An open letter to Hazel Blears MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 10th February 2009
Last week you used an article in the Guardian to attack my “cynical and corrosive commentary”. You asserted your political courage, maintaining that “you don’t get very far in politics without guts, and certainly not as far as the cabinet table.” By contrast, you suggested, I contribute “to the very cynicism and disengagement from politics” that I make my living writing about. You accused me of making claims without supporting evidence and of “wielding great influence without accountability”. “We need more people standing for office and serving their communities,” you wrote, “more people debating, engaging and voting; not more people waving placards on the sidelines.”(1)
Quite so. But being the placard-waving sort, I have a cynical and corrosive tendency to mistrust the claims that ministers make about themselves. Like you, I believe that opinions should be based on evidence. So I have decided to test your statements against the record.
Courage in politics is measured by the consistent application of principles. The website theyworkforyou.com records your votes on key issues since 2001. It reveals that you voted “very strongly for the Iraq war”, “very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war” and “very strongly for replacing Trident” (“very strongly” means an unbroken record). You have voted in favour of detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days, in favour of identity cards and in favour of a long series of bills curtailing the freedom to protest(2,3,4). There’s certainly consistency here, though it is not clear what principles you are defending.
Other threads are harder to follow. In 2003, for example, you voted against a fully elected House of Lords and in favour of a chamber of appointed peers(5). In 2007, you voted for a fully elected House of Lords(6). You have served without public complaint in a government which has introduced the minimum wage but blocked employment rights for temporary and agency workers; which talked of fiscal prudence but deregulated the financial markets; which passed the Climate Change Act but approved the construction of a third runway at Heathrow; which spoke of an ethical foreign policy but launched an illegal war in which perhaps a million people have died. Either your principles, by some remarkable twists of fate, happen to have pre-empted every contradictory decision this government has taken, or you don’t possess any.
You remained silent while the government endorsed the kidnap and the torture of innocent people; blocked a ceasefire in Lebanon and backed a dictator in Uzbekistan who boils his prisoners to death. You voiced no public concern while it instructed the Serious Fraud Office to drop the corruption case against BAe, announced a policy of pre-emptive nuclear war(7), signed a one-sided extradition treaty with the United States and left our citizens to languish in Guantanamo Bay. You remained loyal while it oversaw the stealthy privatisation of our public services and the collapse of Britain’s social housing programme, closed hundreds of post offices and shifted taxation from the rich to the poor. What exactly do you stand for Hazel, except election?
The only consistent political principle I can deduce from these positions is slavish obedience to your masters. Theyworkforyou sums up your political record thus: “Never rebels against their party in this parliament.”(8) Yours, Hazel, is the courage of the sycophant, the courage to say yes.
Let me remind you just how far your political “guts” have carried you. You are temporarily protected by the fact that the United Kingdom, unlike other states, has not yet incorporated the Nuremberg Principles into national law. If a future government does so, you and all those who remained in the cabinet on March 20th 2003 will be at risk of prosecution for what the Nuremberg Tribunal called “the supreme international crime”(9). This is defined as the “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression”(10). Robin Cook – a man of genuine political courage – put his conscience ahead of his career and resigned. What did you do?
It seems to me that someone of your principles would fit comfortably into almost any government. All regimes require people like you, who seem to be prepared to obey orders without question. Unwavering obedience guarantees success in any administration. It also guarantees collaboration in every atrocity in which a government might engage. The greatest thing we have to fear in politics is the cowardice of politicians.
You demanded evidence that consultations and citizens’ juries have been rigged. You’ve got it. In 2007, the High Court ruled that the government’s first consultation on nuclear power was “seriously flawed” and “unlawful”(11). It also ruled that the government must commission an opinion poll. The poll the government launched was reviewed by the Market Research Standards Board. It found that “information was inaccurately or misleadingly presented, or was imbalanced, which gave rise to a material risk of respondents being led towards a particular answer.”(12)
As freedom of information requests made by Greenpeace reveal, the consultation over the third runway at Heathrow used faked noise and pollution figures(13). It was repeatedly pre-empted by ministers announcing that the runway would be built. Nor did the government leave anything to chance when it wanted to set up giant health centres, or polyclinics, run by general doctors (GPs). As Dr Tony Stanton of the Londonwide Local Medical Committees has pointed out, “a week before a £1m consultation on polyclinics and hospitals by NHS London closed, London’s 31 primary care trusts were issued with instructions on setting up polyclinic pilots and GP-led health centres.”(14) Consultations elsewhere claimed that there was no need to discuss whether or not new health centres were required, as the principle had already been established through “extensive national level consultation exercises.”(15) But no such exercises had taken place; just a handful of citizens’ juries engaging a total of a thousand selected people and steered by government ministers(16). Those who weren’t chosen had no say.
Fixes like this might give you some clues about why more people are not taking part in politics. I believe there is a vast public appetite for re-engagement, but your government, aware of the electoral consequences, has shut us out. It has reneged on its promise to hold a referendum on electoral reform. It has blocked a referendum on the European treaty, ditched the regional assemblies, used Scottish MPs to swing English votes, sustained an unelected House of Lords, eliminated almost all the differences between itself and the opposition. You create an impenetrable political monoculture, then moan that people don’t engage in politics.
It is precisely because I can picture something better that I have become such a cynical old git. Hazlitt remarked that “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.” You, Hazel, have helped to reduce our political choices to a single question: whether to laugh through our tears or weep through our laughter.
1. Hazel Blears, 6th February 2009. We need people standing for office, not carping on the sidelines. The Guardian.
7. This was first mentioned by Geoff Hoon, 24th March 2002 on The Jonathan Dimbleby Show, ITV 1, and has been reiterated several times since.
9. Marjorie Cohn, professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, 9th November 2004. Aggressive War: Supreme International Crime. http://www.truthout.org/docs_04/110904A.shtml
11. BBC Online, 15th February 2007. Nuclear review ‘was misleading’.
12. Market Research Standards Board, 17th October 2008. Findings of report on the Opinion Leader poll “Talking Energy”.
13. Marie Woolf and Jon Ungoed-Thomas, 9th March 2008. Evidence fix led to third runway being approved. The Sunday Times.
14. Tony Stanton. 12th March 2008. Letter to the Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/mar/12/health.nhs
15. Eg Dr Andrew Green, former chair of the East Yorkshire Local Medical
Committee, 27 March 2008. Posted on the GPC’s Local Medical Committees discussion list: email@example.com
16. The Prime Minister’s Spokesman, 18th September 2007. Morning press briefing.