Archive for the ‘Alistair Campbell’ Tag

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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‘Celebrity’ Britain: The Arrival of ‘New Labour’ & Diana’s Demise, 1994-99.   Leave a comment

The Advent of Brown & Blair:

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Tony Blair was far more of an establishment figure than his mentor John Smith, or his great political ‘friend’ and future rival, Gordon Brown. He was the son of a Tory lawyer and went to preparatory school in Durham and then to a fee-paying boarding school in Edinburgh. He then went ‘up’ to Oxford, becoming a barrister and joining the Labour Party before he fell in love with a young Liverpudlian socialist called Cherie Booth, who sharpened his left-wing credentials before he became an MP at the 1983 General Election, winning a safe Labour seat in the north-east of England. Once in the Commons, he quickly fell in with Gordon Brown, another new MP, who was much that Blair was not. He was a tribal Labour Party man from a family which was strongly political and had rarely glimpsed the English Establishment, even its middle ranks from which Blair sprung. Brown had been Scotland’s best-known student politician and player in Scottish Labour politics from the age of twenty-three, followed by a stint in television. Yet the two men had their Christian beliefs in common, Anglo-Catholic in Blair’s case and Presbyterian in Brown’s. Most importantly, they were both deeply impatient with the state of the Labour Party. For seven or eight years they had seemed inseparable, sharing a small office together. Brown tutored Blair in some of the darker arts of politics while Blair explained the thinking of the English metropolitan and suburban middle classes to Brown. Together they made friends with Westminster journalists, both maturing as performers in the Commons, and together they worked their way up the ranks of the shadow cabinet.

After the 1992 defeat, Blair made a bleak public judgement about why Labour had lost so badly. The reason was simple: Labour has not been trusted to fulfil the aspirations of the majority of people in a modern world. As shadow home secretary he began to put that right, promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. He was determined to return his party to the common-sense values of Christian Socialism, also influenced by the mixture of socially conservative and economically liberal messages used by Bill Clinton and his ‘New Democrats’. So too was Gordon Brown but as shadow chancellor, his job was to demolish the cherished spending plans of his colleagues. Also, his support for the ERM made him ineffective when Major and Lamont suffered their great defeat. By 1994, the Brown-Blair relationship was less strong than it had been, but they visited the States together to learn the new political style of the Democrats which, to the advantage of Blair, relied heavily on charismatic leadership. Back home, Blair pushed Smith to reform the party rulebook, falling out badly with him in the process. Media commentators began to tip Blair as the next leader, and slowly but surely, the Brown-Blair relationship was turning into a Blair-Brown one.

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In the days following the sudden death of the Labour leader, John Smith (pictured right), Tony Blair decided almost immediately to run as his replacement, while Gordon Brown hesitated, perhaps more grief-stricken. But he had assumed he would eventually inherit the leadership, and was aghast when he heard of Blair’s early declaration. There were at least ten face-to-face confrontations between the two men, in London and Edinburgh. In the opinion polls, Blair was shown to be more popular, and he had the backing of more MPs as well as that of the press. Crucial to Blair’s case was his use of received pronunciation which, after Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s heavily accented English, would reassure those more prejudiced parts of the Kingdom which were the main battlegrounds for Labour, and in which Celtic tones were not perhaps as appreciated as they might be nowadays. They were alright when heard from actors and BBC presenters, but they made politicians seem more ‘peripheral’. Brown had a deeper knowledge of the Labour movement and broader support among the trade unions, however, and had also thought through his policy agenda for change in greater detail. Given the vagaries of Labour’s electoral college system, it is impossible to judge, even now, what might have happened had the ‘young English hart’ locked horns with the ‘tough Scottish stag’, but they agreed at the time that it would be disastrous for them to fight each other as two ‘modernisers’ since Brown would have to attack Blair from the left and the unions would then demand their tribute from him if he won.

So the two men came to a deal, culminating in a dinner at a ‘chic’ Islington restaurant. The outcome is still a matter of some dispute, but we know that Blair acknowledged that Brown, as Chancellor in a Labour government, would have complete authority over a wide range of policy which he would direct through the Treasury, including the ‘social justice’ agenda. But it is unlikely that he would have been so arrogant as to agree, as some have suggested, that he would hand over the premiership to Brown after seven years. After all, at that time Labour was already still three years away from winning its first term and not even the sharpest crystal ball could have projected the second term at that juncture. The most significant result of their dinner-table deal was that, following all the battles between Tory premiers and chancellors of the then recent and current Conservative governments, Brown’s Treasury would become a bastion for British home affairs, while Blair was left to concentrate on foreign policy largely unimpeded, with all the tragic consequences with which we are now familiar, with the benefit of the hindsight of the last twenty years.

Team Tony & ‘Blair’s Babes’:

When it arrived, the 1997 General Election demonstrated just what a stunningly efficient and effective election-winning team Tony Blair led, comprising those deadly masters of spin, Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. ‘New Labour’ as it was now officially known, won 419 seats, the largest number ever for the party and comparable only with the seats won by the National Government of 1935. Its Commons majority was also a modern record, 179 seats, and thirty-three more than Attlee’s landslide majority of 1945. The swing of ten per cent from the Conservatives was another post-war record, roughly double that which the 1979 Thatcher victory had produced in the opposite direction. But the turn-out was very low, at seventy-one per cent the lowest since 1935. Labour had won a famous victory but nothing like as many actual votes as John Major had won five years earlier. But Blair’s party also won heavily across the south and in London, in parts of Britain where it had previously been unable to reach or represent in recent times.

As the sun came up on a jubilant, celebrating Labour Party returning to power after an eighteen-year absence, there was a great deal of Bohemian rhapsodizing about a new dawn for Britain. Alistair Campbell had assembled crowds of party workers and supporters to stand along Downing Street waving union flags as the Blairs strode up to claim their victory spoils. Briefly, at least, it appeared that the whole country had turned out to cheer the champions. In deepest, Lib-Con ‘marginal’ Somerset, many of us had been up all night, secretly sipping our Cava in front of the incredible scenes unfolding before our disbelieving eyes, and when the results came in from Basildon and Birmingham Edgbaston (my first constituency at the age of eighteen when it had already been a safe seat for Tory matron Jill Knight for at least a decade), we were sure that this would indeed be a landslide victory, even if we had had to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the West Country just to make sure that there was no way back for the Tories. The victory was due to a small group of self-styled modernisers who had seized the Labour Party and made it a party of the ‘left and centre-left’, at least for the time being, though by the end of the following thirteen years, and after two more elections, they had taken it further to the right than anyone expected on that balmy early summer morning; there was no room for cynicism amid all the euphoria. Labour was rejuvenated, and that was all that mattered.

A record number of women were elected to Parliament, 119, of whom 101 were Labour MPs, the so-called ‘Blair’s babes’. Despite becoming one of the first countries in the world to have a female prime minister, in 1987 there were just 6.3% of women MPs in government in the UK, compared with 10% in Germany and about a third in Norway and Sweden. Only France came below the UK with 5.7%.

Official portrait of Dame Margaret Hodge crop 2.jpgBefore the large group of women MPs joined her in 1997, Margaret Hodge (pictured below, c.1992, and right, in c. 2015) had already become MP for Barking in a 1994 by-election, following the death of Labour MP Jo Richardson. While still a new MP, Hodge endorsed the candidature of Tony Blair, a former Islington neighbour, for the Labour Party leadership, and was appointed Junior Minister for Disabled People in 1998. Before entering the Commons, she had been Leader of Islington Council and had not been short of invitations from constituencies to stand in the 1992 General Election. Given that she is now referred to as a ‘veteran MP’ it is therefore interesting to note that she had turned these offers down, citing her family commitments:

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“It’s been a hard decision; the next logical step is from local to national politics and I would love to be part of a Labour government influencing change. But it’s simply inconsistent with family life, and I have four children who mean a lot to me. 

“It does make me angry that the only way up the political ladder is to work at it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That’s not just inappropriate for a woman who has to look after children or relatives, it’s inappropriate for any normal person.

“The way Parliament functions doesn’t attract me very much. MPs can seem terribly self-obsessed, more interested in their latest media appearance than in creating change.” 

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Patricia Hewitt.jpg

Patricia Hewitt (pictured above, in 1992, and more recently, right) had first begun looking for a seat in the 1970s when she was general secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL). She later commented that… looking for a seat takes an enormous amount of time, and money, too if you’re travelling a lot. Eventually, she was chosen to fight Leicester East in 1983, a contest which she lost by only nine hundred votes to the Conservative in what was then a relatively safe Tory seat. She later recalled driving up to Leicester on two evenings every week:

“I was planning to have a child after the elections – looking back I don’t know I imagined I was going to cope if Labour had won the seat… Even without children, I was leading such a pressured life – and my partner was doing the same as a Labour councillor – that it did put a strain on our relationship.”

