The United Kingdom in the 1990s.

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THE U K in the 1990s.

Britain entered the 1990s with Margaret Thatcher standing down as Prime Minister.

Douglas Hurd was Home Secretary. Hurd was the son and grandson of Tory MPs. He was born in 1930 and had been a King’s Scholar at Eton. He had gone to Cambridge where he had been President of the Union. Hurd joined the diplomatic service. In the 1970s he had worked for Conservative Central Office before being elected to Parliament. Hurd was notable for his moderation. He identified as a One Nation Tory. Alan Clark described Hurd as being ”drily cynical”. Hurd was a passionate europhile but apart from that seemed to have no bedrock beliefs. He had been willing to take on thankless tasks. He served as Northern Ireland Secretary when the conflict seemed intractable. Some panned Hurd as too patrician. He stressed that he had only been to Eton on a scholarship and his father had been a tenant farmer – he had not owned the farm. Hurd commanded little affection among the grassroots.

Heseltine came from Wales where his father was a factory manager. He grew up in a well to do middle class family but was conscious of the poverty around him. He went to Shrewsbury School and then Oxford University. He was not academic and threw himself into politics instead of studying much. He became President of the Union.  He ran a hotel and launched his own publishing company. After making a million he entered politics. He was on the moderate wing of the party. Like many of his generation he was also a convinced believer in European integration.  He had been Defence Secretary. Some in the party loathed him for his self-regard. Clark wrote ”Heseltine had a VERY high opinion of himself.” Some upper class Conservative MPs looked down on Heseltine. ”He had to buy all his own furniture” was one waspish comment recorded in Alan Clark’s Diaries. Clark did not say this himself but he recorded someone else saying it. Clark was the grandson of a Glasgow thread merchant made good.  Heseltine was seen as a traitor by many because he had moved against Thatcher. Some Wets believed that Heseltine was the man to bring the party back to moderation. But Heseltine was unprincipled. If he considered Thatcher to be too right wing he should not have served in her Cabinet. Heseletine promised a full rethink on the community charge which was plainly a catastrophe. He was canny enough not to specify what his alternative was. That would paint him into a corner.

John Major was the last contender for the top spot. Major was born in Brixton, a working class area of London. His social origin was a big advantage to him. He did not have a public school background to live doen. This is perhaps why he was the most right wing of the trio. His father had been in a circus and had then run a garden gnome business. Major had left school at 16 and only had one O level. He famously failed the exam to be a bus conductor because he could not do the sums. He became a bank clerk and briefly worked in Nigeria. He was a local councillor on the 1970s. He was against the Enoch Powell wing of the party. Major was elected to Parliament in 1979 and quickly rose to the Cabinet. He was thought to have a chip on his shoulder about his working class background and lack of education. He had been Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was not thought to be as europhile as his rivals.

Major did best on the first ballot with Heseltine coming second. Rather than force a final ballot Heseltine and Hurd both withdrew. Major won. Thatcher resigned and the Queen appointed Major as Prime Minister. It was November 1990.

Major enjoyed a sudden surge in popularity. People were glad to be rid of Thatcher.

Major set about coming up with an alternative to the community charge. He also had to plan for military action in the Gulf of Arabia. Soldiers form many countries were massing there.

Labour was deeply anxious. Major was popular – in fact the most popular Prime Minister since opinion polls began. The community charge would soon be gone. It looked like there would be a victorious war. The Tories could win again. Major was a man of the people – having himself filmed eating at Little Chef.

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THE GULF WAR.

UN sanctions on Iraq were supposed to oblige Iraq to pull out of Kuwait. The Kuwaiti civilian population was being terrorised. Some Palestinians in Kuwait were persuaded to join the Iraqi Army.

The UN passed a resolution authorising the use of force to expel the Iraqi Army from Kuwait if Iraq did not withdraw by 15 January 1991. It was thought that the Soviet Union might veto this UN security council resolution but in the end the USSR supported it. The British Labour Party supported military action but a minor faction within the party opposed it. This included Corbyn, Benn, Diane Abbott, George Galloway and the far left.

The USSR had been Iraq’s main armourer in the 1980s. The Soviet Foreign Minister flew to Baghdad to try to talk some sense into Saddam Hussein. Hussein refused to be shifted. He would not avert calamity by ordering his troops out of Kuwait.

France dispatched troops to Saudi Arabia ready to participate in the liberation of Kuwait. But President Mitterand of France said France might not take part in military action. France would only fight if all possible alternatives to war were exhausted.

Germany which had just been reunited. Chancellor Helmut Kohl did not sent soldiers to Saudi Arabia. Because of the Second World War Kohl believed that Germany should never fight again. However, the Federal Republic of Germany paid a lot of money to coalition countries to defray the cost of fighting.

President George H W Bush said that 15 January was a political and not a military deadline. He implied that fighting would not commence on that date. The US Commander in the Gulf was Norman H Schwarzkopf. Arab countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Syria sent troops to fight against Iraq.

On 15 January the coalition began bombing Iraqi military positions in Kuwait and also bombing Iraq. At the last minute Mitterrand announced that France would also fight.

The air attacks continued for days. Iraq had some scud missiles. Saddam had said that the Palestinian issue should be resolved before he discussed Kuwait which he claimed was the 19th historic province of Iraq. Most Muslims sympathised with his support for Palestinian freedom. Scud missiles were fired at Israel. Israel feared these could contain chemical weapons.

The Israeli Prime Minister was a former terrorist named Yitzhak Shamir. Shamir wanted to bomb Iraq. This would be just what Saddam wanted. Saddam tried to portray this conflict as the Muslim world against Zionists. The US very strongly pressured Israel not to do so. If Israeli attacked Iraq then some Arab countries would leave the coalition rather than be associated with Zionism.

The SAS went into Iraq to try to find the scud missile launchers. They could then be targeted for destruction. This SAS mission was called Bravo Two Zero and was a fiasco.

