Friday, August 11, 2006


Possibly Not the Worst Home Secretary Conceivable

Jonathan Calder has written a penetrating (if depressing) analysis of Home Secretary John Reid. In the early days of New Labour, Liberals who had hopes for it saw Home Affairs as an embarrassing aberration; even those suckered at the time have now long known that the occasional early liberal noises were the aberration, but remember how shockingly authoritarian Jack Straw seemed back then? People who were New Labour sceptics from the beginning used to mention Mr Straw as code to make Paddy Ashdown wince. In Opposition, he had been in a bidding war to be more illiberal than Michael Howard. You got the feeling that if Judge Death had become Tory Home Secretary, announcing that all crime was committed by the living and so the pre-emptive sentence for the entire population was death, Mr Straw would have jumped up to shout, “Not tough enough!” And when, in government, he announced curfews for children, who can forget John Redwood’s statement that “Even I’m not that right-wing”?

Back in 1994 I was describing Tony Blair as a Christian Democrat, and I constantly hammered his 1997 programme as a Tory one. Where I was wrong is that I, too, thought Jack Straw was the worst they could do. While he was the jemmy that helped prise Liberal Democrats away from New Labour – before Iraq turned ‘ceasing co-operation’ into ‘implacable opposition’ – he wasn’t some bizarre authoritarian extreme of their coalition, but symptomatic of its whole approach, and not even the worst they could do as Home Secretary. Yes, I remember joking at the time that the only way things could get worse would be with David Blunkett in the Home Office. Sigh. Similarly, the only partisan bully who seemed worse than Charles Clarke would have been… Dr Strangelove Reid. The current Home Secretary’s latest speech about freedoms we have to ‘temporarily’ chuck away (when we ought to defend them, not least to stick two old-fashioned British fingers up at terrorists who want to destroy our way of life, rather than the government doing it for them) has already been excoriated by Will Howells, but Jonathan Calder brilliantly exposes what it means in his understatedly-titled ‘John Reid: The cloven hoof pops out’:

“So the problems we face are the existence of politicians who disagree with the government, an independent judiciary and a free press. In short, the central institutions of a liberal democracy.”
The radio comedy series Hordes of the Things saw Paul Eddington’s Good King Yulfric the Wise the Third let Albion fall by increments to a murderous brotherhood of cannibal monks (or, as Mr Blair would put it, implement a bold series of faith-based initiatives). His queen, finding a helm marked ‘T.E.O.’ in the advance luggage of the bishop’s latest guest, confronts Yulfric with her fears. “I’ve just had the most terrible thought!” he declares. “Isn’t that awful great aunt of yours called ‘Teresa’, or something?” “Yulfric, I’m afraid it’s worse than that.” “What can possibly be worse than that? Unless of course,” he laughs, “it’s The Evil One. The Evil One…” His laughter tails away.

Similarly, the Labour Party since 1997 has always managed to be more appalling than my very low expectations. Yes, Dr Reid is what we used to call at uni a ‘tankie’ – an ‘official’ communist long after the tanks rolled into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as Jonathan points out. But Labour’s authoritarianism today is endemic to their culture, not down to any one individual, and I can no longer get excited about how bad any particular one of them might be: it’s a government that hates freedom, full stop. John Reid may well be the worst Home Secretary conceivable – but in the light of their impressive record so far, I will make no rash commitments.

He may not be the worst but he's certainly the Home Secretary with the most parallels to Michael Howard. He's already borrowed the 'Prison works' and 'It's not racist to oppose immigration' lines, what will be next I wonder.
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