She then became Neil Kinnock’s press and broadcasting secretary. In this role, she was a key player in the first stages of the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party, and along with Clive Hollick, helped set up the Institute for Public Policy Research and was its deputy director 1989–1994. By the time of the 1992 General Election she had two small children, so she decided not to look for a seat. Following Labour’s defeat in 1992, Hewitt was asked by the new Labour Leader, John Smith, to help establish the Commission on Social Justice, of which she became deputy chair. She then became head of research with Andersen Consulting, remaining in the post during the period 1994–1997. Hewitt was finally elected to Parliament to the House of Commons as the first female MP for Leicester West at the 1997 General Election, following the retirement of Greville Janner. She was elected with a majority of 12,864 and remained the constituency MP until stepping down in 2010.

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Mary Kaldor (pictured right in the 1980s, and below in 2000), by contrast, never became an MP, one of the ‘loves’ Labour lost. A British academic, currently Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, where she is also the Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, she was the daughter of the economist Nicholas Kaldor, an exiled Hungarian economist who became an adviser to Harold Wilson in the 1960s. In the nineties, she was a senior research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit of Sussex, and former foreign policy adviser to the Labour Party. She was shortlisted for Hackney and Dulwich in 1981, attending masses of meetings, many of which were boring at which she was endlessly having to be nice to people. Her youngest child was two years old at the time and was therefore ambivalent about the idea of becoming an MP:

“I was very well-equipped with baby minders and a nice understanding husband, but what on earth is the point of having children if you’re not going to see them?

“Building links with eastern Europe through the peace movement was more exciting than anything I could ever have done as an MP … (which seemed) entirely about competitiveness and being in the limelight, giving you no time to think honestly about your political views.”

Mary Kaldor crop.jpg

In 1999, Kaldor supported international military intervention over Kosovo on humanitarian grounds, calling for NATO ground forces to follow aerial bombardment in an article for The Guardian. I have written about the war in Kosovo in a separate article in this series. Significantly, however, by the end of the next decade Kaldor lost faith in the principle and practice of humanitarian intervention, telling the same paper:

The international community makes a terrible mess wherever it goes…

It is hard to find a single example of humanitarian intervention during the 1990s that can be unequivocally declared a success. Especially after Kosovo, the debate about whether human rights can be enforced through military means is ever more intense.

Moreover, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been justified in humanitarian terms, have further called into question the case for intervention.

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Blair needed the support and encouragement of admirers and friends who would coax and goad him. There was Mandelson, the brilliant but temperamental former media boss, who had now become an MP. Although adored by Blair, he was so mistrusted by other members of the team that Blair’s inner circle gave him the codename ‘Bobby’ (as in Bobby Kennedy). Alistair Campbell, Blair’s press officer and attack-dog is pictured above, in a characteristic ‘pose’. A former journalist and natural propagandist, he had helped orchestrate the campaign of mockery against Major. Then there was Anji Hunter, the contralto charmer who had known Blair as a young rock-singer and was his best hotline to middle England. Derry Irvine was a brilliant Highlands lawyer who had first found a place in his chambers for Blair and Booth. He advised on constitutional change and became Lord Chancellor in due course. These people, with the Brown team working in parallel, formed the inner core. The young David Miliband, son of a well-known Marxist philosopher, provided research support. Among the MPs who were initially close were Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlem and Jack Straw, but the most striking aspect about ‘Tony’s team’ was how few elected politicians it included.

The small group of people who put together the New Labour ‘project’ wanted to find a way of governing which helped the worse off, particularly by giving them better chances in education and to find jobs, while not alienating the mass of middle-class voters. They were extraordinarily worried by the press and media, bruised by what had happened to Kinnock, whom they had all worked with, and ruthlessly focused on winning over anyone who could be won. But they were ignorant of what governing would be like. They were able to take power at a golden moment when it would have been possible to fulfil all the pledges they had made. Blair had the wind at his back as the Conservatives would pose no serious threat to him for many years to come. Far from inheriting a weak or crisis-ridden economy, he was actually taking over at the best possible time when the country was recovering strongly but had not yet quite noticed that this was the case. Blair had won by being ruthless, and never forgot it, but he also seemed not to realise quite what an opportunity ‘providence’ had handed him.

Cool Britannia and the Celebrity Princess:

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Above: a page from a recent school text.

Tony Blair arrived in power in a country with a revived fashion for celebrity, offering a few politicians new opportunities but at a high cost. It was not until 1988 that the full shape of modern celebrity culture had become apparent. That year had seen the publication of the truly modern glossy glamour magazines when Hello! was launched. Its successful formula was soon copied by OK! from 1993 and many other magazines soon followed suit, to the point where the yards of coloured ‘glossies’ filled the newsagents’ shelves in every town and village in the country. Celebrities were paid handsomely for being interviewed and photographed in return for coverage which was always fawningly respectful and never hostile. The rich and famous, no matter how flawed in real life, were able to shun the mean-minded sniping of the ‘gutter press’, the tabloid newspapers. In the real world, the sunny, airbrushed world of Hello! was inevitably followed by divorces, drunken rows, accidents and ordinary scandals. But people were happy to read good news about these beautiful people even if they knew that there was more to their personalities and relationships than met the eye. In the same year that Hello! went into publication, ITV also launched its the most successful of the daytime television shows, This Morning, hosted from Liverpool by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, providing television’s celebrity breakthrough moment.

This celebrity fantasy world, which continued to open up in all directions throughout the nineties, served to re-emphasise to alert politicians, broadcasting executives and advertisers the considerable power of optimism. The mainstream media in the nineties was giving the British an unending stream of bleakness and disaster, so millions tuned in and turned over to celebrity. That they did so in huge numbers did not mean that they thought that celebrities had universally happy lives. And in the eighties and nineties, no celebrity gleamed more brightly than the beautiful yet troubled Princess Diana. For fifteen years she was an ever-present presence: as an aristocratic girl, whose childhood had been blighted by her parents’ divorce, her fairytale marriage in 1981 found her pledging her life to a much older man who shared few of her interests and did not even seem to be truly in love with her. Just as the monarchy had gained from its marriages, especially the filmed-for-television romance, engagement and wedding of Charles and Diana, the latter attracting a worldwide audience of at least eight hundred million, so it lost commensurately from the failure of those unions.

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Above: Hello! looks back on the 1981 Royal Wedding from that of 2011.

Diana quickly learned how to work the crowds and to seduce the cameras like Marilyn Monroe. By the end of the eighties, she had become a living fashion icon. Her eating disorder, bulimia, was one suffered by a growing number of young women and teenage girls from less privileged homes. When AIDS was in the news, she hugged its victims to show that it was safe, and she went on to campaign for a ban on the use of land-mines. The slow disintegration of this marriage transfixed Britain, as Diana moved from a china-doll debutante to painfully thin young mother, to an increasingly charismatic and confident public figure, surprising her husband who had always assumed she would be in his shadow. After the birth of their second son Harry in 1987, Charles and Diana’s marriage was visibly failing.

When rumours spread of her affairs, they no longer had the moral impact that they might have had in previous decades. By the nineties, Britain was now a divorce-prone country, in which ‘what’s best for the kids’ and ‘I deserve to be happy’ were phrases which were regularly heard in suburban kitchen-diners. Diana was not simply a pretty woman married to a king-in-waiting but someone people felt, largely erroneously, would understand them. There was an obsessive aspect to the admiration of her, something that the Royal Family had not seen before, and its leading members found it very uncomfortable and even, at times, alarming. They were being challenged as living symbols of Britain’s ‘family values’ and found wanting, just as John Major’s government would also be hoisted by its own petard as its ‘Back to Basics’ campaign was overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

By the mid-1990s, the monarchy was looking shaky, perhaps even mortal. The strain of being at once a ceremonial and a familial institution was proving a bit much. The year 1992, referred to as the Queen as her ‘annus horribilis’ in her Christmas speech, first saw the separation of the other royal couple, Andrew and Sarah, followed by a major fire at Windsor Castle in November. The journalist Andrew Morton claimed to tell Diana’s True Story in a book which described suicide attempts, blazing rows, her bulimia and her growing certainty that Prince Charles had resumed an affair with his old love Camilla Parker-Bowles, something he later confirmed in a television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. In December, John Major announced the separation of Charles and Diana to the House of Commons. There was a further blow to the Royal Family’s prestige in 1994 when the royal yacht Britannia, the floating emblem of the monarch’s global presence, was decommissioned.