After a fortnight of air attacks the ground war began. The Iraqi Army had been so pulverised by coalition air forces that it did not put up much of a fight. The coalition took Kuwait in a few days. The coalition had also invaded Iraq as part of the campaign. The question was how far into Iraq to go? Should the coalition ovethrow Saddam? Some said yes. Arab countries did not wish to do this. President Bush was chary. He did not want US troops to have to reconstruct Iraq over years. There would be a possibility of a war against Iran. The Iran-Iraq War had ended not long before.

A ceasefire was agreed. The coalition were in southern Iraq. Prisoners were exchanged. No fly zones were established in southern and northern Iraq. Iraq agreed to dismantle all weapons of mass destruction in a verifable manner.

The coalition was able to go home victorious. American troops remained stationed in Iraq and Kuwait.

Kurdish and Shia rebellions began in Iraq. US propaganda urged them to revolt but the US did not assist them. However, most Iraqi soldiers stayed loyal to Saddam. He was able to quell the insurgency in southern Iraq. He never gained control over Kurdistan.

The USA, UK and France enforced the no fly zone. They regularly bombed Iraq for breaching it.

Sanctions remained on Iraq for failing to honour the ceasefire terms. Saddam did not destroy his Weapons of Mass Destruction in a public way. France soon pulled out of enforcing the no fly zone.

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MAJOR

John Major could have called an election in early 1991. He was riding high in the polls. The Gulf War was a victory and the community charge had been replaced with council tax.  He felt it was wrong to call a khaki election.

To Labour’s relief Major chose not to go to the country.

The UK joined the ERM. Labour supported this move. The country soon slipped into a recession. Interest rates were very high. Some people with mortgages went into negative equity.

People began to castigate Major as son of Thatcher. He was seen to be continuing the same policies and presiding over another slump. But Thatcher publicly criticised him for bringing the United Kingdom into the ERM.

In April 1992 Major called an election. Labour seemed to be just ahead. It appeared they would not have a majority in the House of Commons. People spoke of a Lib Lab coalition. Ashdown refused to be drawn on whether he would do any deals with another party.

Labour had changed its policy to supporting nuclear weapons. Kinnock had changed his personal view on this. Labour still said it would push for a united Ireland by consent and would take into account the wishes of the Unionists in Northern Ireland. They said they would not permit a Unionist veto on political development.

During the election it was revealed that Ashdown had had an affair. Ashdown said that was a few years ago and moved on. His wife stayed by him. Kinnock and Major wanted to keep their options open. Neither used Ashdown’s philandering against him..

The Tories highlighted Labour’s tax proposal. Their billboard read ”Labour’s tax bombshell.”

At a rally in Sheffield Labour displayed all the flags of the countries of the UK. Labour’s Shadow Cabinet was announced as the Government in waiting. Kinnock was referred to as the Prime Minister in waiting. Kinnock came onto the stage to thunderous applause. ”We’re all right  – we’re all right. We had better get some talking done here.” Kinnock’s self congratulation bombed with the public. His smugness cost him dear. He later said, ”I deeply regret that moment.”

The Conservatives experienced a sudden revival and won 43% of the vote to Labour 34%. Against all the odds the Tories won a majority of 20 seats. The Liberal Democrats slipped back. Major was Prime Minister again.

Kinnock was distraught. His hopes were dashed. He mulled over his future for a few days before tendering his resignation. Had he tried to lead Labour for another 5 years to another election he would not have succeeded. Members of his party were fed up with him losing twice. It was time for Labour to pick a new leader.

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MAJOR’S MANDATE.

The economy was performing poorly under John Major. Unemployment was fairly high but not near the 15% maximum of the early 1980s.

Labour elected John Smith as their leader. Smith came from a middle class family in the Western Isles of Scotland. Smith had attended Glasgow University where he read Law. John Smith was a close friend of Menzies Campbell who was a Liberal Democrat MP. Like Menzies Campbell the Labour leader John Smith SMith was an advocate in Scotland. He was elected Member of Parliament for Edinburgh Monklands. He had been the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was his tax hike proposals that the Tories had exploited so successfully in the 1992 election.

Smith was affable and a very talented House of Commons performer. He was a moderniser within the party., He was married and had three daughters. There were no skeletons in his cupboard but he was a heavy drinker.

As Britain slid into recession the Conservatives popularity plummeted. They started to lose by elections.

In September 1992 the pound sterling lost ground against the deutsch mark. The government tried to pull the pound up by selling gold. In the end it was a failure. This became known as Black Wednesday. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was Norman Lamont. He gave a lugubrious statement about this disaster while flanked by his special adviser – David Cameron.

The United Kingdom pulled out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Labour skewered the Tories for the disaster of Black Wednesday. Labour lept shtum about the fact that they had urged the government to join the ERM which had caused the whole debacle.

As soon as the pound sterling was untied from the deutsch mark the British economy picked up. The UK began an economic growth spurt which was to last for 15 years. Unemployment fell.

One of Major;s changes in 1992 was to rename all polytechnics universities. This instantly doubled the number of universities in the country. Student grants were reduced.

Because the economy was not going well at first the Tory Government sought to distract attention. At the Conservative Conference Major announced his new theme – Back to Basics. This was supposed to be about dealing with crime, school indiscipline and more generally promoting personal responsibility. Tim Collins, a Tory press officer, confirmed that this was to be the predominant government policy.

The Back to Basics campaign started to unravel very rapidly. Several Conservative Members of Parliament were found to be conducting extra marital affairs.

Michael Brown MP was discovered to have gone on holiday with a 19 year old man and shared a bed with him. The gay age of consent was 21 at the time. Brown was not prosecuted although theoretically he could have been sent to prison.

Asil Nadir, a Turkish -Cypriot, multimillionaire fled the country in the wake of the collapse of BCCI (Bank of Commerce and Credit International). He moved to the unrecognised country of North Cyprus. It came to light that Tory MP Michael Mates had given him a watch inscribed with the words ”don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Labour was well ahead in the polls.

In 1993 there was a by election at Newbury. At a press conference Norman Lamont was asked if he regretted admitting he sang in the bath on Black Wednesday. He replied, ”Je ne regrette rien.” His allusion to Edith Piaf made him seem callous. Newbury had been a safe Conservative seat but the Liberal Democrats took it by storm. Lamont’s unwise words were partly responsible foe the debacle. Shortly thereafter he was sacked.

In his speech on his sacking Lamont made a coruscating attack on Major’s government. ”They give the impression of being in office but not in power.” Labour loved it. A senior Tory’s attack on the Tories was used by Labour at every opportunity.

The new Chancellor was Kenneth Clarke. Clarke was the son of a Nottingham jeweller. Clarke had attended Nottingham High School for Boys and then Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He has read for the Bar. He did not practise for long before being elected MP for Rushcliffe in 1970. Clarke was a One Nation Tory and a europhile. He was also a fairly good chancellor. The economy grew steadily. He was obliged to put up value added tax to 17.5%. He also raised tax on fuel.  Clarke was deeply relaxed. He was an obese cigar chomping jazz fan. He liked Ronnie Scott’s Nightclub.

The NHS was screaming. Waiting lists grew longer and hospitals could not stand within their budgets.

One of the few bright spots on the horizon was that in 1994 crime started to fall. It had tripled since 1979. The Home Secretary of the time was Michael Howard. He said ”prison works.” One of his junior ministers was Ann Widdecombe. A pregnant prisoner was handcuffed whilst giving birth. Miss Widdecombe said it was right to keep this woman chained up as she parturated. One Tory MP remarked, ”I prefer to have women chained up at the moment of conception.”

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THE ADVENT OF BLAIR

In May 1994 things seemed to be going Labour’s way. Despite the slight economic revival the Labour Party was well out on front in the polls. Smith gave a speech including the phrase, ”A chance to serve is all we ask.” The next day he died of a heart attack. His drinking almost certainly brought on the cardiac arrest.

Smith was buried on the island of Iona. His funeral in Edinburgh had the entire political elite there including John Major.

Labour then had to pick a new leader. The two modernisers within Labour were Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Brown was the son of a Church of Scotland minister. Born in 1951 Brown had attended a state school and then Edinburgh University. He was elected Rector by the students. This job was usually held by elder statesman. He gained a PhD in History. He was a far left agitator in his youth and wrote the ”Red Paper on Scotland.” He had spoken about ”challenging the logic of capitalism.” He briefly worked as a BBC journalist as many left wing intellectuals do. Brown had been an MP since 1983. Brown was lacking in emotional intelligence and held limited appeal for those who were not already Labour voters. Moreover, he was a bachelor.

Brown and Blair held broadly the same views. They met at Granita Restaurant in Islington. They agreed that only one of them would stand for the leadership. That man would lead Labour into government. After a few years the winner would stand down and assist the other in becoming Prime Minister. But which of them stood a better chance of leading Labour in Number 10 DOwning Street. They both agreed that it was Blair.

The contenders were John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Tony Blair.

Prescott had grown up in Merseyside. He had been a merchant seaman. He attended Ruskin College. His ways were very working class and this appealed to many voters. However, his solecisms and lack of policy detail were major weaknesses.

Margaret Beckett was one of the most senior female MPs. She seemed very dull but was a decent public speaker. She had no university education. Her hobby was caravaning. She seemed like a caricature of a self righteous left winger. Even Labour supporting comic Billy Connolly sneered at her.

Blair was the obvious choice. He was 41 and very handsome. He was a superb public speaker and had emotional intelligence. Old women saw him as the ideal son in law. Blair was the son of a Scottish barrister and an Irish mother. Tony Blair had been born in Edinburgh, moved to Australia as a toddler and then moved to Durham. Blair attended Fettes College, one of the most pukka schools in Scotland. Blair later attended St John’s College, Oxford where he graduated in law. He was called to the Bar of England and Wales. Blair was more Scots than anything else but some people perceived him as being ENglish. He was an atypical Labour MP. He appealed to many southern English voters and middle class voters. Labour was feeble among these segments of the electorate. Labour badly needed to win votes from these sections of society. The industrial working class had declined. Union members had been loyal Labour voters but the unions were losing members. The working class was shrinking as people either moved up into the middle class or down in the the underclass. The underclass were people who were more or less permanently out of work. People in this demoralised group rarely voted.

Blair won easily. An internal Conservative memo was written about him by John Maples MP. It read, ” If he [Blair] is as good as he looks then we have a serious problem.”

Blair wanted to reformulate Clause IV of Labour’s constitution. Previous Labour leaders had also wanted to do this. Clause IV dated to 1920 and talked about the government owning ”the means of production, distribution and exchange.” This was replaced by a woolly statement on achieving together. It was intended to prove to middle of the road voters that Labour was not socialist and was nothing to be afraid of.

Blair lied about his previous CND membership. He supported nuclear weapons. He also said that Labour had been ”hopeless on defence.”

Blair’s campaign to drop Clause IV was overshadowed by the O J Simpson Trial in America. Nevertheless, the British public got the message that Labour had changed. Blair called the party New Labour.

Blair was extremely popular. He reached areas of the country that Labour leaders had not done for decades. He was a consummate House of Commons performer. He ran rings around Major. Labour gained some celebrity endorsements. Kevin Keegan headered a football to Tony Blair many times outside the Labour Conference. Blair was fashionable, athletic and personable.

Major looked careworn. Hardly a week went by without another scandal. Some Conservative MPs defected to Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

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EUROPE.

In the early 1980s the Conservatives had been a very europhile party. The EEC was good for business. In the late 1980s the EEC demanded ever more control of the affairs of members states. The European Parliament was founded in 1979 with MEPs elected to it. The European Court of Justice could overrule British courts. This was established by the Factortame case in 1986. The United Kingdom was still a massive net contributor to EEC budgets. The COmmon Agricultural Policy benefited other nations such as Eire, France and Spain but not the UK. The Common Fisheries Policy devastated the UK’s fishing fleet.

