It was a bad week for those highly desirable abstracts, personal and collective freedom. The Government did confirm that the so-called “Big Brother” scheme, whereby every phone call, email and internet visit in the UK would be logged on a central database, has effectively been abandoned.
But the principle of the “secret inquest”, which will bar bereaved families and the public from attending hearings into controversial deaths, was forced through the Commons by a majority of eight votes. The move was a step too far for certain Labour backbenchers, one of whom, the always reliable Bob Marshall- Andrews, described the closed-door manoeuvrings that will replace inquests whenever ministers think it necessary, as a “disproportionate remedy” to avert the danger of sensitive information being made public. “In order to rectify what is an evidential problem, the Government is proposing to hand a massive new power to the executive,” he said.
It would be impossible to calculate just how many massive new powers the Government has handed to the executive in the past 12 years: no blue book could accommodate them all, and Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty’s indefatigable director, must be the most overworked woman in England.But however jaw-dropping thepassage of the secret inquest rule, and however disingenuous the comments of the, ahem, Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, worse by far was the procedural garnish accompanying plans for a new set of nuclear power stations. These will benefit from the “fast track” system for planning applications presumed, at any rate by Whitehall, to be in the national interest, and designed to subdue local opposition without the need for lengthy public inquiries.
AlthoughEd Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, did make a point of reminding everyone that local people could still have their say, he also remarked: “The truth is we’re not going to be able to deliver a 21st-century energy system with a 20th-century planning system.”
Given the current planning system’s incorrigible bias in favour of big landlords, property developers and supermarket chains, most of whom are able to bamboozle the local citizenry practically at will, Mr Miliband’s conception of himself as a bright, visionary spirit fatally hamstrung by obfuscating red tape has a certain whimsical charm. Anyway, applications for the stations will shortly be considered by the Government’s new planning quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission. It sounds even more undemocratic than the regional assemblies and the area development authorities, and should be mocked, challenged and resisted at every turn.
It was a good week, on the other hand, for lost causes. In particular, as part of a large-scale commemoration of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, TheIndependent reproduced extracts from an interview given by Margot Honecker,the82-year-old widow of Erich Honecker, the East Germanleader who ordered its construction. Like many a superannuated tyrant, Mrs Honecker was unrepentant. “I have had enough of the persecution that is inflicted on former citizens of the German Democratic Republic,” she declared. “We lived good lives in our GDR. You can say what you like, but the facts can’t be ignored.”
Reading this spirited harangue, delivered from her exile’s bolt-hole in Santiago, Chile, it was impossible not to be reminded of the persecution that Mrs Honecker herself inflicted. It is thought, for example, that more than 2,000 people are still trying to find the parents, or children, from whom they were forcibly separated during the dissident crackdowns.
In reckoning up these laments for lost autocratic decencies, set against which the Stuart pretenders, busily assembling their phantom armies, seem men of poise and principle, it is important to remember some of their home-grown lackeys, and in particular the gang of Labour MPs who, during the immediate postwar era, not only sympathised with the dictators of Eastern Europe but did their utmost to advance their interests here in the UK. One thinks of the late Konni Zilliacus, once described by George Orwell as “a publicity agent of the USSR”, or John Platts-Mills, a long-term Soviet apologist unable, even in the Khrushchev era, to accept the truth about Stalinist atrocities.
The late Sir Bernard Crick once told me an instructive story about Ian Mikardo – Labour MP for Reading from 1945 to 1959, and for Poplar in east London, in various forms, from 1964 to his retirement from Parliament in 1987 – whose sister he knew in the late 1940s. “Of course,” Miss Mikardo explained, “Mik’s got two cards.” In the political shorthand of the time “having two cards” meant belonging publicly to the Labour Party and secretly to the Communist Party.
To give this story a little modern application, I never look at a picture of the BNP’s Nick Griffin without my hand itching for a rotten egg, but at least he was never a member of a political party that took its orders from a foreign dictatorship whose interests were diametrically opposed to our own.
The news that the rate of increase in the UK’s unemployment statistics is falling will come as scant consolation to the 5,000 employees that Lloyds Banking Group is planning to jettison by the end of next year. The Lloyds redundancies, part of the continuing fallout from the forced merger with HBOS, have been condemned by the Unite union as demonstrating “the depth of corporate arrogance within this taxpayer-supported bank”.
As with so many exercises in headcount reduction, the suspicion is that the move is merely symbolic, a piece of corporate muscle-flexing designed to impress investors and commercial peers. Most of the cuts will be inflictedon temporary staff and middle-ranking employees in “group operations”. Even allowing for pension contributions and allied benefits, those 5,000 jobs can’t be costing the banka very great deal, especially in the context of its executive remuneration schemes. Why should a statesupported institution be allowed to get away with this kind of thing? Lord Mandelson, a fount of volubility on every other aspect of government policy, has been conspicuously silent
There was a wonderfully pointed scene or two on the psychology of job loss in last Tuesday night’s episode of Ugly Betty. With the Meade publishing corporation still in freefall after a vengeful executive’s departure with most of the funds, savage economies were in prospect. At one stage, a predatory- looking accountant, bearing a single envelope, approached Betty, Mark and Amanda as they stood at the reception desk. The interplay of facial expressions, as each tried to work out who was the sacrificial victim, was horribly realistic.
When I worked in the City, blackbaggings (which took their name from the habit of sacked employees to be rushed off the premises carrying their possessions in a bin-liner) were as regular an occurrence as Sir Alex Ferguson’s appearances before the FA: a boss of mine at Coopers & Lybrand in the 1980s once dematerialised during the 20 minutes it took me to buy a lunch-time sandwich
But the emotional implications of this instant eviction from one’s livelihood were only brought home to me years later when I sat on a Tube train becalmed at Earl’s Court station watching a besuited man of about my own age scribbling on to the back of an envelope notes such as “reassess priorities” and “flat (?)”. Only when I saw the tell-tale rubbish bag lying at his feet did I realise what had happened: the man had been sacked that afternoon, and was now getting to grips with a horribly uncertain future. Nothing in the years spent drudging in that desolate wasteland east of Chancery Lane ever brought home to me quite so vividly how the entity known as late capitalism works, or the human consequences for some of the people caught up in it.
An unlikely champion of liberty has emerged here in the East Anglian boondocks, where the saga of who shall represent South-West Norfolk in the Conservative interest has taken an unexpected turn. This is Sir Jeremy Bagge (“7th baronet, friend of the Royal Family and owner of the 1,200-acre Stradsett estate” as the local paper rather obsequiously put it) who, enraged by the furore surrounding the present candidate, Elizabeth Truss, and her supposed imposition by Central Office in defiance of local sentiment, has not only proposed that she should be dropped, but telephoned David Cameron to tell him so. The call was apparently made on Bonfire Night from a vandalised telephone box in Stradsett village against a background of firework noises, and it cost Sir Jeremy all of £8.
There is something rather wonderful in the thought that old-style Tory grandees can still make their presence felt in this way, but also something deeply ominous: it takes a 7th baronet, you see, to outline some of the virtues of democratic accountability. On the other hand, 21st-century democracy clearly needs all the friends it can get. It would be nice if Sir Jeremy could give Jack Straw a call, too.