Thursday, November 03, 2005

It’s a trying week for authoritarian, arrogant home secretaries

This week is turning out to be rather an interesting one politically on both sides of the Channel. Yesterday evening, the Blair government came within one vote of being defeated in the House of Commons over its proposal to criminalise the “glorification of terrorism”. Until now, Tony Blair has been able to assume that his majority would make sure that any motion that he tabled in the Commons would be successful, however this latest vote suggests that many Labour MPs voted against the government. I’ll just point out that of all the people who didn’t vote at all, I wouldn’t have expected George Galloway not to bother to be there. I hope he has a good reason like Vince Cable (Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham), who ironically was prevented from voting on a security matter because of security procedures. On a separate matter, the question of whether or not the period during which terrorism suspects can be held without charge for up to 90 days instead of the current 14, the Home Secretary Charles Clarke was forced to postpone a vote to avoid possible defeat. These are both important matters, particularly for those with an interest in preserving civil liberties, but of course what has really taken up column centimetres this week has been the second resignation of David Blunkett in twelve months.

Strictly speaking, David Blunkett is an authoritarian, arrogant former home secretary, rather than a serving one, but Charles Clarke has only ever been a pseudo-Blunkett, who can be relied on to carry on with the previous agenda without doing too much, or indeed any, thinking about it. Anyway, it looks like David Blunkett’s chronic arrogance problem is what brought him down. Once again, he just didn’t really believe that the rules applied to him, because he’s somehow special. Which is of course just good old-fashioned Xerxes-style hubris. To use a contrived classical metaphor, David Blunkett flogged the Hellespont once too often and the sea decided to scatter his ships.

Meanwhile, over in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy, the third arrogant, authoritarian home secretary, has been having a bad week also. To a great extent it’s his own fault: his troubles were predictably brought about by being arrogant and authoritarian. An inquiry is underway into exactly what happened in Clichy-Sous-Bois last Thursday night, but what is certain is that three teenagers of North African extraction thought that they were being pursued by the police, took refuge in an electrical substation, where two of them were fatally electrocuted. Word quickly went round that they were victims of police brutality, and soon enough a riot was underway. Law and order, specifically taking a tough uncompromising line on law and order, are Sarkozy’s favourite areas, so I suspect that he was delighted at the opportunity to take centre stage. Unfortunately earlier in the week, he had referred very publicly to disaffected youths in sink estates as "scum". Also, in the summer, following similar incidents, he had vowed to clean up another estate "with a high-pressure hose" suggesting that the inhabitants were muck. So he was going to come up with some pretty conciliatory words to calm down the situation. But instead on Sunday he said that he would take a "zero tolerance" approach, that he didn’t want do any ordinary policing but wanted to make arrests. Then he sent an additional seventeen companies of CRS (riot police) and seven squadrons of gendarmes to Clichy-Sous-Bois to make sure that some proper repression took place. And so the problem escalated, and the violence continues and spreads a week later.

Politically, Sarkozy has jumped on the highest law and order horse he could find, and succeeded only in worsening the problem. His tough rhetoric and muscular reaction plays well to many members of his rightwing UMP party, but on the ground, it’s a disaster. He’s been severely criticised within the government, although the Prime Minister and the President have been trying to keep that quiet for the sake of appearances. But Sarkozy may well have severly damaged his credibility, having failed in the one area that many assume is naturally his greatest strength.

Clarke, Blair, Blunkett and Sarkozy all have in common a stunning degree of arrogance, the conviction that they don’t need to listen to anyone else because they’re always right, the accompanying inability to admit to mistakes, the belief that the rules don’t apply to them because they are above everyone else. They are wrong. And they will eventually all learn this the unpleasant way. This pine marten can’t wait.

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