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 Above: Prince William with his mother, c. 1994.

Then came the revelatory 1995 interview on BBC TV’s Panorama programme between Diana and Martin Bashir. Breaking every taboo left in Royal circles, she freely discussed the breakup of her marriage, claiming that there were ‘three of us’ in it, attacked the Windsors for their cruelty and promised to be ‘a queen of people’s hearts’. Finally divorced in 1996, she continued her charity work around the world and began a relationship with Dodi al-Fayed, the son of the owner of Harrods, Mohammed al-Fayed. To many in the establishment, she was a selfish, unhinged woman who was endangering the monarchy. To many millions more, however, she was more valuable than the formal monarchy, her readiness to share her pain in public making her even more fashionable. She was followed all around the world, her face and name selling many papers and magazines. By the late summer of 1997, Britain had two super-celebrities, Tony Blair and Princess Diana.

It was therefore grimly fitting that Tony Blair’s most resonant words as Prime Minister which brought him to the height of his popularity came on the morning when Diana was killed in a car-crash, together with Dodi, in a Paris underpass. Blair was woken from a deep sleep at his constituency home, first to be told about the accident, and then to be told that Diana had died. Deeply shocked and worried about what his proper role should be, Blair spoke first to Campbell and then to the Queen, who told him that neither she nor any other senior member of the Royal Family would be making a statement. He decided, therefore, that he had to say something. Later that Sunday morning, standing in front of his local parish church, he spoke words which were transmitted live around the world:

“I feel, like everyone else in this country today, utterly devastated. Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Diana’s family, in particular her two sons, her two boys – our hearts go out to them. We are today a nation in a state of shock…

“Her own life was often sadly touched the lives of so many others in Britain and throughout the world with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy? With just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.

“People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was – the People’s Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.”

Although these words seem, more than twenty years on, to be reminiscent of past tributes paid to religious leaders, at the time they were much welcomed and assented to. They were the sentiments of one natural charismatic public figure to another. Blair regarded himself as the people’s Prime Minister, leading the people’s party, beyond left and right, beyond faction or ideology, with a direct line to the people’s instincts. After his impromptu eulogy, his approval rating rose to over ninety per cent, a figure not normally witnessed in democracies. Blair and Campbell then paid their greatest service to the ancient institution of the monarchy itself. The Queen, still angry and upset about Diana’s conduct and concerned for the welfare of her grandchildren, wanted a quiet funeral and to remain at Balmoral, away from the scenes of public mourning in London. However, this was potentially disastrous for her public image. There was a strange mood in the country deriving from Diana’s charisma, which Blair had referenced in his words at Trimdon. If those words had seemed to suggest that Diana was a saint, a sub-religious hysteria responded to the thought. People queued to sign a book of condolence at St James’ Palace, rather than signing it online on the website of the Prince of Wales. Those queuing even reported supernatural appearances of the dead Princess’ image. By contrast, the lack of any act of public mourning by the Windsors and the suggestion of a quiet funeral seemed to confirm Diana’s television criticisms of the Royal Family as being cold if not cruel towards her.

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In particular, the Queen was criticised for following protocol, which prohibited the flying of flags at Buckingham Palace when she was not in residence, rather than fulfilling the deep need of a grief-stricken public to see the Union flag flying there at half-mast. According to another protocol, flags were only flown at half-mast on the deaths of the monarch or their immediate blood relatives. But the crown lives or dies by such symbolic moments, and the Queen relented. Also, with Prince Charles’ full agreement, Blair and his aides put pressure on the Palace first into accepting that there would have to be a huge public funeral so that the public could express their grief, and second into accepting that the Queen should return to London. She did, just in time to quieten the genuine and growing anger about her perceived attitude towards Diana. This was a generational problem as well as a class one. The Queen had been brought up in a land of buttoned lips, stoicism and private grieving. She now reigned over a country which expected and almost required exhibitionism. For some years, the deaths of children, or the scenes of fatal accidents had been marked by little shrines of cellophane-wrapped flowers, soft toys and cards. In the run-up to Diana’s funeral parts of central London seemed almost Mediterranean in their public grieving. There were vast mounds of flowers, people sleeping out, holding up placards and weeping in the streets, strangers hugging each other.

The immense outpouring of public emotion in the weeks that followed seemed both to overwhelm and distinguish itself from the more traditional devotion to the Queen herself and to her immediate family. The crisis was rescued by a live, televised speech she made from the Palace which was striking in its informality and obviously sincere expression of personal sorrow. As Simon Schama has put it,

The tidal wave of feeling that swept over the country testified to the sustained need of the public to come together in a recognizable community of sentiment, and to do so as the people of a democratic monarchy.

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The funeral itself was like no other before, bringing the capital to a standstill. In Westminster Abbey, campaigners stood alongside aristocrats, entertainers with politicians and rock musicians with charity workers. Elton John performed a hastily rewritten version of ‘Candle in the Wind’, originally his lament for Marilyn Monroe, now dedicated to ‘England’s Rose’, and Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer made a half-coded attack from the pulpit on the Windsors’ treatment of his sister. This was applauded when it was relayed outside and clapping was heard in the Abbey itself. Diana’s body was driven to her last resting place at the Spencers’ ancestral home of Althorp in Northamptonshire. Nearly a decade later, and following many wild theories circulated through cyberspace which reappeared regularly in the press, an inquiry headed by a former Metropolitan Police commissioner concluded that she had died because the driver of her car was drunk and was speeding in order to throw off pursuing ‘paparazzi’ photographers. The Queen recovered her standing after her live broadcast about her wayward former daughter-in-law. She would later rise again in public esteem to be seen to be one of the most successful monarchs for centuries and the longest-serving ever. A popular film about her, including a sympathetic portrayal of these events, sealed this verdict.

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HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.

Tony Blair never again quite captured the mood of the country as he did in those sad late summer days. It may be that his advice and assistance to the Queen in 1997 was as vital to her as it was, in the view of Palace officials, thoroughly impertinent. His instinct for popular culture when he arrived in power was certainly uncanny. The New Age spiritualism which came out into the open when Diana died was echoed among Blair’s Downing Street circle. What other politicians failed to grasp and what he did grasp, was the power of optimism expressed in the glossy world of celebrity, and the willingness of people to forgive their favourites not just once, but again and again. One of the negative longer-term consequences of all this was that charismatic celebrities discovered that, if they apologised and bared a little of their souls in public, they could get away with most things short of murder. For politicians, even charismatic ones like Blair, life would prove a little tougher, and the electorate would be less forgiving of oft-repeated mistakes.

(to be continued).

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1992-1997.   Leave a comment

Epilogue to the Eighties & Prologue to the Nineties:

I can recall the real sense of optimism which resulted from the end of the Cold War, formally ending with President Gorbachev’s announcement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991. Although never an all-out global war, it had resulted in the deaths of up to forty million people throughout the world, involving more than a hundred and fifty smaller ‘proxy’ conflicts. Moreover, we had lived under a continual sense of doom, that it was only a matter of time until our brief, young lives would be snuffed out by a nuclear apocalypse. Now, politicians and journalists in the West talked of a coming ‘peace dividend’ and the end of the surveillance, spy and secret state in both east and west. The only continuing threat to British security came from the Provisional IRA. They hit Downing Street with a triple mortar attack in February 1991, coming close to killing the new Prime Minister, John Major, and his team of ministers and officials directing the Gulf War.

Margaret ThatcherBy the time Margaret Thatcher left office in tears on 28 November 1990, ‘Thatcherism’ was also a spent force, though its influence lingered on until at least the end of the century, and not just among Conservatives. Only a minority even among the ‘party faithful’ had been true believers and the Tory MPs would have voted her out had her cabinet ministers not beaten them to it. As Andrew Marr has written, History is harshest to a leader just as they fall. She had been such a strident presence for so long that many who had first welcomed her as a ‘gust’ of fresh air now felt the need for gentler breezes. Those who wanted a quieter, less confrontational leader found one in John Major.

