Friday, 27 July 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 July 2001

One of the most consistently frustrating features of politics in the age of soundbites and focus groups is the almost pathological reluctance of most professional politicians to make any case in public that is remotely controversial.

Of course, politicians have always avoided arguments when they think they are on to a loser. I remember with a shudder the asinine debate on British membership of the Common Market in the run-up to the 1975 referendum, when most of the politicians on both sides preferred to talk about the price of a large white sliced loaf and a quarter-pound of tea rather than the real issues at stake.

But the scale of evasion has grown massively over the past 15-20 years as spin doctors and marketing consultants have become ever more pervasive in politics.
The received wisdom these days is that nothing turns off the punters more than an argument, and that the main result of engaging an opponent or a critic in rational debate is to give legitimacy to his or her point of view. Far better to ignore your opponents and critics, dismiss them as extreme, eccentric or old-fashioned, or silence them by fair means or foul — and simply press ahead with your controversial measure until it acquires the status of fait accompli.

That makes you look strong, which is certainly much better than appearing wise or rational and might even be the perfect state of being in modern politics. As long as you are careful in your handling of the media — all questions agreed beforehand, answers learnt by heart, no interviews with “hostile” journalists et cetera — you should be able to get away with anything short of a poll tax, a devaluation or the provision of passports to dodgy businessmen.

I first came up against this phenomenon in Labour circles when, in the aftermath of the 1987 general election, the Labour leadership decided to drop the policy of ditching Britain’s “independent nuclear deterrent” and removing American nuclear weapons from British soil. The change was pushed through Labour’s policy review process without a single senior Labour politician ever offering a sustained argument for it in public. Afterwards, the best anyone managed to come up with by way of justification was a cynical declaration that times had changed. Because the Russians were more open to disarmament initiatives, we no longer had to be.

The trend became more marked in the Labour Party with the rise to the shadow chancellorship of Gordon Brown, a man who will do anything to avoid explaining his position in public if there is the remotest chance that someone might disagree with him. He refused to justify his silence on the over-valuation of the pound during the sterling crisis that led up to Black Wednesday. He declined to be drawn into defending his enthusiasm for the Maastricht treaty. And he dodged all debate on pensions policy, public spending or taxation.

But it was after Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994 that the refusal to engage or justify really became endemic. “New” Labour didn’t argue the case for sucking up to big business and the yellow press – it just did it, utterly shamelessly. It was the same with adopting the Tories’ spending plans and promising a referendum on joining the euro.

Since 1997, shirking discussion has been the Government’s norm. No one ever explained why we needed the Dome, or postponement of British entry into the single European currency, or single-parent benefit cuts, or undemocratic reform of the House of Lords, or toothless freedom of information legislation, or the scrapping of student grants — we just got them. And, amazingly, hardly anyone bothered to complain or demand that the government account for its actions.

In the past few weeks, however, something has changed. True to form, no one in government has bothered to justify the two most controversial measures of the second term announced so far — the apparently only half-formulated plans to hand over delivery of more public services to the private sector and Gordon Brown’s refusal to compromise with Ken Livingstone over London’s underground.

But the response, from MPs, press, unions and public alike, has been unlike anything “New” Labour has had to face before. People simply cannot understand why the government thinks the private sector offers a solution to chronic understaffing and poor management in the public services — or why Brown believes the tube could be improved by being split up and run by private companies in the same way as the railways.

Through their unwillingness to account for their actions, Blair, Brown and their minions have managed the considerable feat of appearing at once cowardly and arrogant. And for the first time it seems that their pig-headedness in pursuing unpopular policies could land them with their own poll tax. Which raises the crucial question of who will be the Michael Heseltine and John Major of the Labour Party . . .

Sunday, 1 July 2001


Paul Anderson, Chartist column, July-August 2001

The biggest surprise so far of Tony Blair’s second term has been the sacking of Robin Cook as foreign secretary and his replacement by Jack Straw. In the run-up to the election, all the supposedly informed press commentators had it that Cook would stay in place and Straw would get the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Unsurprisingly, the move provoked a rash of speculation – not least because Straw has a reputation as a hard-line Eurosceptic. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was one of the most prominent rising stars in Labour’s anti-European wing, a protégé of Barbara Castle and Peter Shore (in whose two unsuccessful campaigns for the Labour leadership Straw played a key role). He was privately opposed to Britain signing the Maastricht treaty in 1991 and ever since, along with Margaret Beckett and David Blunkett, has been one of the strongest voices in the Labour leadership – albeit behind closed doors – for staying out of the single European currency. Notably, unlike Cook and most other currently senior Labour figures who were anti-European in the early 1980s, Straw has never publicly renounced his Eurosceptic views.

