The European constitution.
The issue of adoption of a European constitution was another important and divisive issue.
In October 2004 the 27 EU members met in Rome to sign the 'Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe' (TCE). The Treaty was scheduled to come into force in November 2006, provided that it was ratified by each member state. Blair's government promised that before it was ratified the question of whether it should be accepted would be put to the UK population in a referendum.
However in 2005 in separate referendums in France and Denmark the electors rejected the Treaty so the British government declared that ratification was now a dead issue and so a referendum was no longer necessary. Eurosceptics claimed that the government went back on its promise because they knew the TCE would be rejected.
The EU adjusted its approach and in June 2007 they produced a replacement for the TCE. The new document was technically a 'reform treaty' which meant that although in every major aspect it was the same as the TCE, it was not technically a constitution.
The Good Friday Agreement April 1998.
It was on the basis of the Mitchell principles that Blair, through his Northern Ireland team of ministers, gain Sinn Fein's agreement to persuade the IRA to accept decommissioning.
A Sinn Fein delegation, including the party leader Gerry Adams, was invited to a meeting at 10 Downing Street.
This meeting alone already showed how much progress had been made and paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, the biggest constitutional advance since 1969.
The Agreement was passed mainly due to the persistence of Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern. They refused to accept that the cycle of violence was unbreakable and used charm and determination to bring the parties to the table.
The Agreement was accepted by the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Only Ian Paisley's DP rejected it.
The Good Friday Agreement April 1998 cont.
The terms of the Agreement were:
- Northern Ireland's union with Britain was guaranteed for as long as the majority of the people of the province wanted it.
- The Irish Republic withdrew its territorial claim to Northern Ireland.
- A Northern Ireland Assembly with a new power-sharing executive government was created.
- As an act of goodwill, all terrorist prisoners would be released within two years.
The term of the Agreement were then put to the electorate in an all-Ireland referendum on the future of Northern Ireland. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, urged their respective supporters to vote for it.
The result was a 95% yes vote in the Irish Republic and a 71% yes vote in Northern Ireland.
In return for their chance to share in government, the nationalists and republicans had given up their demand for a united Ireland.The official Unionists had agreed to end their power to control Northern Irish politics and public affairs.
The Good Friday Agreement April 1998 cont.
However the troubles did not immediately end. Republican and loyalist extremists rejected the Agreement and violence continued, the worst instance being a car bomb explosion in Omagh in August 1998 which killed 28 people and injured 200.
It was evident that the perpetrators of such outrages were becoming isolated. Gerry Adams made a statement condemning the atrocity in which he said that 'violence must be a thing of the past, over, done with and gone'.
Recognition of the progress being made came with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to David Trimble and John Hume, the SDLP leader, in October 1998.
The troubles continued but there was a growing sense among all but a few on the extremes that a political solution was the only answer.
The sense of futility of violence was quickened by the events of 9/11 in the USA in 2001 and 7/7 in London in 2005. Many Irish-Americans who had previously given moral and financial support to the IRA now had a homeland example of what terrorism really was.
The Good Friday Agreement April 1998 cont.
The main obstacle to peace remained the issue of decommissioning. On 28th July 2005, in response to a number of appeals made by Sinn Fein, the IRA announced that they would remain as a force pledged to defend nationalist Ulster but that it would give up its weapons and pledged itself to the use of 'exclusively peaceful means'.
The question was now whether the loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) would do the same. The UVF's claim had always been that they could not trust the IRA's declarations of intent and therefore could not themselves disarm.
The ultra-Unionists were undergoing a form of conversion. Ian Paisley, though never an advocate of violence, had always proved a major obstacle to constitutional advance. His DUP rejected the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement. As long as he held out, loyalist paramilitaries were unlikely to budge.
The Unionists were also undergoing a form of conversion. Demography was the key. Protestant Unionists were fast becoming a minority in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement April 1998 cont.
The Ulster Unionists had to adapt to these irreversible demographic changes otherwise they would become an embattled enclave. They had little sympathisers outside so could expect little help from outside.
It was such thinking that led Paisley and the DUP to feel that it was far better to accommodate themselves to the situation, while they still had the chance to be part of a power-sharing government than to continue with resistance that might ultimately destroy their power altogether.
The result was that in May 2006 the UVF 'renounced' violence and pledged to give up its weapons.
This opened the way for the St Andrews Agreement between the British and Irish governments.
St Andrews Agreement, October 2006.
The terms of the St. Andrews Agreement included:
- The Northern Ireland Assembly was to be restored.
- The DUP agreed to share power with republicans and nationalists in the Northern Ireland Executive.