Yet most people, in the end, had done well under her premiership, not just the ‘yuppies’ but also her lower-middle-class critics who developed their own entrepreneurial sub-cultures rather than depending on traditional sponsorship from arts councils and local authorities. By the early nineties, Britons were on average much wealthier than they had been in the late seventies and enjoyed a wider range of holidays, better food, and a greater variety of television channels and other forms of home entertainment. Nor was everything the Thatcher governments did out of tune with social reality. The sale of council houses which corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Sales of state utilities, on the other hand, presupposed a hunger for stakeholdership that was much less deeply rooted in British habits, and the subsequently mixed fortunes of those stocks did nothing to help change those habits. Most misguided of all was the decision to implement the ‘poll tax’ as a regressive tax. In the end, Thatcher’s 1987-90 government became just the latest in a succession of post-war British governments that had seen their assumptions rebound on them disastrously. This ‘trend’ was to continue under John Major. The upper middle-class ‘Victorian Values’ of the grocer’s daughter from Grantham were replaced by the ‘family values’ of the lower middle-class garden gnome salesman from Brixton, only for him to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

The single most important event of the early nineties in Britain, possibly globally too, had nothing to do with politics and diplomacy or warfare and terrorism, at least not in the nineties. Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist, invented the World Wide Web, or the Internet. His idea was for a worldwide ‘hypertext’, the computer-aided reading of electronic documents to allow people to work together remotely., sharing their knowledge in a ‘web’ of documents. His creation of it would give the internet’s hardware its global voice. He was an Oxford graduate who had made his first computer with a soldering iron, before moving to CERN, the European Physics laboratory, in Switzerland in 1980, the world’s largest scientific research centre. Here he wrote his first programme in 1989 and a year later he proposed his hypertext revolution which arrived in CERN in December 1990. The ‘internet’ was born the following summer. He chose not to patent his creation so that it would be free to everyone.

The Election of 1992 – A Curious Confidence Trick?:

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John Major called an election for April 1992. Under a pugnacious Chris Patten, now Party chairman, the Tories targeted Labour’s enthusiasm for high taxes. During the campaign itself, Major found himself returning to his roots in Brixton and mounting a ‘soap-box’, from which he addressed raucous crowds through a megaphone. John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, was given the task of covering Major’s own campaign, and on 15 March he travelled to Sawley, in the PM’s constituency of Huntingdon, where Major was due to Meet the People. I have written elsewhere about the details of this, and his soap-box campaign, as reported by Simpson. Although Simpson described it as ‘a wooden construction of some kind’, Andrew Marr claims it was ‘a plastic container’. Either way, it has gone down in political history, together with the megaphone, as the prop that won him the election. The stark visual contrast achieved with the carefully stage-managed Labour campaign struck a chord with the media and he kept up an act that his father would have been proud of, playing the underdog to Neil Kinnock’s government in waiting. Right at the end, at an eve of poll rally in Sheffield, Kinnock’s self-control finally gave way and he began punching the air and crying “y’awl’ right!” as if he were an American presidential candidate. It was totally ‘cringe-worthy’ TV viewing, alienating if not repulsing swathes of the very middle England voters he needed to attract.

On 9 April 1992 Major’s Conservatives won fourteen million votes, more than any party in British political history. It was a great personal victory for the ‘new’ Prime Minister, but one which was also based on people’s fears of higher taxes under a Labour government. It was also one of the biggest victories in percentage terms since 1945, though the vagaries of the electoral system gave the Tories a majority of just twenty-one seats in parliament. Neil Kinnock was even more devastated than he had been in 1987 when he had not been expected to defeat Thatcher. The only organ of the entire British press which had called the election correctly was the Spectator. Its editor, Dominic Lawson, headlined the article which John Simpson wrote for him The Curious Confidence of Mr Major so that the magazine seemed to suggest that the Conservatives might pull off a surprise win. Simpson himself admitted to not having the slightest idea who would win, though it seemed more likely to him that Labour would. Yet he felt that John Major’s own apparent certainty was worth mentioning. When the results started to become clear on that Friday morning, 10 April, the Spectator stood out favourably from the shelves of newsagents, surrounded by even the late, or early editions of newspapers and magazines which had all been predicting a Labour victory.

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The only politician possibly more disappointed than Neil Kinnock, who immediately left front-line politics, was Chris Patten, who had been the real magician behind Major’s remarkable victory. He lost his seat to the Liberals in marginal Bath and went off to become the final governor of Hong Kong ahead of the long-agreed handover of Britain’s last colony in 1997. Kinnock, a former long-term opponent of Britain’s membership of the EEC/ EC went off to Brussels to become a European Commissioner. Despite his triumph in the popular vote, never has such a famous victory produced so rotten an outcome for the victors. The smallness of Major’s majority meant that his authority could easily be eaten away in the Commons. As a consequence, he would not go down as a great leader in parliamentary posterity, though he remained popular in the country as a whole for some time, if not with the Thatcherites and Eurosceptic “bastards” in his own party.  Even Margaret Thatcher could not have carried through her revolutionary reforms after the 1979 and 1983 elections with the kind of parliamentary arithmetic which was dealt her successor. In Rugby terms, although the opposition’s three-quarters had been foiled by this artful dodger of a full-back, he had been dealt a ‘hospital pass’ by his own side. For the moment, he had control of the slippery ball, but he was soon to be forced back into series of crushing rucks and mauls among his own twenty-stone forwards.

 John Smith – Labour’s lost leader and his legacy:

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After Neil Kinnock gave up the Labour leadership following his second electoral defeat in 1992, he was replaced by John Smith (pictured above), a placid, secure, self-confident Scottish lawyer. As Shadow Chancellor, he had been an effective cross-examiner of Nigel Lawson, John Major and Norman Lamont and had he not died of a heart attack in 1994, three years ahead of the next election, most political pundits agreed that, following the tarnishing of the Major administration in the mid-nineties, he would have become Prime Minister at that election. Had he done so, Britain would have had a traditional social democratic government, much like those of continental Europe. He came from a family of herring fishermen on the West Coast of Scotland, the son of a headmaster. Labour-supporting from early youth, bright and self-assured, he got his real political education at Glasgow University, part of a generation of brilliant student debaters from all parties who would go on to dominate Scottish and UK politics including, in due succession, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander. Back in the early sixties, Glasgow University Labour Club was a hotbed not of radicals, but of Gaitskell-supporting moderates. This was a position that Smith never wavered from, as he rose as one of the brightest stars of the Scottish party, and then through government under Wilson and Callaghan as a junior minister dealing with the oil industry and devolution before entering cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, its youngest member at just forty. In opposition, John Smith managed to steer clear of the worst in-fighting, eventually becoming Kinnock’s shadow chancellor. In Thatcher’s England, however, he was spotted as a tax-raising corporatist of the old school. One xenophobic letter he received brusquely informed him:

You’ll not get my BT shares yet, you bald, owl-looking Scottish bastard. Go back to Scotland and let that other twit Kinnock go back to Wales.

Smith came from an old-fashioned Christian egalitarian background which put him naturally out of sympathy with the hedonistic culture of southern England.  Just before he became Labour leader he told a newspaper he believed above all in education, because…

 … it opens the doors of the imagination, breaks down class barriers and frees people. In our family … money was looked down on and education was revered. I am still slightly contemptuous of money.

Smith was never personally close to Kinnock but was scrupulously loyal to him as his leader, he nevertheless succeeded him by a huge margin in 1992. By then he had already survived a serious cardiac arrest and had taken up hill-walking. Though Smith swiftly advanced the careers of his bright young lieutenants, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they soon became disappointed by his view that the Labour party needed simply to be improved, not radically transformed. In particular, he was reluctant to take on the party hierarchy and unions over issues of internal democracy, such as the introduction of a one-member, one-vote system for future leadership elections. He was sure that Labour could regain power with a revival of its traditional spirit. At one point, Tony Blair was so dispirited by Smith’s leadership style that he considered leaving politics altogether and going back to practising law. Smith died of a second heart attack on 12 May 1994. After the initial shock and grief subsided, Labour moved rapidly away from his policy of ‘gradualism’ towards ‘Blairite’ transformation. One part of his legacy still remains, however, shaping modern Britain today. As the minister who had struggled to achieve devolution for Scotland in 1978-9, he remained a passionate supporter of the ‘unfinished business’ of re-establishing the Holyrood Parliament and setting up a Welsh Assembly. With his friend Donal Dewar he had committed Labour so utterly to the idea in Opposition, despite Kinnock’s original strong anti-nationalist stance, that Blair, no great fan of devolution himself, found that he had to implement Smith’s unwelcome bequest to him.

Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty:

The crisis that soon engulfed the Major government back in the early autumn of 1992 was a complicated economic one. From August 1992 to July 1996 I was mainly resident in Hungary, and so, although an economic historian, never really understood the immediate series of events that led to it or the effects that followed. This was still in pre-internet days, so I had little access to English language sources, except via my short-wave radio and intermittent newspapers bought during brief visits to Budapest. I had also spent most of 1990 and half of 1991 in Hungary, so there were also longer-term gaps in my understanding of these matters. I have written about them in earlier articles in this series, dealing with the end of the Thatcher years. Hungary itself was still using an unconvertible currency throughout the nineties, which only became seriously devalued in 1994-96, and when my income from my UK employers also fell in value, as a family we decided to move back to Britain to seek full-time sterling salaries. The first thing that happened was that they lost their fiscal policy in a single day when the pound fell out of the ERM (European Exchange Rate Mechanism). In his memoirs, John Major described the effect of this event in stark terms:

Black Wednesday – 16 September 1992, the day the pound toppled out of the ERM – was a political and economic calamity. It unleashed havoc in the Conservative Party and it changed the political landscape of Britain.

For Major and his government, the point was that as the German central bank had a deserved reputation for anti-inflationary rigour, having to follow or ‘shadow’ the mark meant that Britain had purchased a respected off-the-shelf policy. Sticking to the mighty mark was a useful signal to the rest of the world that this government, following all the inflationary booms of the seventies and eighties, was serious about controlling inflation. On the continent, however, the point of the ERM was entirely different, intended to lead to a strong new single currency that the countries of central Europe would want to join as members of an enlarged EC/EU. So a policy which Margaret Thatcher had earlier agreed to, in order to bring down British inflation, was now a policy she and her followers abhorred since it drew Britain ever closer towards a European superstate in the ‘Delors Plan’. This was a confused and conflicted state of affairs for most of the Tories, never mind British subjects at home and abroad.

The catalyst for sterling’s fall was the fall in the value of the dollar, pulling the pound down with it. Worse still, the money flowed into the Deutschmarks, which duly rose; so the British government raised interest rates to an eye-watering ten per cent, in order to lift the pound. When this failed to work, the next obvious step would have been for the German central bank to cut their interest rates, lowering the value of the mark and keeping the ERM formation intact. This would have helped the Italian lira and other weak currencies as well as the pound. But since Germany had just reunited after the ‘fall of the wall’, the whole cost of bringing the poorer East Germans into line with their richer compatriots in the West led to a real fear of renewed inflation as well as to memories of the Berlin Crisis of 1948-49 and the hyperinflation of the Weimar period. So the Germans, regardless of the pain being experienced by Britain, Italy and the rest, wanted to keep their high-value mark and their high interest rates. Major put considerable and concerted pressure on Chancellor Kohl, warning of the danger of the Maastricht treaty failing completely since the Danes had just rejected it in a referendum and the French were also having a plebiscite. None of this had any effect on Kohl who, like a previous German Chancellor, would not move.

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In public, the British government stuck to the line that the pound would stay in the ERM at all costs. It was not simply a European ‘joint-venture’ mechanism but had been part of the anti-inflation policy of both the Lawson and Major chancellorships. Then, the now PM had told the unemployed workers and the repossessed homeowners in Britain that if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working, so his credibility had been tied to the success of the ERM ever since. It had also been, as Foreign Secretary and now as Prime Minister, his foreign policy of placing Britain ‘at the heart of Europe’. It was his big idea for both economic and diplomatic survival in an increasingly ‘globalised’ environment. Norman Lamont, who as Chancellor was as committed as Major, told ‘the markets’ that Britain would neither leave the mechanism nor deviate from it by devaluing the pound. ERM membership was at the centre of our policy and there should not be one scintilla of doubt that it would continue. Major went even further, telling a Scottish audience that with inflation down to 3.7 per cent and falling, it would be madness to leave the ERM. He added that:

“The soft option, the devaluer’s option, the inflationary option, would be a betrayal of our future.”

However, then the crisis deepened with the lira crashing out of the ERM formation. International money traders, such as the Hungarian-born György Soros, began to turn their attention to the weak pound and carried on selling. They were betting that Major and Lamont would not keep interest rates so high that the pound could remain up there with the mark – an easy, one-way bet. In the real world, British interest rates were already painfully high. On the morning of ‘Black Wednesday’, at 11 a.m., the Bank of England raised them by another two points. This was to be agonising for home-owners and businesses alike, but Lamont said he would take whatever measures were necessary to keep the pound in the mechanism. Panic mounted and the selling continued: a shaken Lamont rushed round to tell Major that the interest rate hike had not worked, but Major and his key ministers decided to stay in the ERM. The Bank of England announced that interest would go up by a further three points, to fifteen per cent. Had it been sustained, this would have caused multiple bankruptcies across the country, but the third rise made no difference either. Eventually, at 4 p.m., Major phoned the Queen to tell her that he was recalling Parliament. At 7.30 p.m., Lamont left the Treasury to announce to the press and media in Whitehall that he was suspending sterling’s membership of the ERM and was reversing the day’s rise in interest rates.

Major considered resigning. It was the most humiliating moment in British politics since the IMF crisis of 1976, sixteen years earlier. But if he had done so Lamont would have had to go as well, leaving the country without its two most senior ministers in the midst of a terrible crisis. Major decided to stay on, though he was forever diminished by what had happened. Lamont also stayed at his post and was delighted as the economy began to respond to lower interest rates, and a slow recovery began. While others suffered further unemployment, repossession and bankruptcy, he was forever spotting the ‘green shoots’ of recovery. In the following months, Lamont created a new unified budget system and took tough decisions to repair the public finances. But as the country wearied of recession, he became an increasingly easy ‘butt’ of media derision. To Lamont’s complete surprise, Major sacked him as Chancellor a little over six months after Black Wednesday. Lamont retaliated in a Commons statement in which he said: We give the impression of being in office, but not in power. Major appointed Kenneth Clarke, one of the great characters of modern Conservatism, to replace him.

In the Commons, the struggle to ratify the Maastricht Treaty hailed as a great success for Major before the election, became a long and bloody one. Major’s small majority was more than wiped out by the number of ‘Maastricht rebels’, egged on by Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit. Black Wednesday had emboldened those who saw the ERM and every aspect of European federalism as disastrous for Britain. Major himself wrote in his memoirs that it turned …

… a quarter of a century of unease into a flat rejection of any wider involvement in Europe … emotional rivers burst their banks.

Most of the newspapers which had welcomed Maastricht were now just as vehemently against it. The most powerful Conservative voices in the media were hostile both to the treaty and to Major. His often leaded use of English and lack of ‘panache’ led many of England’s snobbish ‘High Tories’ to brand him shockingly ill-educated and third-rate as a national leader. A constantly shifting group of between forty to sixty Tory MPs regularly worked with the Labour opposition to defeat key parts of the Maastricht bill, so that Major’s day-to-day survival was always in doubt. Whenever, however, he called a vote of confidence and threatened his rebellious MPs with an election, he won. Whenever John Smith’s Labour Party and the Tory rebels could find some common cause, however thin, he was in danger of losing. In the end, Major got his legislation and Britain signed the Maastricht Treaty, but it came at an appalling personal and political cost. Talking in the general direction of an eavesdropping microphone, he spoke of three anti-European ‘bastards’ in his own cabinet, an obvious reference to Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley and John Redwood. The country watched a divided party tearing itself apart and was not impressed.

By the autumn of 1993, Norman Lamont was speaking openly about the possibility that Britain might have to leave the European Union altogether, and there were moves to force a national referendum. The next row was over the voting system to be used when the EU expanded. Forced to choose between a deal which weakened Britain’s hand and stopping the enlargement from happening at all by vetoing it, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd went for a compromise. All hell broke loose, as Tory MPs began talking of a leadership challenge to Major. This subsided, but battle broke out again over the European budget and fisheries policy. Eight MPs had their formal membership of the Tory Party withdrawn. By this point, John Smith’s sudden death had brought Tony Blair to the fore as leader of the Opposition. When Major readmitted the Tory rebels, Blair jibed: I lead my party, you follow yours. Unlike Lamont’s remark in the Commons, Blair’s comment struck a chord with the country.

The concluding chapter of the Thatcher Revolution:

While the central story of British politics in the seven years between the fall of Thatcher and the arrival to power of Blair was taken up by Europe, on the ‘home front’ the government tried to maintain the momentum of the Thatcher revolution. After many years of dithering, British Rail was divided up and privatised, as was the remaining coal industry. After the 1992 election, it was decided that over half the remaining coal mining jobs must go, in a closure programme of thirty-one pits to prepare the industry for privatization. This angered many Tory MPs who felt that the strike-breaking effect of the Nottinghamshire-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers in the previous decade deserved a better reward, and it aroused public protest as far afield as Cheltenham. Nevertheless, with power companies moving towards gas and oil, and the industrial muscle of the miners long-since broken, the closures and sales went ahead within the next two years, 1992-4. The economic effect on local communities was devastating, as the 1996 film Brassed Off shows vividly, with its memorable depiction of the social impact on the Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe and its famous Brass Band of the 1992 closure programme. Effectively, the only coalfields left working after this were those of North Warwickshire and South Derbyshire.

