Archive for the ‘John Major’ Category

Britain, Ireland and Europe, 1994-99: Peace, Devolution & Development.   Leave a comment

LSF (1947) Nobel Peace Prize obv

Unionists & Nationalists – The Shape of Things to Come:

In Northern Ireland, optimism was the only real force behind the peace process. Too often, this is remembered by one of Blair’s greatest soundbites as the talks reached their climax: This is no time for soundbites … I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. Despite the comic nature of this remark, it would be churlish not to acknowledge this as one of his greatest achievements. Following the tenacious efforts of John Major to bring Republicans and Unionists to the table, which had resulted in a stalemate. Tony Blair had already decided in Opposition that an Irish peace settlement would be one of his top priorities in government. He went to the province as his first visit after winning power and focused Number Ten on the negotiations as soon as the IRA, sensing a fresh opportunity, announced a further ceasefire. In Mo Mowlem, Blair’s brave new Northern Ireland Secretary, he had someone who was prepared to be tough in negotiations with the Unionists and encouraging towards Sinn Feiners in order to secure a deal. Not surprisingly, the Ulster Unionist politicians soon found her to be too much of a ‘Green’. She concentrated her charm and bullying on the Republicans, while a Number Ten team dealt with the Unionists. Blair emphasised his familial links with Unionism in order to win their trust.

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There were also direct talks between the Northern Irish political parties, aimed at producing a return of power-sharing in the form of an assembly in which they could all sit. These were chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell and were the toughest part. There were also talks between the Northern Irish parties and the British and Irish governments about the border and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the future. Finally, there were direct talks between London and Dublin on the wider constitutional and security settlement. This tripartite process was long and intensely difficult for all concerned, which appeared to have broken down at numerous points and was kept going mainly thanks to Blair himself. He took big personal risks, such as when he invited Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein-IRA to Downing Street. Some in the Northern Ireland office still believe that Blair gave too much away to the Republicans, particularly over the release of terrorist prisoners and the amnesty which indemnified known terrorists, like those responsible for the Birmingham bombings in 1974, from prosecution. At one point, when talks had broken down again over these issues, Mo Mowlem made the astonishing personal decision to go into the notorious Maze prison herself and talk to both Republican and Loyalist terrorist prisoners. Hiding behind their politicians, the hard men still saw themselves as being in charge of their ‘sides’ in the sectarian conflict. But Blair spent most of his time trying to keep the constitutional Unionists ‘on board’, having moved Labour policy away from support for Irish unification. In Washington, Blair was seen as being too Unionist.

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Given a deadline of Easter 1998, a deal was finally struck, just in time, on Good Friday, hence the alternative name of ‘the Belfast Agreement’. Northern Ireland would stay part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority in the province wished it so. The Republic of Ireland would give up its territorial claim to the North, amending its constitution to this effect. The parties would combine in a power-sharing executive, based on a newly elected assembly. There would also be a North-South body knitting the two political parts of the island together for various practical purposes and mundane matters. The paramilitary organisations would surrender or destroy their weapons, monitored by an independent body. Prisoners would be released and the policing of Northern Ireland would be made non-sectarian by the setting up of a new police force to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), whose bias towards the Unionist community had long been a sore point for Nationalists. The deal involved a great deal of pain, particularly for the Unionists. It was only the start of a true peace and would be threatened frequently afterwards, such as when the centre of Omagh was bombed only a few months after its signing by a renegade splinter group of the IRA calling itself ‘the Real IRA’ (see the photo below). It murdered twenty-nine people and injured two hundred. Yet this time the violent extremists were unable to stop the rest from talking.

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Once the agreement had been ratified on both sides of the border, the decommissioning of arms proved a seemingly endless and wearisome game of bluff. Though the two leaders of the moderate parties in Northern Ireland, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists and John Hume of the Nationalist SDLP, won the Nobel Prize for Peace, both these parties were soon replaced in elections by the harder-line Democratic Unionist Party led by Rev. Dr Ian Paisley, and by Sinn Fein, under Adams and McGuinness. Initially, this made it harder to set up an effective power-sharing executive at Stormont (pictured below). Yet to almost everyone’s surprise, Paisley and McGuinness sat down together and formed a good working relationship. The thuggery and crime attendant on years of paramilitary activity took another decade to disappear. Yet because of the agreement hundreds more people are still alive who would have died had the ‘troubles’ continued. They are living in relatively peaceful times. Investment has returned and Belfast has been transformed into a busier, more confident city. Large businesses increasingly work on an all-Ireland basis, despite the continued existence of two currencies and a border. The fact that both territories are within the European Union enables this to happen without friction at present, though this may change when the UK leaves the EU and the Republic becomes a ‘foreign country’ to it for the first time since the Norman Conquest. Tony Blair can take a sizeable slice of credit for this agreement. As one of his biographers has written:

He was exploring his own ability to take a deep-seated problem and deal with it. It was a life-changing experience for him.

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If the Good Friday Agreement changed the future relationship of the UK and Ireland, Scottish and Welsh devolution changed the future political shape of Great Britain. The relative indifference of the eighteen-year Tory ascendancy to the plight of the industrial areas of Scotland and Wales had transformed the prospects of the nationalist parties in both countries. Through the years of Tory rule, the case for a Scottish parliament had been bubbling under north of the border. Margaret Thatcher had been viewed as a conspicuously English figure imposing harsh economic penalties on Scotland, which had always considered itself to be inherently more egalitarian and democratic. The Tories, who had successfully played the Scottish card against centralising Labour in 1951, had themselves become labelled as a centralising and purely English party. Local government had already been reorganised in Britain and Northern Ireland in the early 1990s with the introduction of ‘unitary’ authorities.

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Scotland had a public culture further to the left than that of southern England, and therefore the initiatives on devolution came from the respectable middle-classes. A group of pro-devolution activists, including SNP, Labour and Liberal supporters, churchmen, former civil servants and trade unionists to found the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. In due course, this produced a Constitutional Convention meant to bring in a wider cross-section of Scottish life behind their ‘Claim of Right’. It argued that if Scots were to stand on their own two feet as Mrs Thatcher had insisted, they needed control over their own affairs. Momentum increased when the Scottish Tories lost half their remaining seats in the 1987 election, and, following the poll tax rebellion, the Convention got going in March 1989, after Donald Dewar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, decided to work with other parties. The Convention brought together the vast majority of Scottish MPs, all but two of Scotland’s regional, district and island councils, the trade unions, churches, charities and many other organisations, in fact almost everyone except the Conservatives, who were sticking with the original Union, and the SNP, who wanted full independence.

Scottish Tories, finding themselves increasingly isolated, fought back vainly. They pointed out that if a Tory government, based on English votes, was regarded as illegitimate by the Scots, then in future a Labour government based on Scottish votes might be regarded as illegitimate by the English. In a 1992 poll in Scotland, fifty per cent of those asked said they were in favour of independence within the European Union. In the 1992 election, John Major had made an impassioned appeal for the survival of the Union. Had the four countries never come together, he argued, their joint history would have never been as great: Are we, in our generation, to throw all that away?  He won back a single Scottish seat. Various minor sops were offered to the Scots during his years in office, including the return of the Stone of Destiny, with much ceremony. However, the minor Tory recovery in 1992 was wiped out in the Labour landslide of 1997, when all the Conservatives seats north of the border, where they had once held the majority of them, were lost, as they were in Wales. Formerly just contestants in middle-class, rural and intellectual constituencies, in 1997 Scottish and Welsh nationalists now made huge inroads into former Conservative areas, and even into the Labour heartlands, and the latter despite the Labour leadership being held consecutively by a Welshman and a Scot.

By the time Tony Blair became the party leader, Labour’s commitment to devolution was long-standing. Unlike his predecessor, he was not much interested in devolution or impressed by it, particularly not for Wales, where support had been far more muted. The only thing he could do by this stage was to insist that a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would only be set up after referenda in the two countries, which in Scotland’s case would include a second question as to whether the parliament should be given the power to vary the rate of income tax by 3p in the pound. In September 1997, Scotland voted by three to one for the new Parliament, and by nearly two to one to give it tax-varying powers. The vote for the Welsh Assembly was far closer, with a wafer-thin majority secured by the final constituency to declare, that of Carmarthen. The Edinburgh parliament would have clearly defined authority over a wide range of public services – education, health, welfare, local government, transport and housing – while Westminster kept control over taxation, defence, foreign affairs and some lesser matters. The Welsh assembly in Cardiff would have fewer powers and no tax-raising powers. The Republic of Ireland was similarly divided between two regional assemblies but unlike the assemblies in the UK, these were not elected.

In 1999, therefore, devolved governments, with varying powers, were introduced in Scotland, Wales and, following the ratification referendum on the Belfast Agreement, in Northern Ireland. After nearly three hundred years, Scotland got its parliament with 129 MSPs, and Wales got its assembly with sixty members. Both were elected by proportional representation, making coalition governments almost inevitable. In Scotland, Labour provided the first ‘first minister’ in Donald Dewar, a much-loved intellectual, who took charge of a small group of Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers. To begin with, Scotland was governed from the Church of Scotland’s general assembly buildings. The devolution promised by John Smith and instituted by Tony Blair’s new Labour government in the late 1990s did, initially, seem to take some of the momentum out of the nationalist fervour, but apparently at the expense of stoking the fires of English nationalism, resentful at having Scottish and Welsh MPs represented in their own assemblies as well as in Westminster. But there was no early crisis at Westminster because of the unfairness of Scottish and Welsh MPs being able to vote on England-only business, the so-called Midlothian Question, particularly when the cabinet was so dominated by Scots. But despite these unresolved issues, the historic constitutional changes brought about by devolution and the Irish peace process reshaped both Britain and Ireland, producing irrevocable results. In his television series A History of Britain, first broadcast on the BBC in 2000, Simon Schama argued that…

Histories of Modern Britain these days come not to praise it but to bury it, celebrating the denationalization of Britain, urging on the dissolution of ‘Ukania’ into the constituent European nationalities of Scotland, Wales and England (which would probably tell the Ulster Irish either to absorb themselves into a single European Ireland or to find a home somewhere else – say the Isle of Man). If the colossal asset of the empire allowed Britain, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to exist as a genuine national community ruled by Welsh, Irish and (astonishingly often) Scots, both in Downing Street and in the remote corners of the empire, the end of that imperial enterprise, the theory goes, ought also to mean the decent, orderly liquidation of Britannia Inc. The old thing never meant anything anyway, it is argued; it was just a spurious invention designed to seduce the Celts into swallowing English domination where once they had been coerced into it, and to persuade the English themselves that they would be deeply adored on the grouse moors of the Trossachs as in the apple orchards of the Weald. The virtue of Britain’s fall from imperial grace, the necessity of its European membership if only to avoid servility to the United States, is that it forces ‘the isles’ to face the truth: that they are many nations, not one.

However, in such a reduction of false British national consciousness to the ‘true’ identities and entities of Scotland, Wales and England, he argued, self-determination could go beyond the ‘sub-nations’, each of which was just as much an invention, or a re-invention, as was Britain. Therefore an independent Scotland would not be able to resist the rights to autonomy of the Orkney and Shetland islands, with their Nordic heritage, or the remaining Gallic-speaking isles of the Outer Hebrides. Similarly, the still primarily Anglophone urban south-Walians and the inhabitants of the Welsh borders and south coast of Pembrokeshire might in future wish to assert their linguistic and cultural differences from the Welsh-speakers of the rural Welsh-speakers of West and North Wales. With the revival of their Celtic culture, the Cornish might also wish to seek devolution from a country from which all other Celts have retreated into their ethnolinguistic heartlands. Why shouldn’t post-imperial Britain undergo a process of ‘balkanization’ like that of the Former Yugoslavia?

LSF RSF Lets build a culture of peace LR

Well, many like Schama seemed to answer at that time, and still do today, precisely because of what happened due to ethnonationalism in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the conflicts were only just, in 1999, being brought to an end by air-strikes and the creation of tides of refugees escaping brutal ethnic cleansing. The breaking up of Britain into ever smaller and purer units of pure white ethnic groups was to be resisted. Instead, a multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Britain was coming into being through a gradual and peaceful process of devolution of power to the various national, ethnic and regional groups and a more equal re-integration of them into a ‘mongrel’ British nation within a renewed United Kingdom.