Some Conservative MPs became increasingly disenchanted with the EEC. These eurosceptics tended to be on the right of the party. The Exchange Rate Mechanism exemplified all that was wrong with excessive EEC integration. Moreover, the EEC was German dominated especially after 1990 when Germany reunited. At that point Germany had the largest population in the EEC. Prior to that it had been the United Kingdom.

Towards the end of her time Thatcher became eurosceptic. Some europhiles talked of a United States of Europe or a Federation. She said of the President of the European COmmission Jacques Delors, ”he says the European commission is to be the executive, the European Parliament is to be the legislature and the European Court of Justice is the judiciary. No, No, No.”

In 1992 the Treaty of Maastricht was negotiated. Maastricht is in the Netherlands. Maastricht was about turning the European Economic Community into the European Union. The EU institutions would be given even greater control over members states. The members states would have to implement EU directives.

The eurosceptic wing of the Tory Party grew to almost half the party. For some of them Maastricht was too much. Margaret Thatcher by that time was in the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. She urged her followers to vote against Maastricht. Major called her a back seat driver.

A large number of Tories rebelled against their party whip over Maastricht. The Tory Cabinet was in favour of Maastricht. The europhiles in the cabinet were Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke. They regarded the eurosceptics with disdain. They viewed them as ignorant, reactionary and xenophobic.

The Treaty of Maastricht was narrowly ratified. Labour was delighted with the Conservatives tearing themselves apart.

The eurosceptics also had a presence in the Cabinet. Despite their eurosceptic beliefs people like John Redwood had to either tow the party line or else resign. One eurosceptic was Heathcote Amory and he did resign.

Major spoke to a journalist Michael Brunson. Major believed that the television cameras were off. Brunson asked him why he did not sack the eurosceptics in the Cabinet who were briefing against him in off the record quotations to journalists. Joh  Major said he did not dismiss them, ”Because then you would just have three more of the bastards out there causing trouble.” WHo were these three bastards? Most people believed Major was referring to John Redwood, Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo.

Clarke and Heseltine took the view that Britain should get rid of the sterling and join the single European currency. This was unpopular in the party. Major was agnostic. Major tended towards the europhiles on other issues. He could not go totally against the eurosceptics. He was under severe pressure from the 1922 committee which represented the views of backbench Conservative MPs.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru had revived a little. Labour and the Liberal Democrats had sometimes shared platforms with the nationalist parties on other issues. Labour was worried that the Nationalists might split the anti-Tory vote. Since John Smith Labour had adopted the policy that it was ”the settled will of the Scottish people to have a Scottish Parliament.” Labour reversed its earlier opposition to devolution. Opinion polls showed devolution was very popular in Scotland. Devolution was at even stevens with full unionism in Wales. Scotland had favoured Labour for years as had Wales yet the Conservatives ruled there. The left wing consensus in these countries demanded different policies from Westminster. Scottish Labour MP George Robertson said the devolution, ”will kill nationalism stone dead.”

Major spoke against devolution. He said, ”it goes against 1 000 years of British History.” He was too ignorant to know that neither union had lasted anything like that long. To assuage separatist sentiment he brought the Stone of Scone from Westminster to Edinburgh.

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SLEAZE

In 1993 a scandal broke about cash for questions. A Conservative called Tim Smith MP admitted taking money to ask questions in the House of Commons. He stood down as a Member of Parliament. Others denied the allegations. One of these was Neil Hamilton MP.

Stephen Milligan was a Conservative MP who died from sexual asphyxia. The first phone call made when his corpse was discovered was to Conservative Central Office.

Such allegations were to dog the party throughout the parliament.

Piers Merchant MP was found to be having an affair with a 17 year old  hostess  from the Pink Pussycat club called Anna Cox.

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BACK ME OR SACK ME

In 1995 John Major had had enough of constant sniping. The Daily Telegraph –  the most right wing newspaper – was always slamming him. Many of Major’s own party castigated him. Major consulted only a few of his closest friends before calling a press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street.

He said ”back me or sack me.” He announced he was resigning as leader of the Conservative Party. This would oblige the party to hold a leadership election at which he would stand. The party could choose between him and an alternative.

Who would take up the gauntlet? Many people urged the Defence Secretary Michael Portillo to stand. Portillo was a half Spanish Londoner. He had been to a state school and the Peterhouse, Cambridge. AFter years as an oil trader he had been elected to Parliament in a 1984 by election. He was right wing and eurosceptic. He was not burdened with a posh background.  People installed phone lines for a Portillo campaign. Portillo disappointed his admirers by refusing to stand. Portillo doubted he could win. If he lost he would be seen as disloyal and severely chastised by the party. Even if he won he would be taking over a horrific situation. He would lead the party to metldown at the next election. Far better to bide his time. He calculated that the party would be heavily defeated at the next General Election. Then he could win the party leadership and lead the Conservatives back into government.

SOme Wets wanted Michael Heseltine to throw his hat into the ring. He had nursed an ambition to be Prime Minister. Now was his main chance – in fact his last one. However, Major’s enemies were right wingers and eurosceptics. They were hardly likely to vote for a man who was an outspoken europhile and a One Nation Tory who had helped fell Thatcher. Moreover, Heseltine had had heart surgery only a few years before.

The Secretary of State for Wales resigned from the Cabinet to challenged Major. His name was John Redwood. Redwood was replaced as Welsh Secretary by William Hague.

Redwood was born in Kent. His father was an accounts clerk.  Redwood had gone to a state school and then Magdalen COllege, Oxford. He attained a D Phil in History before going into banking. He was formidably clever but had no people skills.  He was distant, dry and cerebral. He was seen as an ultra Thatcherite. Redwood had no attraction for anyone who was not already a Tory. Redwood came into the open with his pronounced eurosceptic opinions. If he believed that why had he gone along with all this EU integration?

Major’s critics were confounded by his uncharacteristic boldness. Blair later admitted he was impressed by Major;s shock move.

Redwood argued ”no change, no chance.” Unless the party changed leaders it would definitely be smashed at the next election. Labour was 30% ahead in the polls. Redwood;s modest slogan said it all. He was by no means saying victory at the next election was likely under him.

