Leading Artilce: Year of hope for better yet

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ON 11 AUGUST we all looked up at a dreary sky, more in hope than in expectation, to gaze at the Great Solar Event. As it turned out, the eclipse was wonderful, albeit not exactly what we had hoped for. As with the eclipse, so with the year: 1999 was not really the promised "year of delivery", but we leave it with fond memories and a sense of optimism that as some things have changed for the better, others might follow soon.

The year began with Labour in turmoil and the Tories jubilant. It ends in reverse. Peter Mandelson's hasty departure from the Cabinet and the kerfuffle over Charlie Whelan was a shabby end to 1998; yet for every wrong move that Mr Blair has made since, the Tories have managed to outdo him. It is they, rather than he, who will rue the missed opportunities of the year.

So let's first count the successes. Devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have brought welcome democracy to the British Isles, and welcome relief for those in Westminster tired of having to legislate for them. The devolution may be small, but small steps are better than no steps - nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland, where the electorate need proof that their own politicians are capable of running more than a whelk stall. Similarly, the removal of the hereditary peers from the Lords may only have been half the process, but it was vital to a self- respecting 21st-century democracy.

Other successes are more debatable. Many observers disagreed with the haste with which the Prime Minister brought the Prince back from his Darkness, but there is no doubt that Mr Mandelson is an effective politician who belongs around the Cabinet table. Historians will doubtless argue whether the breakthrough in Northern Ireland would have happened anyway, but having a Secretary of State with such obvious access to Mr Blair's ear clearly helped to put wary Unionists back "onside".

And the year ended with Gordon Brown's millennium gift to the world's poor. We wait to see just how much debt is written off and how many conditions are attached, but it would be churlish not to welcome this apparently altruistic use of his fabled "war chest".

Alongside these successes, though, we must print a disappointingly long list of failures. The shockingly low turnout at the European elections and the Euro result delivered a slap in the face for New Labour, and a slap, too, for those who thought that proportional representation would entice voters in to the polling booths. The only people who got a fillip (thankfully brief) from the outcome were those Tory xenophobes who think that hostility to all things European is their route to salvation.

The Prime Minister must take the rap for the terrible mishandling of Mo Mowlam. There certainly was a case for bringing Mr Mandelson in to the Northern Ireland office; Unionists just didn't trust Mo. But the "Cabinet Enforcer" job is a joke, and Mo is far too big - and popular - a beast to be shunted into it. She should have been given Health when Frank Dobson left the Cabinet. Perhaps the rumours that Mr Blair hates limelight on anyone but himself are true after all.

It was a dreadful year for London. Ill-served by the main political parties in their selection of mayoral candidates, the capital also suffered horrific nail-bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane and Old Compton Street. The disappointment of the Macpherson report into Stephen Lawrence's murder managed not only to let the Metropolitan Police off the hook with its ill-defined use of "institutionalised racism", but to threaten the lives of witnesses by publishing their names and addresses. London also suffered from heavy-handed policing during the Chinese leader's visit in October. Jiang Zemin must have felt at home as peaceful demonstrators were bundled away, their chants drowned out. We have yet to hear any apologies from the Home Secretary for this insult to our democratic traditions.

Abroad, our ethical foreign policy began to look a bit shabby. Robin Cook may have emerged from the year still grinning, but Britain was falling over itself to help the Indonesian army just weeks before we were forced to send Gurkhas to East Timor to confront it. And despite Jamie Shea's protestations, the Nato bombing of Kosovo turned out to be not as clinically accurate as we might have hoped (a column of tanks and a civilian convoy do look pretty similar if you insist on flying at 30,000 feet).

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of the year lies in Mr Blair's failure to take on his deputy. The argument goes that John Prescott is the darling of the left, and that Mr Blair needs the left's goodwill if he is to prosper. Phooey. Mr Prescott's friends argue that those who speak ill of him are just snobs who can't abide his no-nonsense working-class manner. Double phooey. Anyone can see that in the year of the Paddington rail crash, the U-turns on air-traffic control and the Tube, the mess over genetically modified food and the chaos that is the London mayoralty, Mr Prescott is not exactly having a string of triumphs. He is not competent to remain in his job. Nor should he be unsackable. The best Christmas present that Mr Blair could grant all of us would be to break up this monolithic department, demote his deputy and find someone competent to sort out the mess. How about Dr Mowlam?

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