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The puzzles of politics

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Robin Lustig | 11:23 UK time, Friday, 27 February 2009

I really want to try to get this right.

As I understand it, there's a hugely important, privately-owned industry that's run into trouble and is in danger of complete collapse. The answer, apparently, is to pump in billions of pounds of tax-payers' money, in other words to take great chunks of it into public ownership. Because, apparently, only the government has enough money to make a real difference. So that's the banks taken care of.

And then, if I've got this right, there's also a hugely important, state-owned industry that's run into trouble and which is also in danger of complete collapse. This time, the answer, apparently, is to pump in billions of pounds of private sector money, in other words to take great chunks of it into private ownership. Because, apparently, only the private sector has enough money to make a real difference. And that's the Royal Mail taken care of.

So here's a thought: given how controversial all this is, why not use the government money that's going to the banks to bail out the Royal Mail - and then ask the private companies that are sniffing around the Royal Mail to turn their attention to the banks instead?

That way, everyone would be happy. Wouldn't they? (All right, I admit it, I'm not being entirely serious. But it is all a bit topsy-turvy, isn't it?)

And here's another thing that's got me scratching my head this week. We have a Freedom of Information Act (good thing too, say all us journalists, because information is our lifeblood). It set up an Information Commissioner, and Information Tribunals, as independent arbiters of what official information should be published and what shouldn't.

It also contains a provision (section 53, if you're interested) to enable a Minister to certify "that they have formed a reasonable opinion that, contrary to the view of the Information Commissioner, the balance of the public interest ... comes down in favour of withholding information." In other words, the Minister has a veto.

And this week, the Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jack Straw) used that veto to prevent publication of the minutes of Cabinet meetings in 2003 which discussed the legality or otherwise of going to war in Iraq.

Now, the minister responsible for the drafting of the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 was the then Home Secretary (Mr Jack Straw). And one of the ministers most closely involved in the discussions leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 was the then Foreign Secretary (Mr Jack Straw). I draw no conclusions, m'Lud, I merely draw these matters to your attention.

But here's yet another thing. I've come across a minute written by the Defence Secretary just before the Cabinet decided to go to war in the Middle East. Here's what he said (and yes, it has been published):

"Events are moving fast and I am anxious lest I should be carried along with the stream without taking an opportunity of expressing my misgivings ... it would be dangerous to assume that the military operation would be quickly over. It would certainly involve bombing and bombardment with loss of civilian lives which would attract criticism. Military opinion suggests that the operation is likely to be successful but not necessarily short. It is easy to see how we get in, but not so easy to see how we get out quickly."

Oh, sorry, didn't I mention? That was Sir Walter Monckton, who was defence secretary in 1956, as Britain, together with France and Israel, was preparing to invade Egypt over the Suez Canal. The minute was published 30 years later, in 1986.

So if you really want to know what Jack Straw and his colleagues were discussing in 2003, it looks as if you'll have to stick around till 2033.


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