Even Major’s critics mostly recognised that Redwood be a worse leader. Major was easily re-elected. His poll ratings had a brief uptick.

Heseltine’s loyalty was rewarded with him being appointed Deputy Prime Minister. There had been not Deputy PM since Geoffrey Howe in the 1980s.

The Sun had backed the Conservative for almost 20 years. The SUn dramatically shifted its support to Labour. It was an immense morale booster for Labour. Britain;s most widely read paper was throwing its weight behind them.

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THE FAG END

In 1996 Thomas Hamilton went mad and shot dead 20 people in a school in Dunblane. He then committed suicide. Politicians of all parties laid flowers there. Sir Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, had to persuade Major to invite the Labour leader to law a wreath at the school. Restrictions on guns were increased. An inane tabloid campaign of wild emotionalism called for a ban on handguns because of the Dunblane angels. Major would not go that far. Labour pledged to do so.

Despite the good economic news poll ratings were still dismal for the Tories.

Sir James Goldsmith set up a new political party. It was called the Referendum Party. Goldsmith was a multimillionaire for vulture capitalism. Born in 1930 this half French maverick was the son of a hotelier. He had left ETon at 16 announcing he was too rich to be a schoolboy. Goldsmith was a womaniser and reprised the quotation, ”When a man marries his mistress he creates a job vacancy.” For a spell his mistress was the daughter of the Marquess of Londonderry. He later wed her.

Goldsmith was a well known right winger. He used to be a Tory donor. He denounced the party for its ”decrepitude.” He was very eurosceptic despite having been an MEP for a region of France. He wanted all parties to pledge to hold a referendum before joining an EU currency.

The Referendum Party garnered much media interest. Many erstwhile Tories joined it. Major pledged that a future Conservative Government would hold a referendum before joining a common European currency.

Major toyed with a number of election dates. In the end he decided to go for the last possible one. Tory polling picked up slightly in 1997 but they were still miles behind Labour. The Liberal Democrats were breathing down the Tory neck. The growing economy would help the Conservatives.

Ken Clarke cut tax in April 1997. People saw on their pay cheques they had slightly more money than the month before.

Blair had every reason to be ebullient. However, Labour made it a rule not to be smug. They saw what such presumptiousness had done to them in 1992. The polls gave them a huge lead. Blair counselled caution, ”This is not a landslide country.”

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THE 1997 ELECTION.

Major asked the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament and it was granted. The election campaign was on.

Labour relished this day. Blair was energised and adored. He was also cautious. The election was his to lose. He dare not put a foot wrong. Labour MPs had to be on message. They had been briefed on what to say. So long as there were no gaffes they would win.  Labour issued cards with their five pledges. They would not raise income taxes. (They said nothing about other taxes). They would halve the time for young offenders between court and sentencing. They would cut the NHS waiting list by a specified amount.

Labour was trusted more than the Tories on all policy areas except Europe. Blair was much more atune to the public mood. He said, ”I am a 60s person – the Beatles that’s my generation.” He was 11 years younger than Major but seemed much more so. The Tories seemed deeply uncomfortable with modern Britain. One Conservative MPs inveighed against his Labour opponent for being an unwed mother. He called her children ”bastards.”

One Tory poster showed Blair sitting on Helmut Kohl’s knee. It was crude and anti German. Another showed a bull dog with its teeth pulled out.

Labour went onto traditional Conservative territory. One poster read – 22 tax rises in 5 years. Enough is enough. Blair had long said, ”it is a myth that the Tories are the party of low tax.” The Conservatives had also cut tax so overall the tax burden was slightly down.

John Major announced that, ”There is 24 hours left to save the United Kingdom.”

On 1 May the United Kingdom went to the polls.

The polls closed at 10pm. Within the hour Sunderland South declared. It was already a solid Labour constituency but also showed a marked gain for Labour. Results through the night served only to confirm the trend. It was hours before the first Conservative seats were won. This is because the Tories tended to do better in rural constituencies. These had a much large land area than urban seats which were overwhelmingly Labour. It took longer to collect ballot boxes from widely dispersed polling stations in the countryside than a few polling stations in a city constituency that were close together.

Michael Portillo was standing for the Conservatives in Southgate, a London constituency. As the Tories were certain to be booted out of office everyone expected Major to stand down as leader of the Unionist and Conservative Party. Portillo was thought to be a shoo-in as the next Conservative leader. In the event Portillo was knocked out of Parliament by Labour’s Stephen Twigg. Many people were astonished. Michael Portillo gave a gracious concession speech.

Labour won 43% of the vote and 418 seats. The Conservatives won 31% of the popular vote and held 166 seats. This waa their lowest number of seats since 1832. It was still much better than any opinion poll had suggested. The Liberal Democrats won 16% of the vote and they more than doubled their tally of seats from the last election. They took 46 constituencies.

The Referendum Party took over 1% of the vote. Most of their voters were former Conservatives. They almost certainly deprive the Conservatives of a few seats.

In Scotland the Tories were wiped out. One Labourist jubilantly declared North Britian to be, ”A Tory free zone.” In Wales the Conservative were also annihilated.

This constituency breakdown is misleading. The Conservatives attracted more votes in Scotland than the Liberal Democrats. Likewise in Wales the Tories outpolled the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. The first past the post system had worked well for the Conservatives many in times. In 1997 it worked against them

Blair was in Sedgefield for his count. He defeated a Conservative woman. In his acceptance speech he displayed some rare decency in remarking that he had stood in a rock solid Conservative seat during the Falklands conflict in 1982 and been thrashed. She must not give up on politics.

Blair flew to London. At Festival Hall there was a victory party. Neil Kinnock was seen there bopping his head. Labour’s campaign song was by D:REAM ”Things can only get better.” He remarked- ”it would have been inhumane not to be jealous.” He saw Blair and thought – this should have been me. Blair addressed the ecstatic crowd of Labour backers. ”A new dawn has broken has it not?”

John Major went to the Palace to request the Queen relieve him of his duties. Her Britannic Majesty duly obliged. Major returned to Downing Street and looked like the happiest loser ever. He was elated to be rid of the burden of leadership. ”When the curtain falls it is time to get off the stage.” He announced he would stand down as leader of the party.

