Theresa May’s Record as Home Secretary is Alarming, Not Reassuring (Spectator Blog Jul 16, 2016)

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Despite David Cameron’s experience as a marketing man, his skills at reputation management were feeble compared to those of Theresa May. May was not a terrible Home Secretary but she was not a good one, still less an outstanding one.

Yes, she remained in office for six years. But longevity in office is hardly proof of success, even at the Home Office. Anyone who has worked in a large organisation has encountered long-serving, apparently unfireable incompetents, and one thing that the history of the Cameron administration surely proves is that being bad at your job rarely leads to losing that job.

Some kind of strange magic has prompted pundits and analysts to forget all the misfortunes and scandals of her tenure. Now seems a good time to remember them, and to consider the type of leadership style that they suggest.

To begin with there was the outcry over a relaxation of border checks on non-EU nationals that came about because of ‘unauthorised actions’ by a head of the Border Force who took a sensible pilot scheme too far. Later came the absurd vans carrying billboards telling illegal immigrants to leave. Then, the strange, secret advice deal with Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry that involved Mrs May travelling to that country whose criminal justice system is infamous for its barbarity and medieval cruelty. After that came the mistreatment of female asylum seekers by Home Office contractors at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre, a scandal that deepened when Mrs May banned the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women from visiting the centre.

There was also Mrs May’s decision to opt into the European Arrest Warrant, which allows immediate extradition without prima facie evidence to EU countries, some of which have corrupt, third-world style judicial systems. And in the case of the three radicalised British schoolgirls who flew to Turkey to join Isis, their recruiters were correct in predicting that they would be able to leave the country undetected. (Three years later, the Home Office has still failed to institute embarkation checks at British airports.) Together these illustrate the unhappy, almost South American combination of authoritarianism and lethargy that marked so much of the Home Office’s trajectory during Mrs May’s leadership

As well as the baffling, infamous mistreatment of Afghan interpreterswho had worked with British forces in Afghanistan (for which she characteristically escaped censure), Mrs May’s tenure at the Home Office saw a number of troubling decisions about who is and isn’t allowed to enter the UK on ideological and public safety grounds. Whatever one may think of the controversial American bloggers Pam Geller and Robert Spencer, neither have advocated violence, and both have spoken all around North America without incident. Their 2013 exclusion from the UK should concern anyone who takes freedom of speech seriously.

Then there was the cynical political correctness. Mrs May talked about coming down hard on hate crimes and lambasted the police about a lack of diversity. But she abjectly failed to identify the child rape rings of Rotherham, Rochdale, Sheffield, Bradford and Oxford as the racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes that they were.

When it came to police reform, May’s efforts were far less ambitious or impressive than anything achieved by Gove in the Department for Education or the Ministry of Justice. She certainly deserves credit for forcing through changes in pay, conditions and pensions and for potentially improving police leadership by allowing ‘direct entry’ to senior positions from civilian life. But many of the more disturbing tendencies in British policing have become worse under her leadership, most obviously the distortion of policing priorities by public relations concerns.

The nadir of this phenomenon was Operation Midland, one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of modern British policing. Millions of pounds were spent investigating allegations that various former ministers, intelligence chiefs and other top officials had been part of a paedophile ring that raped and murdered young boys. The fact that that both Detective Superintendent Kenny McDonald, the senior officer on this case and his boss, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, emerged from this sinister debacle with their jobs, was rather more illustrative of Mrs May’s real attitude to the policing establishment than her famous speech to the Police Federation in 2014.

May has also done little to reverse various policing trends that have alienated the public from the police, including the abandonment of neighbourhood policing, the substitution of decoy-like PCSOs and CCTV for beat patrols, and the massaging of crime statistics, At the same time Mrs May has given the nod to massive, transformative budget cuts that may genuinely make Britain’s police forces unfit for purpose. There is an argument that smaller overall numbers and decreased budgets don’t automatically translate to fewer frontline officers or less effective policing. But this assumes that forces are well-run and that resources aren’t so depleted that they cannot function. However, if many of your 43 separate forces are poorly managed and are culturally inclined to prioritise exciting, fashionable or easy aspects of policing – such as trawling social media for hate speech – over patrolling the streets, then smaller numbers will definitely make a difference for the worse.

Thanks to the cuts and also to Mrs May’s disdainful attacks on certain aspects of police culture, she leaves the Home Office with police morale at what may be an all time low (though nowhere near as bad as in the armed forces). It is telling that many police officers believe that her loud opposition to ‘stop and search’ and criticism of inadequate police diversity have been typical May opportunism that had more to do with image-management and personal ambition than any genuine concern for minorities or civil liberties.

And what of May’s record on migration? During the last election campaign David Cameron took brickbats for the fact that net migration into the UK had actually increased from 244,000 in 2010 to 330,000 in 2014 rather than being brought down to less than 100,000 as he had committed. Mrs May, the cabinet minister actually responsible for making the government’s commitment a reality, faced remarkably little criticism or even questioning about why this had failed.

