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Home > Politics

Blair and the Liaison Committee: Everything You Feared Was True Is True

25 November 2005

'I'd like to nail him to a tree - through the head - and watch lice slowly crawl over his body eating off the flesh in a slow and painful death.'

- character from the BBC sitcom 'The Thick of It' discussing the Prime Minister's 'blue sky' advisor.


John Birt, former BBC boss and now Lord Birt, is an obvious target for political satire. He was derided for his jargon-based management style at the BBC, while his appointment to Downing Street smacked of cronyism.

Unfortunately, 'The Thick of It' increasingly resembles a documentary, not a sitcom. The Guardian has reported that Birt's 'blue sky' thinking 'has made him one of the most unpopular people in Whitehall'. And this week Tony Blair was forced to defend his decision not to allow Lord Birt to appear in front of the House of Commons' Liaison Committee.

The committee took particular issue with the fact that Lord Birt, an unelected advisor, had been giving advice on at least four major areas of ministerial responsibility. Obviously, the much-derided Birt is a handy stick to beat the PM with, but even the briefest of perusals of his role raises questions about what the point of Birt is.

Some of Birt's advice is so obvious it barely merits repeating. In a report on in 2001 Birt suggested: 'The British travel much the same as other Europeans, yet our road and rail network is the least developed of any major country - the result of decades of below-average investment.'

He might have done well to add 'and bodged privatisation schemes', but Birt's broad point is something you can hear from anyone who's ever had a brief trip to Germany or any of our other European neighbours with a well-funded transport system. The only difference is that Birt gets paid a small fortune to come up with these 'insights', while anyone else will tell you for free. Birt's role becomes more dubious when he's heartily endorsing government policy. His report on education in 2001 concluded that 'our educational performance has improved significantly over recent years ... this strong performance is a powerful endorsement for the current education strategy.'

Considering the number of problems in education, this is an odd conclusion. Indeed, cynics might even suggest that Tony Blair was being told what he wanted to hear. But us, No! And when the pretty unicorns arrive with a feast of roast flying pig and tell us why cynicism is wrong, we'll eat our words.

The role of Birt was only one of many topics discussed by the Liaison Committee. The depressing thing about the whole proceedings was that they perfectly typified what is wrong with New Labour in general and Tony Blair in particular.

The topic that made the most headlines was nuclear power. Whatever your views on nuclear power, Tony Blair's behaviour was strangely familiar. He used the tactic of threatening 'controversial and difficult' decisions, and went on to claim that the public was more in favour of the nuclear option 'because the facts have changed'.

Nuclear power is an interesting and complex issue. To even begin to discuss it rationally, we have to unpick nuclear power from the mythology surrounding it, e.g. the idea that nuclear power stations can go critical and cause a nuclear blast (they don't) and cause cancer (the theory of leukaemia clusters around Sellafield have been largely discredited). There's also the question of whether nuclear generation technology has advanced so vastly over the last 20 years, making it as financially viable as its supporters claim, and whether the cost savings offered by nukes are cancelled out by the high initial investment cost of new nukes. Whether nuclear power is a solution to global warming is an even more complicated issue.

The problem is that Tony appears to have made up his mind already. When he talks about 'controversial and difficult' decisions, he means, 'I've made up my mind. Nukes it is!' As the committee proceedings progressed, so did Tony's self-belief. He agreed that the effective terrorist amnesty for murdering Provo and Loyalist scuzz would cause 'anger and anguish' (can't argue with that) but it was 'necessary' (necessary if we want grievances to persist for another 30 years, maybe). He said it was 'rubbish' for one of the 7 July London bombers to suggest that his grievance against the UK was that it was oppressing Muslims. Nah, we only help the people who oppress Muslims. It's so unfair!

Most ominously, Blair said that if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapons capability it would be a 'very serious threat to world stability'.

Here we go again.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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