Support 100 years of independent journalism.

5 March 2001

Clare Short, new Labour’s heroine

She used to be an embarrassment. Now, the Secretary for International Development defies old left pr

By Johann Hari

The single most revealing work about new Labour’s political thinking thus far was published late last year. It was not serialised in any newspaper, and grabbed few headlines. This is probably because it was issued openly by a government department. There were no leaks, and it contains no media-stirring tales of personal rivalries and psychological flaws. Yet if you really want to know what the current government is all about, you can discard your Andrew Rawnsleys and your mouldy old Third Way pamphlets. You can simply read the international development white paper Eliminating World Poverty: making globalisation work for the poor. Oh, and one more detail – it was the work of Clare Short.

Three years ago, the idea of Clare Short as a quintessential new Labour thinker would have seemed surreal. Several commentators expressed surprise that she was appointed to the Cabinet at all, after resigning from Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet twice, and having been slapped down by Tony Blair in opposition when she called for a more sensible debate about cannabis. Considered to be of the unreconstructed left, she was widely regarded as being in the Cabinet only on probation. Three and a half years on, she is now one of Blair’s favourite ministers. She is internationally acclaimed for having placed Britain at the cutting edge of policy-making in international development. And the party faithful at Labour conferences are still cheering her to the rafters. What on earth happened?

From the perspective of some on the left, she has simply sold out. George Monbiot, the environmental thinker and journalist, argues: “Of all government ministers, she is the one who has undergone the most dramatic political conversion, from left-wing firebrand to hard-right promoter of corporate interests. Her current politics would have enabled her to sit comfortably in any Thatcher Cabinet.” A charged exchange in the House of Commons debate following the anti-capitalism riots in Seattle symbolised the extent of her political journey: she forcefully rubbished the arguments of her former guru, Tony Benn. Benn compared her to those who sought to regulate rather than abolish the slave trade, and even accused her tacitly of lying when she denied that the World Trade Organisation would like healthcare sectors to be run by the market.

Despite Benn’s attack, no one could deny that the international development targets now accepted across the globe – in no small measure due to Short’s efforts – are breathtakingly ambitious. They are: to halve the proportion of people living in abject poverty, to provide primary education for all children, and to ensure that everyone has access to basic reproductive healthcare – all by 2015. As she has said: “We are the first generation of human beings who have the capacity to eliminate extreme poverty from the human condition.” What more noble or important mission can there be for the party of Keir Hardie and Clem Attlee?

Few can dispute the sincerity of Short’s commitment or the importance of these ambitions; it is the method of achieving them that infuriates many. At a time when many on the left are retreating into cynicism, Short has engaged in the challenging and at times painful intellectual arguments surrounding development – with sometimes surprising results. On a Newsnight programme last year, she was remarkably candid in contradicting the new demonology of the left. “Multinationals are not the problem,” she argued. “Africa’s problem . . . is not that multinational capital is exploiting it, but that multinational capital isn’t interested in investing there.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Short embraces globalisation. To some, like Monbiot, this is a heinous act of treachery. Yet she has persuasively shown that globalisation need not be the neoliberal bogeyman that so many of us dread. There are many possible globalising paths along which the planet can travel; some of them damage the poor, but others may globalise prosperity and enrich them. One model is the neoliberal globalisation so effectively exposed as dystopian and nightmarish in John Gray’s book False Dawn: the delusions of global capitalism. This is a globalisation that unleashes market forces indiscriminately, whittles away the role of the state and lets inequality rip. Yet globalisation need not entail any of these things. All the concept need involve is the growing interdependence and interconnectedness of the modern world. This is driven by technological advance and the proliferation of global trade. Managed wisely, this can be the means of ending extreme poverty for ever.

At the centre of Short’s analysis, and the government’s approach, is an emphasis on human capital and equipping human populations with the skills needed to engage with the global market. Swathes of research indicate that the single most powerful intervention any country can make in its development is to educate a generation of children. Those children grow up and transform the country. Yet rich human capital is useless if there is no access to the global market place. Trade is vital to alleviating poverty. Far from being a neocolonialist form of “looting”, trade is the only way to enrich the poor, given that we have no structures of global government and no political will explicitly to redistribute wealth. Those who mock this approach as bad for the developing world defy the elected representatives of such countries, and the charities struggling to help them. Justin Forsyth, Oxfam’s director of policy, is vociferous in his support of greater trade with the poor. He argues that access to rich markets is “literally a matter of life or death” for developing countries, and estimates that trade barriers cost poor countries $700bn (£480bn) annually. This is 14 times what they receive in overseas development assistance.

