Issue 3-2023-200dpi

5 May 2005 Edition

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Despot in waiting

An Phoblacht's FERN LANE laments the lack of choice available to British voters in the Westminster elections and reminds readers of Tory leader Michael Howard's reactionary track record.

Pity the poor British electorate. Perhaps that's not an emotion which would immediately find a place in the hearts of readers of this newspaper — spooks and the DUP excepted — but just put yourself for a moment in the shoes of the average British voter who, on 5 May, will have a choice between voting for a dishonest, Christian fundamentalist war criminal with the blood of 100,000 dead Iraqis on his hands, or for someone who not only supported that illegal war, but who in his 22 years in parliamentary politics was at the forefront of the most unsavoury of Thatcherite policies and who is now responsible for making immigration — rather than, say, the war or public services — the key issue of this election.

Ironically, Conservative leader Michael Howard is the grandchild of an illegal immigrant from eastern Europe of the very type whom he now rails against. No matter. His campaign against latter day immigrants is the delight of every unhinged right-winger in British politics, from UKIP to the BNP to The Sun.

And they are equally delighted with his venomous rhetoric against Gypsies and Travellers, which has been of such ferocity that he is now under formal investigation by the Metropolitan Police Service. In a particularly nasty attempt to court the votes of anti-Gypsy and Traveller racists in the run up to this election, Howard went, camera crew and a few local resident Tories in tow, and stood outside the perimeter fence of a Traveller site and stared through the wire at the inhabitants as if they were dangerous creatures in a zoo, leaving the targets of this gratuitously insulting behaviour bewildered and annoyed.

Even Robert Kilroy-Silk, unashamed racist and attention-seeker that he is, had the superficial courtesy to make some kind of effort to interact with the Gypsy and Traveller Community when he decided to make it an election issue for his silly political party Veritas. This was, of course, only for the benefit of television, but Howard saw no need even for this pretence and continued to pander to the The Sun newspaper's vicious 'Stamp on the Camps' campaign. No wonder that outgoing Labour MP Kevin McNamara felt compelled to observe that there was the "whiff of gas chambers" about the entire affair.

But this crude populism and tendency to appeal to the worst elements is entirely typical of Howard. When he became the MP for Folkstone & Hythe in 1983, he used his maiden speech in Parliament to call for the restoration of the death penalty and his career after that point has followed a fairly consistent pattern of right-wing excess and malignity.

For example, as a member of the Thatcher Government he was an avid supporter of tax cuts for the well-off and huge spending cuts in public services. He introduced the homophobic Clause 28 Bill (and later voted against its repeal). He opposed the minimum wage, saying it would cost two million jobs; as trades union leader Rodney Bickerstaff was later to observe, "he was only two million out" in his prediction. Most infamously, he was instrumental in the introduction of the monstrously unfair poll tax, a policy which saw huge riots on the streets of London and came close to bringing down the government.

As Home Secretary in John Major's government, Howard removed the statutory duty on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers, thus effectively criminalising the entire community. He was repeatedly found by the courts to be engaging in an "abuse of power" in over-ruling judges and imposing politically-motivated sentences on prisoners.

He introduced whole-life tariffs, including for republican POWs in English jails. When the European Court found that the British state had unlawfully killed Mairéad Farrell, Seán Savage and Dan McCann in Gibraltar, Howard boasted in Parliament that the British Government would ignore the ruling (it didn't, of course). Most notoriously, he played straight into the hands of the mob when he increased the sentences of two ten-year olds who had been found guilty of murder from ten to 25 years. His ruling was subsequently overturned.

He introduced the disastrous privatisation of prisons and introduced mandatory sentences, leading to massive overcrowding of jails.

Under him, the use of Special Secure Units to house republican prisoners, including those on remand only, was condemned by Amnesty International as cruel and inhuman treatment imposed for purely political rather than security reasons.

Indeed, so extreme was Howard as Home Secretary that the chief inspector of prisons between 1987 and 1995, Stephen Tumim, was moved to say that: "Of the five home secretaries I worked with, I thought he was the most illiberal, which is very dangerous as far as the Home Secretary is concerned. If you made a suggestion to him he would say 'no votes in that'."

And he appears to be no more appealing in person. One political commentator observed that Howard "combines the smarm of Cecil Parkinson with the charm of Norman Tebbit". Polly Toynbee commented that whilst "most politicians have personal charm... Howard is no nicer to meet than he seems on television".

Derek Lewis the prison service director who Howard first humiliated and then sacked, described him thus: "The smile of Michael Howard has the substance of the Cheshire Cat, the menace of Uriah Heep and the sincerity of Bob Monkhouse."

Most memorably of all, Ann Widdecombe, no stranger herself to the worst excesses of the right and personally responsible as Howard's Junior Minister for the shackling of women prisoners whilst in labour, said that he possessed "something of the night" about him.

What is the poor British voter to do? Unlike the Six Counties, where there is a clear choice between the left and right, in Britain one can choose between the right or the even more right for government. One option might be, as Richard Gott in The Guardian advocated this week, to vote for the Abstention Party, which last time around "romped home to a spectacular victory". So, it's between Blair the wager of an illegal and immoral war, Howard the poisonous right-winger who supports that war, or nobody.

Not much of a choice, is it?

An Phoblacht
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