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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.