The strongest historical evidence for Short’s arguments lies in east Asia’s development over the past 30 years. This has seen the fastest reduction of poverty for the largest number of people in human history. It happened because the region attracted inward investment from multinational capital, which brings with it knowledge and technology. Contrast this to North Korea, which at around the same time opted out of all international trading links: its economy has plunged back into the Stone Age.

An essential part of connecting developing markets to the global network is the WTO. A rules-based system that makes decisions on the basis of consensus is a vast improvement on the rich- country General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The WTO, still in its infancy, suffers from grotesque inequalities of access: the US has 250 permanent delegates to the organisation while the 35 poorest countries have none at all. It needs, as Short argues, a development round concentrating on the poorest countries, not least to establish in the eyes of the world that poverty reduction is one of the organisation’s main raisons d’etre.

To the Seattle generation, Short’s passionate advocacy of the WTO seems to be further evidence of selling out, but she responds: “Please do not be so arrogant as to tell the third world what is in its interests, when country after country has chosen to join.”

The traditional left posits the return of protectionism as an alternative to free trade. That ignores the problems of the resurging nationalism that almost always accompanies this phenomenon, and the left remains fuzzy as to how erecting barriers to rich economies will help the poor. The problem is that while the old left offers no viable alternative to Short’s agenda, the neoliberal right is beginning to. Those who seek to demolish the WTO and a rules-based trading system are in fact lending weight to a chilling anti-government agenda that is beginning to gain credence within right-wing think-tanks.

Robert Whelan of the Institute of Economic Affairs puts the case starkly: “Africa should be privatised and leases to run individual countries auctioned off.” In the Financial Times, James Morgan, the former BBC economics correspondent, wrote: “If some countries, especially in Africa, were to be run along the lines of commercial enterprises rather than states, investors might find them much more attractive.” If Short’s agenda of channelling the proceeds of globalisation towards eradicating extreme poverty fails, the beneficiaries will not be those who dream of a fully egalitarian utopia. It will be the anarcho-capitalists who oppose the WTO because it “fetters” multinationals.

There are two opposing ideologies in British politics when it comes to development. Whatever the weasel words of Gary Streeter, Short’s Tory shadow, the Conservative Party’s obscene record on development is plain to see. The Tories whittled away the aid budget year on year – a trend reversed by the present government, which is working towards the United Nations target of donating 0.7 per cent of GDP; and they tied aid to British contracts. Short cut out this tumour on the face of her department, and has been rewarded by the absence of Pergau dam-style scandals undermining public confidence in the aid programme.

Not every part of Short’s agenda will be electorally popular, however. Her demand that the needs of the poor be put at the centre of all government policy will, if implemented in a second term, have huge ramifications. The most politically tricky changes would be in the agricultural sector. As Diane Abbott has asked: “How dare American and European politicians lecture the world on free trade when their agriculture is so heavily subsidised?”

Opening third-world markets to heavily subsidised, first-world agricultural products can be devastating for the poor. As Justin Forsyth has pointed out, rich countries “continue to stuff subsidies worth around $350bn a year into their agriculture export industries, then ignore the crisis they cause by dumping cheap food into poor markets”. If we are really to act on this development need, we will have to subsidise our own farmers a lot less.

This much is clear: with her brave agenda, Short has emerged as one of the meatiest political thinkers of the present government. Popular with the electorate, with the party and with both Blair and Brown, her future in the Cabinet seems assured. Unimaginable only a few years ago, promotion to one of the top jobs now seems a distinct possibility (though it is hard to imagine her leaving her beloved Department for International Development). Indeed, it looks as if Clare Short will go down in history as the woman who spearheaded an agenda that liberated millions from poverty. The scope and nobility of her aspirations are remarkable in an era when politicians are reduced to mere managers. I will stick my neck out and predict that Clare Short will come to be remembered as that rare thing in British politics: a heroine.

Topics in this article: