It is easy to loathe Michael Howard. It is less easy – because more intimidating in its implications – to loathe him for the right reasons. His record as Home Secretary before Her Majesty’s judges is appalling. He has lost a succession of cases to do with prisoners, immigrants and criminal injuries compensation. But his litany of defeats hides more than it reveals. Howard’s tenure at the Home Office has coincided both with the growing sloppiness of a Whitehall exhausted by perpetual Tory rule and with the emergence for the first time of a muscular, interventionist judiciary. In such circumstances, whoever was in charge of the Government’s determined effort to wreck the lives of our prisoners, our aspiring immigrants and our hapless asylum-seekers was bound to get sued more than, say, the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Today’s incumbent at the Home Office is all the more vulnerable as a result of the existence of legal aid. For all its faults, this egalitarian eccentricity requires one of Howard’s colleagues in government, the Lord Chancellor, to underwrite the legal bills of all the chancers, malcontents and unfortunates who (justly or unjustly) hound the Home Secretary in court. Howard’s lawyers still manage to win more cases for him than they lose, and the most dreadful legal cause cé1èbre of recent years, the unlawful funding of the Pergau Dam in Malaysia, involved not him but Lady Thatcher and the saintly Douglas Hurd.

It is also said that Michael Howard has demeaned his high office by using legislation to embarrass the Opposition. Much is made in this regard of such monstrosities as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill and the new anti-terrorism measure rushed through both Houses last Easter. Of course Howard has demeaned his office. The Home Secretary would not be the rational politician he is if he did not try to trump New Labour’s tactical effort to emulate his worst features. The office is almost invariably demeaned by its occupant. Sixty years ago this month, the then Tory Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, chose to announce a new Public Order Bill in the course of an offensive and thoroughly partisan speech at Cleckheaton Town Hall which just happened to be delivered in the same week in which Labour’s annual conference was taking place. The effect of this was neatly to embarrass Labour by exposing divisions in its leadership as to how best to deal with Mosley’s Fascists. In a democracy, it is invariably the losers who accuse the winners of all sorts of villainy, integrity being easier to keep when there are no real opportunities to lose it.

Another charge frequently brought against Howard is that his conduct is much worse than that of the Tories who immediately preceded him in office. If this is true, which is doubtful, it may be simply that he has had more time to accumulate form. The three men whom he followed – Kenneth Clarke, Kenneth Baker and David Waddington – together occupied the post for just a few months more than he has already served. Baker’s brief romp managed to produce two absurdities, the first comic in the form of the Dangerous Dogs Act, the second tragic, in the form of his refusal to obey a judge’s order to rescue an asylum-seeker he had wrongfully expelled from the country – which led to Baker being held in criminal contempt of court by the House of Lords. Who is to say how bad this now largely forgotten man would have been had he contrived to cling to office? Or Waddington, had he not been moved on when Bermuda felt the need of his governorship?

Howard’s importance lies not in his personal defects, legal difficulties or political opportunism but rather in what is symbolised by the mere presence of such a man in such a post. When Margaret Thatcher began the wealthy’s assault on the rest of us in 1979, she wisely started off with a pay increase for her frontline troops, the police, who repaid her in kind in the years that followed, not least in Brixton, Orgreave, Wapping and the other battlegrounds where this modern civil war was fought and won. Her first Home Secretary was none other than that emollient and ‘much loved’ old softy, William Whitelaw. ‘Every prime minister needs a Willie,’ Margaret Thatcher humourlessly declared, and the nation and much of the press proved her right by deceiving themselves over many years that his ‘decency’ and ‘integrity’ were acting as a brake on her ideological anger. It was less a brake than a chicane: the Thatcherite juggernaut was forced to slow down and swerve slightly now and again, but the reduced speed was illusory – the absolute minimum required to provide a veneer of democratic sensitivity to a government’s deliberate divisiveness.

How much better for the country in those dark days a Michael Howard would have been, not camouflaging the actions of his colleagues but justifying openly what that Government used Whitelaw’s supposed personal decency to conceal. We should (reluctantly) celebrate rather than deplore Howard’s obnoxiousness, for it reveals more starkly than anything else how deeply Tory rule has drawn out, lived on and entrenched Britain’s least attractive national traits. Never a great lawyer in his pre-Parliamentary life, Howard has found his true métier as solicitor of Little England’s darkest thoughts. A prisoner wants to get out of his cell for more than one hour in 24? Never. Manacle women inmates on hospital visits? Well, they might have escaped. Why shouldn’t an asylum-seeker declare himself to the nearest armed guard immediately on arrival at Heathrow? I know I would. Deport this Irishman the police say is a security risk? Of course – in any other country the man would be dead.

