Ben’s Echo Column: 24 February 2011

February 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

I confess I’ve been gripped by the dramatic events sweeping the Arab world. People power toppling one dictator after another. It’s still not clear how or how well things will end. But I’m reminded of another year of revolutions – 1989 – when one by one the old Communist regimes of eastern Europe collapsed. I was lucky enough to be the BBC’s correspondent in Berlin at the time and recognise many parallels with what is happening now. Then as now, it was not at all clear whether regimes would go quietly or violently. Some tried to hang on by conceding minor reforms or changing some of the people at the top. But the people would settle for nothing less than full democracy and free and fair elections. It was thrilling then as now to watch people cowed for years by their Governments lose their fear and come onto the streets. Wonderful to see those elderly, corrupt and out of touch regimes disintegrate as soon as they lost the weapon of fear that had sustained them in power for so long. Of course there are many differences between Europe and the Arab world. Given their history, it will be much harder to embed democracy and economic progress successfully. But these revolutions have at least nailed the lie that Arabs or Muslims are somehow not capable of or interested in democracy. The values of freedom and human rights are universal. They also show that the British and western policy of propping up dictators for the sake of “stability” is wrong and ultimately self-defeating. That policy needs a rapid and radical rethink if the Arab peoples currently taking their destiny into their own hands are to forgive us.

David Cameron’s decision to spend the February half term flogging weapons to the Gulf was a serious misjudgement. He’d have been better staying at home knocking heads together over the shambolic   attempts to evacuate British citizens from Libya. It is always very difficult when a crisis like this blows up. But other countries appear to have managed much better than us. The Labour Government set up a special rapid response unit in the Foreign Office to deal with eventualities like this. People with logistical and consular expertise could be brought together from other jobs to manage such emergencies in lightning quick time. I wonder what’s happened to it. If it’s survived the cuts, it clearly wasn’t working in this case.

The mishandling of the Libya evacuation fits into a worrying pattern of Government incompetence. When he became Prime Minister, David Cameron made a virtue of his claim to be leaving behind the “control freakery” of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Cameron appeared almost to take pride in not knowing what was going on in Government departments and letting Ministers get on with it. He’s learning the hard way that you can’t run the country as some kind of part time non-executive Chairman. You have to take charge. The debacle over the sell-off of the forests was a prime example. Cameron clearly didn’t know what his Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman was up to. If he did, he didn’t grasp its implications or realise how unpopular it would be. The abolition of school sport and free school milk are other examples of the Government being forced to back down after trying to introduce a bad policy in haste without thinking it through. But trees, milk and sport are as nothing compared with what the Government is trying to do to the NHS. When the public and MPs wake up to the implications of that, there’ll be pandemonium. If the Government doesn’t abandon or radically change its plans it will have difficulty getting them through the House of Lords. If it persists and forces them through, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs will pay a very heavy price at the next election.

My last piece of advice to Mr Cameron is stop going on about the “Big Society”. Most people don’t have a clue what it means. Those that do are seeing the charities and voluntary organisations that form the bed rock of the “Big Society” going to the wall because the Government is cutting their funding. I am currently being contacted on a daily basis by wonderful charities and voluntary organisations in Exeter that are either being forced to reduce their work or stop it completely because of the cuts. Who is going to pick up the work they do with the elderly, the disabled, the abused and the young tearaways? “No-one” is the answer and we’ll all pay a higher price in the long run as a result.