Economic Development, the Regions of Britain & Ireland and the Impact of the EU:

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The late twentieth century saw the transformation of the former docklands of London into offices and fashionable modern residential developments, with a new focus on the huge Canary Wharf scheme (pictured above) to the east of the city. The migration of some financial services and much of the national press to the major new developments in London’s Docklands prompted the development of the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee line extension. The accompanying modernisation of the London Underground was hugely expensive in legal fees and hugely complex in contracts. Outside of London, improvements in public transport networks were largely confined to urban and suburban centres with light railway networks developed in Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon.

Beyond Canary Wharf to the east, the Millennium Dome, which Blair’s government inherited from the Tories, was a billion pound gamble which Peter Mandelson and ‘Tony’s cronies’ decided to push ahead with, despite cabinet opposition. Architecturally, the dome was striking and elegant, a landmark for London which can be seen from by air passengers arriving in the capital. The millennium was certainly worth celebrating but the conundrum ministers and their advisers faced was what to put in their ‘pleasure’ Dome. It would be magnificent, unique, a tribute to British daring and ‘can-do’. Blair himself said that it would provide the first paragraph of his next election manifesto. But this did not answer the current question of what it was for, exactly. When the Dome finally opened at New Year, the Queen, Prime Minister and celebrities were treated to a mish-mash of a show which embarrassed many of them. When it opened to the public, the range of mildly interesting exhibits was greeted as a huge disappointment. Optimism and daring, it seemed, were not enough to fill the people’s expectations. Later that year, Londoners were given a greater gift in the form of a mayor and regional assembly with powers over local planning and transport. This new authority in part replaced the Greater London Council abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986.

However, there were no signs that the other conurbations in the regions of England wanted regionalisation, except for some stirrings in the Northeast and Cornwall. The creation of nine Regional Development Agencies in England in 1998-99 did not seek to meet a regionalist agenda. In fact, these new bodies to a large extent matched the existing structures set up since the 1960s for administrative convenience and to encourage inward investment. Improving transport links were seen as an important means of stimulating regional development and combating congestion. Major Road developments in the 1990s included the completion of the M25 orbital motorway around London and the M40 link between London and Birmingham. However, despite this construction programme, congestion remained a problem: the M25, for example, became the butt of jokes labelling it as the largest car park on the planet, while traffic speeds in central London continued to fall, reaching fifteen kilometres per hour by 1997, about the same as they had been in 1907. Congestion was not the only problem, however, as environmental protests led to much of the road-building programme begun by the Tory governments being shelved after 1997. The late nineties also saw the development of some of the most expensive urban motorways in Europe.

In the Sottish Highlands and Islands, the new Skye road bridge connected the Isle of Skye to the mainland. A group led by the Bank of America built and ran the new bridge. It was one of the first projects built under a ‘public finance initiative’, or PFI, which had started life under Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont, five years before Labour came to power when he experimented with privatising public projects and allowing private companies to run them, keeping the revenue. Although the basic idea was simple enough, this represented a major change in how government schemes were working, big enough to arouse worry even outside the tribes of political obsessives. There were outraged protests from some islanders about paying tolls to a private consortium and eventually the Scottish Executive bought the bridge back. At the opposite corner of the country, the Queen Elizabeth II road bridge was built joining Kent and Essex across the Thames at Dartford, easing congestion on both sides of the Dartford tunnel. It was the first bridge across the river in a new place for more than half a century and was run by a company called ‘Le Crossing’, successfully taking tolls from motorists.

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Undoubtedly the most important transport development was the Channel Tunnel rail link to France, completed in 1994. It was highly symbolic of Britain’s commitment to European integration, and millions of people and vehicles had travelled from London to Paris in under three hours by the end of the century. The town of Ashford in Kent was one of the major beneficiaries of the ‘Chunnel’ rail link, making use of railway links running through the town. Its population grew by over ten per cent in the 1990s. By the end of that decade, the town had an international catchment area of some eighty-five million people within a single day’s journey. This and the opening of Ashford International railway station as the main terminal in the rail link to the continent attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies to the town. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were established in the town, new retail parks were opened. Four green-field sites were also opened on the outskirts of the town, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. Ashford became closer to Paris and Brussels than it was to Manchester and Liverpool, as can be seen on the map below. In addition to its international rail link, the town’s position at the hub of a huge motorway network was in a position to be an integral part of a truly international transport system.

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Modern-day affluence at the turn of the century was reflected in the variety of goods and services concentrated in shopping malls. They are now often built on major roads outside towns and cities to make them accessible to the maximum number of people in a region.

Economic change was most dramatic in the Irish Republic, which enjoyed the highest growth rates in Europe in the 1990s. The so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy boomed, aided by inward investment so that by the end of the decade GDP per capita had surpassed that of the UK. Dublin, which remained if anything more dominant than London as a capital city, flourished as a result of a strong growth in the service industries. Growth rates for the ‘new economy’ industries such as information and communications technology were among the highest in the world. Generous tax arrangements and the city’s growing reputation as a cultural centre meanwhile helped to encourage the development of Dublin’s ‘rockbroker belt’. Even agriculture in the Irish Republic, in decline in the early 1990s, still contributed nine per cent of Ireland’s GDP, three times the European average. In the west of Ireland, it was increasingly supplemented by the growth of tourism.

Nevertheless, while the expansion of Ireland’s prosperity lessened the traditional east-west divide, it did not eliminate it. Low population density and a dispersed pattern of settlement were felt to make rail developments unsuitable. Consequently, Ireland’s first integrated transport programme, the Operational Programme for Peripherality, concentrated on improving: the routes from the west of Ireland to the ferry port of Rosslare; the routes from Belfast to Cork; Dublin and the southwest; east-west routes across the Republic. Many of these improvements benefited from EU funding. The EU also aided, through its ‘peace programme’, the development of transport planning in Britain, with infrastructure projects in, for example, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In 1993, the EU had decided to create a combined European transport network. Of the fourteen projects associated with this aim, three were based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Larne in Northern Ireland, the ferry port for Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast mainline railway route in Britain.

The old north-south divide in Britain reasserted itself with a vengeance in the late 1990s as people moved south in search of jobs and prosperity as prices and wages rose. Even though the shift towards service industries was reducing regional economic diversity, the geographical distribution of regions eligible for European structural funds for economic improved the continuing north-south divide. Transport was only one way in which the EU increasingly came to shape the geography of the British Isles in the nineties. It was, for example, a key factor in the creation of the new administrative regions of Britain and Ireland in 1999. At the same time, a number of British local authorities opened offices in Brussels for lobbying purposes and attempts to maximise receipts from European structural funds also encouraged the articulation of regionalism. Cornwall, for instance, ‘closed’ its ‘border’ with Devon briefly in 1998 in protest at not receiving its EU social funds, while the enthusiasm for the supposed economic benefits that would result from ‘independence in Europe’ helped to explain the revival of the Scottish Nationalist Party following devolution. ‘Silicon Gen’ in central Scotland was, by the end of the decade, the largest producer of computing equipment in Europe.

The European connection was less welcome in other quarters, however. Fishermen, particularly in Devon and Cornwall and on the North Sea Coast of England, felt themselves the victims of the Common Fisheries Policy quota system. There was also a continuing strong sense of ‘Euroscepticism’ in England, fuelled at this stage by a mixture of concerns about ‘sovereignty’ and economic policy, which I will deal with in a separate article. Here, it is worth noting that even the most enthusiastic Europhiles, the Irish, sought to reject recent EU initiatives which they felt were not in their interests in their 2001 referendum on the Treaty of Nice. Nevertheless, the growth of physical links with Europe, like the Channel Tunnel, the connections between the British and French electricity grids, and the development of ‘budget’ airlines, made it clear that both of the main ‘offshore’ islands, Britain and Ireland were, at the turn of the century, becoming increasingly integrated, both in economic and administrative terms, with the continent of Europe.

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At the beginning of 1999, however, a debate began over British membership of the euro, the single currency which was finally taking shape within the EU. Though he was never a fanatic on the subject, Blair’s pro-European instincts and his desire to be a leading figure inside the EU predisposed him to announce that Britain would join, not in the first wave, but soon afterwards. He briefed that this would happen. British business seemed generally in favour, but the briefing and guesswork in the press were completely baffling. For Gordon Brown, stability came first, and he concluded that it was not likely that Britain could safely join the euro within the first Parliament. When he told Blair this, the two argued and then eventually agreed on a compromise. Britain would probably stay out during the first Parliament, but the door should be left slightly ajar. Pro-European business people and those Tories who had lent Blair and Brown their conditional support, as well as Blair’s continental partners, should be kept on board, as should the anti-Euro press. The terms of the delicate compromise were meant to be revealed in an interview given by Brown to The Times. Being more hostile to entry than Blair, and talking to an anti-euro newspaper, his team briefed more strongly than Blair would have liked. By the time the story was written, the pound had been saved from extinction for the lifetime of the Parliament. Blair was aghast at this.

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The chaos surrounding this important matter was ended and the accord with Blair patched up by Brown and his adviser Ed Balls, who quickly produced five economic tests which would be applied before Britain would enter the euro. They required more detailed work by the Treasury; the underlying point was that the British and continental economies must be properly aligned before Britain would join. Brown then told the Commons that though it was likely that, for economic reasons, Britain would not join the euro until after the next election, there was no constitutional or political reason not to join. Preparations for British entry would therefore begin. This gave the impression that once the tests were met there would be a post-election referendum, followed by the demise of sterling.

In 1999, with a full-scale launch at a London cinema, Blair was joined by the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and the two former Tory cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine to launch ‘Britain in Europe’ as a counter-blast to the anti-Euro campaign of ‘Business for Sterling’. Blair promised that together they would demolish the arguments against the euro, and there was alarmist media coverage about the loss of eight million jobs if Britain pulled out of the EU. But the real outcome of this conflict was that the power to decide over membership of the euro passed decisively from Blair to Brown, whose Treasury fortress became the guardian of the economic tests. Brown would keep Britain out on purely economic grounds, something which won him great personal credit among Conservative ‘press barons’. There was to be no referendum on the pound versus euro, however much the Prime Minister wanted one.

Very little of what New Labour had achieved up to 1999 was what it was really about, however, and most of its achievements had been in dealing with problems and challenges inherited from previous governments or with ‘events’ to which it had to react. Its intended purpose was to deliver a more secure economy, radically better public services and a new deal for those at the bottom of British society. Much of this was the responsibility of Gordon Brown, as agreed in the leadership contest accord between the two men. The Chancellor would become a controversial figure later in government, but in his early period at the Treasury, he imposed a new way of governing. He had run his time in Opposition with a tight team of his own, dominated by Ed Balls, later an MP and Treasury minister before becoming shadow chancellor under Ed Miliband following the 2010 general election. Relations between Team Brown and the Treasury officials began badly and remained difficult for a long time. Brown’s handing of interest control to the Bank of England was theatrical, planned secretly in Opposition and unleashed to widespread astonishment immediately New Labour won. Other countries, including Germany and the US, had run monetary policy independently of politicians, but this was an unexpected step for a left-of-centre British Chancellor. It turned out to be particularly helpful to Labour ministers since it removed at a stroke the old suspicion that they would favour high employment over low inflation. As one of Brown’s biographers commented, he…

 …could only give expression to his socialist instincts after playing the role of uber-guardian of the capitalist system.

The bank move has gone down as one of the clearest achievements of the New Labour era. Like the Irish peace process and the devolution referenda, it was an action which followed on immediately after Labour won power, though, unlike those achievements, it was not something referred to in the party’s election manifesto. Brown also stripped the Bank of England of its old job of overseeing the rest of the banking sector. Otherwise, it would have had a potential conflict of interest if it had had to concern itself with the health of commercial banks at the same time as managing interest rates. As a result of these early actions, New Labour won a reputation for being economically trustworthy and its Chancellor was identified with ‘prudent’ management of the nation’s finances. Income tax rates did not increase, which reassured the middle classes. Even when Brown found what has more recently been referred to as ‘the magic money tree’, he did not automatically harvest it. And when the ‘dot-com bubble’ was at its most swollen, he sold off licenses for the next generation of mobile phones for 22.5 bn, vastly more than they were soon worth. The produce went not into new public spending but into repaying the national debt, 37 bn of it. By 2002 government interest payments on this were at their lowest since 1914, as a proportion of its revenue.

