Jacqui Smith: a question of courage?

Why do Labour Home Office ministers stumble so badly when they attempt to deal with immigration? Bec

The serialisation of Gordon Brown's latest book, Wartime Courage, has gone largely unnoticed. But in the week running up to Remembrance Sunday, the Daily Telegraph ran extracts of the Prime Minister's latest tribute to individual heroism, which followed two previous volumes on celebrated men and women of courage and everyday heroes. The extracts suggest that the new book, due for publication in April of next year, is a surprisingly good read. Brown is plainly moved by the Second World War bomb disposal experts, secret service operatives and ordinary soldiers whose exploits he describes.

It is said that Gordon Brown became so obsessed with these stories of personal courage that senior members of the defence staff and the intelligence services would bring him new snippets of information, or be asked by Brown to open files to confirm facts on the people concerned. As the extracts show, the stories in Wartime Courage are peppered with references to these military and intelligence documents.

But where lie the roots of this obsession? I am told that Brown became fascinated by how people perform under fire and, in particular, how they kept their head when entering enemy territory.

I kept thinking of the book extracts when I watched Jacqui Smith under persistent Tory fire after her parliamentary statement this week on how much she knew about people working illegally in this country as security guards, and when she knew it. It made me wonder why Labour Home Office ministers fare so badly when entering the enemy territory represented by the immigration debate in this country.

One by one they have been shot down by David Davis, who simply waits for them to move into his sights on the immigration battlefield before picking them off. The first was Beverley Hughes, the immigration minister who resigned in April 2004 after she claimed not to have known about a visa scam involving fraudulent claims from eastern Europe. It later turned out that she had been warned a year previously. Her demise was followed, in December of the same year, by that of her mentor, David Blunkett, after he was linked to the speeding up of a visa for his lover's nanny. The episode also revealed systematic failings at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at the Home Office.

Blunkett's successor, Charles Clarke, fared no better when, in May 2004, he was forced out after it was revealed that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners had been released without being deported. The final straw came when the New Statesman revealed that one of the offenders concerned went on to become a suspect in a high-profile terrorist case.

We are talking here about new Labour's crack troops, not fresh-faced new recruits, and yet in three-and-a-half long years they have been shown to be woefully ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with a firmly entrenched enemy, sure of its ground. So why is it that Labour politicians stumble so haplessly when they attempt to deal with this issue?

I believe there are three main reasons. The first is that the department responsible for dealing with immigration at the Home Office remains one of the most dysfunctional in the whole of Whitehall. John Reid knew this when he split the Home Office in two, but the restructuring, while it may have highlighted the problem, has not yet brought the reform necessary to solve it. A second and connected issue is the disloyalty of immigration officials to the government. David Blunkett's troubles began when an ideologically-driven mole began leaking information. Ministers believe a similar process was at work in the recent leaks to the Daily Mail of emails showing how early Jacqui Smith was made aware of the problem over security guards. They are convinced that they went to the Tory party first, and I have certainly heard senior Tories boast that they have had Home Office officials falling over themselves to provide them with information.

Distasteful work

But third and most importantly, Labour ministers still feel deeply uncomfortable with the immigration issue and, in many cases, quite rightly so. No Labour politician goes into parliament because of a burning desire to deport asylum-seekers or kick illegal workers out of their jobs. This is distasteful work, and despite ten years of tough-talking rhetoric I don't believe even David Blunkett, Labour's most authoritarian home secretary, was happy dealing with immigration policy. For this reason alone, Labour will always be outflanked by a party which feels passionately about it.

Jacqui Smith, therefore, has good reason to be concerned. There is a growing frustration within the Labour government that no real progress has been made at the Home Office since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Although new initiatives have been launched by Ed Balls at the Department for Children, Schools and Welfare, for example, and by Peter Hain at the Department for Work and Pensions, Smith has been hamstrung by a department that still seems, in the words of her predecessor, "not fit for purpose". At the time of writing, Smith herself is not being held responsible and her stock remains high because of her handling of the failed terrorist attacks in June. Her offence at this point is unclear. She certainly held back information from the public, but it isn't clear whether she did so to stop illegal immigrants going on the run, or to bury bad news. Either way, one more leak of a misjudged email and she could yet find herself in no-man's-land, just another victim of David Davis's sniper fire.

Show Hide image

An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State