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March 16, 2009

A historian asks, is the Home Secretary a crook?

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black wonders if future historians will judge Jacqui Smith to be a crook.

A remark by the last head of MI6 is the occasion for this piece, although the cause is the genuine problem posed by how an historian should tackle the recent past.

The occasion, post-prandial discussion around a large table. Our guest, asked (not by me) his opinion of Tony Blair, remarks that he thought highly of him and is convinced that history will do the same. I cannot help muttering, but only so that my neighbours heard, that I hadn't made my mind up yet.

Facetious, of course, but also capturing the problem for the historian of making judgments, especially about the recent past. Possibly especially is the wrong word as every judgment poses problems whether of Caligula or Saddam Hussein. One key problem is ahistoricism or applying, inappropriately, the standards of another age. Yet, to use the standards of contemporaries will only take us so far. The issue of the Home Secretary's allowances is a case in point. Clearly she will not be labelled a crook at the end of the enquiry. At most, there will probably be a conclusion of inappropriate behaviour largely due to a lack of clarity in the guidelines.

However, to record the episode in that light is inadequate, first because such a conclusion does not capture the impression made on contemporaries and, secondly, because the episode poses serious questions for historians (and others) about the character of government, and quality of governance, in Britain, and indeed Europe, in the 2000s.

First issue, the impression made on contemporaries. The Home Secretary, her supporters, the government, and Parliament, may all be unaware or oblivious, but to much of the country, her conduct seems fundamentally crooked. Crooked because it is self-serving, crooked because it involves her family, crooked because the sum involved is large, crooked because she is responsible for an important section of public order, and crooked because she has not stood down.

Are these responses enough for an historian to call her a crook?

Well clearly there is a difference in usage between being crooked in one case, being crooked as a whole, and being a crook; and these distinctions will probably save her reputation as much as the semantics of the law. The last of course cease to have sway after her death, and I imagine that the shamelessness of character, that the expenses episode indicates, means that there will then be full discussion.

But will anyone care then? As another historian with whom I discussed the issue pointed out, "Who now cares whether Nixon was a crook?". So, leaving the matter to historians is receiving a pass, indeed a "get out of jail free" card.

Two additional points deserve attention. First, the problems of the Labour Úlite can be related to a more general crisis in European governance, with corrupt, self-referring and self-serving governments, most prominently that of the European Union, failing to do much more than maintain sclerotic systems. The political hazard can be seen with the rise of critical populist movements, many on the ideological fringes. Thus, a dangerous dichotomy is created, with each side employing the other to justify its own position and goals.

Britain had been happily largely free from this process, in part because the representative system does not reward minority parties and in part because the major parties have largely avoided moving to the extremes, although Labour did so in the 1980s. This achievement, however, is being compromised in a more general crisis of governance in which the governmental process risks being discredited.

Secondly, we are by no means yet in a situation where Britain displays the worse type of political and governmental practice seen for example in Romania, Bulgaria or Italy, but episodes such as the Home Secretary's allowances are not encouraging. They may also serve future historians to emphasise a lack of national exceptionalism that is far from encouraging.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (2007), A Short History of Britain (2007), The Holocaust (2008), The Curse of History (2008), What If?: Counterfactualism and the Problem of History (2008) and War Since 1990.

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