Then she had her staff phone Tony Blair. Blair went to Buckingham Palace to be requested to form a government. Blair accepted.

Blair returned to Downing Street with his wife and children. Anthony Blair then delivered a brief speech. ”Enough of talking. Time now to do.”

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BLAIR’S 100 DAYS.

Blair announced his new cabinet and there were no surprises. John Prescott was Deputy Prime Minister. He was recognisably working class and reassuring to Old Labour voters. Some of them were doubtful about New Labour.

Gordon Brown became the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Within days he announced the independence of the Bank of England. It would set interest rates to avoid manipulation to suit the political cycle. This was welcomed by almost everyone.

The IRA called a ceasefire in July 1997.

The Conservative sought to elect a new leader. The runners were Ken Clarke, John Redwood and William Hague. Hague was born into a lower middle class family in Yorkshire. His strong Yorkshire accent belied the upper class image of his party. He had attended Oxford University and been a management consultant for McKinsey and Co. He was also 36 in a party that was seen as being old. He seemed just the ticket. Hague was a politician to his finger tips. He had addressed the party conference aged 16. ”Let’s roll back the frontiers of socialism. I want to be free.” Baroness Thatcher came out in favour of W J Hague.

Redwood and Clarke made a pact. Clarke;s euro enthusiasm was anathema to much of the party. The deal was that Clarke would be leader but he would leave European policy to Redwood. This seemed like a cynical stitch up. It  was not credible. Hague won the election.

Blair held a constitutional committee. He invited the Liberal Democrats to take part – not the Conservatives. Blair and Ashdown had mutual regard and admitted to agreeing about a lot. Blair considered bringing the Lib Dems into Cabinet but he realised this would alarm the Labour left. He wanted to appease them by also bringing the left wing extremist Ken Livingstone. He asked Livingstone how he thought the government had been doing. ”A lot worse than I expected.” Livingstone talked himself out of a Cabinet seat. Without a far left figure to balance the Lib Dems Blair felt he could not include them in the Cabinet.

Blair’s ambition was to obliterate the Tory Party which had held the country back for a century. He believed the way to do that was to unite the Lib Dems and Labour. He had a lot of sympathy for the people who had joined the SDP.

Peter Mandelson was the architect of New Labour. He spoke of the Big Tent – including all people of moderate opinion.

Blair confessed to respecting Margaret Thatcher. Within weeks of becoming Prime Minister he invited her to Downing Street to seek her guidance.

In July 1997 Blair went to Hong Kong with Prince Charles on the Royal Yacht Britannia. The Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten presided over the colony’s hand over to China.

The economy was growing. Crime was falling. The NHS waiting lists were still climbing. All were legacies of the Tory years.

Blair went to Balmoral for the PM’s customary week with the Royal Family.

Princess Diana’s divorce from the Prince of Wales had become absolute that January. She was known to be dating an Egyptian playboy named Dodi Fayed. He was the son of the multimillionaire owner of Harrods – the controversial Mohammad Fayed.

In August 1997 news came through one midnight of a car crash in Paris. Princess Diana was badly injured and Dodi was dead.

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DIANA.

Princess Diana died after a few hours in a Paris hospital. Theories have abounded about her death. Her carcass was flown back to the United Kingdom by the RAF.

Blair was in his constituency when the news broke. He went to his parish church in mourning. He gave a speech which seemed extempore. ”She was the people’s princess.”

Hague later said that Blair was trying to capitalise on the princess’ death for political gain. This was a grave error of judgment. The public did not see it Hague’s way at all. Hague called for Heathrow Airport to be renamed in honour of Her Royal Highness.

Many people were grief stricken. Tens of thousands of people laid flowers in front of Kensington Palace which was her home.

Her Majesty the Queen remained at Balmoral. She was a woman of her generation and class. She was reserved. Certain members of the public – usually the liberal left – wanted a public display of grief. This would seem false and wrong to the queen. She was there to be steadfast in difficult moments. She must provide leadership by not going to pieces. She must remain dignified and exercise emotional self-control. It was known that the Queen did not like Princess Diana. Her volatile and tell it all ways were very different from the Queen’s decorum and restraint.

Some blamed the media or even the House of Windsor for the death of Princess Diana. She had been outcast by the Royal Family. That was for washing dirty linen in public and bad mouthing them. She said Prince Charles should never be king. But Prince Charles had started it by admitting adultery.

The Union Flag over Buckingham Palace flew at full mast. It always does since the sovereign never dies. The Queen went by form. Keeping the Flag flying was the right thing to do. It was tradition. The Sun showed the flag with the headline, ”Show us you care.”

Blair as Prime Minister persuaded Prince Charles to beg the queen to lower the flag.  The Queen returned to London and walked among crowds. She inspected floral tributes outside her palace. She gave a televised address. Alistair Campbell, Blairs’ press chief, gave key advice on this. The monarchy had briefly been deeply unpopular. Blair saved the day.

A funeral at Westminster Abbey took place some days later. There was a massive outpouring of grief. Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, gave an elegy. Lord Spencer was ghastly in using his tribute to lash out at his in-laws. Diana was buried in Althorp – her Northamptonshire home.

The country gradually recovered from the death of Diana.

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BLAIR’S ASCENDANCY.

Within weeks normal business was assumed. Things were easy for the government. Only the NHS gave trouble.

In September the referenda on devolution were held. In Scotland it was passed by 75% and the new legislature was to have tax varying powers. In Wales on 50% of people voted and the Yes side won very narrowly.

Hague proved to be a damp squib as Tory leader. He tried to reform the party and appear more modern. He got engaged to Ffion Jenkins. He admitted he would be sharing a room with her at the Tory Conference. This earned a rebuke from Lord Parkinson. Comic Ian Hislop remakred, ”I am sure it had a certain moral authority coming from him.” Lord Parkinson had infamously committed adultery. Lord Parksinson had been reappointed to his role as Conservative Party Chairman.

