“Could this be the straw that broke the camel’s back?” said half a dozen bloggers as Jack Straw, Justice Secretary for the British government (ha ha ha) announced in the Commons that he would be vetoing the release of Cabinet minutes from 2003. The minutes, concerning the UK’s commitment to the Iraq War, had been requested under an FOI act, and a tribunal had ruled out any standard procedural reason for holding them back.
The government could have gone to the High Court to appeal the judgment, but as it knew it would lose, it’s taken the simpler route of using the veto powers included in the Act when it was promulgated in 2005. It’s the first time the veto’s been used, just another shabby pull the cover over the bunker in the dying days of the Labour govt.
Straw’s defence was that Cabinet confidentiality has to be preserved, otherwise government couldn’t function etc etc, which may be true in principle, but doesn’t answer the question as to why he vetoed the release of these notes now.
After all, if Cabinet solidarity is a vital principle of government, why were Cabinet minutes not excluded in toto when the act was originally cast? If not, why not defend each specific veto on its particular grounds? The answer is obviously that the minutes would reveal at least some of the Cabinet voicing the opinion that the war was a crime based on dodged-up information — the sort of info that could eventually up pink beribboned in a bundle of prosecution documents at the Hague sometime.
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The vetoing of the minutes is the sort of desperate move akin to taking the fifth amendment, something only slightly less worse than the alternative. The Conservatives were in a perfect quandary given that they loathe the FOI act, but were desperate to try and uphold the general principle of secret government while slating this particular use of it.
The fiasco is another New Labour special. The FOI act was floated in its manifesto in the lead-up to gaining government in 1997, as part of their very Yes Minister-ish commitment to open government and all that sort of thing. No sooner were they in than they delayed the new law by a full two terms, finally being dragged kicking and screaming to it in 2005. By that time, it had had been crafted from a years-long struggle between the inner party and civil libertarian MPs, coming out much broader than most FOI statutes, but honeycombed with exceptions. And of course that was never going to be a problem.
Mind you, it was barely in the top three. With the final total of stimulus packages and bailouts have been announced as coming to a staggering of £1.3 tn ($A897 quadrillion), equal to one year’s UK GDP. At the same time as the government was buying up duff banks, it was also moving grimly forward with plans to sell off a third of Royal Mail, an outfit that is still making a (dininishing) operating profit, but is crippled by £5bn in pension liabilities.
As in the dying days of the Keating Labour government, when fire sales seemed to take on a life of their own — Simon Crean’s talking down of the value of national shipping line ANL (“you couldn’t give it away”) as the answer to all the problems that privatisation had caused in the first place.
In Royal Mail’s case, it was the same faith in markets that did for the banks that are now getting the money that should be being invested in the mail system as a going concern. Profitable services — i.e. parcels — were opened up to competition under both Major and then Labour, at the same time as standard letter traffic started to plummet because of email.
Royal Mail was left with its statutory obligations, but with no commitment from the government to the idea that universal mail service was simply a necessary function. Instead, government shifted the blame onto the outfit, which responded by hiring consultants who briefly renamed it, in the mad days of ‘reinventing government’ as Consignia.
The Mail sell-off is massively unpopular, even among Tory voters, and there was a major demonstration of postal workers planned for today, so it will probably be here Friday, and if you’re not there for it, you’ll have to go round to the depot and pick it up. The Tories are backing it, on the grounds that they want to do it, and people will blame Labour — even if the bill only gets across the line with Tory support. That looks likely with 120 Labour MPs threatening to vote against the bill. “Why are we doing this, when it’s so unpopular,” one rebellious Labour MP wailed, about the most succinct expression of New Labour values you’re likely to get.
God it’s all bloody awful. The greenie touchie feelie Tories will rip the masks off once they get into power, but I can’t summon even the most residual degree of concern. I can’t even form the desire for the Lib-Dems to get the swing vote and make Labour put in proportional representation. The whole idea that Labour might be rewarded for the corrupt, incompetent, deeply venal way they’ve missed the opportunity to actually make a difference is nauseating. The Tories are terrifyingly smarm. And the fact that all this cannot go on is good news, even when you consider what that not going on involves.
Drinking the dregs from the last crazy straw…