David Aaronovitch: Overview

So much talk, but there is only one debate that matters now
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Forget dates. There is before bin Laden and after bin Laden; we journalists must leave it to the historians to show how what was latent in one became explicit in the other. Some people, such as the American playwright Tony Kushner – who wrote a play about Afghanistan before 11 September and premiered it at the end of the year – heard the distant thunder. Most of us didn't. We had other things to think about. And as we thought about them, men who believed that Paradise lay the other side of suicide moved, unnoticed, towards their goals.

BL minus nine months, and foot-and- mouth disease was diagnosed in the North-east. Within days, Britain was coping with its worst outbreak since 1967, and within weeks it had become clear that this time, things were far, far worse. After initially suggesting that the epidemic was "under control", the Government was soon forced to admit that the spread of the disease was actually beyond stopping, unless the toughest of measures were taken. The Prime Minister took over, and the Army went in.

Soon, the countryside was closed; paths and gates were sealed off with notices and tape. The great pyres were lit in fields, and the sight of dead animals dropping from the jaws of mechanical lifters became – for a while – the image of the year. Farmers wept over their gates. By the time the outbreak was over (BL plus six weeks or so), at least four million animals had been "slaughtered out" on over 2,000 farms, and a total of £4bn had been spent. The tourist industry in the countryside had been hugely damaged.

Just as at the time of the Great Plague, real and unreal discussions happened side by side. Was foot-and-mouth really that bad? Wasn't vaccination a better policy? Meanwhile, the X-file urban myths started. There were tales of timber merchants contacted about the availability of pyre-timber in advance of the outbreak by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff – later to become Defra, which sounds like a small country in West Africa). Maff, therefore – Mr Rory Bremner, among others, suggested – must have known that an epidemic was pending but not told anyone. In Devon, some muttered about a deliberate infecting of the national herd so as to slim down the farming industry. Vets told tales of slaughtermen chucking diseased carcasses over hedges in order to get more work.

A debate began about the future of farming.

Foot-and-mouth led Tony Blair to put back his favoured date for the general election from BL-minus-four-months to BL-minus-three. It made no difference. Whatever the date, by this time, the Conservative leader, William Hague, had long given up any private hopes of his party winning or even making substantial gains, and had already planned the manner of his departure. A disastrous strategic error made early in his leadership – to turn towards the party and away from the electorate – had destroyed his chances of making large inroads into Labour's majority. Unless, of course, the Government imploded, but this it showed no signs of doing. The Tories made one net gain. Only much later did we learn that even to achieve this anti-feat, the Tories had had to outspend the Labour Party during the election.

A debate began about the future of the Conservative Party.

The election's foregone conclusion was one reason cited for the record low turn-out on polling day. A desperately dull campaign had been enlivened only by the Prescott jab and by the simultaneous bearding of the Prime Minister outside a Birmingham hospital by the angry wife of a patient. Was it indifference, we asked, or anger that was keeping the voters away? Everyone had a theory, except those that couldn't be bothered.

A debate began about apathy.

But the Brum ambush was a straw in the wind. There was another not far away in the Wyre Forest. There, an independent candidate, a retired local consultant, won a landslide victory on the basis of anxiety about the state of hospitals. The Government was sensible enough to realise that had the Retired Consultants Party put up candidates in 200 similar seats, then New Labour might have been in trouble.

A debate began about the future of the National Health Service.

William Hague resigned beautifully, a Caesar without knife-wounds. The stage was set for the assassination of Michael Portillo. His personal journey from authoritarian Thatcherite to libertarian had offended the Daily Mail wing of his party, and the arrogance of his acolytes had angered many of his parliamentary colleagues. Branding him an obsessive homophile with dubious tendencies, his fellow MPs voted him off the shortlist of two to be placed before the party for a decision. The final battle was to be between Ken Clarke and the almost unknown Iain Duncan Smith.

If this looked like a defeat for liberalism, we reckoned without the innate desire of politicians for power. In BL-plus-one-week, IDS was unveiled as the new Conservative leader, and one of his first acts was to make a Portillo-style wave at the gay lobby. He was now in favour of everybody doing their thing, and he hoped that young people would find his new stance suitably groovy. Later still, he let it be known that he was now reconsidering his views on capital punishment. All in all, 2001 was a good year for the liberal social agenda.

It would have been a complete victory, had it not been for race. Not long before the general election, there were disturbances in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. Shops and cars were burnt by gangs of young men, sometimes white, sometimes Asian, depending on the area. The leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, began to make appearances on our screens and on the airwaves, articulating his "common-sensical" brand of race hatred. There was something going wrong up North.

The election saw the highest votes for overtly racist parties since the grubby mid-1970s zenith of the National Front. There was widespread criticism of the consequences of ethnic concentration. In Glasgow, the murder of a Turkish asylum-seeker in the run-down suburb of Sighthill led to similarly widespread criticism of the policy of dispersal.

We began a debate on the future of multiculturalism.

The Cabinet was reshuffled. David Blunkett, the new Home Secretary, slackened the official attitude toward cannabis, and published a book. These moves were universally regarded as the first in Mr Blunkett's campaign to succeed as Prime Minister. In Scotland, the First Minister, Henry McLeish, had to resign because of incomprehensible irregularities in his expenses. This was, said the critics, a terrible indictment of devolution. It was, of course, no such thing, since the irregularities had to do with the Westminster Parliament, and not the one in Edinburgh. So, fortunately, there was no debate on the future of Scotland.

Mr Stephen Byers was in trouble. Or not. His adviser, Ms Jo Moore, managed to send a stupid e-mail at BL-plus-five-minutes, recommending the burying of bad news. And he stood by her. Bad. Then he smote Railtrack, to the joy of his party and the indignation of the City. Good. MPs further managed to get themselves into bother over Ms Elizabeth Filkin, strengthening the electorate's cynicism to no advantage whatsoever. A cynicism fuelled by the strange failure to agree to build any stadiums, whether for football or athletics.

There were, for the English at least, some compensations. On BL-minus-10- days, England's football team, under its Swedish coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, beat Germany 5-1 in Munich.

Exactly a year ago, in this same review, I wrote these words: "Many of us are going to spend 2001 hoping to hell that we are wrong about George W Bush and his extended family of election-stealers." I was talking then about emissions control and the Middle East peace process. But as Jo Moore wrote her e-mail, my television was also on and I was watching the buildings fall in New York and hoping far harder that the Bush administration would act with an intelligence with which it hadn't been widely credited.

It did and, up till now, it still has. In the most violent possible way, we in the West have been reminded of the big, terrible world out there, with its complex politics and its movements. I know more about Islam now than I do about any religion, including Christianity and Judaism. And in his speech to the Labour conference at BL-plus-three-weeks, the Prime Minister spoke of the interdependent world and of our long-term interests and responsibilities. Some ridiculed him for it, but – it now seems to me – 2002 should be about holding the leaders of the world to their post-11 September words. It's the only debate that matters.