Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Time for Jacqui Bye-bye

Ding Dong the witch is dead. Politically, at least. The most overpromoted, most ineffective, and yet paradoxically most dangerous home secretary in living memory, is to depart the scene no later than next week, joining the ever-growing exodus of rats (or are they lemmings?) deserting HMS Gordon. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. No New Labour home secretary is going to be much fun, of course, but her successor cannot possibly be worse. Surely not.

Iain Dale, inexplicably one of Britain's most-read bloggers, really outdoes himself in the idiot stakes with this one:


I have always thought Jacqui Smith is a thoroughly nice woman who was overwhelmed by the job. She allowed the authoritarian instincts of her department, instilled by her predecessors, to dominate her political agenda and she allowed herself to be dictated to by Number Ten.


I've no idea whether or not, in the privacy of her own home(s) or among friends, Jacqui Smith is a "thoroughly nice woman". Nor do I particularly care. She can spend all her spare time nursing injured sparrows for all the difference it makes. What matters is that she was a thoroughly rotten home secretary. If there was a worse occupant of the post in the past 200 years I'd be interested in hearing who it was.

Some home secretaries are reactionary, illiberal menaces. David Blunkett, for example - though you might think that John Reid, had he lasted a bit longer in the job, would have outdone Blunkett in authoritarianism. (Jack Straw, for some reason, often escapes censure when lists of awful Labour home secretaries are compiled, but he almost as bad.) Some ministers are hopelessly incompetent - Geoff Hoon springs to mind, though I doubt even he would been has bad in the job as Smith has been. Jacqui's particular talent was to combine the authoritarian bossiness of New Labour at its hectoring, nannying worst with the sheer amateurism and disarray that has characterised Gordon Brown's time as prime minister. Even by the low standards of this government, though, Smith's home office has presented a lamentable sight.

Indeed, Smith's assumed niceness may have been part of the problem, not because she failed to "stand up to" the authoritarian instincts of the Home Office (which are fairly recent - little more than a decade ago it was run by liberals) but because her emollient persona masked policies that were not merely illiberal but often just plain nasty. The quintessential Smith word was "safe", as nice, homely and uncontroversial a word as the language possesses but which was used to justify any number of restrictive or intrusive measures, from 42 days detention to her insistence of retaining DNA samples of innocent people in direct contravention of the European Court of Human Rights. "Safe" is dangerous because it leads to overcaution and pre-emption, taking action based on speculations about what might possibly happen than because of what might. It was wanting the public to be "safe" that led police to shoot dead Jean Charles de Menezes in circumstances where it should have been obvious that he posed no danger to anyone.

What was her lowest moment, I wonder? Was it the arrest of an Opposition spokesman, Damian Green, by the anti-terrorist police for doing little more than embarrassing the government? Her unconvincing denials of all knowledge of the arrest - indeed, her bizarre assertion that she ought not to know about so sensitive an operation - sat oddly with her fulsome expressions of support for blundering Bob Quick, the policeman running the operation. He was doing a splendid job "keeping Britain safe", she said, a few weeks before he was forced to resign after striding into a Number 10 briefing, carrying a list of terror suspects he intended to arrest in full view of photographers. The whole business - like so much of Smith's tenure of office - was at once sinister and farcical.

Or perhaps it was last month's banning of US shock jock Michael Savage, on the baffling grounds that visiting Britain was "a privilege". In so doing she unnecessarily made a free-speech martyr of a loudmouth broadcaster who had no intention of visiting Britain in any event. That saga - which may lead to embarrassing legal action - remains utterly baffling. It has never been explained how Savage got onto the list, which mainly consisted of terrorist sympathisers. But it did demonstrate (if anyone could be in any doubt) that her and her government's attachment to free speech was as shallow as their attachment to other traditionally British values and liberties.
Who knows. Virtually every week has brought some personal embarrassment or some policy disaster. To her evident enthusiasm for ID cards and data retention might be added the casual way she manipulated the allowances system, disingenuously listing a room in her sister's flat as her main home. Was the exposure of her husband's taste in pay-per-view porn really more embarrassing than her doomed attempts to retain the discredited Ian Blair as commissioner of the Met? Virtually everyone will have their own reason to despise her. Possibly it's her reclassification of cannabis as a Class A drug contrary to the best medical advice, or the extreme porn ban, or her banning of Geert Wilders from the UK, or the harassment of photographers by police, or the treatment meted out to respected theatrical directors and popular musicians, some of whom are now boycotting the country in disgust. Maybe it's the ideology-driven changes to the laws surrounding prostitution which, despite being toned down, still look set to drive vulnerable women onto the streets. Perhaps it's all the sensitive hard-drives that went missing. Or some other outrage I've temporarily forgotten.