Interfering in the railway system became and remained a favourite ‘boys with toys’ hobby but a dangerous obsession of governments of different colours. Margaret Thatcher, not being a boy, knew that the railways were much too much part of the working life of millions to be lightly broken up or sold off. When Nicholas Ridley, as Transport Secretary, had suggested this, Thatcher is said to have replied:

“Railway privatisation will be the Waterloo of this government. Please never mention the railways to me again.”

It was taken up again enthusiastically by John Major. British Rail had become a national joke, loss-making, accident-prone, with elderly tracks and rolling stock, and serving curled-up sandwiches. But the challenge of selling off a system on which millions of people depended was obvious. Making it profitable would result in significant and unpopular fare rises and cuts in services. Moreover, different train companies could hardly compete with each other directly, racing up and down the same rails. There was, therefore, a binary choice between cutting up ‘BR’ geographically, selling off both trains and track for each region, so that the system would look much the way it was in the thirties, or the railway could be split ‘vertically’ so that the State would continue to own the track, while the stations and the trains would be owned by private companies. This latter solution was the one chosen by the government and a vast, complicated new system of subsidies, contracts, bids, pricing, cross-ticketing and regulation was created, but rather than keeping the track under public control, it too was to be sold off to a single private monopoly to be called Railtrack. Getting across the country would become a complicated proposition and transaction, involving two or three separate rail companies. A Franchise Director was to be given powers over the profits, timetables and ticket-pricing of the new companies, and a Rail Regulator would oversee the track. Both would report directly to the Secretary of State so that any public dissatisfaction, commercial problem or safety issue would ultimately be the responsibility of the government. This was a strange and pointless form of privatization which ended up costing the taxpayer far more than British Rail. The journalist Simon Jenkins concluded:

The Treasury’s treatment of the railway in the 1990s was probably the worst instance of Whitehall industrial management since the Second World War.

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One success story in the rail network was the completion of the Channel Tunnel link to France in 1994 (the Folkestone terminal is pictured above), providing a good example of the inter-relationship between transport links and general economic development. The Kent town of Ashford had a relationship with the railways going back to 1842, and the closure of the town’s railway works between 1981 and 1993 did not, however, undermine the local economy. Instead, Ashford benefited from the Channel Tunnel rail link, which made use of railway lines running through the town, and its population actually grew by ten per cent in the 1990s. The completion of the ‘Chunnel’ gave the town an international catchment area of eighty-five million within a single day’s journey. The opening of the Ashford International railway station, the main terminal for the rail link to Europe, attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were opened in and around the town itself, four greenfield sites were opened on the outskirts, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. As the map above shows, Ashford is now closer to Paris and Brussels in travelling time than it is to Manchester and Liverpool. By the end of the century, the town, with its position at the hub of a huge motorway network as well as its international rail link, was ready to become part of a truly international economy.

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Many of the improvements in transport infrastructure on both islands of Britain and Ireland were the result of EU funding, especially in Northern Ireland, and it was also having an impact on transport planning in Britain, with projects in the Highlands and Islands. In 1993 the EU decided to create a European-wide transport network. Of the fourteen priority associated with this aim, three are based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Northern Ireland and the ferry route to Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast rail route in Britain.

As a Brixton man, Major had experienced unemployment and was well prepared to take on the arrogant and inefficient quality of much so-called public service. But under the iron grip of the Treasury, there was little prospect for a revival of local democracy to take charge of local services again. This left a highly bureaucratic centralism as the only option left, one which gained momentum in the Thatcher years. Under Major, the centralised Funding Agency for Schools was formed and schools in England and Wales were ranked by crude league tables, depending on how well their pupils did in exams. The university system was vastly expanded by simply allowing colleges and polytechnics to rename themselves as universities. The hospital system was further centralised and given a host of new targets. The police, faced with a review of their pay and demands by the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke for their forces to be amalgamated, were given their own performance league tables. The Tories had spent seventy-four per cent more, in real terms, on law and order since 1979, yet crime was at an all-time high. Clarke’s contempt for many of the forces as ‘vested interests’ was not calculated to win them round to reform. Across England and Wales elected councillors were turfed off police boards and replaced by businessmen. In 1993 Clarke, the old Tory dog who had clearly learned new tricks during his time at the Department of Health where he was said to have castrated the regional health authority chairmen, defended his new police league tables in the ‘newspeak’ of governments yet to come:

The new accountability that we seek from our public services will not be achieved simply because men of good will and reasonableness wish that it be so. The new accountability is the new radicalism.

Across Britain, from the auditing of local government to the running of courts and the working hours of nurses, an army of civil servants, accountants, auditors and inspectors marched into workplaces. From time to time, ministers would weakly blame Brussels for the imposition of the cult of central control and measurement. But this was mostly a home-grown ‘superstate’. Major called this centralising policy the ‘Citizen’s Charter’, ignoring the fact that Britons are ‘subjects’ rather than citizens. He himself did not like the ‘headline’ very much because of its unconscious echoes of Revolutionary France. Every part of the government dealing with public service was ordered to come up with proposals for improvement at ‘grass-roots level’, to be pursued from the centre by questionnaires, league tables and a system of awards, called ‘Charter Marks’ for organizations that achieved the required standards. He spoke of ’empowering’, ‘helping the customer’ and ‘devolving’ and thought that regulation from the centre would not last long, rather like a Marxist-Leninist anticipating the ‘withering away’ of the state. In his case, though, this would come about as the effects of growing competition are felt. In practice, of course, the regulators grew more powerful, not less so. Despite the rhetoric, public servants were not being given real freedom to manage. Elected office-holders were being sacked. Major’s ‘withering away’ of the state was no more successful than Lenin’s.

Britain and Ireland – first steps on the road to peace:

009Above: US President Bill Clinton addressing a peace rally in Belfast during his visit in 1995. Clinton played a significant role as a ‘peace broker’ in negotiations leading up to ‘the Good Friday Agreement’.

In December 1993, John Major stood outside the steel-armoured door of Number Ten Downing Street with the ‘Taoiseach’ of the Irish Republic, Albert Reynolds. He declared a new principle which offended many traditional Conservatives and Unionists. If both parts of Ireland voted to be reunited, Britain would not stand in the way. She had, said Major, no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. He also stated that if the Provisional IRA, which had lately bombed the very building Major was standing in front of and murdered two young boys in Cheshire, renounced violence, Sinn Fein could be recognised as a legitimate political party. In the run-up to this Downing Street Declaration, which some saw as a betrayal of the Tory Party’s long-held dedication to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the government had been conducting ‘back channel’ negotiations with the terrorist organisation. In August 1994 the IRA finally declared a complete cessation of military operations which, though it stopped a long way short of renouncing the use of violence altogether, was widely welcomed and was followed a month later by a Loyalist ceasefire. A complicated choreography of three-strand talks, framework documents and discussions about the decommissioning of weapons followed, while on the streets, extortion, knee-capping and occasional ‘executions’ continued. But whereas the number of those killed in sectarian violence and bombings in 1993 had been eighty-four, the toll fell to sixty-one the following year, and in 1995 it was in single figures, at just nine deaths.

Long negotiations between London and Dublin led to cross-border arrangements. These negotiations had also involved the United States, where an influential pro-Irish lobby had helped to sustain the IRA campaign into the nineties through finance provided through ‘Noraid’. In the mid-nineties, President Clinton acted as a peace-broker, visiting Belfast in 1995 and helping to maintain the fragile cease-fire in the North. The contradictory demands of Irish Republicanism and Ulster Unionism meant that Major failed to get a final agreement, which was left to Tony Blair, with the ongoing help of the American ex-senator George Mitchell. The fact that in 1991 both countries had signed the Maastricht Treaty for closer political and economic unity in Europe, set a broader context for a bilateral agreement. However, while Irish political leaders eagerly embraced the idea of European integration, their British counterparts, as we have seen, remained deeply divided over it.

Economic decline/ growth & political resuscitation:

008

The closure of the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne in May 1993 is an illuminating example of the impact of de-industrialisation. Swan Hunter was the last working shipyard in the region but had failed to secure a warship contract. An old, established firm, it was suffering some of the same long-term decline that decimated shipbuilding employment nationally to 26,000 by the end of a century. This devastated the local economy, especially as a bitter legal wrangle over redundancy payments left many former workers with no compensation whatever for the loss of what they had believed was employment for life. But the effects of de-industrialisation could spread much further than local communities. The closure of the shipyard, as shown in the map above, but the failure of the firm also had a ‘knock-on’ effect as suppliers as far afield as London and Glasgow lost valuable orders and, as a result, jobs.

