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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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.


A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain