Interview: Harriet Harman

The constitutional affairs minister warns colleagues that they can't be a "little bit against discri

Harriet Harman is a militant in the "lilac revolution". She has even coloured her new website lilac in preparation. Her campaign for Labour's deputy leadership is infused with what once would have been called political correctness, but has now entered the mainstream: the fight for women's equality, gay rights and anti-racism. "With Ségolène Royal in France, Hillary Clinton in America, the first woman president in Liberia, another woman in Chile, politics is changing for ever. The idea that you have men talking about equality for women, those days are gone. It's a very significant moment for somebody like me who fought for this and seeing people agree. The spirit of our times is equality," she says.

Harman uses the current Channel 4 race controversy to illustrate her point: "I think it is significant that 40,000 people rang in to complain about Celebrity Big Brother." She cites a Bangladeshi friend from east London who faced open hostility in the supermarket after the events of 9/11. "In that same supermarket now, she's got people coming up to her and apologising, saying: 'Actually we don't think that's all right.'"

That same spirit, she says, infuses a new public attitude to sexuality, which is why the government has introduced civil partnerships and rules to outlaw discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of services. This has brought it into collision with the Catholic Church, which believes its adoption services should be able to deny children to gay couples. As the constitutional affairs minister responsible for the new regulations, Harman is resolute. She quashes talk of a compromise said to be backed by the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, a Catholic. "We will stay true to our commitment in tackling sexual discrimination in terms of sexual orientation," Harman says. She adds, in a tart rebuke to colleagues: "You can either be against discrimination or you can allow for it. You can't be a little bit against discrimination." She insists she would not budge on the regulations.

Whether the Labour Party is ready to be painted lilac is another matter. Harman has made gender a major issue in the election. She points to polling evidence that puts her well ahead of the other four (male) candidates with the public. (Other polls put Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn in the lead.) Harman knows from experience that elements of the party remain brutish. As social security secretary in Tony Blair's first cabinet she was undermined by colleagues and special advisers. The campaign culminated in the Prime Minister's decision to sack her in 1998. After a long period on the back benches, she returned to prominence as the first woman solicitor general after the 2001 election and in 2005 became a minister of state in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. If she succeeds in her latest battle, it will mark one of the most remarkable comebacks of the new Labour era. She is still bruised by the experience. "I wouldn't wish that on anybody. I don't want to sound like one of those people in Hello! magazine," she says, "but you do learn when you get a knock back."

Apart from the equality agenda, the only other time Harman becomes passionate is about spin. "I did think it was important to be disciplined, loyal, unfragmented and clear [at the beginning]. But I've always found spin abhorrent, because it's duplicitous. It's like pulling the wool over people's eyes. It's wrong in principle and it's also wrong because people end up not trusting you."

For all this condemnation, however, for all this talk of a new openness, Harman often comes across as cautious and wooden. Time and again we ask her to say what she really thinks, to say what she and Gordon Brown would actually do - you never know, to take some risks. When we raise, in passing, the strong media coverage Peter Hain received for his interview with us last week, Harman's body language suggests a combination of disdain and possibly fear. On those big issues about which Hain spoke with such frankness, she is all evasiveness: yes, the Bush administration is not quite her cup of tea, but let's talk about the Democrats; yes, it was good to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but parliament voted for war in Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction . . .

Her own plan

Like Hain, Harman has a four-point plan of her own - her "four points for a fourth term". These focus on public trust, which she concedes has been undermined by the fallout from Iraq and the "cash for honours" scandal. Everyone in Labour, she says, should focus on the following imperatives: never to take for granted the government's achievements; to be sharper in the critique of the Conservatives; to push forward the policy debate; and to rebuild the party.

Only once or twice does she come close to outlining a policy agenda. She believes, for example, that working parents should be allowed to work more flexible hours to avoid "shift parenting". At present, employers are obliged to consider proposals for flexible working arrangements but not obliged to act on them. "You could shift the onus of proof on to the employer to say why they couldn't do it," she suggests. "With the Factory Acts we didn't exhort mill owners to stop employing children, we legislated against it. Because we didn't agree with poverty pay we didn't exhort employers not to pay below a certain level. I don't think you should pass laws unless they are necessary but if they are necessary we shouldn't shrink away from them because there's a big social imperative here." She hastens to add that this is not a policy commitment.