- Sinn Fein accepted the authority of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) which had replaced the RUC.
Northern Ireland Executive 2007.
Elections were held in March 2007 under the terms of the Agreement.
DUP won 36 seats.
Sinn Fein won 28 seats.
The Official Unionists won 18 seats.
SDLP won 16 seats.
In May 2007 the new executive came into being with Ian Paisley, leader of the largest party, appointed First Minister, and Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Sinn Fein, the second largest party was appointed the Deputy First Minister.
In July 2007 the British army announced the end of its mission in Northern Ireland which it had been operating since 1969. This was an extraordinary climax to nearly 40 years of bitterness which had cost thousands of lives.
Most extraordinary was the amicable relations that developed in government between Paisley and McGuinness.
On 11th September 2001 the USA was subjected to the deadliest act of terror it had ever experienced in its own homeland.
Islamic terrorists hijacked four commercial aircraft, Two of the planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, causing both to collapse. The third plane was piloted into the Pentagon building in Washington DC, while the fourth crashed near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania as the passengers fought with the hijackers.
The death toll was nearly 3000. The reaction of the United States was to begin what became known as the 'war on terror'. Blair immediately committed himself to that war. He announced that Britain 'stood shoulder to shoulder with our American friends' in the struggle 'between the free and democratic world and terrorism'.
The attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath turned him into Bush's closest and most dependable ally, a relationship that was to shape the remainder of Blair's premiership. A month after the attack Blair sent British troops into Afghanistan to support US troops.
The Blair doctrine.
The attacks of 9/11 intensified Blair's sense of mission but it did not create it. He gave a speech in Chicago in 1999 and expressed what became known as the Blair doctrine.
He believed the best way to defeat tyranny in the world was not simply by using diplomacy to persuade oppressive regimes to behave better. Diplomacy should be tried first but if this did not work, it was legitimate to use force to oblige aggressor states to conform to internationally agreed standards of conduct.
Blair also believed that international action of the type he proposed should be carried out by those powers which were best fitted by experience and military capability for the task. In the nature of things this essentially meant the USA and the UK.
This gave the two major allies a special role and responsibility to fulfill in international affairs. Whenever possible they tried to act with the sanction of the UN, since the UN was the ultimate international authority, but the reality was that there were times when the UN was simply too slow or too inhibited by procedure to act as an international peacekeeper.
Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, 2002.
In September 2002 when addressing a specially convened House of Commons, Blair set out to explain why it was essential that Saddam Hussein, still the leader of Iraq despite being defeated in the Gulf war 11 years earlier, be brought down.
Blair quoted from a dossier passed to him by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) which claimed to have evidence that 'Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme is active, detailed and growing'.
It was this that would provide the justification for invading Iraq. However at this stage Blair denied than an invasion was inevitable. He said it was the aim of the USA and Britain to work through the UN to bring about regime change in Iraq.
Blair was anxious not to lose support at home and was initially insistent that Bush should take no action until the UN had formally resolved to back the Western allies.
There had always been a first resolution, No. 1441, passed in November 2002, requiring Saddam Hussein to prove to UN inspectors that he had abandoned all his WMD as he was required to do by the peace settlement that followed the Gulf War in 1991.
Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, 2002 cont.
Resolution 1441 however did not authorise the armed invasion of Iraq. To achieve this there would have to be a second UN resolution.
The impassibility of gaining this rapidly disappeared when Russia and China made it clear that they would block any attempt to push this through the Security Council. Bush felt that the opposition of those two countries arose from power politics rather than a principled objection, so he went ahead with the invasion plan.
At a third key meeting between Bush and Blair, Bush offered the Prime Minister the chance to withdraw, because he knew he was having difficulty convincing his Cabinet and party. But Blair declined to back out, describing the fight against tyranny as 'the most fundamental issue of our time'.
He tried to gain support from Europe but failed. Most significantly France and Germany found the grounds for military intervention unconvincing. If Britain and the USA went ahead, they would be acting alone.
Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, 2003.
On 20th March 2003 American and British forces began the invasion of Iraq without formal UN sanction and in Britain's case, in the face of fierce opposition at home.
Mass peace demonstrations were held in London and other cities and Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, resigned from the Cabinet in protest at the invasion, declaring in his Commons' resignation speech that the war had 'neither international agreement nor domestic support'.
The charge was made at the time, and has often been repeated, that Blair was Bush's 'poodle' that he allowed himself to be dragged into the war. But this argument overlooks Blair's sense of conviction and mission that inspired him. George Galloway, the rebel Labour MP, believed that the Prime Minister was the initiator rather than the follower in his relations with the president. The special relationship that bound them was one of equals.