Despite his growing reputation for prudence, Brown’s introduction of ‘stealth taxes’ proved controversial, however. These included the freezing of income tax thresholds so that an extra 1.5 million people found themselves paying the top rate; the freezing of personal allowances; rises in stamp duties on houses and a hike in national insurance. In addition, some central government costs were palmed off onto the devolved administrations or local government, so that council tax rose sharply, and tax credits for share dividends were removed. Sold at the time as a ‘prudent’ technical reform, enabling companies to reinvest in their core businesses, this latter measure had a devastating effect on the portfolios of pension funds, wiping a hundred billion off the value of retirement pensions. This was a staggering sum, amounting to more than twice as much as the combined pension deficits of Britain’s top 350 companies. Pensioners and older workers were angered when faced with great holes in their pension funds. They were even more outraged when Treasury papers released in 2007 showed that Brown had been warned about the effect this measure would have. The destruction of a once-proud pension industry had more complex causes than Brown’s decision; Britain’s fast-ageing population was also a major factor, for one. But the pension fund hit produced more anger than any other single act by the New Labour Chancellor.

Perhaps the most striking long-term effect of Brown’s careful running of the economy was the stark, dramatic shape of public spending. For his first two years, he stuck fiercely to the promise he had made about continuing the Major government’s spending levels. These were so tight that even the man who set these levels, Kenneth Clarke, said that he would not actually have kept to them had the Tories been re-elected and had he been reappointed as Chancellor. Brown brought down the State’s share of public spending from nearly 41% of GDP to 37.4% by 1999-2000, the lowest percentage since 1960 and far below anything achieved under Thatcher. He was doing the opposite of what previous Labour Chancellors had done. On arriving in office, they had immediately started spending, in order to stimulate the economy in classical Keynesian terms. When they had reached their limits, they had then had to raise taxes. He began by putting a squeeze on spending and then loosening up later. There was an abrupt and dramatic surge in public spending, particularly on health, back up to 43%. The lean years were immediately followed by the fat ones, famine by the feast. But the consequence of the squeeze was that the first New Labour government of 1997-2001 achieved far less in public services than it had promised. For example, John Prescott had promised a vast boost in public transport, telling the Commons in 1997:

I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.

Because of ‘Prudence’, and Blair’s worries about being seen as anti-car, Prescott had nothing like the investment to follow through and failed completely. Prudence also meant that Brown ploughed ahead with cuts in benefit for lone-parent families, angering Labour MPs and resulting in a Scottish Labour conference which labelled their Westminster government and their own Scots Chancellor as economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft. Reform costs money and without money, it barely happened in the first term, except in isolated policy areas where Blair and Brown put their heads down and concentrated. The most dramatic programme was in raising literacy and numeracy among younger children, where Number Ten worked closely with the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, and scored real successes. But unequivocally successful public service reforms were rare.

At first, Labour hated the idea of PFIs, which were a mixture of two things associated with Thatcherite economic policies, the privatisation of capital projects, with the government paying a fee to private companies over many years, and the contracting out of services – waste collection, school meals, cleaning – which had been imposed on unwilling socialist councils from the eighties. Once in power, however, Labour ministers began to realise that those three little letters were political magic because they allowed them to announce and oversee exciting new projects and take the credit for them in the full knowledge that the full bill would be left for the taxpayers of twenty to fifty years hence. In this way, spending and funding of new hospitals or schools would be a problem for a future health or education minister.

PFIs were particularly attractive when other kinds of spending were tightly controlled by ‘Prudence’. Large amounts of capital for public buildings were declared to be ‘investment’, not spending, and put to one side of the public accounts. The justification was that private companies would construct and run this infrastructure so much more efficiently than the State and that profits paid to them by taxpayers would be more than compensated for. Ministers replied to criticisms of these schemes by pointing out that, without them, Britain would not get the hundreds of new school buildings, hospitals, health centres, fire stations, army barracks, helicopter training schools, prisons, government offices, roads and bridges that it so obviously needed by the nineties. Significantly, the peak year for PFIs was 1999-2000, just as the early Treasury prudence in conventional spending had bitten hardest and was being brought to an end.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Simon Schama (2000), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Peter Catterall (et. al.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

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British Foreign Policy, NATO & the Shape of the World to Come, 1994-1999.   Leave a comment

Back to Attacking Iraq – Operation Desert Fox:

The Iraq War will no doubt remain the most important and controversial part of Tony Blair’s legacy. But long before it, during the first Clinton administration, two events had taken place which help to explain something of what followed. The first was the bombing of Iraq by the RAF and US air force as punishment for Saddam Hussein’s dodging of UN inspections. The second was the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis and the threat of a ground force invasion. These crises made Blair believe he had to be involved personally and directly involved in overseas wars. They emphasised the limitations of air power and the importance to him of media management. Without them, Blair’s reaction to the changing of world politics on 11 September 2001 would undoubtedly have been less resolute and well-primed. Evidence of Saddam Hussein’s interest in weapons of mass destruction had been shown to Blair soon after he took office. He raised it in speeches and privately with other leaders. Most countries in NATO and at the UN security council were angry about the dictator’s expulsion of UN inspectors when they tried to probe his huge palace compounds for biological and chemical weapons.  Initially, however, diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on him to allow the inspectors back. The Iraqi people were already suffering badly from the international sanctions on them. He readmitted the inspectors, but then began a game of cat-and-mouse with them.

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A Tomahawk cruise missile is fired from an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998

In October 1998, the United States and Britain finally lost patience and decided to smash Baghdad’s military establishment with missiles and bombing raids. In a foretaste of things to come, Blair presented MPs with a dossier about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. At the last minute, the Iraqi leader backed down again and the raids were postponed. The US soon concluded that this was just another ruse, however, and in December, British and American planes attacked, hitting 250 targets over four days. Operation Desert Fox, as it was called, probably only delayed Iraq’s weapons programme by a year or so though it was sold as a huge success. As was the case later, Britain and the United States were operating without a fresh UN resolution. But Blair faced little opposition either in Parliament or outside it, other than a from a handful of protesters chanting ‘don’t attack Iraq’ with accompanying placards. Nonetheless, there was a widespread suspicion around the world that Clinton had ordered the attacks to distract from his troubles at home. The raids were thus nicknamed ‘the war of Clinton’s trousers’ and during them, Congress was indeed debating impeachment proceedings, actually formally impeaching the President on their final day.

Rebuilding the Peace in Bosnia:  Dayton to Mostar, 1995-1999.

The break-up of Yugoslavia in the later stages of the long Balkan tragedy had haunted John Major’s time in office as UK Prime Minister. Finally, the three years of bitter warfare in Bosnia in which more than two million people had been displaced and over a hundred thousand had been killed, was brought to an end. In March 1994 the Bosnian Muslims and Croats formed a fragile federation, and in 1995 Bosnian Serbs successes against the Muslim enclaves of Yepa, Srebrenica and Gorazde provoked NATO to intervene. In November 1995, facing military defeat, the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic bowed to international pressure to accept a settlement. A peace conference between the three sides involved in the conflict, the Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, ended in their joining into an uneasy federation with the initialling of an agreement in Dayton, Ohio, USA (shown below).

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Seated from left to right: Slobodan Milošević, Alija Izetbegović, Franjo Tuđman initialling the Dayton Peace Accords at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on 21 November 1995.

After the initialling in Dayton, Ohio, the full and formal agreement was signed in Paris on 14 December 1995 (right) and witnessed by Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, French President Jacques Chirac, U.S. President Bill Clinton, UK Prime Minister John Major, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

At the time, I was in my fourth academic year in southern Hungary, running a teachers’ exchange programme for Devon County Council and its ‘twin’ council in Hungary, Baranya County Assembly, based in Pécs. Even before the Dayton Accords, NATO was beginning to enlarge and expand itself into Central Europe. Participants at a Summit Meeting in January 1994 formally announced the Partnership for Peace programme, which provided for closer political and military cooperation with Central European countries looking to join NATO. Then, President Clinton, accompanied by  Secretary of State Christopher, met with leaders of the ‘Visegrád’ states (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) in Prague. In December 1994, Clinton and Christopher attended a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) summit in Budapest. During this, the Presidents of the United States, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine signed the START 1 nuclear arms reduction treaty. A decision was also made to change the name of the CSCE to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and to expand its responsibilities.

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In particular, the Republic of Hungary, long before it joined NATO officially in 1999, had taken a number of steps to aid the mission of the Western Alliance. On 28 November 1995, following the initialling of the Dayton Accords, the Hungarian Government of Gyula Horn announced that Kaposvár would be the principal ground logistics and supply base for the US contingents of the international peace-keeping force in Bosnia, the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR). The Hungarian Parliament then voted almost unanimously to allow NATO air forces to use its bases, including the airfield at Taszár. The Kaposvár bases became operational in early December and the first American soldiers assigned to IFOR arrived at Taszár on 9 December. Most of the three thousand soldiers were charged with logistical tasks. The forces stationed at Kaposvár, units of the US First Armored Division regularly passed through our home city of Pécs ‘en route’ to Bosnia, in convoys of white military vehicles, trucks and troop-carriers. In mid-January 1996, President Clinton paid a snapshot visit to Taszár and met some of the US soldiers there, together with Hungarian State and government ministers. The Hungarian National Assembly also approved the participation of a Hungarian engineering unit in the operation of IFOR which left for Okucani in Croatia at the end of January. The following December the Hungarian Engineering Battalion was merged into the newly established Stabilization Forces (SFOR) in former Yugoslavia.

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By the end of 1996, therefore, Hungary – one of the former Warsaw Pact countries applying to join NATO – had already been supporting the peace operation in Bosnia for over a year as a host and transit country for British and American troops, providing infrastructural support, placing both military and civilian facilities at their disposal and ensuring the necessary conditions for ground, water and air transport and the use of frequencies. In addition, the Hungarian Defence Forces had been contributing to the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords with an engineering contingent at the battalion level of up to 416 troops during the IFOR/SFOR operation. It had carried out two hundred tasks, constructed twenty-two bridges and a total of sixty-five kilometres of railroads and taken part in the resurfacing of main roads. It had also carried out mine-clearing, searching over a hundred thousand square metres for explosives.

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In February 1998, the Hungarian National Assembly voted unanimously to continue to take part in the SFOR operation in Bosnia. One event of major significance was the Hungarian forces’ participation in the restoration of the iconic ‘Old Bridge’ in Mostar, famously painted by the Hungarian artist Csontváry (his painting, shown below, is exhibited in the museum which bears his name in Pécs), which had been blown up in the Bosnian War in early 1990s.

(Photos above below: The Old Bridge and Old Town area of Mostar today)

Mostar Old Town Panorama

A monumental project to rebuild the Old Bridge to the original design, and restore surrounding structures and historic neighbourhoods was initiated in 1999 and mostly completed by Spring 2004, begun by the sizeable contingent of peacekeeping troops stationed in the surrounding area during the conflict. A grand re-opening was finally held on 23 July 2004 under heavy security.

 

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Crisis & Civil War in Kosovo, 1997-98:

The Dayton peace agreement had calmed things down in former Yugoslavia, and by 1997 international peace-keeping forces such as IFOR and SFOR were able to successfully monitor the cease-fire and separate both the regular and irregular forces on the ground in Bosnia leading to relative stability. However, in 1997-98, events showed that much remained to be done to bring the military conflicts to an end. Bosnian Serbs and Croats sought closer ties for their respective areas with Serbia and Croatia proper. Then, the newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) triggered a vicious new conflict. Kosovo, a province of Serbia, was dominated by Albanian-speaking Muslims but was considered almost a holy site in the heritage of the Serbs, who had fought a famous medieval battle there against the invading Ottoman forces. When Albania had won its independence from the Ottoman empire in 1912, over half the Albanian community was left outside its borders, largely in the Yugoslav-controlled regions of Kosovo and Macedonia. In 1998, the KLA stepped up its guerrilla campaign to win independence for Kosovo. The ex-communist Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, having been forced to retreat from Bosnia, had now made himself the hero of the minority Kosovar Serbs. Serb forces launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Albanians. Outright armed conflict in Kosovo started in late February 1998 and lasted until 11 June 1999. By the beginning of May 1998, the situation in the former Yugoslavia was back on the agenda of the Meeting of the NATO Military Committee. For the first time, this was attended by the Chiefs of Staff of the three ‘accession’ countries – Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Map 1: The Break-up of Yugoslavia, 1994-97

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The map shows the areas still in conflict, 1994-1997, in Eastern Bosnia and Southern Central Serbia. The area in grey shows the area secured as the ‘independent’ Serbian Republic of Bosnia by Serb forces as of February 1994,  The blue areas are those with where ethnic minorities form the overall majority, while the purple areas show Serb majority areas with significant minorities. The green line shows the border between the Serb Republic component and the Croat-Muslim Federation component of Bosnia-Herzegovina according to the Dayton Peace Agreement, November 1995.

