Britain: 'The natural party of business'

July 14, 2007

On June 27, Tony Blair finally stepped down as prime minister, exiting Downing Street to the sound of loud jeers from anti-war protesters and families of soldiers killed in Iraq. His successor, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, gave a brief speech at the door of Number 10 in which he used the word "change" no less than eight times. Many British trade union leaders have been hoping that Blair's departure and Brown's ascendency may signal a move away from the neoliberal agenda pursued by three successive Blair governments. This was always a vain hope, as Brown was Blair's treasurer for the entire 10 years of his reign and architect of many of New Labour's most reactionary policies, including the infamous Private Finance Initiatives that have brought many National Health Service trusts to the brink of bankruptcy.

Two days after Brown assumed office, two massive car bombs were discovered and defused in central London. Then, on June 30, two men attempted what appeared to be a suicide bomb attempt by driving a jeep laden with explosive material into the front of the passenger terminal at Glasgow airport.

Brown, like Blair before him, denied any connection between the attempted bombings and Britain's participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The July 2 Morning Star reported Brown as arguing that the "would-be bombers were not motivated by the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan but had a grievance against society, particularly against the values that we represent and the values decent people of all religions represent". Lindsey German, convener of the Stop the War Coalition, countered Brown's claim: "There is one simple fact — before the Iraq war, Britain was not under threat from terrorism and now it is. What Britain needs is not more terror laws, but a change in foreign policy."

The July 8 Observer reported that "Attacks against the British army in Iraq are escalating, leading to concern that the planned retreat of the British troops from their base at Basra Palace to a single camp at the city's airport have been put on hold". Despite the increasingly desperate situation faced by British forces in Iraq, Brown, a staunch supporter of the war when he was chancellor, is refusing to set a timetable for the withdrawal of British forces from the country.

Things are little different on the home front. To the astonishment of trade unionists, Brown announced that Sir Digby Jones will be joining his government as trade and investment minister. Jones has a fierce anti-union reputation, and is a former director general of the bosses' organisation the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Jones has not been elected by anyone, but will be a member of the government through being appointed a member of the House of Lords. Although Brown invited him to join the Labour Party, he refused.

Brown has also appointed arch Blairite John Hutton as secretary of state at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The July 2 Financial Times reported that in his first interview as new business secretary Hutton argued: "It's a major opportunity for Labour ... we want to be the natural party of business." The same edition also reported Hutton's claim that his new department — replacing the old Department of Trade and Industry — would be "aggressively pro-business". The July 11 Morning Star reported that in his first speech — at the CBI president's dinner — Hutton told the assembled millionaires: "You are the wealth creators, the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the people who make a difference. I am determined that we will be the voice for business across Whitehall. The Prime Minister has given me a mandate to be your partner, your voice, your champion right across government and I intend to discharge this mandate to the full." Brown has also appointed Damon Buffini, the private equity magnate, to his government's business council.

A number of measures outlined to parliament on July 11 included a proposed "counter-terrorism" bill, largely along the lines set by former Home Secretary John Reid in the final days of Blair's rule. On July 11, the BBC reported that "This bill would give new powers to allow travel bans on convicted terrorists, allow post-charge questioning for terrorism suspects and opens the possibility of extending the period beyond 28 days that terrorism suspects can be held".

Brown does appear to have broken with Blairism on at least one important issue. By reversing years of privatisation of public services? No. By withdrawing British troops from the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan? No. By restarting the Serious Fraud Office's criminal investigation, halted on Blair's orders, into alleged corruption implicating international arms giant BAe and the Saudi Arabian government? No. In a breathtaking display of political vision, Brown announced that Blair's plans to build a "Supercasino" in Manchester would be shelved.

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