).
What a vain and hollow boast that turned out to be. As Butler points out:
Our apparent prosperity has proved entirely illusory… built on the shifting sands of cheap credit. Instead of saving and investing during the good times, we have spent and then borrowed and then spent some more… Now we have run out of money. Real investment… is the lowest it has been since 1965… Unemployment is edging up towards 3 million… Inflation remains stubbornly high. Vast sums have been spent in bailing out the financial sector – creating zombie banks, kept alive only by the injection of taxpayers’ money. (8–9)
Much of Britain’s current public debt was accrued through massive increases in public expenditure during Labor’s period in office on public services such as health, education, and welfare. In a chapter devoted to each, Butler shows how unproductive such increased spending has largely been in terms of improving these services. Here are some illustrative vignettes:
On health: We spend more than any other European nation on cancer treatment, but still have some of the worst cancer survival rates in the European Union… We are the fifth richest country in the world, but we are far down the league tables in terms of medically preventable deaths.  ‘A disproportionate amount of the extra hundreds of billions put into the NHS had gone on administration. Since 1995, the number of senior managers in the NHS has increased by half… against a rise of just 8 per cent in the number of qualified nurses, and a fall in the number of hospital beds. (188–89)
On education: Gordon Brown… instituted “Public Service Agreements”… tying budgets to… performance. In the case of education, the target was a 2 per cent annual improvement in the proportion of [15 year old] students getting five [good] grades… You get what you pay for… Today’s smart teachers drill their pupils constantly, not to improve their understanding… but to make sure they regurgitate the right answers… The international comparisons suggest that’s it’s all an institutional fraud against the public and the kids. (104–5)
On welfare: Nearly a third of state spending… goes on various kinds of welfare benefit. After a decade of rising economic growth and prosperity… you might have thought that the need for social benefits was falling. But spending on them actually rose 50 per cent in real terms over the ten year period from 1997. (217) Perhaps the most disturbing figure in the statistics is the 1 million young people aged 16-24… not in education, employment or training… a sixth of the people in that age group and twice as many as in Germany or France. (220) A higher proportion of British children live in workless households than anywhere in Europe. Many… will not know what it is like to have the role model of a loving, resident father… not because their parents are lazy or unwilling to get work and stick together… [but] because our social benefits system encourages them to do the exact opposite. (236–37)
In a brief concluding chapter, Butler explains what he considers must be done to return Britain to the path of freedom and prosperity. Given his account of what led the country to stray from that path, it is not hard to anticipate wherein he sees the country’s salvation to lie. It lies, he claims, in less government, especially from the center, less red tape and regulation, greater competition between suppliers of education and health care, and less unconditional welfare benefits.
Butler’s final sentence runs: “We need to take power from the centre and disperse it to the localities where we live, and where possible, back to ourselves” (285).
Truly impressive as is Butler’s account of Britain’s current malaise and what led to it, his prescribed remedy is somewhat disappointing. Sixty years of over-extensive state welfare, plus thirteen years of being bossed around by New Labor, have left much of the population ill-equipped to organize their own lives, if suddenly handed responsibility for them. We know this from the literally demoralizing effect an equivalent period of communist rule had upon the populations of the former Soviet bloc.
There are no easy remedies for Britain’s current ills. This is, perhaps, indicated by the fact that, shortly after publication of The Rotten State of Britain, Butler brought out a sequel devoted to elaborating a twelve-step program to remake Britain. Entitled The Alternative Manifesto, that sequel will form the subject of a further review.
David Conway is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Westminster-based social policy think-tank Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, which he joined in 2004 and where he worked full-time as a senior research fellow for five years, after leaving academia following a thirty-year career teaching philosophy at various British universities. Professor Conway’s numerous publications include A Farewell to Marx; Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal; Free Market Feminism; The Rediscovery of Wisdom; In Defence of the Realm; A Nation of Immigrants? A Brief Demographic History of Britain; and Liberal Education and the National Curriculum. This essay was originally published in June 2012 at Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty, and it is republished here with gracious permission from that web-magazine.