October 30, 2003


The night is drawing in: The prospect of Michael Howard's leadership spells danger for his own party - but also for New Labour (Polly Toynbee, October 31, 2003, The Guardian)

Few home secretaries are popular, certainly not with liberals. But the outrage Howard caused should not be forgotten. He took over from Douglas Hurd, one of the wiser pragmatic home secretaries of recent times. He was brought in as a political weapon to try to shore up the Major government's sinking fortunes, a challenge he took up with a vengeance. People imagine, wrongly, that all politicians are capable of almost anything in pursuit of power: it is rarely so. But Howard is an exception. As a home secretary and a QC, he was apparently reckless of legal propriety in pursuit of something that would turn a quick vote. He frequently flouted the law and was often rebuked by higher courts.

It scandalised the judiciary when he put two 10-year-olds on trial for murder in an adult court and himself upped their sentence to 25 years. The high court found his actions an "abuse of power" and "deeply flawed", but it was water off a duck's back. With his infamous "Prison works!" speech he sent the prison population soaring. To Labour's "tough on the causes of crime" his riposte was: "I know what causes crime: criminals!"

Right from his 1983 maiden speech advocating the restoration of the death penalty, he has courted cheap popularity. It was not being rightwing that worried people like Ann Widdecombe: it was his willingness to dabble in almost any unsavoury policy that looked like a winner. Europhobic, homophobic (he introduced Clause 28 and voted against gay adoptions), anti-abortion (he voted for the Alton bill to restrict it), he called for General Pinochet's release. As for wise policy-making, he was a key minister responsible for the poll tax. [...]

Max Hastings, late of the Telegraph, wrote in these pages this week: "Britain is now a social democratic country. Barring a national cataclysm, a visibly rightwing party will not again achieve power here." Those are words of profound truth. If only it was absolutely certain that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown thought so too. By May 1997, the people were already social democrats, but New Labour never dared believe that they really did want radical change.

Britain, like the rest of Europe, is in the midst of a cataclysm. Declining birthrates, burgeoning retirement costs, growing dependence on immigration, the dalliance with giving up national sovereignty that the EU represents, etc., etc., etc. These ugly truths can be ignored for awhile but not ignored in the long run. Many's the continental nation which too might have considered its Right to be a dead letter, its social democrats a permanent governing party. But when push comes to shove it turns out not to be so. A robustly nationalistic, anti-immigration, anti-European, Tory Party may not return to power immediately but will be well positioned to do so by the end of the decade.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 30, 2003 9:37 PM

Unsavoury policies? They sound pretty tasty to me. Maybe the author's perceptions have been damaged by too much curry.

Posted by: jason johnson at October 31, 2003 10:35 AM