A Destiny Linked to Iraq is the Only Thing They Share
Date: Thursday, November 20 @ 12:10:19 UTC
Topic: Bush and Blair
Bush and Blair could not be further apart on all aspects of social reform
by Polly Toynbee
November 19, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
The spectacle over the next few days of Tony Blair and George Bush beaming and backslapping remains as puzzling as ever. Is this just realpolitik business-as-usual, putting out more flags in the Mall for another necessary but unsavory foreign leader? If so, Blair plays his part well, his energetically sincere smile never faltering.
Even in private he hotly protests that the Bush he knows is nothing like the one of caricature. No, no, the president is intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, a good listener and a lot of other entirely incredible adjectives. Look into Blair's face and you see not one flicker: he's a good bluffer. He knows no one believes a word of it, but he will pretend it is so until the last. He has made his fateful bed of nails and now he has to lie on it - and lie through his teeth about it, too. If he has regrets, if ever in the still of night he doubts whether he took the right path, he will never let on. You can bet there will be nothing to suggest doubt about his tragic error in his autobiography. We have yet to see if he is eventually broken by it, as Lyndon Johnson was by Vietnam: it is not impossible.
But it is intellectually impossible to believe Blair and Bush share more than the same brand of toothpaste - as Bush once joked. Only Colgate explains the artificial grin between this most ultra rightwing president and Britain's social democrat prime minister.
This era in British politics has been not unlike Johnson's construction of the Great Society, with huge new social programs rolled out in the biggest public-spending program of our political lifetime. With much of the same optimism and endeavor of early 1960s America, Labour came to power in 1997 determined to tackle poverty, social exclusion and unemployment. Health and education spending are leaping up to meet the EU average for the first time. Poverty abolition is on target to meet its quarter-way mark by 2005 - 1.1 million fewer poor children. Most of Labour's ideas, energy and funding has gone to programs concerned with social justice. We can argue round the edges about whether choice is the wrong way, more tax could be raised or more could be done faster, but the spending facts speak for themselves: this is a successful social democracy.
Now compare that to the devastation George Bush and his neo-conservative ideologues are wreaking upon America. The last vestiges of the Great Society programs are in the process of being dismantled, if the White House gets its way. Programs that survived the depredations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr are falling under the Bush Jr axe. The axe is the natural result of the phenomenal tax cuts of the past three years - $1.3 trillion in 2001, $96bn in 2002 and $330bn this year.
Nearly half of the main tax cut went straight into the pockets of the richest 1% of Americans. The Bush plutocracy is led by a cabinet whose wealth is 10 times that of Bill Clinton's. Now they plan to abolish inheritance tax - which only the top 2% pay - and capital gains taxes. Cuts in federal social programs are an ideological as well as a financial twin to tax cuts. The neo-conservatives are on an ideological crusade to slash and burn big government in Washington, whatever it takes, shredding taxes and social programs as they go: the wild right mindset of the militias has seized the citadel.
Johnson's greatest success was his Head Start program for under-fives. Founded 38 years ago, every study shows how intensive support for poor children with education, health and nutrition has delivered children ready to learn when they enter primary school. One famous study followed for 30 years the destiny of a group of children from the program and compared them with a control group of poor children who were among the many who never got a Head Start place. It found that every $1 Head Start spent saved $7 later on social security, mental health and crime. Many more Head Start children went on to university, owned their own homes and never drew welfare. Another study just out has revised the sum to $8.74 for every dollar spent. It was the well-monitored results of the US Head Start program that inspired Britain's similar Sure Start children's centers. A third of people working for Head Start are mothers who were themselves helped by it.
The strength of this evidence saved it from previous Republican presidents: Nixon increased funding for Head Start. But now George Bush plans, in effect, to dismantle it. The House of Representatives has pushed through his wish to devolve funding and control from federal level down to individual states. But as the states are heavily in debt and already cutting their existing social programs, they are likely to use this block grant for other things. Head Start risks fading away, covering ever fewer children with an ever thinner program Already 40% of poor children are not covered. An official government General Accounting Office report finds that federal funds are eight times more likely to reach poor families than funds devolved to the states to target the poor.
It is a Bush hallmark that this dismantling goes with a guileful promise to "improve" Head Start by demanding more graduate teachers are employed. That doubles the cost, yet with cuts and no extra money for teachers the program will shrink drastically. There has been a great groundswell of protest, with a recent full-page ad in the New York Times taken out by leading business CEOs, such as the head of Hasbro toys, makers of Action Man. Head Start rates as the most popular government program of all time.
But this is only the most high-profile of Bush plans to dismantle federal social programs by devolving them down to the states with inadequate funds, scant ring fencing and no monitoring of the effect. Unemployment insurance, Medicaid (healthcare for poor families), child welfare, food stamps and housing are all in line. Congress may manage to modify and delay some of it - Head Start devolution may now start with just eight pilot states - but this heralds a further erosion of what was anyway the thinnest, meanest, weakest social system in the western world.
So what do Bush and Blair talk about over their fireside bottle of mineral water? Where is this fabled meeting of minds? Once they have done whatever is to be done - or not done - on Iraq, Guantanamo and trade tariffs, once they have small-talked wives and children, what then? Here is the leader with the greatest wealth and power on Earth at his command, squandering it, abusing it, misusing it with every step he takes. The two men can hardly compare notes on pet projects and policies. It is astonishingly difficult to talk for long or with any closeness to someone whose politics are obnoxious.
In truth, whatever appearances suggest over the next two days, there is precious little shared between them beyond political destinies so fatefully linked in Iraq.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003