Modernizing Britain's welfare state Blair policies: Ending payment to single mothers, reshaping health service.


IF IT TOOK Richard Nixon to open U.S. relations with Communist China, it takes the "New Labor" Party of Prime Minister Tony Blair to peel away the welfare state that the old Labor Party created in Britain a half-century ago.

Labor's May 1 election victory was so lopsided that many observers believed Mr. Blair would discard his tactical centrism, especially as so many traditional Laborites were returned to the back benches of the House of Commons. But in the space of two days, Mr. Blair re-emphasized that he means it.

In a symbolic struggle that brought defections from his side, his government ended an $18-a-week welfare payment to single parents on top of other family support payments. While this was upheld as virtuous in encouraging work by single mothers, the main rationale was fiscal.

Mr. Blair had promised to maintain the budget cuts planned by the Conservative government he defeated, and this was one of them.

This parliamentary drama followed by a day a white paper laying out a 10-year program to reform the National Health Service. His promise had been to improve, not end, this cornerstone of British welfarism. Labor will end the reform wrought by its Conservative predecessor, in which medical practices were vested with funds and told to budget themselves and compete for patients.

They will be replaced by primary care groups serving larger populations and not competing. The government promises to decrease administrative paperwork, already way below the bureaucracy in American managed care. The British public cannot figure out what this policy statement really means, and will wait and see.

Mr. Blair is neither a leftist nor a rightist but a self-proclaimed modernizer. His planners are industrial and graphic arts designers trying to make Britain look up-to-the-minute and less traditional in everything from telephone booths (to be transparent instead of opaque red) to the monarchy (urged to be informal and closer to the people).

In renouncing ideological purity, Mr. Blair sets up another measure for his policies, effectiveness. The test is not whether something is socialism, but whether it works. He has erected the standard by which he will be judged, and the judgment is not in. But at least he is behaving in power as he promised he would.

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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