004

By 1994, employment in manufacturing in Britain had fallen to four million from the nine million it had reached at its peak in 1966. The resulting mass unemployment hurt the older industries of the Northwest worst, but the losses were proportionately as high in the Southeast, reflecting the decline in newer manufacturing industry. Across most of Britain and Ireland, there was also a decline in the number of manufacturing jobs continuing into and throughout the 1990s. The service sector, however, expanded, and general levels of unemployment, especially in Britain, fell dramatically in the nineties. Financial services showed strong growth, particularly in such places as London’s Docklands, with its new ‘light railway’, and Edinburgh. By the late nineties, the financial industry was the largest employer in northern manufacturing towns and cities like Leeds, which grew rapidly throughout the decade, aided by its ability to offer a range of cultural facilities that helped to attract an array of UK company headquarters. Manchester, similarly, enjoyed a renaissance, particularly in the spheres of music, the media and sport.

In July 1995, tormented by yet more rumours of right-wing conspiracies against him, Major riposted with a theatrical gesture of his own, resigning as leader of the Conservative Party and inviting all-comers to take him on. He told journalists gathered in the Number Ten garden that it was “put up or shut up time”. If he lost he would resign as Prime Minister. If he won, he would expect the party to rally around him. This was a gamble, since other potential leaders were available, not least Michael Heseltine, who had become Deputy Prime Minister, and Michael Portillo, then the pin-up boy of the Thatcherites, whose supporters prepared a campaign headquarters for him, only for him to then decide against standing. In the event, the challenger was John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales and a highly intelligent anti-EU right-winger. Major won his fight, though 109 Tory MPs refused to back him.

Fighting the return of Fascism in Europe:

Major was also having to deal with the inter-ethnic wars breaking out in the former Yugoslavia, following the recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia as independent states in the early nineties. The worst violence occurred during the Serbian assault on Bosnia (I have written about the bloody 1992-94 Siege of Sarajevo, its capital, in an article elsewhere on this site based on John Simpson’s reporting). The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used for the first time as woeful columns of refugees fled in different directions. A nightmare which Europeans thought was over in 1945 was returning, only a couple of days’ drive away from London and half a day’s drive from where I was living on the southern borders of Hungary with Serbia and Croatia.

Six years after the siege, during a school visit to the Hague, I sat in the courtroom of the International War Crimes Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia and listened, in horror, to the testimonies of those who had been imprisoned and tortured in concentration camps during the Bosnian War. I couldn’t believe that what I was hearing had happened in the final decade of the twentieth century in Europe. Those on trial at that time were the prison camp guards who had carried out the atrocities, claiming what had become known as the Nuremberg Defence. Later on, those giving the orders, both Mladko Radic and Radovan Karadzic (pictured below with John Simpson in 1993), the military and political leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, went on trial in the same courtroom, were convicted of war crimes and duly locked away, together with the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. Major had asked how many troops it would take to keep the warring three sides apart and was told the number was four hundred thousand, three times the total size of the British Army at that time. He sent 1,800 men to protect the humanitarian convoys that were rumbling south from the UN bases in Hungary.

001

Although many British people sent food parcels, warm clothes, medicine and blankets, loaded onto trucks and driven across the Croatian border and into Bosnia, many in the government were reluctant for Britain to become further involved. But the evening news bulletins showed pictures of starving refugees, the uncovered mass graves of civilians shot dead by death squads, and children with appalling injuries. There was a frenzied campaign for Western intervention, but President Clinton was determined not to risk the lives of American soldiers on the ground. Instead, he considered less costly alternatives, such as air strikes. This would have put others who were on the ground, including the British and other nationalities involved in the UN operation, directly into the line of retaliatory fire of the Serbian troops. When the NATO air-strikes began, the Serbs took the UN troops hostage, including British soldiers, who were then used as human shields. When the Serbs captured the town of Srebrenica and carried out a mass slaughter of its Muslim citizens, there were renewed calls for ‘boots on the ground’, but they never came.

Following three years of fighting, sanctions on Serbia and the success of the Croat Army in fighting back, a peace agreement was finally made in Dayton, Ohio. The UN convoys and troops left Hungary. Major became the first British Prime Minister of the post-War World to grapple with the question of what the proper role of the West should be to ‘regional’ conflicts such as the Balkan wars. They showed quite clearly both the dangers and the limitations of intervention. When a civil conflict is relayed in all its horror to tens of millions of voters every night by television, the pressure to ‘do something’ is intense.  But mostly this requires not air strikes but a full-scale ground force, which will then be drawn into the war itself. Then it must be followed by years of neo-colonial aid and rebuilding. Major and his colleagues were accused of moral cowardice and cynicism in allowing the revival of fascist behaviour in one corner of Europe. Yet, especially given the benefit of hindsight of what happened subsequently in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps Western leaders were right to be wary of full-scale intervention.

Back to basics?

For many British voters, the Major years were associated with the sad, petty and lurid personal scandals that attended so many of his ministers, after he made an unwise speech calling for the return as old-style morality. In fact, back to basics referred to almost everything except personal sexual morality; he spoke of public service, industry, sound money, free trade, traditional teaching, respect for the family and the law and the defeat of crime. It gave the press, however, a fail-safe headline charge of hypocrisy whenever ministers were caught out. A series of infidelities were exposed; children born out-of-wedlock, a death from a sex stunt which went wrong, rumours about Major’s own affairs (which later turned out to be truer than realised at the time). More seriously, there was also an inquiry as to whether Parliament had been misled over the sale of arms to Iraq, but these were all knitted together into a single pattern of misbehaviour, referred to as ‘sleaze’.

In 1996, a three-year inquiry into whether the government had allowed a trial to go ahead against directors of an arms company, Matrix Churchill, knowing that they were, in fact, acting inside privately accepted guidelines, resulted in two ministers being publicly criticised. It showed that the government had allowed a more relaxed régime of military-related exports to Saddam Hussein even after the horrific gassing of five thousand Kurds at Falluja, also revealing a culture of secrecy and double standards in the process. Neil Hamilton MP was accused of accepting cash from Mohammed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, for asking questions in the Commons. One of the most dramatic episodes in the 1997 election was the overwhelming defeat he suffered in his Tatton constituency by the former BBC war reporter, Martin Bell, who had been badly injured in Sarajevo who became Britain’s first independent MP for nearly fifty years. Jonathan Aitken, a Treasury minister was accused of accepting improper hospitality from an Arab business contact. He resigned to fight the Guardian over the claims, with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play. He was found guilty of perjury, spending eighteen months in prison.

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By the end of Major’s government, it seemed that the Tories might have learned the lesson that disagreements over the EU were capable of splitting their party. However, there was a general mood of contempt for politicians and the press, in particular, had lost any sense of deference. The reforms of the health service, police and schools had produced few significant improvements. The post-Cold War world was turning out to be nastier and less predictable than the early nineties days of the ‘peace dividend’ had promised. The Labour Opposition would, in due course, consider how the country might be better governed and reformed, as well as what would be the right British approach to peace-keeping and intervention now that the United States was the last superpower left standing. But in the early months of 1997,  Tony Blair and his fresh young ‘New Labour’ team, including Alistair Campbell (pictured above), were oiling their effective election-winning machine and moving in to roll over a tired-looking John Major and his tarnished old Tories.

Sources:

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

Simon Schama (2018), A History of Britain, 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

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

Peter Caterall, Roger Middleton, John Swift (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Posted October 17, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Apocalypse, Arabs, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Coalfields, Cold War, devolution, Egalitarianism, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Family, France, Genocide, German Reunification, Germany, Gorbachev, Humanism, Hungary, Immigration, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Italy, Journalism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Margaret Thatcher, Marxism, morality, National Health Service (NHS), Refugees, Revolution, Scotland, Security, terrorism, Thatcherism, Unemployment, Wales

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Major’s Soap-Box: The Spring 1992 General Election Campaign.   Leave a comment

Meeting His People:

Having taken over the UK premiership from Margaret Thatcher and fought off the Tory “bastards” on the Eurosceptic Right in Parliament, John Major called a General Election for April 1992. BBC Chief Correspondent John Simpson was asked to cover the PM’s personal campaign. After covering the bombing of Baghdad, this should have been a stroll in the park. It turned out to be one of his less pleasant of his assignments to date. On Sunday 15 March he travelled to Sawley in Huntingdon, Major’s own constituency. Here he was to Meet the People, his people of course. As he commented:

The words were always said with a particular reverence by his handlers, as though real people were the greatest rarities in the world, unpredictable creatures who could only be approached with extreme care.

