Tuesday 13 May 2003

Don't cry for Clare

As Tony Blair's licensed rebel, Short appeased the powerful and brushed the poor aside

by George Monbiot

George Monbiot Some of the Guardian's readers will, for all her faults, have shed a few tears at the departure of our development secretary.

Clare Short may have failed, in March, to act upon her threat to resign over the war with Iraq. But even those who have turned against her will miss that splash of colour on the front benches, the old Labour warrior who still spoke the language of feeling, and who, as if by magic, had somehow survived the control freaks and the little grey men for six vivid and tumultuous years. Westminster will be a bleaker and a colder place without her.

Well, dry your eyes. Clare Short survived because she was useful. She was as much a creature of the control freaks as any of the weaker members of the frontbench. To understand her role in government is to begin to understand the nature of our post-oppositional, postmodern political system.

Short was a licensed rebel. She was permitted, to a greater degree than any other minister, to speak her mind about the business of other departments. She was able to do so because she presented no threat to them or to Blair's core political programme. Within her own department, where her decisions made a real impact on people's lives, she was more Blairite than Blair. She would emote with the wretched of the earth for the cameras, then crush them quietly with a departmental memo.

She was useful to the government because she behaved like someone guided by impulse rather than calculation. As a result, she permitted it to suggest that it remained a broad church, and the prime minister a broad-shouldered man. Her outbursts allowed the control freaks to pretend that they were not control freaks.

We have, in other words, been sold Short. Blair told us she had integrity, and, correctly interpreting her role, she acted as if she did. But she knew precisely where the limits lay, and when that "integrity" needed to be jettisoned. Her authenticity was prescribed. As a result she was, in some respects, a more dangerous figure than visibly ruthless ministers such as Alan Milburn or John Reid.

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