She talks earnestly about the culture of "remittances", whereby immigrants in Britain send money back to their families in their country of origin. "They work often in two or three jobs. They work incredibly hard, they're low-paid, they pay their taxes, they bring up their children and they are the welfare state for their village in Africa." Harman points to the injustice of such poor people paying what are in effect development grants out of taxed income with large charges for international money transfers on top. So does this mean she is proposing some sort of tax relief for them? "Well, I'm not going to say anything about that, no."

On Labour's human-rights record she is similarly hesitant. As a former head of the National Council for Civil Liberties, the forerunner of today's Liberty, she might be expected to have concerns about her government's draconian anti-terrorism legislation, antisocial behaviour legislation or proposed limits to the Freedom of Information Act. Her response is off-the-shelf new Labour. It comes down to the Human Rights Act. "The government has got a responsibility to keep people safe, but we have put the mechanisms in to make sure that if the government does overstep the mark and parliament oversteps the mark by agreeing to something that the government has put forward, then there is a remedy. So I think we have the right checks and balances." The rationale strikes us as bizarre. In effect, ministers are under no obligation to calibrate their actions against the civil-liberties consequences, because the Human Rights Act is there to do it for them. But what about the immediate effect of state actions, and the ethics?

No criticism

Where she does depart from the government line (or rather the Blairite line), is over the issue of the cash-for-honours scandal and its implication for the future of party funding. Harman's husband, Jack Dromey, is deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. He also happens to be the Labour Party treasurer and the man who blew the lid on the secret system of loans set up by Blair's inner circle in advance of the 2005 election, so it is perhaps not surprising that she has strong feelings on the subject. Harman does not join some of her cabinet colleagues in condemning the police approach to the criminal investigation, particularly its dawn knock on the door to Blair's senior aide Ruth Turner. "I think the police have to go about their investigation as they see fit," she says. "They've got to be fair in how they treat people, and whatever the circumstances people have, they've got to deal with them equally. The police have their job to do and they've got to do it. That's what everyone would expect them to do. That's very important."

As for the scandal itself: "I think it has undermined public confidence and trust, and it has dismayed party members. Tony Blair did say that he took the view that it was wrong that the party wasn't told and I think he was right to say that." She supports changes to the law to make future loans disclosable, but is adamant that any cap on future donations should not apply to the trade unions. "I can't understand why some people purport not to be able to tell the difference between 800,000 members of the Transport and General Workers' Union and one millionaire," she says.

The union link, she suggests, should not be loosened further, as some around Blair suggest, but enhanced. "We need to make sure that we work with the trade unions to make sure that more branches are affiliated to local Labour parties. Obviously unions are very important at election time, not just with financial donations, but with people coming out and helping. But actually we need to make it a living link."

In many ways Harriet Harman is the obvious foil to Gordon Brown, not just because she is a woman, but because of other qualities she would bring to the job, such as her record on family issues and the sympathy she has with party members and the wider public. Her lilac revolution indeed chimes with the spirit of the times, as David Cameron has been so quick to realise. But in order for her to reach the political pinnacle she seeks, she needs to be as assertive as she would wish other women to be.

Harriet Harman: The CV

Born 30 July 1950, London
1974 Employed as a solicitor at Brent Law Centre
1981 Found guilty of contempt for disclosing Home Office documents exposing prison "control units". Later cleared
1982 Elected MP, one of only ten Labour women in the Commons
1984 Appointed to Labour's front bench. Succession of posts over next decade
1996 Attracts criticism from Labour ranks for sending her children to selective state schools
1997 Appointed secretary of state for social security and minister for women
1998 Abruptly sacked in Blair's first reshuffle following high-profile disputes with fellow minister Frank Field
2001 Appointed solicitor general, the first woman to hold the title
March 2004 Describes Gordon Brown as prime minister on BBC's Question Time
2005 Appointed minister for justice at the Department for Constitutional Affairs
March 2006 Her husband, Jack Dromey, Labour's treasurer, says he is kept in the dark about loans. Harman gives up ministerial responsibility for party funding to avoid conflict of interest
September 2006 Announces bid to run for Labour deputy leadership
Research by Sophie Pearce

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change