It is not as if we hadn't seen it coming. Our readers will have found us not uncritical of New Labour whether under Brown or Blair. Of course we have usually focused on foreign policy, characterised by subservience to the most extreme right-wing US administration in living memory. Audiences at Howard Brenton's new play at the National, "Never so Good", will have been intrigued by its portrayal of Harold Macmillan's attempts even after the Suez debacle to stand up to Eisenhower at Bermuda in 1957 - "true partnership is based on mutual respect", he told the country in a broadcast, while in the 1960s his successor Harold Wilson refused point blank to commit British troops to Vietnam. Whether through engagement with the Commonwealth and Europe or by pursuing an at least minimally independent role at the UN, each sought counterweights to the US. The fact is that in the last ten years these alternatives have been abandoned, leaving us exposed as the shabby henchman of a brutal and now discredited US administration.
But this is not the whole story. Domestic policy has also reflected New Labour's adoption of a US-oriented neo-liberal market ideology. While the going was good so were the payoffs. But the pursuit of absolute economic growth combined with privatisation of everything, including the health service jewel in the crown of Labour's reputation, has turned sour. It is after all unbridled capitalist expansion which is wrecking our environment, while the toxic brew of debt and hedonism has created a social recession which appears to be impacting disproportionately on children. Now that we have economic recession as well, the game is pretty well up.
However we should not see what has happened in the UK in isolation. Last Thursday's local elections showed a marked shift to the centre right in British politics, but one that comes soon after a more dramatic turn in Italy, with Blair's friend and ally Berlusconi declaring his party the "new Falange" and cries of "Duce, Duce" ringing out again in Rome. Last year saw the consolidation of the French right in power, with a programme exploiting the indefensible idiosyncrasies of the French welfare state in order to attack its very existence.
Why is it that the first whiffs of crisis in a capitalism which has identified itself with destiny should produce these reactions? One aspect we would do well to think about is the way triumphant neo-liberalism has destroyed social democratic parties everywhere, together not only with their values but also the structure of debate and political education they represented. Just as Forza Italia was created on the model of a marketing operation, so New Labour has downgraded the party to an echo-chamber for a leadership which promotes its corporate-inspired policies through the media.
In France we see the same process, described thus in a recent book*: "Sarkozysme is institutional bonapartism which concentrates power in the hands of the elected president, who then bases his rule on a direct relationship between the leader and the public".
Or so he thought. Despite the collapse of the Socialist Party, political civil society is still strong in France, and Sarkozy is running into concerted opposition. Foreign observers of a neo-liberal cast of mind wonder whether French workers have taken leave of their senses in rejecting market dominated solutions. Others might ask instead how long before those elsewhere are driven to think outside the neo-liberal straitjacket.
* Le Starkozysme, Olivier Duhamel and Michel Field, Seuil 2008