Blair, the BBC and dictatorship

The Iraq war was a catastrophe for the way the UK is governed.

Over on his blog, the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, posts a revealing PS about Blair's second appearance before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.

What is emerging before our eyes is a clash of cultures between a politician who believes governing is, in the end, about one man's judgement and the Whitehall classes who believe it should be about official papers, formal consideration of the evidence and collective decision-making.

This is appalling. The word for government being one man's judgement is dictatorship. This is not a mere "clash of cultures" (as in "Do you prefer a sofa to a table?"). And Blair has made it clear it is not a matter of judgement. Judgement demands a larger process such as the assessment of evidence and a demand for different options. What Blair has always fallen back on is the sincerity of his belief or gut instinct; again an attribute of dictatorship.

Another aspect to Nick Robinson's attitude, which I am sure is shared across the political class of which he is an outstanding member, is that democracy does not come into it. One part of the Whitehall elite still clings to the need for process and a return to its Establishment codes. As a choice between this and Blairism it is quite right. But it lacks the language to gain popular support for what is an elite form of rule.

I suspect this lies behind the Chilcot inquiry taking itself seriously in a way it was not supposed to do, when it was set up under New Labour. The fact is that the Iraq war was a massive catastrophe for the way the UK is governed. It was illegal, but the government went ahead. It was a military folly, but the warnings were not heeded. It was based on patently ridiculous "intelligence warnings". There were clear distortions of the truth, aka lies (one example will suffice: Saddam could not have been manufacturing chemical weapons but Blair said he was). Above all, the decision was profoundly undemocratic, voters did not want it and were wiser than the elite in their – I can proudly say our – judgement. This is especially damaging as the British system, while not a modern constitutional democracy, has been based on the rule of law and popular consent from the 19th century, before democracy as we know it, with universal franchise, existed anywhere.

People have complained that the Chilcot inquiry does not have a clear brief. But its role has now turned into an inquiry as to whether the legitimacy of British government can be restored.

Note, never mind about democracy.

Of course, it needs a wider remit. When it was announced that Blair was being recalled, was I alone in thinking back to his being the first serving prime minister to be questioned under caution by the police and then questioned again?

Which leads on to more news of the week: Andy Coulson's resignation as David Cameron's media henchperson.

I was confident Coulson was doomed when, before the election, the Observer ran what I described at the time as a "towering" guest column by Peter Oborne. He warned Cameron, whom he supports, not to keep Coulson as his spin doctor should he win the election, as Coulson had been "presiding over what can only be described as a flourishing criminal concern".

The question is: why indeed did Cameron appoint him? Oborne asks this again with knobs on today in the Telegraph.

The answer loops us right back to Nick Robinson's inability to see dictatorship when it mushrooms before his eyes. Cameron thinks that Blair was a successful example of how to govern.

There was a very striking contrast last weekend. In a thoughtful speech to the Fabians to which I hope to return, Ed Miliband told his party how it had misgoverned when in power despite the good things it achieved. He put clear water between himself and his Labour predecessors. That was Saturday. Come Monday, David Cameron in his big speech justifies his reckless approach to public-service reform by praying in aid Tony Blair and only Tony Blair, the "you know", short-circuit dictator himself.

Coulson would have signed off on that Cameron speech as one of his last official acts. Perhaps the question Robinson should have been asking is: who represents continuity and who a change of government!

This is a cross-post from openDemocracy.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.