Hague said a couple living together before they married could be a good thing. Some Conservatives were still espousing Victorian morals.

Hague foolishly vowed to make the Tories a mass party with hundreds of thousands of members.

In December 1997 Blair invited Sinn Fein president Gerard Adams into 10 Downing Street. This was only a few months after the IRA had temporarily halted terrorism. It continued to mutilate people it called petty criminals.

The Euro was the new name for the currency of EU states. In 1998 it was launched as a theoretical currency – it had no coins or notes.

Brown came up with 5 tests for whether Britain would join or not. The UK would not be in the first wave of countries joining.

The Euro was a divisive issue. The old guard of Tories were mostly pro Euro. The younger Conservatives tended to be anti Euro. Hague then balloted members to accept his policy of ruling it out for 15 years. Either side could vote for this. 85% of members endorsed his policy. A few people left the party and founded the pro Euro Conservative Party. They stood in by elections. They eventually merged with the Lib Dems.

In 1998 Labour was stratospherically popular. Blair could have won a referendum on scrapping the pound. However, he was not certain. He dared not give the Tories a life line. So he bottled it. Conservative opposition to the Euro was not quite calcified.

In January 1999 Ashdown announced he was standing down as leader of his party. There was a campaign for several months. Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy were frontrunners. Bizarrely, Jackie Ballard stood despite having been elected to Parliament two years before.

After a campaign of  few months Charles Kennedy was elected leader. Kennedy had been elected to Parliament in 1983. Then aged 22 he was the Baby of the House. Kennedy had started out in the Social Democratic Party. Kennedy was from Scotland and represented a constituency there. Kennedy was an attention seeker with some deeply held beliefs. He was willing to take part in many light entertainment programmes on television. Some scorned him as ”chat show Charlie.” He advocated decriminalising cannabis. SOme called him Charles ‘Ganja’ Kennedy. He was relaxed and liberal in the broadest sense of the word. He lacked gravitas. He later privately admitted that he had been elected to Parliament too young. He posed as an anti-politician but had only ever worked outside politics for 6 months. As an anti-Conservative he had done his obligatory stint with the BBC.

Kennedy defended his habit of appearing on chat shows by saying the Liberal Democrats must do all they could to grab media attention. On these programmes he was not elucidating Lib Dem policy but the public still saw him and many grew to like his conviviality.

Labour appointed a commission on university funding. It reported back recommending tuition fees of GBP 1 000 a year. Labour accepted it an implemented it. The Labour left opposed this as did the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives supported the move. Undergraduates starting in 1998 had to pay fees but these were reduced for those from poor families. In fact it was the parents who had to pay. This was established in court by a test case. Student grants were changed to being loans.

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1999 EUROPEAN ELECTION.

Hague had tried to reform the Conservative Party. He sought to broaden its appeal. By 1999 it seemed to have failed. The Conservatives were seldom much over 20% in the opinion polls. They had crashed to 20% on Black Wednesday 1992 and hovered there ever since. Conservatives joked darkly that they were ”flat liners” because their opinion poll rating would not budge. Flat liner also means a patient in an emergency room without a heartbeat.

SOme Conservative MPs plotted against Hague. Hague’s approval rating was very negative. A lot more people disapprovef of him than approved of him. The Conservative Party launched surveys to ask ways they could enhance the party’s appeal. One answer kept coming back, ”Change the leader.” Many members of the public did not know who Hague was.

Hague had one defence. WHo else? WHo else would lead the party? There did not seem an obvious answer. Clarke had been rejected. Besides his Euro fanaticism was unacceptable to the broad mass of Conservatives. Redwood was too odd. Who would want to be party leader in such dire circumstances? It was a poisoned chalice. Despite the unrelieved gloom Hague seemed to be a tower of strength. His energy and optimism were an inspiration to all around him.

Hague changed tack. The Conservatives reverted to type. They laid emphasis on traditional Conservative values. The plan was to get out the core vote. If the Conservatives did not perform decently in the European Elections then William Hague would have to be turfed out.

Only about 25% of people bothered to vote in the European Elections. EU elections never garnered much enthusiasm in the United Kingdom. Because Labour was so popular its supporters were complacent and few turned out.. People predicted that the Tories might hold their own. However, Hague defied all expectations of a mediocre performance. The Conservatives won. Hague was saved. In the long run that might have been a bad thing for the party.

A new political party also stood in this election. They were called the United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP. Three UKIP people were elected. Among them was a 35 year old financier named Nigel Farage.

===================================

LABOUR JITTERS

Labour was not too worried over its mildly disappointing performance in the Euro elections.

There were also elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Labour won both of those. The SNP performed decently in North Britain and the Tories did badly. The Conservatives had opposed establishing the Scottish Parliament but said they accepted it as the will of the people. The regional member top up system was the only reason the Tories had any Members of the Scottish Parliament.

In 1999 Her Majesty the Queen opened the Scottish Parliament. The DUke of Hamilton rode beside her in her coach. The new Holyrood Parliament Building was under construction.

The new First Minister of Scotland was Donald Dewar. He was old, spindly and looked like a miser. He was a man for whom the word dour could have been invented. His saturnine aspect was partly due to the fact that his wife had run off with Lord Irivne of Clashfern years before. Lord Irvine was a barrister who had been Tony Blair’s master and had introduced young Blair to Cherie Booth – whom Blair wed.

In 1999 Lord MacPherson issued a report. He had looked into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Lawrence was a black teenager who was stabbed to death by whites in 1993. The police investigated but chose not to charge anyone. The family took out a private prosecution. The police advised them not to do so because they would probably not get a conviction on the evidence available. If the suspects were acquitted they could never be tried again.

The defendants were all acquitted. The Lawrence family and their supporters claimed it was all about racism. They accused the police of being incompetent for racist reasons.

Lord MacPherson invented a novel concept – ”institutional racism.” He said that the police had no racist policies and did not try to be racist. They were racist without knowing it. This daft notion was embraced by Labour the Liberal Democrats. Labour was eager to secure ethnic minority votes. The Conservatives were dubious about it. Asking questions about how the police were all racist led to the Tories being excoriated in the foulest terms.

