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Labour's illiberal home secretaries

What is it about the office of home secretary that makes perfectly decent politicians turn away from

What is about the office of home secretary, which transforms relatively well-adjusted Labour ministers into illiberal controllers of our freedom?

Jacqui Smith has already joined the line of recent Labour Home Secretaries who have put aside luxurious notions of individual rights in favour of police powers.

The events surrounding the arrest of Damian Green MP amply demonstrated her acceptance of the police as an authority beyond reproach; seemingly trumping even Parliament.

The home secretary is the only cabinet minister, other than the prime minister, who has 24-hour armed protection.

One can't help wondering if this constant reminder of the threat of violence has some subliminal influence on their outlook.

Over time, home secretaries seem to lose their public affability and become increasingly emotional when dealing with criminal issues.

Liberal Democrat spokesman on Home Affairs, Chris Huhne argued: “Even those who have entered the Home Office with the best of intentions have found it simpler to peddle the easy answers of authoritarianism when in office. The result are policies that appeal to the more punitive nature of public opinion and the popular press.”

The majority of the most criticised criminal justice measures since 1997 originated between 2001 and 2004 when David Blunkett occupied the office.

Blunkett instigated ID cards, removed the automatic right of trial by jury, established the world’s most extensive DNA database and gave authorities widespread surveillance powers under RIPA - the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Anyone who has ever read Blunkett’s various tabloid columns can deduce he is driven by a populist agenda.

As leader of Sheffield City Council in the 1980s, he saw himself as a bulwark against the harsh social aspects of Thatcherism. But when home secretary, he succeeded in establishing more draconian legislation than Willie Whitelaw, Leon Brittan, or Douglas Hurd would have dared raise in a Thatcher cabinet.

Shami Chakrabati of Liberty termed Blunkett, “the most authoritarian home secretary in living memory". His successors have not seen fit to reverse any of their predecessor’s tough enforcement measures.

One of David Blunkett’s few liberalising acts was to initiate the reclassification of cannabis to a class C drug to stop tens of thousands of young people being criminalised every year.

Charles Clarke immediately tried to overturn this measure and so abandoned a brief period of rational thinking on drug policy.

By next January, Jacqui Smith will have succeeded in completing the volte-face; she has only offered cursory justification describing the legal change as necessary, “to help police prioritisation”.

Central to any home secretary’s tenure is the relationship they forge with the police. Blunkett extended police powers more than any previous home secretary in modern times. The police did not always return the love; following his retirement former Met Chief John (now Lord) Stevens described Blunkett as, “a bully and a liar".

A home secretary may be responsible for an effective law enforcement regime but equally should balance that with the protection and promotion of our personal freedoms.

The second part seems, at times, to have become a source of intense irritation to Labour home secretaries: Jack Straw decried those in the “prison reform lobby”. David Blunkett referred to groups such as Liberty as, “self-appointed gurus of our freedom” and libertarians as “airy-fairy”.

Fiona Mactaggart MP was a Home Office minister under both Blunkett and Clarke and disagrees they were increasingly illiberal in their approach. “David Blunkett introduced a mandatory recording system for police stop and searches. He also remedied the injustice created by the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act whereby British nationals with no other citizenship, largely from east Africa, were deprived of the right to come to Britain. Charles Clarke was developing a radical vision of community prisons, which would have been much less oppressive.”

But the expansion of the DNA database perfectly encapsulates how a home secretary loses balance.

There is no doubt capturing the DNA profiles of criminals has been a highly innovative and effective weapon against serious crime. But its scope has been extended way beyond the original intention and now the police now hold samples from 850,000 people who have not faced a charge let alone been convicted.

The high proportion of samples from black and ethnic minority groups and minors would, at one time in their careers, have stirred the consciences of many Labour ministers.

Instead, Jacqui Smith, “mounted a robust defence,” of this prima facie diminution of individuals’ rights before losing hands-down in the European Court last week.

However, it would seem this unrelenting harsh approach and controlling instincts is a more of a feature of Labour Governments under Blair and Brown. Roy Jenkins in the Wilson Government in the 1960s did not feel restrained to act for individual liberty where it was suppressed by an inequitable and intolerant state. In the teeth of opposition, often from the police, he established legal abortion, gay rights and relaxed censorship in less than two years.

Compare Jenkins’s resolute defence of freedoms with Jacqui Smith’s deference to police independence when an opposition MP was arrested for his political activities.

In October, she was clearly incensed to be denied the power to detain suspects for 42 days without charge. But there always seem to be new measures to sate a modern Home Secretary’s desire for greater control. The proposed database capturing every e-mail, text and phone call should do it.

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.

Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.


In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”

The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.

The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.

An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder


These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.

Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.

An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.


Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.

Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”

The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.