In a poll taken in August 1998, the Hungarian public expressed a positive view of NATO’s role in preventing and managing conflicts in the region. With respect to the situation in Kosovo, fifty-five per cent of those asked had expressed the view that the involvement of NATO would reduce the probability of a border conflict between Albania and Serbia and could prevent the outbreak of a full-scale civil war in Kosovo. At the same time, support for direct Hungarian participation in such peace-keeping actions was substantially smaller. While an overwhelming majority of those asked accepted the principle of making airspace available, as many as forty-six per cent were against even the continued participation of the engineering contingent in Bosnia and only twenty-eight per cent agreed with the involvement of Hungarian troops in a NATO operation in Kosovo. Other European countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic and the existing members of NATO were no more keen to become involved in a ground war in Kosovo. In Chicago, Tony Blair declared a new doctrine of the international community which allowed a just war, based on… values. President Clinton, however, was not eager to involve US troops in another ground war so soon after Bosnia, so he would only consider the use of air power at this stage.

Map 2: Position of Kosovo in Former Yugoslavia, 1995-99

Image result for kosovoOn 13 October 1998, the North Atlantic Council issued activation orders (ACTORDs) for the execution of both limited air strikes and a phased air campaign in Yugoslavia which would begin in approximately ninety-six hours. On 15 October 1998, the Hungarian Parliament gave its consent to the use of its airspace by reconnaissance, combat and transport aircraft taking part in the NATO actions aimed at the enforcement of the UN resolutions on the settlement of the crisis in Kosovo.

At this time, however, the United States and Britain were already involved in the stand-off with Saddam Hussein leading up to Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in December 1998, and so couldn’t afford to be involved in two bombing campaigns simultaneously. Also on the 15 October, the NATO Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) Agreement for a ceasefire was signed, and the deadline for withdrawal was extended to 27 October. The Serbian withdrawal had, in fact, commenced on or around 25 October and the KVM began what was known as Operation Eagle Eye on 30 October. But, despite the use of international monitors, the KVM ceasefire broke down almost immediately. It was a large contingent of unarmed Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) peace monitors (officially known as ‘verifiers’) that had moved into Kosovo, but their inadequacy was evident from the start. They were nicknamed the “clockwork oranges” in reference to their brightly coloured vehicles.

NATO’s Intervention & All Out War in Kosovo, 1998-99:

Map 3: Albanians in the Balkans, 1998-2001.

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Milosevic used the break-down of the OSCE Mission and the world’s preoccupation with the bombing of Iraq to escalate his ethnic cleansing programme in Kosovo. The death squads went back to work and forced thousands of people to become refugees on wintry mountain tracks, producing uproar around the world.  As the winter of 1998-99 set in, the civil war was marked by increasingly savage Serb reprisals. Outright fighting resumed in December 1998 after both sides broke the ceasefire, and this surge in violence culminated in the killing of Zvonko Bojanić, the Serb mayor of the town of Kosovo Polje. Yugoslav authorities responded by launching a crackdown against KLA ‘militants’. On the ground in Kosovo, the January to March 1999 phase of the war brought increasing insecurity in urban areas, including bombings and murders. Such attacks took place during the Rambouillet talks in February and as the Kosovo Verification Agreement unravelled completely in March. Killings on the roads continued and increased and there were major military confrontations. Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, had been subjected to heavy firefights and segregation according to OSCE reports.

The worst incident had occurred on 15 January 1999, known as the Račak massacre. The slaughter of forty-five civilians in the town provoked international outrage and comparisons with Nazi crimes. The Kosovar Albanian farmers were rounded up, led up a hill and massacred. The bodies had been discovered later by OSCE monitors, including Head of Mission William Walker, and foreign news correspondents. This massacre was the turning point of the war, though Belgrade denied that a massacre had taken place. The Račak massacre was the culmination of the KLA attacks and Yugoslav reprisals that had continued throughout the winter of 1998–1999. The incident was immediately condemned as a massacre by the Western countries and the United Nations Security Council, and later became the basis of one of the charges of war crimes levelled against Milošević and his top officials in the Hague. Hundreds of thousands of people were on the move – eventually, roughly a million ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo and an estimated ten to twelve thousand were killed. According to Downing Street staff,  Tony Blair began to think he might not survive as Prime Minister unless something was done. The real problem, though, was that, after the Bosnian War, only the genuine threat of an invasion by ground troops would convince Milosevic to pull back; air power by itself was not enough. Blair tried desperately to convince Bill Clinton of this. He visited a refugee camp and declared angrily:

“This is obscene. It’s criminal … How can anyone think we shouldn’t intervene?”

Yet it would be the Americans whose troops would be once again in the line of fire since the European Union was far away from any coherent military structure and lacked the basic tools for carrying armies into other theatres. On 23 March 1999, Richard Holbrooke, US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, returned to Brussels and announced that peace talks had failed and formally handed the matter to NATO for military action. Hours before the announcement, Yugoslavia announced on national television it had declared a state of emergency citing an imminent threat of war and began a huge mobilisation of troops and resources. Later that night, the Secretary-General of NATO, Javier Solana, announced he had directed the Supreme Allied Command to initiate air operations in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. On 24 March NATO started its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The BBC correspondent John Simpson was in Belgrade when the bombs started to fall. In the capital, he recalled, dangerous forces had been released. A battle was underway between the more civilised figures in Slobodan Milosevic’s administration and the savage nationalist faction headed by Vojislav Seselj, vice-premier of the Serbian government, whose supporters had carried out appalling atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia some years earlier. Earlier in the day, the large international press corps, three hundred strong, had attended a press conference held by the former opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, now a member of Milosevic’s government:

“You are all welcome to stay,” he told us grandly, looking more like Tsar Nicholas II than ever, his cheeks flushed with the first ‘slivovica’ of the day. Directly we arrived back at the Hyatt Hotel, where most of the foreign journalists were staying, we were told that the communications minister, a sinister and bloodless young acolyte of Seselj’s, had ordered everyone working for news organisations from the NATO countries to leave Belgrade at once. It was clear who had the real power, and it wasn’t Draskovic.

That morning Christiane Amanpour, the CNN correspondent, white-faced with nervousness, had been marched out of the hotel by a group of security men from a neutral embassy, put in a car and driven straight to the Hungarian border for her own safety. Arkan, the paramilitary leader who was charged with war-crimes as the war began, had established himself in the Hyatt’s coffee-shop in order to keep an eye on the Western journalists. His thugs, men and women dressed entirely in black, hung around the lobby. Reuters Television and the European Broadcasting Union had been closed down around noon by units of the secret police. They slapped some people around, and robbed a BBC cameraman and producer… of a camera.

Simpson was in two minds. He wanted to stay in Belgrade but yet wanted to get out with all the others. The eight of them in the BBC team had a meeting during which it quickly became clear that everyone else wanted to leave. He argued briefly for staying, but he didn’t want to be left entirely on his own in Belgrade with such lawlessness all around him. It felt like a re-run of the bombing of Baghdad in 1991, but then he had been hustled out of Iraq with the other Western journalists after the first five days of the bombing; now he was leaving Belgrade after only twenty-four hours, which didn’t feel right. At that point, he heard that an Australian correspondent whom he knew from Baghdad and other places was staying. Since Australia was not part of NATO, he couldn’t simply be ordered to leave. So, with someone else to share the risk, he decided he would try to stay too:

… I settled back on the bed, poured myself a generous slug of ‘Laphroaig’ and lit an Upmann’s Number 2. I had selected a CD with some care, and it was playing now:

‘There may be trouble ahead; But while there’s moonlight, and music, and love and romance; Let’s face the music and dance’.

Outside, a familiar wailing began: the air-raid siren. I took my Laphroaig and my cigar over to the window and looked out at the anti-aircraft fire which was already arcing up, red and white, into the night sky.

The bombing campaign lasted from 24 March to 11 June 1999, involving up to 1,000 aircraft operating mainly from bases in Italy and aircraft carriers stationed in the Adriatic. With the exception of Greece, all NATO members were involved to some degree. Over the ten weeks of the conflict, NATO aircraft flew over thirty-eight thousand combat missions. The proclaimed goal of the NATO operation was summed up by its spokesman as “Serbs out, peacekeepers in, refugees back”. That is, Yugoslav troops would have to leave Kosovo and be replaced by international peacekeepers to ensure that the Albanian refugees could return to their homes. The campaign was initially designed to destroy Yugoslav air defences and high-value military targets. But it did not go very well at first, with bad weather hindering many sorties early on.

Three days after John Simpson had decided to remain behind in Belgrade, still alone and having slept a total of seven hours since the war began, and with every programme of the BBC demanding reports from him, he had to write his weekly column for the Sunday Telegraph. At five-thirty in the morning, he described the situation as best as he could, then paused to look at the television screens across the room. BBC World, Sky and CNN were all showing an immense flood of refugees crossing the Macedonian border from Kosovo. Yet protecting these people from was surely the main purpose of the NATO bombing – that, and encouraging people in Serbia itself to turn against their President, Slobodan Milosevic. But NATO had seriously underestimated Milošević’s will to resist. Most of the people in Belgrade who had once been against him now seemed to have rallied to his support. Some of them had already been shouting at the journalist. And then the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo certainly weren’t exactly being protected. He went back to his word-processor and wrote:

If that was the purpose of the bombing, then it isn’t working yet.

He added a few more paragraphs, and then hurriedly faxed the article to London before the next wave of demands from BBC programmes could break over him. The Sunday Telegraph ran the article ‘rather big’ the next day, under the imposing but embarrassing headline, I’m sorry, but this war isn’t working. Tony Blair read the headline and was reported to be furious, yet he must have realised that it was true. His aim and that of Bill Clinton had been to carry out a swift series of air attacks that would force Milosevic to surrender. But the NATO onslaught had been much too feeble and much too circumscribed. Besides the attacks on Belgrade itself, British and American jets had attacked targets only in Kosovo and not in the rest of Serbia, so that other towns and cities had not been touched. Neither had the centre of the Serbian capital itself. President Clinton, as worried as ever about domestic public opinion, had promised that there would be no ground war. Significantly, for the future of the war, an American stealth bomber had crashed, or just possibly been shot down, outside Belgrade. After four days of the war, it began to look as if it might not be such a walkover for NATO after all.

Milosevic couldn’t make a quick climb-down in the face of NATO’s overwhelming force now; his own public opinion, intoxicated by its unexpected success, wouldn’t accept it. In any case, the force didn’t seem quite so overwhelming, and Serbia didn’t seem quite so feeble as had been predicted in Western ‘propaganda’. NATO was clearly in for a far longer campaign than it had anticipated, and there was a clear possibility that the alliance might fall apart over the next few weeks. So the machinery of the British government swung into action to deal with the problem, or rather the little local difficulty that a BBC journalist, also ‘freelancing’ for the Daily Telegraph had had the audacity to suggest that things were not quite going to plan. Backbench Labour MPs began complaining publicly about Simpson’s reporting. So Simpson decided to go out onto the streets of Belgrade to sample opinion directly, for himself. Other foreign camera crews had already had a difficult time trying to do this, and Simpson admitted to being distinctly nervous, as were his cameraman and the Serbian producers he had hired.

People crowded around them and jostled them in order to scream their anger against NATO. These were not stereotypical supporters of the Belgrade régime; many of them had taken part in the big anti-Milosevic two years earlier. But since they felt that, in the face of the bombing, they had no alternative but to regard themselves first and foremost as Serbian patriots, and therefore to support him as their leader. There was little doubt about the intensity of feeling: The men and women who gathered around the BBC team were on the very edge of violence. Before they started their interviews they asked a couple of pressing policemen if they would provide them with some protection. They walked off laughing. After their report was broadcast on that night’s Nine O’Clock News, the British government suggested, off the record, that the people interviewed were obviously afraid of Milosevic’s secret police, and that they had said only what they had been instructed to tell the BBC, or that they had been planted by the authorities for the team to interview. It was strange, the anonymous voices suggested, that someone as experienced as John Simpson, should have failed to realise this.

But the criticism of the bombing campaign was beginning to hit home. The bombers began hitting factories, television stations, bridges, power stations, railway lines, hospitals and many government buildings. This was, however, no more successful. Many innocent civilians were killed and daily life was disrupted across much of Serbia and Kosovo.

