Progress | Centre-left Labour politics


Peter Kyle relives the run-up to the Iraq war, Mark Day looks into public attitudes after two terms of Labour, and Lenny Shallcross is unimpressed by Ann Widdecombe

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Scrutinising the inscrutable

Not In Our Name: Democracy and Foreign Policy in the UK

Edited by Simon Burall, Brendan Donnelly and Stuart Weir

Politico’s, 242pp, £12.99

The sight of two million protesters on the streets of London clearly sent a message to the powers that be – in the publishing world that is. The re-politicisation of the country is obviously a tempting prospect for political commentators and academics, as many have flocked to this market in search of the ‘Michael Moore effect’.

Glance at the cover of Not In Our Name and you’ll see that this book is also making hay while the sun shines. As if to labour the point, the memory of Live8 and Make Poverty History are strangely evoked on the back cover, as proof that people demand explanations for our recent foreign policy misadventures – a link only slightly less tenuous than Iraq and WMDs.

But never judge a book by its cover – doing so would certainly be a disservice in this case. Based on the jacket, you’d probably expect 200 pages of invective against the Iraqi invasion, but in fact there are only two, being Mary Kaldor’s forward. In reality, this is a studied exposition of the processes of governmental foreign policy.

For the first three chapters especially, no detail is spared in describing the mechanics of parliamentary procedure. Once we are intimately familiar with protocol (probably more so than many MPs), the emphasis shifts to the many ways ministers can circumvent parliamentary scrutiny when enacting issues of foreign policy.

The picture that emerges is rather depressing. Parliament is enfeebled next to the overbearing power of the executive, who regularly weald their get-out-of-jail-free card, the royal prerogative. Select committees are under-resourced and over-worked, often scraping by with only five or six members of staff with which to exercise oversight of entire government departments. And then there’s the MPs themselves, so preoccupied with constituency duties and climbing the greasy pole that they don’t pay proper attention to the government’s manoeuvrings.

It is here that the obvious erudition of the authors pays off and the recurring theme of the conflict between the public’s demand for greater multilateralism and increased democratic participation emerges. People clearly want to feel more connected to decisions relating to Britain’s trading, diplomatic and military relations with other states. But can this be truly reconciled with commitments to multilateral organisations that can limit domestic legislative freedoms?

The royal prerogative, a throwback to a pre-democratic age, is frequently used by government to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of foreign policy, and is a major source of irritation to the authors of this book. From the appointment of diplomatic staff to military intervention, the prerogative can usher in a raft of policies seemingly at the will of ministers.

The absurdities of such procedural tools are well framed in this book, but detail tends to overshadow analysis, which is a shame as it is the latter one most hopes for from the assemblage of talent behind this publication. For example, we are informed that Britain has committed to 14,712 treaties over the years, mostly through use of the royal prerogative, which we now know is a bad thing. But what of the alternatives? Surely not a debate on every treaty? I assumed early on that it was all heading in one direction – the need for a British constitution – but alas the phrase only occurred once, in the very last sentence.

Strangely, we are told who the book is edited by, but not who the author of each chapter is. It perhaps explains the slight lack of consistency in the tone and direction of the book overall. Early chapters assume a reasonable amount of erudition on the part of the reader, yet chapter four feels more like an A-level textbook, beginning: ‘This chapter is about Britain’s “bilateral” policy – that is, Britain’s one-to-one relations with other states.’ If you hadn’t figured that out by page 59, by which time the term has been used dozens of times, then you may be faced with a good deal of re-reading.

Overall, this book is a fascinating examination of the black hole in foreign policy oversight in our country. It is also ambitious in its scope and detail. Not In Our Name provides a comprehensive and compelling argument for reform of British foreign policy making, that will doubtless satisfy those with a genuine interest in government.

Peter Kyle is a parliamentary researcher

Mixed feelings

British Social Attitudes: Two Terms of New Labour: the Public’s Reaction

Edited by Alison Parks et al

Sage Publications, 350pp, £45

‘Mixed messages’ is the defining leitmotif of the 2005 edition of the British Social Attitudes survey, which examines the public’s response to two terms of Labour government.

Far from being a drawback, however, the survey’s equivocation is perhaps its greatest strength. Whereas journalists and politicians are wont to caricature public opinion to fit their own agendas, the BSA is content to reveal it in all its complex and sometimes contradictory reality.

