I'd lived in London for a couple of years in the mid-1980s. One day I went back to the States, on the assumption that I'd just be there a couple of months. Then one thing led to another, and somehow I haven't set foot here in a decade. Everything I'd read about the place since?most of it regarding Tony Blair and British politics?inclined me to expect I'd be bowled over by the changes. Besides, the only other place I've returned to after a similar time lag was rendered unrecognizable in the interim. Between the time I last saw Ireland in 1982 and the time I returned to visit in 1997, it was transformed from the world's northernmost Third World country into the easternmost outpost of Silicon Valley, from a country almost medieval in its Catholicism into the new-agey-est place in Europe.
How disconcerting then, that England's pretty much exactly the same as it was in the 1980s. Porkpies?a sort of puck-shaped wedge of Spam topped with quivering blobs of aspic and then covered with a cookie-like crust?are still as great a taste treat as they were in the days before mad-cow disease. Private Eye still tells exactly the same jokes. And the Brits remain just as they were: the exact opposite of every stereotype they hold about themselves. These are people who will whine about how hard it is for them to let their feelings show, then spend the next half-hour giving you vastly more detail than you'd care to hear about their odder sexual habits. These are people who brag that their national motto is "Mustn't grumble," but this afternoon I asked a fellow in Knightsbridge, "How ya doin'?" and he replied, "I'm in immense pain."
True, there are some changes around the edges. There's a clothier on Kensington High Street called French Connection U.K., and they have a large neon sign out front that says, "FCUK." You wouldn't have seen that in the Thatcher years. Then for lunch I went back to my old local, the Kensington Arms. In my day it was half-Australian (and all-wastrel), and I was pals with the governor. They'd give me a foldout sofa in an upstairs room if it got too late to take the Tube home. This would allow me to wander back down at odd hours of the night (or not-so-odd hours, given that the place closed at 11) and pull my own pints while I read at the bar in my undershorts. Today, it's a yuppie haven. I returned and found a sign outside reading "Patrons with soiled clothing or shoes may be denied entry." Another promised high-quality "hand-pulled ales." (How are you supposed to pull a pint of ale? By remote control?)
Blair Breasted It's easy to see where I went wrong. This is the most tabloid- and entertainment-oriented culture on Earth?on my hotel television, seven of the nine channels are taken up by sports (Wimbledon, a West Indies-Zimbabwe cricket match, the Tour de France, rugby highlights, a billiards competition, and on and on), and of the remaining two channels, one is MTV. This is not a culture that cares about politics much, or feels itself much affected by politics?and politics is pretty much all I know about the England of the last decade.
Granted, the political developments are even more catastrophic on close examination than they appear across the Atlantic. In the mid-1980s, England was an extremely free country; it didn't have a war on drugs or a war on smoking. And why should it have? This, after all, was the cradle of the world's liberties. Now it's made up for lost time, and Blair's Britain looks more and more like the most antilibertarian government in the West.
This is the ultimate Bobo government, devoted solely to making life comfortable and hassle-free for the rich liberal professional classes. Bill Clinton is at least hemmed in a bit by the need to manage the West's nuclear arsenal and deal with nettlesome problems specific to America, like race and the global money supply. Tony Blair has no such constraints. His latest masterpiece of government intrusion involved a due-process-wrecking scheme to keep proles from drinking on Saturday nights. Apparently dreamed up by Blair's devious flack Alastair Campbell, it involves fining young yobbos found drunk after dark?not through a court hearing, but on the spot. Policemen, not judges, would walk these staggering louts down to the nearest automatic teller machine and make them withdraw £100 in cash, to be delivered to the local authorities. (So one hopes, but if the copper judges the drunk to be blacked out, one rather doubts it.) It is hard to think of a greater incentive to rogue-ify the police than this one. As such, the most delightful news of last week was that Blair's own son Euan had been picked up (I use the term advisedly) by the police in Leicester Square for public drunkenness.
Blair's most famous policy pronouncement to date has been his boast that he'll be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." It's heartening to see that people are finally realizing that there's a Giuliani side to Blair. He likes being tough just because it makes him feel good to be tough, and he'll be tough whether there's anything to be tough about or not. Another brilliant Blair crime-fighting idea is his insistence that, in the future, all Internet service providers doing business in Britain provide law-enforcement authorities with "black boxes," which would allow the police to read anyone's e-mail at will. The New York-based high-tech theorist Esther Dyson was invited to visit several of Blair's advisers last Wednesday and rained on his parade by publicly attacking his black-box idea. Then at Question Time, opposition leader William Hague mocked Blair's law enforcement ideas as "yet another gimmick from a government of gimmicks." Hague has generally been an uninspired interlocutor at these sessions, but Blair appears to have been rattled by public indifference to his latest gimmick-blizzard. So when Hague attacked, Blair feebly brought up education as a way of talking "about substance, not spin."
Which only led people to think: For a change!
Blair is carrying out his whole program with a sort of shit-eating grin. His decision to abolish the House of Lords, in order that it may be replaced by an upper house of no-less-powerful nobs and nabobs drawn exclusively from Blair's yuppie overachiever class, now appears to be less a matter of "reform" or "modernization" than of power politics. For one thing, the Lords have been the most powerful force in slowing down such Blairite initiatives as the black-box business. For another, anytime Blair talks about "modernization," he seems to have an ulterior motive. Last week, he announced that, in response to the outraged pleas of, primarily, female Labor MPs, he would close down Parliament at 10 p.m. every night. This, he claims, will make the House of Commons more "family-friendly." But surely the point is to make it more Labor-friendly as well, since the ability to drag debate out has been, since time immemorial, one of the few trump cards that any opposition party possesses.
The problem with these modernizers is that they're insatiable. Nothing can ever be modern enough. The Labor women's next demand?no fooling?is that they be allowed to breast-feed during parliamentary debates.