For British politicians of all persuasions, the year since John Major moved into Number Ten Downing Street has been the jumpiest and most exhausting in living memory. With the exception of the period of the Gulf war, all the parties have been on permanent election alert; electioneering rhetoric, speculation about the date of the election and talk of opinion polls have drowned out just about everything else for all but the past couple of months, when the Tories’ deep splits on Europe started to make the headlines again.
It has not been a bad year for Labour. Major's elevation was a blow to the party, which had carefully constructed its political strategy on the assumption that Margaret Thatcher would not be removed in mid-term. After the success – in military terms – of the Gulf war, Labour politicians were terrified that Major would go for a "khaki election" in the spring and win.
Instead, luckily for Labour, the British public turned out to be more concerned about the recession, the poll tax and the state of the health service. The Tories lost Ribble Valley to the Liberals in March, did poorly in the local elections in May and lost Monmouth to Labour later the same month. Major abandoned the idea of a spring election, hoping to go to the country in the autumn. The Tories edged ahead in the polls by the end of the summer but then lost their advantage during the conference season. Major postponed the election again and hastily cobbled together a legislative programme to last until next spring. Today, the two main parties are neck-and-neck in the polls.
Labour can afford to be reasonably pleased with this position, but not too pleased. Given the Tories' record, Labour should be doing better. Very little of substance has emerged from Major's year as prime minister: a VAT increase to pay for cuts in poll tax, a handful of forgettable charters, a bill to replace the poll tax, another bill to tighten up asylum procedures, a slight relaxation in public sector borrowing. The Tories are in chaos on Europe, the economy is in deep recession and there is widespread popular concern about the future of the welfare state. Labour has a decent chance of victory, but it still has a mountain to climb.
Miscarriages of justice as a result of police fabrication of evidence are inevitable under any conceivable legal system – but the English one is peculiarly prone both to convicting people for crimes they have not committed and to taking an extraordinarily long time to make amends for wrongful convictions. The case of the Tottenham Three, Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite, wrongly convicted for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock in the 1986 Broadwater Farm riot, brings into sharp relief, yet again, the need for reforms both of the rules of admissible evidence and to make appeal against conviction easier and quicker.
It is true that, since 1985, the police have introduced tape-recorders to interview-rooms, making the sort of fabrication involved in the Silcott case much more difficult. But coercion before the tape-recorder starts running remains possible even now. If the police are to be trusted, nothing short of making uncorroborated confessions inadmissible in court will do.