The worst incident was when sixty people were killed by an American cluster bomb in a market.

(Pictured above: Smoke in Novi Sad (Újvidék) after NATO bombardment. The aerial photo (below) on the right shows post-strike damage assessment of the Sremska Mitrovica ordnance storage depot, Serbia).

NATO military operations switched increasingly to attacking Yugoslav units on the ground, hitting targets as small as individual tanks and artillery pieces, as well as continuing with the strategic bombardment.

This activity was, however, heavily constrained by politics, as each target needed to be approved by all nineteen member states. By the start of April, the conflict appeared little closer to a resolution and NATO countries began to seriously consider conducting ground operations in Kosovo. At the start of May, a NATO aircraft attacked an Albanian refugee convoy ‘by mistake’, believing it was a Yugoslav military convoy (they may have mistaken the ‘Raba’ farm trucks for troop carriers of a similar make and shape), killing around fifty people. NATO admitted its mistake five days later, but only after the Yugoslavs had accused NATO of deliberately attacking the border-bound refugees; however, a later report conducted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) gave its verdict that…

… civilians were not deliberately attacked in this incident … neither the aircrew nor their commanders displayed the degree of recklessness in failing to take precautionary measures which would sustain criminal charges.

Reporting the War: Blair & the BBC.

At the time, in reply to these charges, NATO put forward all sorts of suggestions as to why what had happened, insisting that the convoy had been escorted by the Serbian military: thus making it a legitimate target. An American general suggested that after the NATO jets attacked that the Serbian soldiers travelling with the convoy had leapt out of the vehicles and in a fit of rage had massacred the civilians. It wasn’t all that far-fetched as a possible narrative; both before and after the incident, Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries carried out the most disgusting reprisals against innocent ethnic Albanian civilians. But it wasn’t true in this case. It later transpired that British pilots had recognised the convoy as a refugee one, and had warned the Americans not to attack. In a studio interview for the Nine O’Clock News on the night of the incidentJohn Simpson was asked who might have been responsible for the deaths of the refugees. He replied that if it had been done by the Serb forces, they would try to hush it up quickly. But if it had been NATO, then the Serbian authorities would probably take the journalists and TV crews to the site of the disaster and show them, as had happened on several occasions already when the evidence seemed to bear out the Serbian narratives.

The following day, the military press centre in Belgrade duly provided a coach, and the foreign journalists were taken down to see the site. The Serbs had left the bodies where they lay so that the cameramen could get good pictures of them; such pictures made excellent propaganda for them, of course. It was perfectly clear that NATO bombs had been responsible for the deaths, and eventually, NATO was obliged to give an unequivocal acceptance of culpability and to issue a full apology. But Downing Street was worried that disasters like this would turn public opinion against the war. As the person who had suggested that the Serbian version of events might actually be true, John Simpson became the direct target of the Blair government’s public relations machine. Tony Blair had staked everything on the success of NATO’s war against Milosevic, and it wasn’t going well. So he did precisely what the Thatcher government had done in the Falklands War in 1982, and during the Libyan bombing campaign of 1986, when the US planes used British bases, and what the Major administration did in 1991 when civilian casualties began to mount in the Gulf War: he attacked the BBC’s reporting as being biased. As an experienced war correspondent, Simpson had been expecting this knee-jerk reaction from the government:

Things always go wrong in war, and it’s important that people should know about it when it happens, just as they should know when things are going well. … No doubt arrogantly … I reckoned that over the years I had built up some credibility with the BBC’s audiences, so that people wouldn’t automatically believe it if they were told that I was swallowing the official Serbian line or deliberately trying to undermine NATO’s war effort. I did my utmost to report fairly and openly; and then I sat back and waited for the sky to fall in.

On 14 April, twenty-two days into the war, it did. Simpson started to get calls from friends at Westminster that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press spokesman, had criticised his reporting in the Westminster press lobby, briefing about the BBC correspondent’s lack of objectivity. Anonymous officials at the Ministry of Defence were also ‘whispering’ that he was blatantly pro-Serbian. The British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called on him to leave Belgrade and Claire Short, the overseas development secretary, suggested that his reporting was akin to helping Hitler in the Second World War. Soon, Tony Blair himself was complaining to the House of Commons that I was reporting under the instruction and guidelines of the Serbian authorities. If he had made this statement outside Parliament, it would have been actionable. Simpson later asserted that:

It was absolutely and categorically untrue: I was neither instructed nor guided by the Serbs in what I said, and in fact my reports were more frequently censored by the Serbian authorities than those of any correspondent working in Belgrade throughout this period. Not only that, but our cameraman was given twenty-four hours to leave the country at the very time these accusations were being made, in order to punish the BBC for its ‘anti-Serbian reporting’.

The political editor of The Times, Philip Webster, then wrote a story which appeared on its front page on 15 April, reporting that the British government was accusing Simpson of pro-Serbian bias. This resulted in each of the mainstream broadsheet newspapers criticising the government for its attacks on the BBC, and several of the tabloids also made it clear that they didn’t approve either, including the Sun and the Daily Mail, neither of which was particularly friendly to the BBC. MPs from all sides of the House of Commons and various members of the Lords spoke up on behalf of Simpson and the BBC. Martin Bell, the war reporter turned MP also came to his defence, as did John Humphrys, the BBC radio presenter.

The BBC itself, which had not always rallied around its staff when they came under fire from politicians, gave Simpson unequivocal backing of a type he had not experienced before. Downing Street immediately backed away; when he wrote a letter of complaint to Alistair Campbell, he did not get an apology in reply, but an assurance that his professional abilities had not been called into question. As far as Whitehall was concerned, that was the end of it. Still, the predictable suggestion that there was some sort of similarity between the bombing of Serbia and the Second World War clearly struck a chord with some people. Simpson started to get shoals of angry and often insulting letters. The following example, in a ‘spidery hand’ from Anglesey, was typical:

Dear Mr Simpson,

When your country is at war and when our young men are putting their lives at risk on a daily basis, it is only a fool that would say or write anything to undermine their bravery. … in Hitler’s day you would be put in a safe place … where you probably belong.

Of course, the air campaign against Serbia was nothing like the Second World War. There was no conceivable threat to British democracy, nor to its continued existence as a nation. In this case, the only danger was to NATO’s cohesion, and to the reputation of Tony Blair’s government. The only problem was, as we had seen under Thatcher, that politicians had their own way of identifying their own fate with that of the country as a whole. The attacks on John Simpson attracted a great deal of attention from around the world as the international media saw them as an attempt by the British government to censor the BBC. In Belgrade, where the story was given huge attention, as the Serbian press and television seemed to think that it put the BBC on the same basis as themselves, totally controlled by the state. Simpson refused on principle to be interviewed by any Serbian journalist, especially from state television and pointed out to any of them who asked…

the difference between a free press and the kind of pro-government reporting that President Milosevic liked. None was quick-witted enough to reply that Tony Blair might have liked it too.

The Posturing PM & A Peculiar Way to Make a Living:

On 7 May, an allegedly ‘stealthy’ US bomber blew down half the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, causing a huge international row. The NATO bombs killed three Chinese journalists and outraged Chinese public opinion.

Pictured left: Yugoslav anti-aircraft fire over Belgrade at night.

The United States and NATO later apologised for the bombing, saying that it occurred because of an outdated map provided by the CIA although this was challenged by a joint report from The Observer (UK) and Politiken (Denmark) newspapers which claimed that NATO intentionally bombed the embassy because it was being used as a relay station for Yugoslav army radio signals. Meanwhile, low cloud and the use of decoys by Milosevic’s generals limited the military damage in general.

Pictured right: Post-strike bomb damage assessment photo of Zastava car plant.

In another incident at the Dubrava prison in Kosovo in May 1999, the Yugoslav government attributed as many as 85 civilian deaths to NATO bombing of the facility after NATO sighted Serbian and Yugoslav military activity in the area. However, a Human Rights Watch report later concluded that at least nineteen ethnic Albanian prisoners had been killed by the bombing, but that an uncertain number – probably more than seventy – were killed by Serbian Government forces in the days immediately following the bombing.

But Washington was alarmed by the British PM’s moral posturing and it was only after many weeks of shuttle diplomacy that things began to move. Blair ordered fifty thousand British soldiers, most of the available army should be made available to invade Kosovo. This would mean a huge call-up of reserves and if it was designed to call Milosevic’s bluff, it was gambling on a massive scale, as other European nations had no intention of taking part in a ground campaign. But he did have the backing of NATO, which had decided that the conflict could only be settled by introducing a military peacekeeping force under its auspices in order to forcibly restrain the two sides. The Americans, therefore, began to toughen their language and worked together with the Russians to apply pressure on Milosevic. Finally, at the last minute of this brinkmanship, the Serb Parliament and President buckled and agreed to withdraw their forces from Kosovo, accepting its virtual independence, under an international mandate. Milošević finally recognised that Russia would not intervene to defend Yugoslavia despite Moscow’s strong anti-NATO rhetoric. He thus accepted the conditions offered by a Finnish–Russian mediation team and agreed to a military presence within Kosovo headed by the UN, but incorporating NATO troops.

From June 1999, therefore, Kosovo found itself administered by the international community. Many Kosovar Serbs migrated into Serbia proper, and in 2001 there was further Albanian guerilla activity in ‘northern Macedonia’, where a further ethnic Albanian insurgent group, the NLA, threatened to destabilize that new country, where over a third of the population is ethnic Albanian. Blair had won a kind of victory. Eight months later, Milosevic was toppled from power and ended up in the Hague, charged with war crimes. John Simpson managed to hang on in Belgrade for fourteen weeks altogether, and would have stayed there longer had he not been thrown out by the security police for ‘non-objective’ reporting; that is, reporting that was too objective for their taste. By that stage, the war was effectively all but over. By that stage, also, his wife Dee had been with him for almost a month, braving NATO bombs and the sometimes angry crowds in order to make some of their Simpson’s World programmes there (she is pictured below with John, back at their home near Dublin). He found himself in hospital following a pool-side accident in the Hyatt Hotel. The hospital was surrounded by potential NATO targets, and part of it had been hit. Power-cuts happened every day, and operations were affected as a result. After his, he lay in a large ward listening to the NATO planes flying overhead:

Most of my war had been spent in the Hyatt hotel, which even NATO seemed unlikely to regard as a target. The hospital was different. Every now and then there would be the sound of a heavy explosion, not far away. The patients up and down the corridor groaned or yelled out in their sleep. It was completely dark, because the power had been cut again… Sometimes one of the fifty or so people would call urgently for a nurse… No one would come. The hospital tried to minimise the danger to its staff by keeping as few people as possible on at night as possible. There were only two nurses in our part of the hospital… What would happen, I wondered, if the ward were hit by NATO? … How would I get out, given that I couldn’t even move?…

… I drifted into a kind of sleep, … the sound of bombers overhead and the shudder of explosions. In many ways, I suppose, it was unpleasant and frightening. Yet even then I saw it as something slightly different, as though I were standing outside myself observing. It was an extraordinary experience, what journalists would call a story, and for once I was the participant as well as the onlooker. … This is really why I do the work I do, and live the strange, rootless, insecure life I do; and even when it goes wrong I can turn it into a story. Lying in my hospital bed I fished a torch out of my bag, reached for my notebook, and started writing a despatch for ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ about being in a Serbian hospital during the bombing.

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As far as the British Prime Minister’s Foreign policy was concerned, first Operation Desert Fox and then Kosovo were vital to the ‘learning curve’ which determined his decision-making over his response to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, and in particular in relation to his backing for the full-scale invasion of Iraq. They taught him that bombing, by itself, rarely worked. They suggested that threatened by the ground invasion of superior forces, dictators will back down. They confirmed him in his view of himself as a moral war leader, combating dictators. After working well with Clinton over Desert Fox, however, he was concerned that he had tried to bounce him too obviously over Kosovo. He learned that US Presidents needed careful handling, but that he could not rely on Britain’s European allies very much in military matters. Nevertheless, he pressed the case later for the establishment of a European ‘rapid reaction force’ to shoulder more of the burden in future regional wars. He learned to ignore criticism from both left and right at home, which became deafening during the bombing of Belgrade and Kosovo. He learned to cope with giving orders which would result in much loss of life. He learned an abiding hostility to the media, and in particular to the BBC, whose reporting of the Kosovo bombing campaign, especially that of John Simpson, had infuriated him.

