Snippets of recent political history

From A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s by Alwyn W Turner

Supermarket
p. 161 “Starting in the 1970s, but reaching a peak in the ten years from 1985, the big chains had concentrated their expansion on building huge superstores on out-of-town sites, to the detriment of smaller outlets and high streets…. ‘It’s a cancer,’ remarks a character in Peter Lovesey’s novel Upon a Dark Night, ‘scarring the countryside and bleeding the life out of city centres.’ The environmental impact was substantial, for the out-pf-town stores came complete with massive car parks, and the average distance travelled to go shopping rose by 14% between 1990 and 1995. A potential answer to this latter issue was the introduction of statutory parking charges for such shopping centres, a policy that was tentatively proposed by the Labour Party before being dropped in 1998. Some saw a connection between the abandonment of the idea and the donations made to political parties by the supermarkets and by individuals associated with them. Tesco was a major sponsor of the Millennium Dome project… and a key partner in Labour’s New Deal programme, while David Sainsbury, chairman of the family grocery business, was said to have become the biggest individual donor in Labour Party history: following the award of a peerage in 1997, he was appointed as a science minister the following year.”

p. 331
“the shadow cabinet … Blair had been continually irritated by the way that its proceedings found their way into the press, presumably as a result of unauthorised briefings. ‘ I’ll have to tell then that if they cannot be trusted to have serious discussion in the shadow cabinet, we won’t have them,’ Blair huffed in 1995. Given how much damage Labour was doing to the Major government by the judicious use of leaks from within Conservative ranks, such caution was perhaps understandable, if undesirable. Less tolerated should have been the continuation of the process in government, when cabinet meetings were downgraded still further. ‘They’re a farce,’ remarked Ivor Richard, leader of the House of Lords, in 1998: ‘nobody says anything.’ Lance Price, one of Blair’s spin doctors, attended a meeting of the cabinet in 1999 and concluded that all he had learnt from the experience was ‘how little real influence it has as an institution’. When someone tentatively suggested that a decision might be made, Blair replied: ‘Oh, I don’t think we should go that far.’ The inherent problem with a cabinet, of course, whether shadow or real, was that it shared power between its members, leaving its leader with the basic principle that his position was that of ‘first among equals’. Since Blair didn’t wish this to be true in his own case, it was self-evidently a system desperately in need of reform. Peter Mandelson addressed the issue in his 1996 book The Blair Revolution (co-written with Roger Liddle) arguing that ‘The cabinet is a rather inflexible vbody’ and that decisions should rather he taken in ‘bilateral and ad-hoc meetings’. As Will Hutton pointed out in a review of the book: ‘No prizes for guessing who plans to attend as many ad hoc meetings as possible.”

p. 406 On Britain entering the euro: “In October 1997 an attempt to clarify the position was concocted by Brown and his advisers, in conjunction with Alastair Campbell, and resulted in an article in The Times under the headline ‘Brown rules out single currency for lifetime of this parliament’. …. A Panicked weekend of retractions, re-briefings and repositioning ensued, and the confusion and conflicts became the story… To answer the question of when it would be right, Brown and Ed Balls came up with five tests to determine whether Britain was ready to enter the euro. It was a largely cosmetic exercise … but for the next few years, the five tests were constantly referred to as though they had some objective meaning, even if few government ministers or spokespeople could ever remember when asked what they were … The only one that revealed anything much was the question about whether joining the euro would be good for the City of London, which at least demonstrated how large the City loomed in Brown’s thinking. Derek Scott, then Blair’s economic adviser, was later to observe that ‘making a decision on one industry is like making a view on the Gold Standard based on what was good for the textiles business’.”

p. 436 On Asbos … “the talk of feral children and teenage thugs reinforced an impression that society was slipping out of control and needed the firm hand of authoritarian government to restore order. But such an image was far from new: it had been a commonplace for centuries, from the gin-sodden 1740s … to the `1820s, when Surrey magistrates expressed concerns about ‘the almost unchecked parading of the streets by the notoriously dissolute and abandoned of both sexes’. One could even go back to the 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury, writing about the people encountered by the Norman invaders in 1066: ‘They were accustomed to eat until they became surfeited and drink until they were sick’ As Harry Pearson noted, when considering the pitch invasions and hooliganism that marred professional football in the late Victorian era, it was only the alleged causes that changed, not the behaviour: ‘In the days before violent videos and the abolition of corporal punishment in schools you just had to face up to the sad truth: some people like fighting.’… In recent years the cause of social disorder was said, by those on the right of politics, to be the breakdown of discipline that resulted from the liberalisation of the 1960s. New Labour’s rhetoric suggested that it shared that perspective,, implying a moral failure on the part of working-class youth and their families. It’s response was the endless introduction of new initiatives. In its first term, the government brought forward 31 Bills on law and order and introduced new criminal offences at a rate of around two a week…. The prison population continued to ruse far beyond the levels inherited from Michael Howard.”

P 446 “an emerging pattern, summed up by Michael White of the Guardian, as ‘the all-party trend towards the professionalization of politics: school, university, party functionary, MP.” … it wasn’t only in the Conservative Party that candidates were increasingly selected from what Edwina Currie called ‘idenitikit young men’. …youthful adviser surrounding the key figures in New Labour. Some of them remained backstage figures, but others went on to be elected to Parliament, including James Purnell, Pat McFadden, Ed Balls and the Miliband brothers, David and Ed. Then there was Yvette Cooper, who had been part of John Smith’s team even before the 1992 election, and Derek Draper, a researcher for Peter Mandelson. All were still in their twenties when Blair became leader of the party. Also known as ‘the creche’ .. Mike Marqusee of Labour Briefing… ‘Thye may be young, but they are socially conservative, they exist in a self-enclosed world, and they are utterly unrepresentative of young people. What have they got to say, for example, about the huge grass-roots campaign against the Criminal Justice bill?’ It was a purely rhetorical question. The reality was that policies, philosophies and positions were less important now than the appearance of competent management, in emulation of Brown and Blair. ‘This generation exudes an air or responsibility,’ remarked Dominic Loenhis, the 25-year-old adviser to the Conservative minister peter Brooke, in 1993, ‘but I don’t think there is any visionary feel or coherent philosophy.”

p. 449
“in the three elections from 1951 onwards, the two main parties attracted between them the votes of three-quarters of the registered voters; in the three elections from 1992, they secured only a half. Whatever causes one wished to ascribe to this trend – the drop in turnout, the rise of the third party, the decline of ideology – it came to the same point: the only two parties capable of forming governments were fas losing the consent of the people. And as the gap between politicians and the nation widened, it was the younger generations who felt it most acutely. According to a survey published in the Demos pamphlet Britain, 68 % of those aged 55 or over were proud of British democracy; just 7.5% of those aged under 55 felt the same.”

One comment

  • January 19, 2014 - 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for reading and (I hope) enjoying the book. Might I just mention that copies of A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s are available at a very reasonable discount?

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