Indeed, the public’s verdict on New Labour’s performance over the past nine years seems decidedly uncertain. Worryingly, the report finds that NHS performance still lags far behind public expectations, with 37 per cent of respondents expressing dissatisfaction with the service despite the record levels of investment. More positive news is to be had on work-life balance, with a majority of employees supportive of the government’s effort to instil a more flexible working culture. By contrast, on pensions policy the survey uncovers widespread public ignorance, with the most socially disadvantaged groups the least likely to be saving for their retirement.

But it is in the details of the survey’s findings that the real interest lies. The opening chapter on attitudes to redistribution begins with the apparently contrary result that, while nearly three-quarters of respondents agree with the statement that ‘the gap between those with high incomes and those with low incomes is too large’, only 32 per cent thought it was explicitly the role of government to ‘redistribute income from the better off to the less well off’.

Closer questioning reveals, however, that nearly nine in 10 people support policies with a directly redistributive impact, but tend to see redistribution as a favourable by-product of the tax and benefits system, rather than an explicit goal of policy. Therefore, New Labour’s much-maligned approach of ‘redistribution by stealth’ is in fact vindicated by the findings of the report. But characteristically it leaves open the question of whether this is a sustainable basis for a more explicitly progressive agenda in the long term.

As well as acting as a useful barometer of the government’s performance, the BSA is also fascinating for the insight it gives into the way class and other social characteristics impact on public attitudes. It is commonly thought by critics of the government’s choice agenda that choice in public service provision is largely a middle-class preoccupation.

But, as the chapter on NHS reform reveals, it is in fact those on low incomes, with low or no educational qualifications, the elderly, and those with recent experience of inpatient care who are most likely to express a preference for choice. By contrast, the young, relatively well off, and managerial/professional classes are largely indifferent, no doubt because it is a privilege they can already afford.

The findings of the chapter on social attitudes to higher education are similarly eye opening. Working-class people, it reveals, are more likely than middle-class people to endorse the need for academic qualifications, and to support the widening of higher education access.

Furthermore, two-thirds of routine manual parents expect their children to go to university and do not seem deterred by the additional cost, with a majority of all social classes accepting the necessity of tuition fees – at least in their deferred form. Whatever is holding back working-class kids from entering higher education, it is clearly not the Conservative explanation of low working-class expectations.

The BSA might not be everyone’s first choice of a light holiday read, and the £45 price tag will no doubt put off some in the lower income social groups (a question for this year’s survey, perhaps?). However, for those who presume to speak on the public’s behalf, it ought to be compulsory reading. No editor’s or MP’s office should be without a copy.

Mark Day

Tory story

Father Figure

Ann Widdecombe

Orion books, 352pp, £6.99

David Cameron declared that the Tories should be ‘comfortable with Britain as it is’. Judging by Father Figure, Ann Widdecombe disagrees. Far from being comfortable with modern Britain, she hates it.

Britain Sucks could be an alternative title for this novel. This is not a country of improved schools, falling crime and reduced hospital waiting lists. Instead, the school that used to send children to Oxford is now in special measures. The police are powerless to do anything about the drug dealer outside the school gates. Social services make things worse and the CSA is a shambles. I concede the last point. Then again, they did set it up.

This novel is an embittered rant. In America, they elect Bush – so the left produces the West Wing. In Britain, we elect Blair – so Widdecombe takes up the pen. The left retreats to pleasant dreams, the right to venting spleen.

Father Figure is Jake’s story, a loving husband who returns home to find his wife of 10 years has left, taking their children. It is a bolt out of the blue. The only reason she gives: boredom. I’m with her. In fact, I’m amazed she lasted a decade with a man whose only excitement is ‘minor wins on the premium bonds’.

In case you’ve missed the none- too-subtle point, an outraged character helpfully observes: ‘Government can’t do much about individual morals but social stigma can and at the moment there ain’t any stigma.’ I do enjoy being lectured by a badly spoken moralist.

Oh, for the good old days where divorcees were shunned, children were beaten, gays were locked up and B&Bs displayed ‘no coloured’ signs. To be fair to Widdecombe, she doesn’t advocate a return to the 1950s; but the characters protest throughout her novel that Britain has changed for the worse. There is no disabled, black, lesbian, single mother to point out that, for many, Britain has changed for the better. Anyway, in this novel, she’d be on benefits – and the fiddle.

This is a novel of black and white. It will appeal to those who have stuck with the Tories. If you have a Daily Mail-reading relative and still hope to be mentioned in the will, you can do worse than buy them this book. It’s not a bad read. The print is sufficiently large so they won’t need their reading glasses on the Saga coach trip. There’s also no graphic sex. Our hero ‘makes love’ to his new wife once. And it’s over before you know it. I told you he was dull.

Lenny Shallcross is a parliamentary researcher

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