The Beginnings of Euro-Atlantic Reintegration, 1998-99:

Map 4:

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(Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya and Tatarstan asserted their independence after 1990)

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The close working relationship between the United States, the United Kingdom and Hungary, and their cooperation at all levels throughout the period 1989-99, had helped to pave the way for a smooth transition to full NATO membership for the Republic at the end of those years. During the NATO summit in Madrid, Secretary-General Javier Solana had invited Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland to consider joining NATO. A national referendum in Hungary had approved NATO membership on 16 November 1997. At the end of January 1999, Foreign Affairs, János Martonyi had received a letter from NATO General Secretary Javier Solano formally inviting Hungary to join NATO. The same letter was sent to the Foreign Ministries of the Czech Republic and Poland, following the completion of the ratification process in the existing member states, including the UK (in August 1998). The National Assembly in Hungary voted overwhelmingly (96%) for accession on 9 February, and on 12 March the solemn ceremony of the accession of the three countries was held in Independence, Missouri, the birthplace of the former US President, Harry S Truman, in the library named after him. In her speech praising the three countries, US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright emphasised the significance of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution for world history and welcomed the country of King Stephen and Cardinal Mindszenty into the Atlantic Alliance.

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Later that year, Martonyi wrote in the that…

The tragic events that have been taking place in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, most lately in Kosovo, has made us realise in a dramatic way that security means much more than just in its military definition and that the security of Europe is indivisible. Crisis situations have also warned us that one single organisation, however efficient, is not able to solve the economic, environmental or security problems as a region, let alone of the whole continent, on its own. … Another important lesson of the crisis in the former Yugoslavia has been that no durable peace can be achieved in the region in the absence of genuine democracy and functioning democratic institutions in the countries concerned.  

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When Hungary acceded to NATO and its flag was raised outside the Alliance’s HQ in Brussels on 16 March, along with those of Poland and the Czech Republic, it finally became a formal ally of the United States and the United Kingdom. By 2001 many of the former eastern bloc countries had submitted applications for membership of the EU, eventually joining in 2004. The European Community had formally become the European Union on 1 January 1994 following the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty the previous year and later that year Hungary was the first of the newly liberated Central European countries to apply for membership. Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria followed soon after. The European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which had been set up by Britain in 1959, as an alternative to the EEC (when De Gaulle said “Non!”), gradually lost members to the EC/EU. Most of the remaining EFTA countries – Finland, Sweden and Austria – joined the EU in 1995, although Norway rejected membership in a referendum.

Map 5:

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Despite all the bullets and bombs which had been flying in the course of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and, to some extent, because of them, Europe emerged from the nineties as a more politically and economically integrated continent than it had been both at the end of the eighties, and possibly since before the Balkan Wars of the early twentieth century. Through the expansion of NATO, and despite the posturing of the Blair government, the Atlantic Alliance was also at its strongest ‘shape’ since the end of the Cold War, able to adapt to the re-shaping of the world which was to follow the millennarian events of the early years of the twenty-first century.

Sources:

Mark Almond, András Bereznay, et. al. (2001), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books/ Harper Collins Publishers.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

John Simpson (1999), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Rudolf Joó (ed.)(1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.

 

Posted October 27, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Baghdad, Balkan Crises, BBC, Britain, British history, Britons, Bulgaria, Cold War, Communism, Conservative Party, democracy, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Falklands, Genocide, guerilla warfare, Gulf War, History, Hungary, Iraq, John Major, Labour Party, liberal democracy, Margaret Thatcher, Migration, Militancy, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, New Labour, Ottoman Empire, Population, Refugees, Russia, Seasons, Security, Serbia, Statehood, terror, terrorism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Yugoslavia

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1989 – 1992.   1 comment

Heroes and Villains at Home and Abroad:

In the middle of all the heroic struggles for freedom in the world in 1989, the Westminster village ‘bubble’ witnessed an event which seemed anything but heroic. Thatcher had been challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by Sir Anthony Meyer, an elderly ‘backbencher’, pro-European, who was seen as a ‘stalking horse’ for bigger beasts to enter the fray in a challenge to the Prime Minister. He was much mocked on the Conservative benches as ‘the stalking donkey’, In the 1989 leadership election on 5 December, Meyer was defeated by 314 votes to 33, yet the vote was ominous for Thatcher when it was discovered sixty Tory MPs had either voted for ‘the donkey’ or abstained. Meyer himself said that people started to think the unthinkable, while in the shadows, prowling through Conservative associations and the corridors of Westminster was a far more dangerous, wounded creature.

Michael Heseltine, who had walked out of the Tory cabinet four years earlier, was licking his wounds, recovering and ready to pounce. He showed sympathy towards Tory MPs, in trouble in their constituencies over the poll tax, but tried neither to lick his lips nor sharpen his claws too obviously in public. On 31 March 1990, the day before the poll tax was due to take effect in England and Wales, there was a massive demonstration against it which ended with a riot in Trafalgar Square (pictured below). Scaffolding was ripped apart and used to throw at the mounted police, cars were set on fire and shop windows were smashed. More than three hundred people were arrested and four hundred policemen were hurt.

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Thatcher dismissed the riots as mere wickedness, which of course they were. Yet beneath them, it was obvious that there was a growing swell of protest by the lower middle class, normally law-abiding voters who insisted that they simply could not and would not pay it. That was what shook her cabinet and her MPs, worried about their electoral prospects in 1992. One by one, the inner core of true Thatcherites peeled off from their leader. Her Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, had to resign after being rude about the Germans in a magazine interview. John Major turned out to be worryingly pro-European after all. Ian Gow, one of her closest associates, was murdered by an IRA bomb at his home. As the Conservatives’ ratings slumped in the country, Tory MPs who had opposed the tax, including Michael Heseltine’s key organiser, Michael Mates, began to ask their colleagues whether it was not now time that she was removed from power.

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Abroad, great world events continued to overshadow the last days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. A few weeks after the fall of Ceaucescu in Romania, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, the man whom Margaret Thatcher had once denounced as a terrorist, was released from gaol in South Africa to global acclaim. In April, Douglas Hurd, who had replaced Geoffrey Howe as the British Foreign Secretary, visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. The BBC’s John Simpson (pictured below) was among a group of journalists had assembled outside the Spassky Gate he Kremlin and as the bells sounded their strange falling peel on the hour they were ushered in by a side entrance.

Inside, there was little obvious security; for Simpson, the Kremlin in 1990 was a more relaxed place than the Palace of Westminster or the White House. However, a Kremlin official was watching and listening to them nervously. The doors were opened and they went into a room that was large and echoing, with Gorbachev and Hurd sitting with their translators in one corner of it, at a small table. Later, Hurd said that Gorbachev had been his usual enthusiastic and ebullient self, but to Simpson, he looked a good deal older and more tired than when he had seen him last in Belgrade, describing to the camera the problems he was having with the ‘regional problems’ in the Soviet Union. Only his eyes remained as intense and concentrated as they had then. He leaned across the table, holding Douglas Hurd’s gaze while their public compliments were translated. Simpson commented:

If the problems of coping with a collapsing empire were telling on him, they had not crushed him. The man who asked Margaret Thatcher at length in December 1984 about how Britain had divested herself of her colonies now had personal experience of the process. 

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At the time, Gorbachev had his problems with the demands of the Baltic States to leave the Soviet Union quickly and without face-saving negotiations. As the journalists grouped around the table where he and Douglas Hurd faced each other, Simpson caught the eye of Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Minister, who was sitting next to Gorbachev:

I mouthed the word ‘Question’ to him and nodded towards Gorbachev. Shevardnadze shrugged and mouthed back the English word ‘Try’. But directly my colleagues and I began asking about Lithuania, Gorbachev smiled and shook his head. “I answered several hundred questions from the ‘Komosol’ this morning. That’s enough for me,” he said. The strain in his face seemed greater than ever. We were ushered out, and the double doors closed on him.

For John Simpson, the lesson of the winter of change in Central and Eastern Europe was that, no matter how hard the Communist Party tried to reform itself, the voters would punish it for the sins and failures of the past. That was what happened at the polls in Hungary later that spring, Imre Pozsgay had made multi-party democracy a possibility; his newly-formed Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) of ‘reformed’ communists received a tiny percentage of the vote. I observed the spirit of national renewal which seemed to sweep the centre-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to power under the leadership of József Antall, the first freely-elected Prime Minister for forty years. In East Germany, most people agreed that Hans Modrow, the former Communist prime minister, was the best and most respected candidate standing in the election; he and his fellow communists felt that it was a considerable achievement to have won sixteen per cent of the vote. By the first few months of 1990 the mood in the Soviet Union was such that if there had been an election there, Simpson sensed that the Communist Party would have been swept out of office. Realising this, Gorbachev insisted that his election as President of the Soviet Union should be carried out by the deputies of the People’s Congress, not by popular vote. When local elections were held in the spring, Communist candidates usually fared badly.

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Above: August 1990 – The Iraqi Army invades and annexes Kuwait.

On 2 August, however, the whole world was taken by surprise by events in the Middle East. John Simpson was on holiday in the south of France (I was on a delayed honeymoon on Jersey) when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation to the southern end of the region. Iraq was a Soviet ally, but it had also enjoyed the tacit support of both Britain and the US in its war with Iran and had secretly been provided with arms by them while it continued to torture and oppress both its Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities, as well as many dissidents. Within three hours of hearing the news on the radio, Simpson was on a plane back to London and two weeks later he was part of the first European television team to be allowed into Baghdad since the invasion. Negotiation had failed to dislodge the Iraqi forces and Thatcher had urged President George Bush to go into what became the Gulf War. An international coalition had been assembled. Simpson had decided that he wanted to report the war from the epicentre of the crisis, from Baghdad itself. He had left Iraq four months earlier, assuming that the authorities there would never have him back.

This was because he had become involved in the case of Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian journalist working for the Observer in Iraq. Between 1987 and 1989 the young Iranian had travelled to Iraq five times with nothing more substantial than British travel documents. The last time was in September 1989, and on the day he left London the news leaked out that a huge explosion had taken place at Iraqi government’s weapons manufacturing plant at Al Qa’qa sixty miles south of Baghdad. Committed to investigative journalism, Farzad Bazoft used his ‘considerable charm’ to persuade an attractive British nurse living in Baghdad, Daphne Parish, to drive him down there. He also asked an Iraqi minister and the information ministry for help to visit there and told the Observer over a heavily tapped phone line precisely what he was going to do. Farzad was picked up as he was leaving Baghdad airport at the end of his visit. In his luggage were some samples he had gathered from the roadside at Al Qa’qa; presumably, he wanted to have them analysed back in London to reveal what type of weapon had exploded there the previous month. He was tortured and eventually confessed to everything they wanted: in particular, to spying for the British and the Israelis. Daphne Parish refused to confess since she had not broken the law. When the Iraqi authorities put them together Farzad tried to persuade her to do as he had. It would, he said, mean that she would be released.

It didn’t of course; it just meant that the Iraqis had the grounds they wanted to execute Farzad Bazoft. At their trial, Farzad was sentenced to death and Parish to fifteen years. No one translated the sentence for them or told them what was going to happen. A British diplomat had to break the news to Farzad that he was to be hanged directly their meeting ended. Minutes later he was taken out and executed. Daphne Parish was released after ten difficult months in prison. Hanging Farzad Bazoft was Saddam Hussein’s first open defiance of the West. Mrs Thatcher had asked for his release, and called his action ‘an act of barbarism’. Those of us who had been campaigning on behalf of Iraqi and Kurdish dissidents who had fallen foul of such acts of imprisonment, torture and murder for the previous ten years, only to be told these were part of internecine conflict felt some vindication at last in these tragic circumstances. Had firm action, including effective sanctions, been taken against the Ba’athist régime been taken sooner, not only might Farzad and many others have been saved, but the whole sorry chapters of the wars in Iraq might have been unwritten. If the tabloid press in Britain hadn’t suddenly become hysterical about it, insulting the Iraqis, Farzad might, at least, have been spared the hangman’s noose.

All this had determined John Simpson to go to Baghdad himself to report the reality of Saddam’s reign of terror. Six weeks after Farzad’s death, he arrived there with a small team from the BBC and several other British journalists. There were daily demonstrations outside the British embassy complaining about the efforts which the British government was then belatedly making to stop weapons technology reaching Iraq. Simpson and his team were virtual prisoners in their hotel, and no one in the streets wanted to talk to them, knowing that such contacts with Western journalists were dangerous. The Ministry of Information decided to impound all of their video cassettes. Simpson had said something in a broadcast about the total surveillance under which they were working, which had upset their minders. Eamonn Matthews, the producer, decided to stay on to on for a few days to get them back and was picked up at the airport the following day exactly as Farzad had been. He was threatened, treated roughly, and kept a virtual prisoner overnight. When he walked into the Newsnight office in London his face showed signs of the stress he had been under. Simpson assumed he wouldn’t be let back into Iraq, and at that time, was not too upset about that.