The military operation in Iraq proved highly and rapidly successful. By the middle of April 2003 Saddam's forces were broken and the allies declared that 'major combat' was over.
Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, 2003 cont.
It was then that the problems really started. In the rush to war, insufficient time had been devoted to planning what would follow victory. The toppling of Saddam may have removed a vicious oppressor his people but it did not lead to peace.
It could be said that civil war followed, with rival Muslim and regional factions fighting against each other. The final capture of the fugitive Saddam Hussein in December 2003 brought rejoicing among Iraqis who had been victims of his brutal regime but it did nothing to end the internal strife.
The victorious Allied forces that had been intended to liberate Iraq were obliged perforce to becomes its occupiers.
On 31st January 2006, the 100th British serviceman to be killed there was Corporal Gordon Prichard who a month earlier had been photographed smiling with Blair during of of his visits to the troops.
Eighteen months later when Blair stood down as Prime Minister, US and British forces were still in Iraq with no prospect of their leaving soon.
The WMD issue.
The political problems that the war created for Blair were intensified by the failure to discover any evidence of WMD in Iraq.
The suicide in July 2003 of Dr David Kelly, a WMD expert working for the Ministry of Defence, deepened the gloom and stimulated the furore relating to the Iraq affair. Two months before his death Kelly had confided to a BBC journalist his concerns that the government had exaggerated the findings in the JIC dossier on which Blair had based his reasons for going to war. The journalist, Andrew Gilligan, went public on the radio and in the press and accused the government of having 'sexed up' the report largely at the promptings of Alistair Campbell. It was after being revealed as Gilligan's source that Dr Kelly committed suicide.
The government immediately set up an inquiry which examined the circumstances of Dr Kelly's death. Among the 70 witnesses were the Prime Minister himself and Alistair Campbell. When the inquiry published its finding in January 2004, it cleared the government of any direct involvement in Kelly's suicide. But what the Hutton report did not do was lift the thickening cloud of doubt about the legality and morality of the war.
The London bombings, July 2005.
On 7th July 2005 the reality of the war on terror was brought to Britain in a particularly fearful way, when four coordinated bomb explosions in London killed 56 people and injured another 700. The dead included the suicide bombers, all of them young British Islamists.
Two weeks later, a similar bomb plot was foiled at the last minute when police arrested the intended assassins, who were again all Islamists. Responsible Muslim leaders were quick to condemn the assassins and plotters and to distance their faith from the perversion of it that the killers represented.
Some critics saw the bombings as a direct consequence of the Iraq War and the foreign policies of Bush and Blair.
It was argued that the removal of Saddam Hussein was not enough to justify the war. Britain and the USA had invaded Iraq for wholly inadequate reasons and that rather than being a war on terror, the allied actions in Iraq had encouraged the spread of terror. This led to the West losing moral high ground.
The London bombings, July 2005 cont.
It was also argued that by declaring war on terror and selecting particular targets to attack, the two leaders had in fact created or encouraged the forces of terrorism they were trying to defeat.
It was also argued that the Anglo-American hostility to Islam which the war revealed led to retaliation by Muslim extremists who became jihadists in order to defend their faith against the West.
The counter-response to such arguments by those sympathetic to the Bush-Blair alliance was to point to the fact that jihadist terrorism pre-dated the Iraq war, the Anglo-American military campaigns fought since the 1990s had been undertaken largely to protect Muslim people and interests, far greater number of Muslim deaths were caused by other Muslims and that even though Iraq had not developed WMD, its leader had had the money and the will to produce such weapons. If he hadn't been brought down by the Anglo-American invasion in 2003, the world at some point might well have had to deal with a nuclear-armed Iraq.
A dominant social feature of Britain is the size and age distribution of its population. The total of 60.5 million marked a growth in population of around 5 million since 1971 and towards two million since 2001.
More significant than the simple aggregate increase was the rise in the average age of the population, going up from 34 in 1971 to 39 in 2006. This pointed to the trend that Britain had a rapidly ageing population.
The number of people under 16 was shrinking in proportion to those over 65. By 2006 10 million people, one-sixth of the population were over 65, while over 1 million were over 85. This was a result of increase in life expectancy over the previous century.
Social impact of the population shift.
One result of these population chances was that there were twice as many 'senior citizens' in 2006 as there had been 50 years earlier. This tendency has been referred to as the 'demographic time-bomb'.
Welfare services funded by revenue raised in taxation from those in work. As the older, retired section of the population grows in number it makes increasing demands on those services, which it no longer contributes as much money for in taxes.
The amount people paid in taxes and National Insurance while they were working seemed high at the time, but because of inflation and the ever-rising cost of medical technology, their original payments are inadequate to pay for their welfare needs after retirement.
To sustain welfare services at the expected level, the working population which is in relative decline in numbers will have to pay an ever-increasing burden in taxation.
Social impact of the population shift cont.
As the ageing part of the population grows disproportionately larger, its sheer number renders it a powerful voting bloc, which no political party can afford to ignore or upset. The result may be that the legitimate voice of the working revenue payers may be drowned out by that of the non-contributing retired members of society.
There have even been suggestions, though perhaps not seriously, that to correct the democratic imbalance, the franchise should be withdrawn from those aged over 65.
The more sober reflection is that the growth and shift in the population means that the state has the impossible task of meeting ever-growing demands from ever-diminishing resources.
The increase in population was not only a result of greater longevity, immigration was also a contributory factor. Immigration had been a factor in population growth throughout the twentieth century.
Significant numbers from the West Indies and India had arrived in the 1960s and 1960s, in response to the government's appeal for workers in the public services. Another important factors was the ethnic Asians who came to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s after being driven from where they had settled in such African countries as Kenya and Uganda.
The census of 2001 showed that Indians were the largest single ethnic group in Britain with 984,000 people, people of Caribbean or African descent numbered 969,000 people and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis numbered 932,000 people. Ethnic minority groups represented just over 7% much less than one in 10 of Britain's population.
The 2001 census was the first time that religious affiliation had been measured. There were 1.6 million Muslims in Britain, making them the largest British non-Christian faith group.
An interesting development in the pattern of immigration came after a number of countries of Eastern Europe joined the EU in 2004. Their workers now had the right to come to Britain. Official government figures recorded that in 2006 approximately half a million Poles had registered for work in Britain. Polish sources suggested that the actual number who had gone to Britain was over twice that figure.
The discrepancy in this figure embarrassed that government as it showed that they had only partial or inexact figures on a range of immigration issues and uncertainties such as these led skeptics to suggest that the government did not have an immigration policy at all.
One of the government responses to this accusation was to point to the number of immigrants who entered illegally and who in the nature of things could not easily be counted or monitored. It was this that made the collection of exact figures extremely problematic.
It was argued that immigrants played a vital role in the economy by taking unpleasant, but essential, low-paying jobs that others would not consider.
By working and paying taxes the immigrants contributed to the nation's revenue and gave an object lesson in hard work and responsibility.
A counterclaim was that whilst the point about filling positions might be true, it could only be a stop-gap measure since once immigrants became settled they would begin to demand the better wages and conditions enjoyed by host workers. As to taxation, since immigrants did low-paid jobs the revenue they contributed was smaller than the added costs of providing them and their families with health welfare and educational services.
The big social question that Britain faced in the early 21st century was no longer about race. The argument for racial equality had been one. The issue that remained to be resolved was cultural one.
Riots in Bradford, Manchester and OIdham in 2001 in which black, white and Asian groups clashed were a disturbing sign that integration had not taken place in the more deprived urban areas. Significantly Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of the Equality and Human Right Commission (EHRC) acknowledged that the multicultural policies which successive governments had followed had largely failed and that integration was not taking place in the way that had been hoped.
In 2005 Phillips expressed fears that multiculturalism could cause Britain to 'sleepwalk towards segregation' and argued that a key way of preventing that was not to allow it in British education in the form of exclusive faith schools. He had in mind the madrassas, exclusively Muslim schools where children were trained in an Islamic way of life.
The supporters of the madrassas responded by pointing out that Catholic and Jewish faith schools had long been established in Britain and that the teaching of Islamic values was wholly compatible with preparing young Muslims to become responsible British citizens.
Phillips' comments aroused anger on the left. Ken Livingstone, the Labour Mayor of London, attacked him for giving currency to racist ideas by 'pandering to the right'. Phillips replied by saying it was essential 'to ask hard questions about multicultural Britain',
Interestingly Phillips was supported in principle by two prominent Christian clerics, Michael Nazir-Ali, a Pakistani-born Bishop of Rochester, and John Sentamu, the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York, both of whom expressed strong doubts about multiculturalism, arguing that in practice it created social division, not social harmony.
Religious Hatred Act of 2006.
The fact the so many people were concerned over the effect of multiculturalism indicates that during the Blair government it had become one of the most demanding and contentious of issues.
The government's awareness of this and its desire to give the right example led to the introduction of a religious hatred bill, intended to protect people from being abused and attacked for their religious beliefs.
It was undoubtedly intended to give assurance and comfort to British Muslims who felt they were under suspicion and attack in the current atmosphere created by religious terrorists.
