- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been on a tear through his country's institutions since taking office in 1997, is finding that reform can be a two-edged sword. Among the more astonishing issues facing the progressive-minded Labor leader is the question of whether he should take paternity leave from running the country when the Blairs' fourth child is born.
Mrs. Blair, who is due in May, has made no secret of her preference. Meanwhile, the Labor government has proposed increasing both maternity and paternity leave to 13 weeks, from the current eight weeks for women and six for men. So, why not the prime minister, too? Feminists, needless to say, are overjoyed at the example this would set.
The problem is that the proud father is not very keen on the idea at all because it means handing over the reins of government power. Further, it would mean placing them in the hands of people Mr. Blair does not particularly trust, his primary rival within the Labor Party, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, or Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who hails from the left-wing of the Labor Party which Mr. Blair has battled bitterly for power.
In fact, it would mean losing control. And for 13 weeks? Mr. Blair would suffocate from frustrated ambition. Said the distressed prime minister last week, "I haven't decided yet. Of course there is a strong case, but I have got to make sure the country is properly run, too."
Which brings us to the topic of constitutional reform. In this area, too, Mr. Blair has applied himself assiduously only to find that the results have blown up in his face. Since arriving in office Mr. Blair has taken it upon himself to reform the House of Lords, allegedly making it more democratic, but also making it more Labor-friendly. He has weakened the power of the British government itself by devolving power to Northern Ireland (or at least he has tried), to Scotland and to Wales. London itself has become the object of power devolution (about which more later).
However, while power is seeping from Westminster, it is not necessarily seeping through the fingers of the Blairites, who have shown themselves to be as ruthless at power-brokering as the Labor Party Marxists were in the old days. Mr. Blair's track record when it comes to packing the devolved assemblies with his own people is no less hard-nosed for being Third Way.
In the most entertaining left-wing critique of the Blair period yet, "Cruel Britannia" by Nick Cohen, a columnist for the London Observer newspaper with distinctly socialist leanings, the embittered author writes, "You realize that Britain will soon be a collection of truly weird islands. People will be voting almost monthly in referendums and on citizens' juries; in parish, local, mayoral, regional, Parliamentary and Euro elections. Yet, the only Labor candidates the exhausted electors will be able to support will be Blairite." The charge that Mr. Blair is a "control freak" is heard more and more from the left.
While the rest of us may not be weeping too may tears because Mr. Blair is waging war on his own Labor radicals, in a larger sense it raises disturbing questions about his credentials as a democrat. Clearly, something is rotten in Britain.
This realization may well be at the root of the ongoing and highly entertaining race for the post of mayor of London, which will be decided May 4. It seems that Londoners in protest against Mr. Blair's tactics have set their minds on an absolutely appalling candidate. Their choice is Ken Livingstone also known to his foes as Red Ken the fire-breathing former leader of the Greater London Council, a Marxist-dominated institution that was abolished by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s. London has since been governed in a partnership between the government and its 33 boroughs. It was one of Mr. Blair's election promises to resurrect the long-abolished post as mayor of London yet another check on the power of Westminster.
It has turned out, however, that one of Mr. Blair's harshest critics, the same Mr. Livingstone, was the overwhelming favorite among Londoners. He was certainly not the favorite of his party. Mr. Blair's preferred choice is an exceedingly unprepossessing member of Parliament, Frank Dobson, a Laborite whose beard has been the subject of much commentary in the London papers, mainly because he refused to shave it to conform to the zippy forward-looking Blairite image. By rigging the selection process, the Labor Party narrowly escaped nominating Mr. Livingstone, who turned around and made good on his threat to leave Labor and run as an independent which hardly caused a dent in his popularity.
A headline in the Guardian newspaper just about said it all: "The control-freak gets his comeuppance." Now, should it happen that Mr. Livingstone and Mr. Dobson end up splitting the Labor vote, causing the Conservative candidate to coast to the seat of power on a plurality, that would be comeuppance indeed. Perhaps paternity leave may start looking quite appealing by then.
E-mail: bering@washtimes.com.


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