Labour then threw away a centuries old principle of liberty. They scrapped the principle of double jeopardy. From them on a person could be tried twice for the same alleged offence.

=============================

KOSOVO

Kosovo was a province of Yugoslavia. Most of the Kosovars were Albanian speaking Muslims. Some of them formed the Kosovo Liberation Army – KLA.

The KLA rebelled against the Yugoslav Army which was largely Slav. The Yugoslav President was Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic was very anti Muslim. His forces had massacred thousands of Muslim civilians in Bosnia a few years before.

The Yugoslav Army fought the KLA. The Yugoslav armed forces also deliberately killed hundreds of Kosovar civilians. Many Kosovars fled.

NATO threatened Yugoslavia and demanded they withdraw from Kosovo. Without UN approval NATO started to bomb Yugoslavia. China and Russia were against. Russia was very friendly with Yugoslavia. Clinton was doubtful about this operation and ruled out ground troops. The Tories did not all support military action. Some noted that the KLA was involved in drug dealing and slave trading.

There were weeks of bombing. The Chinese Embassy was hit and its diplomats were killed. Serb civilians were also killed.After a few weeks Yugoslavia capitulated.

Kosovo was evacuated by the Yugoslav security forces. UN troops moved in. Blair visited Kosovo and was hailed as a hero. He was a liberal interventionist.

Blair also sent troops to Sierra Leone. This former British colony was wracked by civil war. The Rebel United Forces  RUF had committed many artocities. The British Army was able to help the government win.

==============================

ASYLUM SEEKERS

In 1998 more and more asylum seekers began to arrive in the UK. The government became worried about this illegal immigration. The Conservatives warned about the abuse of the system.

Labour also allowed in more legal immigrants than ever. They mostly became Labour voters. Net immigration was massively plus unlike before. The immigrants tended to become Labour voters. Ethnic minority voters broke strongly in favour of Labour. Furthermore, Labour had let these people in. They did not need to be British citizens to vote. Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK could vote in British elections.

The Conservatives attacked Labour about not stopping large scale illegal immigration. Many asylum seekers were lodging false claims. The government was inefficient at booting them out. The Tories could not make much mileage out of this. They had given an amnesty to illegal immigrants in the mid 1990s to clear the backlog of cases.

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FUNDING

Labour started taking more money from the taxpayer to fund the party’s operations. It also gave over GBP 1 000 000 a year to the Tories for their party;s purposes. Hague slammed Labour for what it was doing but still took the money.

Labour had been mainly funded by trades unions for decades. Before the 1997 election there was a blind trust. People could anonymously donate to Labour. Because of funding scandals in the 1990s Labour introduced a transparency law. All party donations of over GBP 5 000 a year had to be declared. For years no one knew who was funding the Conservative Party. The suspicion was that those who donated to the Tory coffers got government contracts and gongs. Funding came out into the open. The Conservatives were still better funded than Labour but not by as huge a margin as before. Many business leaders favoured Labour. This was partly because Labour was in office.

The rules on declaring MPs’ interests were widened. They had to declare even free gym usage. A Parliamentary commissioner was appointed to look into allegations of misconduct. A committee of MPs looked into such allegations. When Miss Filkin, the commissioner, did her job too vigorously she was castigated. MPs brief against her anonymously saying she was mentally ill. She had divorced recently and they suggested she was promiscuous. They accused her of being nosey and anti democratic. She was just zealous in executing her duty to investigate allegations of impropriety.

===========================

MILLENNIUM

1999 saw the end of the Millennium. There was much fret about a Millennium computer bug. Y2K would ruin computer systems, it was claimed. It transpired that nothing untoward occurred.

The beginning of 2000 saw the NHS in bad shape. Waiting lists were still far too long. Blair had stuck to the Conservative spending plans for the first two years. The NHS was not improving fast enough. Blair experienced public anger at the perceived government inaction on this issue. Hague attacked Labour for mismanaging the NHS. Blair would always riposte. ”the choice is between improving the NHS under Labour or privatising it under the Tories.” The Labour Government started throwing money at the NHS. Waiting lists began to shrink.

Blair brought in Private Finance Initiatives for the NHS. This meant that money was spent up front but not by the NHS. The trouble was the government then had to repay companies a lot more in the long run. It was very short termist but it made the books look good for the next election.

Labour had vowed not to raise incomes taxes. They had said nothing about other taxes. Labour increased National Insurance contributions. They also raised taxes on alcohol and tobacco in every budget. Labour increased fuel duty. They were putting some of this money into education and the NHS.

In the summer of 2000 petrol tax was the highest in decades. A group called the People’s Fuel Lobby campaigned against this tax hike. They picketed petrol depots. Many truckers joined in. They said their livelihoods were under threat. Then they started to blockade refineries and the like. Petrol stations began to run out of petrol, This meant private cars and lorries could not be refilled.

Labour was worried. They pointed out that ambulances and other emergency services would soon be out of fuel. Vital supplies would not be moved. The police struggled to prevent people from blockading fuel depots. Hague praised the protestors as ”fine upstanding citizens.” For once the Conservatives jumped ahead of Labour in the polls. It lasted for a week. Labour pointed out that these taxes were needed to fund public services.

The protests dispersed after a fortnight. The petrol tax was up for review in a couple of months. Gordon Brown sagely reduced it.

Throughout this time crime was falling and the economy was growing. House prices continued to rise. Statistics were massaged roughly to make them seem better.

Labour introduced blizzards of regulations. They hugely increased the public sector. Public sector workers mostly voted Labour. At Downing Street the number of special advisers tripled. Special advisers were invented by Thatcher. They were political placemen or placewomen. They were partisan. Under Blair they were allowed to give orders to civil servants for the first time. Some decried this as an interference with the independence and neutrality of the civil service. Blair brushed this all aside claiming it was modernisation.

The country entered 2001 in good shape. Labour was very upbeat. The Tories were down in the dumps.

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About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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