So why is he now foreign secretary – the position that carries most responsibility for our relations with Europe? One reason, undoubtedly, is that Gordon Brown wanted Cook, an enthusiast for early entry into the euro, out of the way.

As Cook’s former adviser, David Clark, made clear in a biting polemic in the Guardian immediately after the reshuffle, the chancellor could not bear Cook straying on to his territory by making warmly pro-euro speeches. Insiders say Brown made his feelings clear to Blair on several occasions, though it is not clear whether he actually demanded that Cook be replaced. Whatever, once Cook went, Straw was the only politician around of sufficient seniority who wanted the job.

Of course, it is just possible that this is all there is to the story – that Straw’s appointment is significant only in so far as it minimises the chances of public disagreements between the Foreign Office and the Treasury while the government assesses Brown’s “five economic tests” for euro membership.

In line with this, it is certainly true that Straw has not made public statements dissociating himself from the government’s “wait-and-see” position on the euro. And it is at least plausible that he has decided to abandon his erstwhile anti-Europeanism to the point of recommending euro membership when the time comes – even if it is rather difficult to imagine such a turnaround being convincingly executed.

But, particularly in the wake of Brown’s Mansion House speech, in which the chancellor declared for “pro-euro realism” -- with the emphasis on the “realism” – it is difficult to believe that Blair did not intend Straw’s elevation to signal a markedly more cautious approach to the euro. There has been no explicit statement from the government that Britain will not join the euro this parliament. Everything now suggests, however, that this is the government’s plan. It is hardly surprising that both the reshuffle – which also involved the appointment of another former Eurosceptic, Peter Hain, as Europe minister and the removal of the pro-euro Stephen Byers from the Department of Trade and Industry – and Brown’s speech have set alarm bells ringing throughout the euro-zone and won warm praise from the Murdoch press.

(They have also, incidentally, made a mess of the plans of the pro-euro lobby in Britain. After six months of masterful inactivity, the main organisation in it, Britain in Europe, largely funded by business but with some trade union support, had intended to relaunch itself with a big splash in the immediate wake of the election. The sacking of Cook and Brown’s hyper-cautious speech eclipsed its efforts, and it is now desperately trying to find out what exactly the government is up to.)

Europe is not, of course, the whole of the FO’s brief, and nor does Europe appear to be the only reason Cook was fired. Although he had a good working relationship with Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, he was an opponent of the American National Missile Defence scheme. As soon as it became clear that the Bush administration saw NMD as a central element of policy and was not prepared to listen to European concerns about its impact on the arms control regime, Cook’s position came into conflict with Blair’s determination to sustain the “special relationship” come what may (a determination shared, incidentally, by Brown, as he made clear in some little-noticed passages at the Mansion House).

Other things being equal, it is unlikely that this would have led to Cook’s demise: he would simply have had to buckle under when Blair insisted that Britain was backing NMD, just as he did on arms sales to Indonesia and on several other issues in the first term. But other things were not equal, and Cook went.

What Straw will be like as foreign secretary remains to be seen. His first weeks in post have been unremarkable apart from a shouting match with a television journalist – off camera – who accused him of being evasive during an interview on the fringes of the June European Council meeting in Gothenburg. That meeting hit the headlines because of rioting in the streets, but it was significant too for confirming an ambitious timetable for EU enlargement despite the Irish referendum rejecting the treaty of Nice.

Although it has been a major priority of the Blair government, enlargement has barely figured in the European debate in Britain – but it has the potential to become even more controversial than the euro. If all goes according to schedule (admittedly a big if), within three years the first applicant countries from east-central Europe will be admitted to the EU. That means several million people keen to share in western Europe’s riches, many of them prepared to come to work in the west – and many western governments are nervous about the prospect of a flood of economic migration and desperate to put major constraints on the EU’s new citizens’ freedom of movement.

As it happens, immigration and policing are the only aspects of EU policy in which Straw had significant experience as home secretary. Given his record, it is unlikely that he will be playing a very liberal role in the two years of gruelling negotiations that must take place if enlargement is to go ahead as planned. But then perhaps that is another reason Blair gave him the job.