When he changed his mind after the invasion of Kuwait in August, Saddam’s henchmen had already started taking British, European and American hostages. The risk seemed to be extremely high, but he couldn’t back away from it. The BBC didn’t like it, however, but he persuaded his bosses to let him see if he could get permission to return there in the first place. Since Britain had cut its diplomatic relations with Iraq after the execution of Farzad Bazoft, he had to apply for a visa in Paris. After receiving a ‘polite’ refusal from the Iraqi ambassador there, he processed through the Middle East reporting on the growing crisis and trying to find a way to get to Baghdad, with the producer and picture editor, Mike Davis. They started in Cairo, moved on to Jerusalem, and ended up in Amman, all without success in getting the visas. Just as he was about to leave for London, he heard that Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister was coming to Amman to give a press conference. He asked a couple of questions during the course of it, then ‘doorstepped’ Aziz as he left:

“Would it be possible for the BBC to visit Baghdad?”

“Why not?” he said, as he climbed into his expensive limousine. This time, though, I had the faint sense that he meant it.

The following day the Iraqi embassy in London called. Our visas had come through. 

When Simpson and his crew finally arrived in Baghdad, the streets were silent and empty. People were terrified of what might happen and mostly stayed indoors with their families. On his first afternoon there, Saddam Hussein visited some of the British hostages from Kuwait, accompanied by Iraqi television cameras, and stroked the hair of a young English boy as he talked to the parents. In an Arab context, there was nothing wrong with that, but back in Britain, the pictures set everyone’s teeth on edge. John Simpson was still meeting officials when the pictures were broadcast, and in between handshakes he tried to make out what was happening on the screen in the corner of the ministerial office. He asked if the hostages were going to be released, but the officials were vague and unwilling to commit themselves. They later discovered what Saddam had said during his meeting with the British family was that women and children taken hostage in Kuwait would be able to leave. They were brought up by coach to Baghdad and flown out from there. Many of the women behaved superbly, as Simpson reported. They smiled and kept calm while the Iraqi cameramen sweated and shoved them around. They talked in terms of quiet endearment about husbands and sons they had been forced to leave behind, and whose fate was completely uncertain. Many had no homes to go to in Britain, and no idea about where their future income would come from, or what it would be. Yet they spoke of returning to Britain’s green and pleasant lands and…

… to nice cups of tea … as if nothing had changed since the Blitz. They fought back the tears for the sake of their children, and busied themselves with their luggage so that the cameras couldn’t pry into their emotions.

Others complained. Their meals were cold, they couldn’t use the swimming pool in the luxurious hotel which the Iraqis had set aside for them in Baghdad, the journey from Kuwait had taken too long. …

Many complained that the Foreign Office or the British embassy had failed to help them enough, and seemed to feel it was all the  Government’s fault, as though Saddam Hussein were an act of God like drought or flooding, and Mrs Thatcher should do something about it.

“I don’t see why we should suffer because of her and President Bush,” said one affronted woman.

Another agreed. “If she’s going to call Saddam a dictator, why didn’t she wait till we were safely out of Kuwait?”

The British tabloid press lapped all this up, of course. They weren’t allowed into Iraq, so they interviewed the women as they came through Amman. Journey Through Hell was the way one headline described the trip by air-conditioned coach from Baghdad; Burning desert, torturing thirst, fiends, evil, sobbing loved ones, anguish: the newspaper hack’s thesaurus was in constant use. When he went back to London for a short break, the first ‘poster’ he saw declared Thatcher Warns Evil Saddam. As John Simpson commented,…

When the newspapers put a compulsory ‘evil’ in front of someone’s name, you know there’s a particular need for coolness and rationality. And to prove the superiority of our civilization over Saddam’s, someone threw a brick through the window of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in Tottenham Court Road.

Simpson returned to Baghdad after a week or so, staying there from September to November 1990. There were some ‘peace tourists’ there too; well-intentioned people who hoped to prevent the war by join the Iraqi protests in Baghdad or try a bit of freelance negotiation. Others had come to plead for the release of their fellow citizens whom Saddam Hussein was holding hostage. As far as the foreign press and media were concerned, a government which had been so paranoid about them a few months earlier now invited them to Baghdad in such large numbers that the pool of English-speaking Iraqi ‘spooks’ was drained by the effort of following them around. By the autumn, there were well over a hundred journalists from the main western countries, and the main international news organisations. The man who had invited them, the chief civil servant in the Information ministry, Najji al-Haddithi, spoke fluent English and had managed to persuade his minister to approach Saddam Hussein with a plan: that Iraq should now regard Western journalists as useful in its own propaganda campaign. As a result, the régime gradually opened its doors to every major British broadsheet newspaper and every major American, Canadian, Japanese and European news organisation, which each had its own representative in Baghdad.

Simpson was allowed to stay the longest because he got on well with Najji al-Hadithi, who liked Britain and the British and had a British sense of humour. In reciprocation, and as he got to know both officials and private citizens, Simpson grew to love Iraq and to sympathise with it too. At a private dinner party in October, he asked al-Hadithi why he allowed so many foreign journalists to come to Baghdad when, only a few months before, the Iraqi government had kept the doors so firmly shut. The chief civil servant answered him,

Because we want you to see that we are human beings like yourselves. So that your readers and viewers will see it. So that if, God forbid, President Bush decides to bomb us, you will know what you are bombing. You are a form of protection for us.

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In the Gulf War, US marines arrive at Khabji, Saudi Arabia, to reinforce the front line.

In all his six months in the country, however, John Simpson had not managed to meet Saddam Hussein himself. In November 1990, just as he was about to arrange the details of their meeting, he found himself suddenly unable to get in touch with the officials, including al-Hadithi. He knew that this was because of Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to let anyone edit his words. Simpson had warned the officials that the BBC would not be able to run ninety minutes of the president uncut, that this was something that would not be allowed to any British politician, even to the Prime Minister herself. The Iraqis resolved this stand-off by offering the interview to Independent Television News instead, who said yes at once. Simpson was furious and decided to go back to London: he was also tired, after ten weeks in Baghdad without a break. More to the point, when the news came through of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, he decided he wanted to cover the campaign for the succession.

Saint Margaret – Down and Out in Paris and London:

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The final act in Margaret Thatcher’s near-eleven-year premiership had begun on the European continent earlier that autumn, which was also where it was to end at the end of that remarkable season in British politics. There was another summit in Rome and further pressure on the Delors plan. Again, Thatcher felt herself being pushed and dragged towards a federal scheme for Europe. She vented her anger in the Commons, shredding the proposals with the words, ‘No! … No! … No!’ After observing her flaming anti-Brussels tirade, Geoffrey Howe decided, that he had had enough. The former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary had already been demoted by Thatcher to being ‘Leader of the House’. Serving in the two great offices of state, and now Deputy Prime-Minister, a face-saving but significant status, he had endured a decade of her slights and snarls, her impatience and mockery. He would finally leave the government, joining Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson on the ‘back benches’ of the Commons but, like them, he would leave on his own terms.

Howe resigned on 1 November, but it was not until a fortnight later, on 13 November 1990, that he stood up from the back benches to make a famous resignation statement which was designed to answer Number Ten’s narrative that he had gone over nothing much at all. Howe had written a carefully worded letter of resignation in which he criticised the Prime Minister’s overall handling of UK relations with the European Community. After largely successful attempts by Number Ten to claim that there were differences only of style, rather than substance, in Howe’s disagreement with Thatcher on Europe, Howe, therefore, chose to send a powerful message of dissent. To a packed chamber, he revealed that Lawson and he had threatened to resign together the previous year at the summit in Madrid. He attacked Thatcher for running increasingly serious risks for the future of the country and criticised her for undermining the policies on EMU proposed by her own Chancellor and Governor of the Bank of England. He also accused her of sending her ministers to negotiate in Brussels without the means to do so. He used a rather strange cricketing simile about captains and broken bats, which would have meant something to most MPs, but very little to those listening on the other side of the channel concerned with British negotiations on EMU in Europe:

Lord Geoffrey Howe (cropped).jpg

It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

Curiously and perhaps ironically, it is this part of his statement which is best remembered and most replayed. However, his dispute with Thatcher was over matters of substance more than ones of style; this was no game, not even one of cricket. He was advocating a move back towards a more centrist position on constitutional and administrative issues, such as taxation and European integration.

Geoffrey Howe (pictured more recently, above right) represented a kind of moderate ‘Whiggery’ in the party, being educated, lawyerly, and diligent; while direct, he was conciliatory and collegiate in style. He calmly ended his speech with an appeal to his remaining cabinet colleagues:

The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.

Television cameras had just been allowed into the Commons so that, across the country as well as across the channel, via satellite channels, people could watch Howe, with Nigel Lawson nodding beside him, Michael Heseltine’s icy-calm demeanour and the white-faced reaction of the Prime Minister herself. The next day Heseltine announced that he would stand against her for the party leadership. She told The Times that he was a socialist at heart, someone whose philosophy at its extreme end had just been defeated in the USSR. She would defeat him. But the balloting system for a leadership contest meant that she would not just have to get a majority of votes among Tory MPs, but that she had to get a clear margin of fifteen per cent in total votes cast. At a summit in Paris, she found that she had failed to clear the second hurdle by just four votes. There would be a second ballot and she announced to a surprised John Sargent of the BBC, waiting at the bottom of the steps outside the summit, that she would fight on. It was a pure pantomime moment, seen live on TV, with viewers shouting “she’s behind you” at their TV sets as she came down the steps behind him. Then she went back up the steps to rejoin the other leaders at the ballet. While she watched the dancing in front of her, Tory MPs were dancing through Westminster either in rage or delight. Her support softened as the night went on, with many key Thatcherites believing she was finished and that Heseltine would beat her in the second ballot, tearing the party in two. It would be better for her to withdraw and let someone else fight him off.

Had she been in London throughout the crisis and able to summon her cabinet together to back her, she might have survived. But by the time she got back, even Maggie couldn’t pull it off. She decided to see her ministers one-by-one in her Commons office. Douglas Hurd and John Major had already given her their reluctant agreement to nominate her for the second round, but the message from most of her ministers was surprisingly uniform. They would give her their personal backing if she was determined to fight on but felt that she would lose to Heseltine. In reality, of course, she had lost them, but none of them wanted to join Heseltine in posterity as a co-assassin. Her MPs were too scared of the electoral vengeance to be wreaked after the poll tax. Only a few on the ultra-right, mostly outside the cabinet, were sincerely urging her to continue the struggle. One of them was Alan Clark, the diarist, who told her to fight on at all costs. She later commented, …

Unfortunately, he went on to argue that… it was better to go down in a blaze of glorious defeat than to go gentle into that good night. Since I had no particular fondness for Wagnerian endings, this lifted my spirits only briefly.

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She returned to Downing Street, where she announced to her cabinet secretary at 7.30 the next morning that she had decided to resign. She held an uncomfortable cabinet meeting with those she believed to have betrayed her, saw the Queen, phoned other world leaders and then finished with one final Commons performance, vigorously defending her record. When she left Downing Street for the last time, in tears, she already knew that she was replaced as Prime Minister by John Major rather than Michael Heseltine. She had rallied support by phone for him among her closest supporters, who had felt that he had not quite been supportive enough. Unlike in the first ballot, a candidate only required a simple majority of Conservative MPs to win, in this case, 186  out of 372 MPs. The ballot was held on the afternoon of 27 November; although Major fell two votes short of the required winning total, he polled far enough ahead of both Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine to secure immediate concessions from both of them. With no remaining challengers, Major was formally named Leader of the Conservative Party that evening and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day. Although Thatcher herself had her private doubts about him, the public transition was complete, and the most nation-changing premiership of modern British history was at its end. Andrew Marr has conveyed something of the drama of this ‘final act’ in her political career:

She had conducted her premiership with a sense of vivid and immediate self-dramatisation, the heroine of peace and war, figthing pitched battles in coalfields and on the streets, word-punching her way through triumphal conferences, haranguing rival leaders, always with a sense that history was being freshly minted, day by day. This is why so many insults levelled at her tended to twist into unintended compliments – ‘the Iron lady’, ‘She who must be obeyed’, ‘the Blessed Margaret’ and even ‘the Great She-Elephant’… She had no sense of her own limits. The world was made anew. Her fall lived up in every way to her record. When a great leader topples, poetry requires that her personal failings bring her down. The story insists that it must be more than… weariness or age. And this story’s ending lives up to its earlier scenes.  