It has some echoes, a generation later, in the contemporary confection, the Will of the People, in the current Brexit debate. Simpson recalls that the whole event was dreadful. Major sat on a stool, looking uncomfortable, and a group of specially invited, carefully scanned local supporters sat equally uncomfortably in front of him. Everything had been so rehearsed that any life it originally had had long since been sucked out of it. The party ‘hacks’ reminded Simpson of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were true believers, trying their best to be patient with the sceptics. This isn’t a press conference, it’s a people conference, he was told. You’ll be able to spectate at it. He’s not just going to speak to the people, it’s for the people to be able to ask whatever’s on their minds.  As it transpired, the people were as embarrassed and shy as Major himself seemed, perched on his stool. What was on their minds was the kind of thing they had read in the tabloid newspapers:

‘Is it true,’ one asked, ‘that if the Socialists win, they will do lasting damage to the British economy?’ 

The questions were sometimes so extreme that Major, a fair-minded man, sounded less anti-Labour than they were. The best he could do was to say that nothing much was going on in the country.

“Transcript of report from Sawley, Northants, 15.3.92

“Speaker: Rt Hon John Major, PC, MP.

“JM: Back in 1979 there was a real feeling for change. I’m telling you, it ain’t there now.”

As Simpson drove to the studios, he thought over whether he should give his report without adjectives, just giving a bald account of what had happened. Yet he felt that if the overall impression he had received of the event was of a lack of imagination and understanding, he should say so. He stopped beside the road and began writing:

“Transcript of report for 6.25 News. 15.3.92

“JS: The campaign proper began for John Major with a chance on BBC Radio to get in a brief, quotable thrust at his opponents:

“JM: This fetish the opposition parties have for raising taxes seems very damaging to the economic interests of this country.

“JS: But the business of meeting the people began on his own home ground: In Sawley, part of his own constituency. The people he’d come to see had been carefully invited by the local Conservative Party and the questions weren’t exactly designed to cause him problems…

“JS: Mr Major is no great orator, and his handlers think he’s better with small groups. But it was all desperately tame today. There are promises that his campaign may liven up a little later.”

‘Spin Doctors’ and ‘Heavy Breathers’:

The ‘spin-doctors’ at Conservative Central Office were furious when they heard this all-too-truthful account. The editor who began taking their angry calls even before the end of the broadcast rang Simpson to congratulate him on the report, but he wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t wished that this particular cup had passed him by. The functionaries from Tory Central Office had identified Simpson as a wrecker, probably a paid-up member of the Labour Party. Yet the Labour Party was claiming that the BBC was biased against them. Neil Kinnock’s campaign manager warned:

If the BBC believes it can operate like this because the Conservatives hate it but Labour has a sentimental attachment to it, it had better think again. If it goes on like this and Labour wins, there won’t be as much sentiment around for the BBC as it believes.

In reality, the Labour Party wanted to control the BBC just as much as the Conservatives did. The only difference was that under Margaret Thatcher the latter gave the impression they were always thinking of tampering with the BBC’s structure. Over the decades going back to its founding, senior politicians have retained the habit of picking up the phone to the broadcasters as if they themselves own them. This is known by TV and Radio journalists as ‘heavy breathing’, and it succeeds in frightening them far too often. All too often the journalists or their editors try to be conciliatory and to explain that no offence was intended. The mere fact of replying like that encouraged the politicians to complain again. Although a genuine mistake was sometimes made, in John Simpson’s experience that was relatively rare. The parties complained most when their senior politicians had done badly in an interview, and they chose to blame the broadcasters for the poor performance. Simpson singled out ‘a new gladiator’ who had turned up in this ‘arena’ for particular attention:

I rather liked Tony Blair’s press spokesman, Alistair Campbell, when I was at Westminster: he was one of the freer-thinking political correspondents. Perhaps, like me, his time at Westminster left him less than starry-eyed about the nature of the lobby. He says what he thinks, without worrying too much about the feelings of those he talks to…

But Alistair Campbell is a man with an agenda. He wants government ministers to look and sound good on air, regardless of whether the are good. When interviewers of the quality of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys are questioning them, they don’t always shine. The Paxman style of interviewing is something that can only exist on British television. He is a national asset, and someone the BBC can and should feel great pride and confidence in. Of course Alistair Campbell and all his equivalents in British politics dislike him: he is the scourge of sloppy policy-making and muddle-headed ministers. And of course he is feared by all those who have a vested interest in tame interviews and tame broadcasting.

One morning John Humphrys had just walked out of the studio at the end of the ‘Today’ programme (on BBC Radio 4), and picked up the phone which was ringing on a nearby desk. He listened for a while to some threatening character from one of the parties.

‘Thanks for that,’ he said when the phone went quiet, ‘and I wonder if I could make an observation?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Eff off.’

And he put the phone down.

In many ways my complaint is less against the robustness of the politicos and more against the feebleness of the broadcasters. There is no reason on earth why, in a free society, people like Alistair Campbell shouldn’t try to put pressure on the broadcasters.

But equally there is no reason why the broadcasters should pay the slightest attention, except in cases where they have broadcast something which is false or tendentious. In that case they should be forced to put it right as soon as possible. There should only be one answer to the bully, the blackmailer and the heavy breather:.. ‘le mot de John Humphrys’. 

Perhaps the current American Press and Media pack should take courage from the British example in their dealings with Donald Trump’s accusations of ‘fake news’ operations among the White House Press Corps, and not be so deferential, but rather stand up for their freedoms as The Fourth Estate. 

Meeting ‘Real’ People:

According to Simpson, the 1992 UK General Election was altogether nastier than either the 1987 or 1997 campaigns. Like some of the US press today, he was branded an enemy, and was treated so unpleasantly by the more obsequious editors and reporters that he preferred to travel with the photographers and television cameramen. Meanwhile, John Major’s television advisers continued to create a campaign which emphasised the very qualities which seemed to diminish him most: the mildness, the uninspired speaking style, the pen-in-the top pocket concern with detail. 

On Wednesday, 25 March John Major was in Scotland, and the Media representatives flew up there with him. This was a more pleasant trip for Simpson, as he got on well with one of The Guardian columnists. He knew he had to be careful: everything he said was likely to be taken down and used in evidence against him. He was beginning to write up his notes on the plane at the end of the day when John Major came down the aisle and asked him if his campaign was really as bad as Simpson was reporting. The Guardian columnist, David Hare, published the conversation in his book, Asking Around, chronicling the campaign, later the same year:

John Major moves behind me to talk to John Simpson, and I suddenly realize he is asking for professional advice. Scraps of their conversation drift across me.

Simpson: …not sure about your campaign… not sure you’re showing yourself to the best advantage.

Major: No. I agree. I agree.

Simpson: …all seems a bit pointless… ways in which you could be better presented…

Major: I know. I know. What do you think I should do?

Simpson told Major that it wasn’t his job to give advice to politicians, but that it didn’t make good television to see politicians with ‘believers’ rather than ‘real people’. The following Saturday they were in a particularly depressing shopping centre in Luton. They had turned up early, and so had the Trotskyists, ready to give Major a hard time. When his blue coach arrived, the PM stayed on board, but one of his aides got off, opened the baggage compartment and pulled out a wooden construction of some kind. Then Major got off and someone handed him a megaphone. He got up on the construction, a soapbox, and began to rate:

Something came over him, some distant memory of being a Young Conservative in the sixties, perhaps, and he grew louder and more confident, and his voice started to drown out the shouting. There was no actual violence, though somehow the unworthy thought came to my mind that if he took a bottle on the head and a trickle of blood were to run down those decorously mild features, it would be worth at least ten marginals to him… Of course, the sight of chanting, egg-throwing lefties did wonders for John Major’s standing.

“No one’s going to keep me away from the people,” he proclaimed in his harsh, much imitated, amplified voice, as though anyone was trying to… 

He was sweating slightly as he got down from his box, and the rain had speckled his glasses.

“So that is the kind of thing you wanted?” he asked me…

“It’ll look good on television, certainly,” I said. And it did.

After that, until 9 April, the soap box went with him wherever he went. Some said that it was the reason he won the election. It certainly had something to do with it, though I recall the unpopularity of Labour’s tax plans with marginal, ‘middle income’ Midlanders like me, many of whom would have been embarrassed to admit to voting Tory to the pollsters. Perhaps his instinct that this was not a time for change appealed to the innate conservatism of the British people. In the event, it will go down as a sensational personal success for him and his soapbox.  

Source:

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan (Pan). 

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