The bill met stiff criticism from both believers and non-believers who suggested that religious hatred was too imprecise an attitude to give definition to it and that existing laws against incitement already gave enough protection.
Therefore there was no justification for giving a privileged place in law to religious belief. In the end the bill went through in a very watered-down version, adding little to existing laws on incitement.
Decline in standards of public behaviour.
Between 1997 and 2007 crime and social disorder grew and the streets became less safe. In Blair's final year in office there were 2,731,000 cases of criminal damage in England and Wales, 2,420,000 cases of violent offences against the person including gun and knife crime and 733,000 cases of burglary.
Some commentators stressed that these were only the official figures and that if crimes that were committed but not reported or didn't proceed the numbers could be even higher.
Every major city had its sink estates with high crimes rates, widespread drug abuse and dysfunctional families. In 2007, 27 young people were stabbed to death in various cities. Britain appeared to be a truly lawless society.
There was also a sense in that there was too much law. During the Blair decade over 3000 new restrictive laws were introduced curtailing the freedoms of the individual. Some observers explained this as 'displacement theory', the process by which the inability to act successfully in one area if compensated for by overzealous action in another.
Decline in standards of public behaviour cont.
The government was unable to control the flourishing vandalism and violent crime that turned many parts of Britain's inner cities into no-go areas and made life a constant misery for the ordinary people living in them, the authorities instead got tough with easy targets.
This was evident in relation to motoring offences. In the year 2006-2007 the use of speed cameras raised £120 million in fines. This did little to advance road safety, with figures showing that speed was a contributory factor in only 10% of fatal road accidents.
However it angered motorists who felt they were victims of a racket run by the authorities to raise money, despite the fact that they were guilty of a technical offence.
Reasons for social breakdown.
Some blamed it on the progressive thinking that infected the educational and legal systems in which the experts appeared to be on the side of the disruptive pupil and the destructive young criminal.
Some blamed it on poverty, claiming that there were still significant areas where people felt deprived and saw their only outlet in law-breaking.
Others saw lawlessness as a consequence of affluence, in a get-rich-quick, celebrity consciousness age with its demand for instant gratification, enough was never enough.
Others put it down to the decline in religion, arguing that, whatever the rights or wrongs of religious belief, it had provided a sense of personal responsibility. Its erosion had led to unchecked selfishness and the disregard of traditional social values based on the distinction between right and wrong.
Blair made education his priority in 1997 but failed in that task. It was true that there were more teachers in schools by 2007 and exam results had improved each year but there was still an underlying feeling that the system had let its pupils and the nation down.
There were repeated suggestions that the comprehensive system had failed in its social objective of providing equal education for all because the quality of a school was largely determined by the quality of the area in which it was located.
The poorest schools educationally were generally found in the most socially deprived areas. And it was not simply a matter of money. Some of the worst under-achieving schools in Britain were found in the London boroughs whose per capita expenditure on school pupils was among the highest in the land.
One of the arguments was that the widespread adoption of comprehensive education had coincided with the swinging sixties when progressive educational ideas were taken up. In the training colleges and university education departments, trainee teachers were encouraged to regard deference and discipline as oppressive.
Progressive educational theory had it that children should be encouraged in free expression. By the turn of the century, therefore, swathes of pupils in the worst areas had become ungovernable and unteachable.
The Blair government was worried about drug misuse and binge drinking among the young, violent behaviour on the streets and a general disregard of traditional manners and civilities and so introduced various initiatives in an attempt to return to the tried and tested ways of doing things.
The government did not always help its own cause of ending privilege in education. Among the leading figures in the Labour Party, Diane Abbot, Harriet Harman and Blair himself sent their children to private schools and other Labour MPs used their high incomes to move house so as to send their children to better schools.
The complaint was not that it was wrong for them to do so, but that it was improper for them to follow educational policies that denied the same right to others.
The cash for honours scandal was a series of accusations that the government was engaged in giving out honours and peerages to wealthy donors in return for cash donations to the Labour Party. A long police inquiry eventually concluded in 2007 that there was insufficient evidence to warrant prosecutions.
The scandal seemed to implicate the Prime Minister himself, and matched the sleaze of the Major governments which the Labour opposition had been quick to condemn the Conservatives over.
It was not so much a matter of behaving illegally. MPs generally seemed willing to take advantage of their access to privilege. In 2006 there was a sense of public dismay at Parliament's voting itself copper-bottomed pensions at a time when ordinary pensioners were seeing a sharp decline in the value of their contributions.
Official figures revealed that in 2007 £337,000 of public money had been claimed by MPs in travelling expenses.