Major (minor), Return to Baghdad & the Magic Moment in Maastricht:

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John Major’s seven years in office make him the third longest-serving peacetime prime minister of modern times, behind Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but he often gets overlooked, probably because he came in the middle of what is increasingly referred to as the Thatcher-Blair era in British politics. To Mrs Thatcher and others in the cabinet and Commons, he appeared to be a bland, friendly, loyal Thatcherite. He was elected because of who he was not, not a posh, old-school Tory like Douglas Hurd, nor a rich, charismatic charmer like Michael Heseltine. His father was a music-hall ‘artiste’ with a long stage career, Tom Ball: ‘Major’ was his stage name. When John Major was born, his father was already an old man, pursuing a second career as a maker of garden ornaments. He lost everything in a business deal that went wrong and the family had to move from their comfortable suburban house into a crowded flat in Brixton.

John Major-Ball was sent to grammar school, but was a poor student and left at sixteen. He worked as a clerk, made garden gnomes with his brother, looked after his mother and endured a ‘degrading’ period of unemployment before eventually pursuing a career as a banker and becoming a Conservative councillor. His politics were formed by his experiences of the inner-city and he was on the anti-Powellite, moderate wing of the party. He was selected for the Cambridgeshire seat of Huntingdon and entered Parliament in 1979, in the election which brought Thatcher to power. After the 1987 election, Thatcher promoted him to the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, from where he became Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor. To everyone outside the Tory Party, Major was a blank canvas. At forty-seven, he was the youngest Prime Minister of the century and the least known, certainly in the post-war period. The Conservatives were content with this choice, having grown tired of amateur dramatics. He was seen by many as the bloke from next door who would lead them towards easier times. He talked of building a society of opportunity and compassion, and for privileges once available to ‘the few’ to be spread to ‘the many’. But he had little time to plan his own agenda. There were innumerable crises to be dealt with. He quickly killed off the poll tax and replaced it with a new council tax, which bore a striking resemblance to the ‘banded’ system previously proposed as an alternative.

One of the first things that John Major did as PM was to meet the elder President Bush and promise him full support through the Gulf War. When John Simpson returned to Baghdad in mid-December 1990, the atmosphere had changed as war loomed. Mr Hattem, the BBC’s driver, was much more subservient to their minders, and wouldn’t take the crew anywhere without consulting them. Once they missed an entire story as a result. Saddam Hussein had ordered the release of all the foreign hostages, a decision of considerable importance to the Coalition forces headed by the United States; public opinion at home would have been much more reluctant to support the air war if it had seemed likely that ordinary Americans, Britons and other Europeans would be killed by the bombs and missiles. The man who persuaded Saddam Hussein to give up one of his best cards in an otherwise rather empty hand was Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. According to Simpson, contrary to some Western stereotypes of him, he was always instinctively a man of peace and compromise. Apparently, he told Saddam that if he let the hostages go, this would weaken the moral argument of the US. It turned out to be a tactical mistake, of course, but Arafat had assumed that Saddam had been genuine when, early on in the crisis, he had offered to withdraw from Kuwait if Israel agreed to pull out of the West Bank. He had publicly come out in support of Iraq and had settled in Baghdad for the duration of the crisis. In an interview just before Christmas, he told Simpson that he was certain there would be no war:

YA: “… I can tell you that there will be not be a war. I promise it: you will see. Something will happen: there will be an agreement. You must not think that President Bush is so foolish. You must not think that the Arab brothers are so foolish. War is a terrible thing. Nobody wants it. President Bush will compromise.

At that stage, it looked as if Arafat might well be right about a deal being made. Bush was starting to talk about going the extra mile for peace, and the Iraqi press was announcing a major diplomatic victory for Saddam Hussein. As for the threat of terrorist attacks from Palestinian extremists elsewhere in the Middle East, the PLO had far more control over them in those days, and Arafat had shown that he could be ferocious in curbing it if he chose to do so. By the third week in December, Simpson was getting discreet visits from a very senior figure in the Iraqi régime, whom he nicknamed ‘Bertie’ and who persuaded him that he should go public on Saddam Hussein’s determination not to withdraw from Kuwait before the deadline imposed by the United Nations. Like the US and UK governments, Simpson was inclined to think that Iraq would pull back at the last-minute. ‘Bertie’ was absolutely certain that this wouldn’t happen, and he was right. This was what Simpson told BBC Radio 4 over their line from London about Saddam’s intentions, on 2 January 1991:

‘People who have seen him in the past day or so have told me that he is determined to stand and fight. He told one visiter that if he pulled his forces back now, there would be an uprising against him in the army and he might not be able to cope with it. It feels it’s essential to his own survival in power to face a war: he’ll certainly do it.

Simpson continued to press the same line even when James Baker, the US Secretary of State was due to meet the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, in Geneva, and ITN reported that Aziz was bringing with him an offer of conditional withdrawal. In the event, he brought no such thing, and the meeting broke up without any possibility of a diplomatic settlement. On 13 January, ‘Bertie’ told him that Saddam had said that Iraq would only have to face two waves of air-strikes and that Baghdad would be so destroyed and loss of life would be so great that international opinion would force the US, UK and France to stop, resulting in a diplomatic victory for him. Asked by Simpson whether Saddam himself might be killed in the strikes, ‘Bertie’ said that Saddam’s ‘bunker’ was impenetrable and that he will survive, even if tens of thousands die. On 11 January, they discovered exactly where the bunker was. Saddam Hussein was due to appear at an international Islamic conference at the government centre immediately opposite the Al-Rashid Hotel, where Simpson and the BBC crew were staying, along with many other international film crews and newspaper journalists. They had stationed camera crews at every entrance to the conference centre, in the hope of getting something more than the usual official pictures of the Iraqi president. Simpson himself sat in the hotel, watching the live coverage of the event on Iraqi television:

On cue the great man appeared on stage, holding out his arm in the affected way which is his trade-mark, while the audience went wild. I looked forward to the pictures the camera crews must be getting. But when they came back, each of them said that Saddam hadn’t come past him. That convinced me. We had long heard rumours that his command complex was based under our hotel: this indicated that there were underground roads and passages from the complex to enable him to reach the various important government buildings in the area. … So there we were, living and working a hundred feet or so above Saddam Hussein’s head. We were his protection. And if he knew it, the Coalition forces did as well: the European company which had built much of the bunker had handed over all the blueprints to them. The outlook wasn’t good. The American embassy in Baghdad, before it closed down, had warned everyone who stayed that they could expect to be killed in the bombing. President Bush himself had phoned the editors of the big American organisations represented in Baghdad and begged them to pull out. … the big organisations (with the exception of CNN) obliged.

I have written elsewhere about John Simpson’s own motives for staying and his experiences and accounts of the bombing of the city which began less than a week later, on 17 January, before the BBC crew were forced to leave. Suffice it here to quote from his interview some months later (10.5.91) with Sue Lawley, the then presenter of the popular and long-running BBC Radio programme, Desert Island Discs:

SL: But these things – I mean, it’s not really enough to risk your life to write a book, is it?

(Pause)

JS: I suppose it’s just that I’m a bit of a ‘chancer’, that’s all.

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The Gulf War was the first major conflict since the Second World War in which it was essential for the multi-national allied forces not to have large-scale casualties. It ended when President Bush began to get nervous about the pictures of death and destruction which were coming in from the desert. Public opinion in the United States did not want another Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, with large-scale carpet-bombing of civilian populations, pictures of massacres and of American GIs being flown home in body bags. In Britain too, people wanted a limited war fought to expel the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but they didn’t want a huge body-count. They didn’t get one either, though there were some significant losses among the British forces. The Gulf War achieved its limited objectives, freeing Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion and resulting in the immolation the Iraqi army’s Republican Guard. It generated nothing like the controversy of the later Iraq War. It was widely seen as a necessary act of international retribution against a particularly horrible dictator. The bigger problem for the country itself was the quarter of a million deaths which occurred after the war, caused by UN Sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s reaction to them, especially his vengeful acts of genocide against the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country.

After the controversies and alarms of the Thatcher years, foreign affairs generated less heat, except for the great issue of European federalism. John Major had to turn straight away to confront Jacques Delors’ agenda, which was threatening to divide the Tory Party. If ever a place was well-chosen for debating the end of a Europe of independent nation-states, it was Maastricht in Holland, nestled so close to the German and Belgian borders it is almost nationless. Here the great showdown of the winter of 1991 took place. A new treaty was to be agreed and it was one which made the federal project even more explicit. There was to be fast progress to a single currency. Much of the foreign policy, defence policy and home affairs were to come under the ultimate authority of the EU. A ‘social chapter’ would oblige Britain to accept the more expensive work guarantees of the continent and surrender some of the trade union reforms brought in under Thatcher. For a country with a weak industrial base whose economy partly depended on undercutting her continental rivals, all this would be grave. For a Conservative Party which had applauded Lady Thatcher’s defiant Bruges speech, it was almost a declaration of war, in which Europe’s ‘federal’ destiny had been made more explicit.

John Major was trying to be practical. He refused to rule out the possibility of a single currency for all time, believing it would probably happen one day since it had obvious business and trading advantages. But now was too soon, partly because it would make life harder for the central European countries being freed from communism to join the EU. In his memoirs, he protests that he was accused of dithering, procrastination, lacking leadership and conviction. Yet at Maastricht, he managed, during genuinely tense negotiations, to keep Britain out of most of what was being demanded of the member states. He and his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, negotiated a special British opt-out from monetary union and managed to have the social chapter excluded from the treaty altogether. Major kept haggling late and on every detail, wearing out his fellow leaders with more politeness but as much determination as Thatcher ever had.  For a man with a weak hand, under fire from his own side at home, it was quite a feat. Major returned to plaudits in the newspapers using the remark of an aide that it was ‘game, set and match’ to Britain.

Briefly, Major was a hero. He described his reception by the Tory Party in the Commons as the modern equivalent of a Roman triumph, quite something for the boy from Brixton. Soon after this, he called the election most observers thought he must lose. The most immediate worries had been economic, as the hangover caused by the Lawson boom began to throb. Inflation rose towards double figures, interest rates were at fourteen per cent and unemployment was heading towards two million again. Moreover, a serious white-collar recession was beginning to hit Britain, particularly the south, where house prices would fall by a quarter. An estimated 1.8 million people found that their homes were worth less than the money they had borrowed to buy them in the eighties when credit had been easy to obtain. Now they were in what became known as ‘negative equity’ and were often unable to sell their properties. During 1991 alone, more than seventy-five thousand families had their homes repossessed. The economy was so badly awry, the pain of the poll tax so fresh, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party now so efficiently organised, that the Tory years seemed sure to be ending. Things turned out differently. Lamont’s pre-election had helped since it proposed to cut the bottom rate of income tax by five pence in the pound, which would help people on lower incomes, badly wrong-footing Labour.

With a party as full of anger and resentment as the Conservative Party behind him, he had little chance of succeeding as prime minister.  He was a throwback to an older kind of conservatism, middle-of-the-road, not too noisy, lacking in any particular conviction except that the Conservative Party was the natural governing party of Britain. The country had indeed been governed by Conservatives like Major for most of the twentieth century, and people were slow to understand how ideological the party had become under Thatcher. John Major shared none of her deepest views. He gambled that even if the backbenchers discovered his lack of right-wing conviction, the voters of Britain who traditionally dislike extremism and ideology would give him their backing. In the eyes of the British press, Major was the council-school boy, the anorak, the ‘swot’, who had ended up in Whitehall. He seemed to fit into a recognisable niche within the dreary, peculiarly English system of snobbery and was looked down on accordingly. In addition, many in the Conservative Party resented the fact that Mrs Thatcher had been overthrown, and would have taken it out on anyone who succeeded her.

Major lacked her convictions, certainly. For the many, this was a relief. These convictions, brandished like sticks, were what made her so unpopular in the country as a whole; and if she had led the party into the 1992 election she would have lost it. No one would have blamed Major if he had led the Tories to defeat in the 1992 election, which he called for April.

(to be continued…)

 

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