How to win votes: be beastly to everybody

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The Independent Online

One of the strangest events of 2004 took place when the Oxford University Press held a party in London to celebrate the publication of its excellent symposium on Roy Jenkins. It is, of course, usual on such occasions for intelligent people to be gathered together to drink nasty wine: that was not what was strange. What was odd was that the guest of honour, who made a short speech commending Jenkins in the warmest terms, was Mr Tony Blair.

One of the strangest events of 2004 took place when the Oxford University Press held a party in London to celebrate the publication of its excellent symposium on Roy Jenkins. It is, of course, usual on such occasions for intelligent people to be gathered together to drink nasty wine: that was not what was strange. What was odd was that the guest of honour, who made a short speech commending Jenkins in the warmest terms, was Mr Tony Blair.

Certainly the two had been friends, of a sort, during the first years of Mr Blair's period of office. It had been Jenkins who had put into Mr Blair's head that, while the 20th had been the Conservative century, so the 21st must be the century of the Radicals. As the last century was distinguished more by collectivism than by Conservatism, and as Labour or Liberal governments held office for a third of the period, with a further 12 years of Coalition governments (I am excluding the supposedly National government of 1931), Jenkins's proposition looks distinctly dodgy to me. Still, it seems to have impressed Mr Blair and formed the philosophical basis, if you can call it that, of his notorious "forces of Conservatism" speech at Bournemouth.

He made use of Jenkins in other ways as well. He employed him as an intermediary in his negotiations with the gullible Lord Ashdown. Mr Charles Kennedy then came along and followed my advice by putting an end to all the nonsense, which has stood him in good stead ever since.

Jenkins did something else for Mr Blair. He was chairman of a committee on electoral reform which laboured hard and produced a report that was both highly readable and reasonably practical, recommending as it did a topped-up version of the alternative vote. Naturally, nothing whatever was done. Mr Blair had regarded the whole exercise as a diversion, intended to appease a small section of his party including Mr Peter Mandelson and Mr Robin Cook, and intended also to go through the motions of fulfilling a manifesto commitment.

After the next election it may well be that there will be those who regret Mr Blair's insouciance over electoral reform - that he let down Jenkins as he did Ashdown before him. The Prime Minister makes a speciality of letting people down. But then, it is only when parties are in opposition or lack a working majority that they start to agonise about electoral reform. As one would have expected, Jenkins did not complain, whether publicly or, as far as I know, in private, about his dismissive treatment by the Prime Minister, but instead continued in his usual affable way.

He was, however, worried about the bossy characteristics of ministers, especially perhaps women ministers. This I know is unfair, though I agree with him. Just as passionate women politicians sound shrill, so the purposeful sort sound bossy. The phrase "the nanny state" might have been invented for them. In fact it was coined by Iain Macleod in his diary in The Spectator of 3 December 1965: so I hope we shall hear no more error about its invention by Bernard Levin at some later date. What made Mr Blair's appearance at the party even more incongruous was that he had never pretended to be a liberal, still less a libertarian. Indeed, in the Bournemouth speech to which I have already referred, he denounced what he called "libertarian nonsense". Historically, the Labour Party has not been libertarian either. To the 19th-century bishop who finely declared that he would rather see England free than England sober, the pioneers of the Movement would have replied - partly owing to the traditional connection between brewers and the Tory interest - that they much preferred sobriety.

And yet, paradoxically, from the achievements of previous Labour governments, those of the two Wilson administrations of 1964-70 stand out. This is, I know, an unfashionable view. Indeed, it has never been fashionable at all. Nevertheless, the foundation of the Open University, the abolition of hanging and of corporal punishment in prisons, and the reform of the law on divorce, abortion and homosexuality must rank among the main social changes of the last century. Jennie Lee and that old rogue Lord Goodman were responsible for the Open University. Leo Abse, Lord Arran, Humphry Berkely, David Steel and Sydney Silverman (a most disagreeable character, incidentally) all played their parts in the other reforms. But the hero of the age was Roy Jenkins.

Not only does Mr Blair denounce these changes, though in a curiously half-hearted and deniable sort of way. More, one cannot imagine him introducing, or allowing any of his ministers to introduce, anything like them, on the unlikely assumption that Mr Charles Clarke or, should he ever return to active service, Mr David Blunkett was inclined to follow that course.

I am, however, anxious to be fair to the Government, whatever the temptations not to be. When ministers have tried to introduce liberal measures, whether over gambling or over drinking hours, they have been met with such a howl of hostility that they have been forced into substantial amendment or complete retreat.

Then there is the question of terrorism. It is an extraordinary feat of persuasion to convince people that this is something entirely new. The exercise has been as successful as it has because we - or, at any rate, Mr Blair and most of our newspapers - are in thrall to the United States. There it may be new. In Europe we have been living with it since the Munich Olympics and the IRA bombings of the early 1970s. It was, after all, the sainted Roy who introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974.

My own view, oddly perhaps, is that Mr Clarke has done reasonably well so far. It was open to him to maintain that Mr Blunkett's original Act remained the law, even though the law lords had held that it breached our human-rights obligations. This seems to be Mr Michael Howard's opinion, inasmuch as it can be pinned down at all. If Mr Clarke had taken the same view, the result would have been a constitutional crisis of lawless government, graver by far than anything to do with Charles and Camilla.

Rightly, he decided to try to accommodate the Government's policy to the Lords' judgment: by being equally oppressive to everyone, not just foreign nationals, and by substituting various forms of supervision for imprisonment. The question now is how much say the judges should have in the process. In Mr Clarke's defence it should be remembered that, Jenkins's achievements notwithstanding - alas! - there are no votes in liberalism. Mr Howard has just demonstrated this by rising in the polls through promising to be beastly to everybody.

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