The target was probably an impossible one given Britain’s chaotic border arrangements in 2010, and May certainly could not be blamed for the attractiveness of the UK and its work opportunities for young EU citizens from countries with ever-worsening youth unemployment. But you would be hard pressed to find evidence of serious and effective effort to repair or reform the parts of the Home Office entrusted with border security and migration.

As the then shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper pointed out, three years after May took over the ministry, the number of people refused entry had dropped by 50 per cent, the backlog of finding failed asylum seekers had gone up, the number of foreign prisoners removed had gone down, and the number of illegal immigrants deported had also gone down. Tens of thousands of international students kicked out of the country by the Home Office – in a panicked response to a TV documentary about a test cheating scam – then turned out to have been wrongly deported. Meanwhile, bogus colleges that falsify ‘student’ records so that foreigners can work illegally in the UK have continued to flourish because the Home Office has an inadequate number of staff assigned to checking them.

The Border Force, now a separate agency with spiffy new uniforms, is demoralised, overstretched and facing deeper, remarkably ill-timed austerity cuts. It has less than a handful of patrol boats to guard the coastline even as the migrant crisis deepens, and it is unable to keep any watch at all on the country’s many small airfields. Yet, remarkably, the Home Secretary never showed any inclination to stand up to the Chancellor on its behalf – even in the wake of the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks .

Despite her carefully fostered reputation for toughness, Mrs May’s record on extremism is perhaps the least impressive aspect of her checkered tenure at the Home Office. Any public official who seriously addresses radicalisation, ghettoisation and extremism risks being labeled an Islamophobe or worse. It takes a brave politician, one more committed to doing the right thing than to securing a glorious political future, to take on this hornets’ nest; Mrs May was not such a politician. This began to be clear during the Trojan Horse affair, when official reluctance to confront radicalisation in Birmingham schools prompted a concerned Education Secretary to venture onto the Home Secretary’s turf. (Her characteristic fury at this trespass was damaging to both departments at the time, and may well wreak havoc into the new government. Certainly her firing of Michael Gove’s as Justice Minister, despite the fact that his incomplete prison reforms have been universally lauded, looks like a destructive act of petty vengeance and personal spite.)

It became more apparent when Mrs May, having delivered some appropriate sound-bites, avoided potential career-inhibiting controversy by ensuring that the Home Office’s efforts to deal with tricky issues like female genital mutilation, honour killings and forced marriage remained as low key – and low impact – as possible. But it is even more obvious in the investigation Mrs May eventually set up into whether Britain’s Sharia courts, some legal, some not, might possibly discriminate against women in matters of divorce, domestic violence and child custody, as a result of a ‘misuse’ of Sharia teaching. (In the past the Home Secretary has implicitly claimed a surprising intimacy with Islamic law and political thought, asserting in 2014 that the actions of Isis ‘have absolutely no basis in anything written in the Koran.’)

Of course, Mrs May is hardly the first ambitious politician to have disregarded principle or even the public good in order to smooth her ride to the top. Her defenders would argue that a pragmatic lack of ideological ballast is one of the qualities she shares with David Cameron.

More disturbing are the tendencies that have caused her to be nicknamed Teflon Theresa or McCavity May. As well as the buck passing that ensured that blame for all of the Home Office’s failings fell onto junior ministers and civil servants, Mrs May and her staff put tremendous effort into ensuring that she rarely – if ever – faced a Paxman-style grilling. And so good were they at applying pressure on the media that remarkably few critical articles about her have ever been published. There’s even a peculiar tendency for those that have been published to be taken down or become unavailable.

Ronald Reagan once said there is no limit to what you can achieve if you don’t mind who gets the credit. Unfortunately it is also true that if you mind very much who gets credit and blame, then you are unlikely to achieve a great deal. As Home Secretary Theresa May was hobbled by her own ambition. Perhaps now she has the power and position she worked so hard to get, her main priority can at last be the country she serves.

Oscar and the Oppressors (Spectator Life 29 March 2014)

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 Hollywood loves a social conscience picture, but its own culture is more conservative than it looks

As host Ellen DeGeneres joked at the Academy Awards, there were two outcomes that night: ‘Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. And possibility two: you’re all racists.’ There is little question that 12 Years a Slave is a well-made, powerful and important film which deserves the plaudits it has won. But the sometimes disingenuous ways it was marketed raise questions about the different forms political correctness takes on both sides of the Atlantic.
Twelve Years A Slave

As someone who grew up in the film industry (my dad was Carl Foreman, screenwriter of films such as  High NoonThe Bridge on the River Kwai andThe Guns of Navarone), I’m a seasoned if often exasperated Oscar watcher. My first job was as a production assistant to Sidney Poitier, who this year presented Alfonso Cuaron with the award for Best Director, pointedly reminding viewers of the racial barrier that was smashed in 1963 when he won Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. Less comforting is the fact that only three African-American actors have won Best Actor since then (Denzel Washington for Training Day in 2002, Jamie Foxx for Ray in 2005 and Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland in 2007). Halle Berry remains the only African-American to have won Best Actress (Monster’s Ball, 2002). In winning Best Picture (though losing out on Best Director), 12 Years a Slave is the first film directed by a black man ever to have taken the Academy’s highest award in its 83-year history.

