In Saturday's Telegraph, Vicki Woods asked what to many confused and disappointed people will have seemed a pertinent question. When did Labour, she wondered, become the Nasty Party?
Was it before the invasion of Iraq or after? I am beyond sick of the corrosion of my freedoms and the extent of invasion into my privacy by this Government. I liked Britain better when I knew what was allowed and what was not.
She goes on to complain about the numbers of "council jobsworths or private security workers" being given quasi-police powers, about the confusing tangle of new laws and the ever extending databases. She was particularly "stunned" to find out about ContactPoint, a data disaster waiting to happen, which will contain the details of all eleven million children in England and to which an estimated 330,000 "relevant professionals" will have access. Her reaction is part of the problem, of course. ContactPoint has been in preparation for four years; there has been almost no public consultation or debate (and why should there be, since parents are not going to be asked to give their permission, or even be permitted to opt out); and if Vicki Woods, a professional journalist, has only just heard about it, you can bet there'll be millions of parents out there who are even more in the dark.
(The database, incidentally, has just been postponed yet again while some minor security "glitches" are ironed out. But the government are still determined to press ahead. Officially, it has been introduced because of the incompetence of social workers which led to the tragic death of Victoria Climbié. I find this explanation somewhat unconvincing.)
But - to return to Vicki Woods's question - when did Labour first become the Nasty Party?
That wouldn't be my question. More to the point, what people should be asking themselves is this: When did I first notice that Labour was the Nasty Party?
So many people voted for them, so many other people were delighted by their victory in 1997, so many more even than that bought into the myth of the Tories as cold-hearted crypto-fascists, that it feels difficult to be able to say - as I certainly can - that I saw it all coming, that it was always obvious to anyone prepared to stand back from the hype and look at New Labour in the clear light of day, that they were always going to be bullies, that they were never nice people, and that our liberties were always going to be sacrificed on the twin altars of headline obsession and love of state power.
It should have been blindingly clear from the beginning to anyone who listened to what Blair and his minions actually said, rather than what they appeared to say, to what they proposed to do, rather than the sweet reasonableness with which they explained it, that they would be the greatest peacetime threat to liberty the country had faced in two hundred years. But, of course, there was very little willingness to listen other than selectively, to hope for the best, to look at the warmth of Tony Blair's smile rather than the coldness of his eyes.
The reasons for this lie partly in political mythology. John Major, one of the most inoffensive politicians of recent times, was always an implausible Mr Nasty, yet even in under his leadership the Conservative failed to rebut the presumption that the Tories were the Bad guys and Labour the party of caring. By 1997, for perfectly good reasons, the country wanted a change of government. There were already some doubts - mainly on the far left - about Tony Blair; but most people didn't want to listen to the doubts. They wanted to believe in all the guff about New Dawns and "24 hours to save the NHS". This isn't surprising, though it is surprising that the assumption of basic Labour niceness persisted so long, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, and persists yet in some quarters.
Yet the basic facts were always available. When did I notice all was not right with New Labour? Perhaps it was when Jack Straw, in opposition, began suggesting child curfews as a good idea. Or when Blair, in Labour conference speeches, began using religious words like "covenant". I well remember what really gave me the creeps, though: it was a phrase in the 1997 manifesto which ran, "Our aim is to make New Labour nothing other than the political arm of the British people as a whole". That was not the language of democratic accountability; that was the language of dictatorship, of the One Party State. It should have been seen either as a colossal act of hubris or a sign of dangerous powerlust. But, such was the unquestioning atmosphere at the times, if it was mentioned at all it was merely as a generous-sounding exposition of the Big Tent strategy.
We must define our terms clearly and precisely. It isn't Labour that was always the nasty party, though like all parties it has always had nasty people in it. One can argue that envy and bitterness permeate socialistic thinking and corrupt anyone involved; yet for all its economic incompetence and mad attachment to nationalisation, the old Labour party was basically an honourable and decent one. It was New Labour, which presented itself to the electorate in 1997 as soft-focus, cuddly and moderate, which has nastiness running through its DNA. Nastiness towards individuals: think Dr David Kelly, hounded to his death because he threatened the government's news management, 94 year old Rose Addis, smeared as a racist for daring to find the NHS of less than platonic perfection. Nastiness towards groups who can safely be cast in the role of scapegoat: smokers, fox-hunters, children. Nastiness towards anyone who dares question. All this combined with a cringing attitude towards multinational corporations and unpleasant foreign regimes and a nest-feathering instinct that would not disgrace an arctic eider points to one thing: New Labour nastiness is the nastiness of the bully.
New Labour is nasty, above all, because it is insecure. And it is insecure because it has a pessimistic view of human nature. It believes that people are basically bad: selfish and stupid in equal measure, but above all incompetent. And so it can only achieve its aims (which it believes are good and noble aims) by a combination of coercion and lies. Paranoid and mistrustful, it is forever lashing out.
The big mistake for many opponents of this government's anti-liberty measures has to assume that a basically benign regime has been led astray by various events that have occurred, from the terror attacks of 9/11 to the periodic newspaper campaigns of moral panic (this summer it's knives) into introducing ill-considered measures. This is rather akin to the old line that the king had been mislead by evil counsellors. Time and again, however, the position is seen to be reversed: the government announces a repressive or illiberal measure and the outside event that is seen to have triggered it comes along later.
The clearest case of this is the Terrorism Act 2000, passed during the period when the IRA had gone more or less out of business and the government was still happy to let London be the playground for Islamist loonies of all types. But there are others. ASBOs, for example. Anti-social behaviour seemed to be much less of a problem before there were ASBOs to deal with it, possibly because the human rights culture and the national obsession with paedophiles had not yet made it dangerous for adults to discipline children in their own neighbourhoods. Likewise the National Identity Register is sold as a means of dealing with indentity fraud; but identity fraud was scarcely a problem until the government started demanding ever more elaborate proofs of identity for all sorts of daily activities.
There's another, contrary pattern, in which the "problem" was apparent all along, but the government only decides to crack down on it after it has already been more-or-less solved. Smokers, for example, have seen their right to smoke in public progressively restricted; 16 year olds lost their decades old right to buy cigarettes; there is now talk of forcing smokers to obtain licences or to buy tobacco under humiliating conditions as though it were a controlled drug. Anyone might think, seeing these tough measures, that smoking was an increasing menace. Yet the proportion of the public who smoke regularly has been falling for years, and would have continued to fall at much the same rate regardless of these new laws and restrictions. It's difficult to resist the impression that the government is going after smokers because there are no longer enough of them to resist.
Well, that's bullies for you.