The misconception that Dale seems to have fallen for is idea that Smith's fault lay in failing to stand up to the toughies in the Home Office - being too nice, in other words. Nonsense. In the summer of 2007 she gave an interview to the New Statesman's Martin Bright, who noted that she was already pursuing "a distinctly authoritarian agenda".

On extension of the 28-day period of detention without charge, on identity cards, on penal policy and on immigration, she is, if anything, more convinced about the authoritarian approach than the tough guys who came before.


That, certainly, was borne out. But, rather as Michael Howard, the last Tory home secretary, was criticised for being an "unpopular populist", Jacqui has been a notably weak authoritarian - perhaps the worst of all possible combinations.

11 comments:

Nigel Sedgwick said...

Bravo!

asquith said...

Despite having always viewed her as a total wretch, I fear for the future after she has gone because I dread to imagine who is going to take her place.

Does anyone strike you as a front runner? I've heard names floating around but no thoroughgoing analysis of what Brown has got in mind.

valdemar squelch said...

Re: The European Court of Human Rights - would UKIP withdraw from that system? If so, that would remove a level of protection that Churchill (among others) thought UK citizens needed in the face of 'elective dictatorship'. Didn't spot anything about this on the UKIP site.

Chris said...

"No New Labour home secretary is going to be much fun, of course, but her successor cannot possibly be worse. Surely not."

Someone over at Guido's suggested the caterpillar balancer, who is probably already emptying his desk at the Treasury.

curly15 said...

I guess I'm not the first to wish her a fond farewell then?

septicisle said...

David Blunkett and John Reid were certainly worse. Blunkett thought that criticising judges for doing their job was a good idea, which I don't think Jacqui, vile as she was, did, and Reid was, well, Reid. I honestly don't think that if someone different had been in charge that the policies themselves would have been any different; they seem permanently set in stone. As for who's next, my guess would be that Jack Straw will be given back the job he had to start with, unless Brown surprises us with some other non-entity...

Edwin Moore said...

Agree with septicisle. A Celtic-supporting friend said he felt a real sense of pollution watching John Reid giving his first speech as chairman at Celtic.

One of the pre-match sights at Celtic Park last season was watching Michael Martin be wrapped in a secure cordon from his limo to his seat, oh puke.

So I too would put Smith a long way behind Blunkett and Reid and quite a few others.

Tomorrow is the Euro election and the only candidate I can regard as sympatico is the estimable Tory Struan Stevenson, who has fought long and hard for animal rights.

David Hadley said...

Certainly Jack Straw should never ever be forgiven for his craven attitude during the Mo-toons hoo-ha.

Irina from Dublin said...

With the over exaggerated "liquid-bomb" plot that John Reid presided over that changed (remember the Terrorists will not change the way we... blah blah) air travel forever, he has to be the worst bastard that ever was Home Secretary.

Abdullah said...

'What matters is that she was a thoroughly rotten home secretary. If there was a worse occupant of the post in the past 200 years I'd be interested in hearing who it was.'


Viscount Sidmouth...

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The most overpromoted, most ineffective, and yet paradoxically most dangerous home secretary in living memory.

I would have thought that 1989 was within any reasonable definition of "living memory" so it seems you have overlooked the eminently forgettable, and clearly forgotten, Baron Waddington who was briefly home secretary as Maggie Thatcher's last government imploded.

The most over promoted Home Secretary must have been Winston Churchill in 1910 who at the grand old age of 36 was a tad under developed. He got a lot better of course but his handling of the suffragettes was poor and there was of course the blemishes of Sidney Street & Tonypandy.

He recovered and went on to be probably our greatest politician and prime minister. He had the fortune to live in less frivolous and petty times of course.