The nature of the Home Secretary’s prejudices should anger us less than what his hold on his office says about the Tories’ grip on the country. The prejudices of Middle England no longer need any filter before they are transformed into law and executive practice. Never was this clearer than when a Sun campaign was explicitly admitted to have been an influence on Howard’s attitude towards the continued incarceration of the two boys convicted in the Bulger case. A Howard of ten years ago would at least have felt the need to cover this up. It is not Howard the person that is the problem: it is the political culture that has degenerated to the point where an ambitious politician with instincts such as his feels no need to control his prejudices.

Another important way in which politics has moved on is revealed in the political triviality of the issues through which Howard’s obnoxiousness finds public expression. He is not in the business of engineering great policy changes, or giving direction as to the route which Britain’s citizens and residents should take. His callous policies are visited on individuals – either directly, through executive action, or indirectly, through legislation compelling others (the police, the courts, the prison service) to share his prejudice. The individuals affected share two characteristics: they are outsiders and they are vulnerable. Howard is the perfect example of what happens when large-scale impotence is combined with small-scale omnipotence. His one attempt at a visionary policy of sorts – the introduction of identity cards – collapsed when it became apparent that it was Europe that really mattered, as far as the appearance and content of the card were concerned.

The problem of which Howard is the most potent symbol raises a series of challenges for New Labour, and in particular for its shadow Home Secretary. Jack Straw is the kind of weather vane that Gramsci might have built to test which way the hegemony was blowing: at the moment he is pointing due right, and it is likely that he will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. He is perfectly correct to keep this position, as long as he does not mean it. The world that created Howard won’t be unravelled in a day and Labour would have lost its chance of unravelling it if it had openly retained its commitment to the humane values of the past. The problem with Straw is that he appears to mean what he says, which makes him either a brilliant politician or a deeply suspect potential Home Secretary.

It was wrong of Tony Blair to have secured Labour’s abstention on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill in 1994, just as it was scandalous of Jack Straw to have raised no objection to the passage of last spring’s offensive and unnecessary Prevention of Terrorism Act. The strategy of ersatz Toryism should not extend to a refusal to discharge the Party’s constitutional duties as Her Majesty’s Opposition. The decision on the Criminal Justice Bill in particular probably did more to alienate young people from the whole Westminster process than all the political sleaze about which Labour has recently been so confidently self-righteous.

What Labour in government will need is some positive agenda which is distinctively its own, to go with the Howard-speak that will be a necessary evil in the early days of a future government. Roy Jenkins had race and sex discrimination to undo; Straw needs a similar piece of moral exhibitionism. Regional government and devolution are a start but are not very popular with the electorate that matters – the English. Nor are they likely to unsettle what would on these issues be a confident Tory opposition.

There is a further trap waiting for Labour, on which the Tories look forward to destroying them: Europe. The Conservatives’ 17-year war with the Continent has been comprehensively lost, with the disputes within the Party about sovereignty now resembling an argument between drunks about the right to drink from an empty bottle. So debased has our political culture become, however, that the Tories have successfully covered up the transfer of power to Brussels by screaming loudly – and against all the evidence of almost every news bulletin – that it has not yet happened, that the country still enjoys its freedom, independence, pride etc. Labour in government will have the potentially dangerous task of revealing through its actions (on the single currency, the central bank, fishing or whatever it might be) the true breadth of European domination, but without the comforting Europhobic noises to which the nation has become accustomed. The electorate will naturally be invited by the Europhobic press to construe this reality as a New Labour surrender rather than the Major/Thatcherite old hat that it really is.

Squeezed from below by attacks on devolution and from above by allegations about surrender to Europe, New Labour could be in for a steep and quick decline. Just as Straw as Home Secretary needs to sound like Howard for a while, so Labour needs a rhetorical camouflage for its honest (and inevitable) Europeanism. Why not turn the omnipotence presently enjoyed by Europe against itself by launching a campaign for the democratisation of the Union? It would strike a popular note and confuse the anti-Europeans by sounding sceptical without being so in fact. It would also divide the Tories, for whom any response would be a trap: were they to oppose it, they would be conveniently proving their pro-Europeanism. By putting European leaders on the defensive, it would make a change of tack from the Tories on such key issues as the single currency and the social chapter politically easier. It would also be morally absolutely right.

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