- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2000

Tony Blair's Britain is becoming an increasingly interesting place, though not one that most Anglophiles of a more traditional frame of mind will find terribly familiar. At home, the Labor prime minister is frequently charged with undermining all sorts of time-honored British institutions, from the stiff upper lip to the House of Lords. Indeed, last week Mr. Blair felt called upon to speak up in his own defense, in an address at the annual lunch of the Newspaper Conference. The Labor Party is really the party of Britishness, he told the audience, not those nasty Tories. Which is a bit like Vice President Al Gore saying that he is really the candidate of campaign-finance reform. Britain is no longer a "territory of blood," Mr. Blair said, whatever that may mean. Rather, British identity is rooted in "fair play, creativity, tolerance and an outward-looking approach to the world." These are nice values to be sure, but it all sounds a tad touchy-feely for the old imperial island race.

Puzzling as Mr. Blair's Third Way shenanigans may be, the prime minister now has an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate what kind of family values he believes in, with the prospect of a fourth junior Blair scheduled to arrive at Downing Street 10 on May 24. The Labor leader has recently come under considerable pressure to serve as an example of modern fatherhood; in short to take paternity leave, spend time bonding with the baby and helping with the diapers. His wife Cherie Blair, who as a lawyer has specialized in equal rights issues, likes the idea, citing as an example no less than the prime minister of Finland, who recently showed himself to be a thoroughly progressive sort by taking time off when his second daughter was born. What's more, the British government has just announced that it will increase both maternity and paternity leave to 13 weeks to bring the country into conformity with the minimum standards of the European Union. Sounds like a winning issue for the 2001 British elections, right? This story has it all, babies, policies, family values, etc.

The problem is that it also has a rather reluctant protagonist. Mr. Blair is not one to give up power once he has his hands on it and for as much as 13 weeks? Mr. Blair was asked about it on BBC Radio 4's "Today" program, and had this to say: "To be completely honest, I haven't thought about it properly yet. I know I should have, and I am sure I will… I will decide in the next few weeks. I know I have got to decide soon." Mr. Blair would presumably be leaving the country in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to chair Cabinet meetings, greet foreign dignitaries, etc. Unfortunately, Mr. Prescott is known to have his foot firmly planted in his mouth, and the prospect of facing off against him at the prime minister's weekly Questions in the Commons has the Conservatives drooling with delight. Tory leader William Hague has not shown himself to be much of a commanding figure, but he does have a pretty sharp tongue.

Said Conservative vice chairman Tim Collins of Mr. Blair's dilemma: "The reason for his indecision is obvious it would mean that John Prescott would be left in charge of the country. No wonder he cannot decide what to do." But even more to the point perhaps, Mr. Collins continued, "At least he has the choice. His government is taking choice away from individual companies, about issues like maternity and paternity leave, by imposing directives on them."

All of which sounds terribly familiar, doesn't it? A liberal government pushing ever more intrusive laws and regulations on the population that it does not want to live by itself. Mr. Blair should do the honorable thing, stay at home, listen to his wife, and console himself that at least he can keep in touch with the office by e-mail. Britain may well be the better off for it.

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