Academy voters care very much about the image of their community, and so like to reward conventionally liberal-minded movies which show the film world’s concern about social issues. Its 6,000-plus members (drawn from all the industry’s disciplines) may be politically liberal, but artistically they’re quite conservative. Certain subject matters invariably press their buttons. It was inevitable, for example, that the 1993 Aids film Philadelphia would win at least one major award (in the event it won two — Best Actor for Tom Hanks and Best Song for Bruce Springsteen). Similarly Paul Haggis’s Crash was one of those films that made Academy members feel noble for feeling bad about racism; it won three Oscars, including Best Picture.

An exhaustive 2012 study by the LA Times found that Oscar voters are 94 per cent Caucasian and 77 per cent male. Under-50s comprise only 14 per cent of the membership — arguably this limits the appeal of a film like The Social Network, which lost in 2011 to The King’s Speech. The median age is 62, which can perhaps explain the absence of votes for the brilliant but explicit The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as the total absence of nominations for Steve McQueen’s last film, Shame, a graphic depiction of the life of a sex addict (despite a concerted Oscars campaign by Fox Searchlight).

The publicity strategy for 12 Years a Slave made much of Hollywood’s supposed failures when it comes to race and slavery. Steve McQueen gave the impression in interviews that until he came along, Hollywood had ‘ignored’ or sugarcoated slavery. The slogan ‘It’s time …’ was used, implying not only ‘… to tell this story’ but also ‘… to rectify past Academy failures by making this movie Best Picture’. But is this fair? It’s true that Hollywood has made few films which centre on slavery (especially if you exclude films about the American Civil War like Glory and Lincoln) — but the subject hasn’t been suppressed. Richard Fleischer’s compelling Mandingo (1975) is at least as brutal as 12 Years a Slave in its depiction of slavery. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) makes no bones about the murderous brutality of the Middle Passage (the Africa-to-America leg of the triangular trade route). Even before the 1970s, slavery’s sinister afterglow was the context of any number of films: To Kill a MockingbirdThe Defiant OnesHome of the Brave. And also, of course, In the Heat of the Night, in which Sidney Poitier famously demands to be called ‘Mister Tibbs’.

The idea which floated around the early publicity of 12 Years a Slave — that Hollywood habitually depicts happy slaves on elegant plantations in the manner of Gone with the Wind — is rubbish. The fact is that feature films are primarily designed for entertainment; it is hard to make the spectacle of mass suffering bearable, let alone entertaining. McQueen also alleged that Hollywood preferred to make films about the Holocaust, but this too is questionable. Until relatively recently, the list of Holocaust films was quite short (Life Is Beautiful and The Reader have added to the number). In both good and bad ways, 12 Years a Slave is the Schindler’s List of its time and its subject. It makes the compromises necessary to represent a huge historical horror in a film which people will be willing to watch — such as basing the film on a character who is essentially untypical of that horror’s myriad victims.

Schindler’s List views the Holocaust from the point of view of a German witness turned rescuer, a category that in real life was extremely small and unrepresentative, but one with which audiences can identify more comfortably. Similarly, Solomon Northup is not a typical slave but one of a tiny number of kidnapped free blacks who were rescued from bondage before the Civil War. Both characters are outliers, with stories that end in triumph. This makes it possible for viewers to bear the unbearable.

12 Years a Slave has given a boost to a slavery reparations drive that is largely a scam pushed by greedy lawyers and activists, predicated on a dishonest or ignorantly selective approach to history. Only this month 14 Caribbean countries announced plans to sue Britain. Why aren’t campaigners demanding apologies and money from the descendants of the West African kings and generals who sold their defeated enemies to slave traders? Their calls ignore Britain’s unique and costly efforts to stamp out slavery. Rather than reparations for the past, if 12 Years a Slave can have an impact beyond the confines of the cinema, surely it should be in thinking about slavery today. In fairness to McQueen, he more than made up for his initial marketing strategies when at both the Baftas and the Oscars he made appeals on behalf of the 21 million people trapped in modern-day slavery in the Gulf, in Asia and even in Europe.

Perhaps the real lesson of the success of 12 Years a Slave, and of this year’s Oscars more generally, is that what people call ‘Hollywood’ is more than ever a joint British-Australian-American industry, and is all the better for it. It’s diversification of a sort, if not quite the kind that the film industry still yearns for…

Jonathan Foreman has worked as everything from a production assistant to a foreign correspondent, film critic for the New York Post and chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 March 2014

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