Immediately after its sweeping election victory in 1997, Labour began its first major review of public expenditure. Today, two memories still stand out from its deliberations. Tony Blair had made me a member of the committee, and early on I questioned the distribution of the defence budget. I had no idea then that terrorism would entirely change the political agenda. But I reflected on the fact that travellers on the Japanese Underground had already been attacked by lunatics using sarin.
We were discussing the structure of the naval budget and the needs of the air force and army, but from my perspective it all seemed backward-looking. How well prepared were we for a series of similar terrorist attacks? The discussion stopped. The subject of the review had been decided by the cabinet and that kind of question was out of order.
The second recollection is of how little the new secretaries of state had thought about how their departments needed to evolve over a ten-year period, if this was to become a great reforming administration to match Attlee's or the Liberal government of 1906. Only Clare Short spontaneously came out with a coherent two-minute peroration on how her overseas aid department would need to change to help achieve the objectives she set out.
I write this column after witnessing in Birkenhead the funeral procession of Trooper Phillip Lawrence, killed recently in Afghanistan while bravely defending his country against terrorism. If Phillip's life, and the lives lost by many others of our troops, are to be honoured, politicians need to think in very different terms about what are now the main threats to our country. The reform of government structure will need to be far more thorough than anything I envisaged when I asked each secretary of state what he or she thought was needed back in 1997.
The threat now is not just one of terrorism. Since Labour came to power, the world's population has grown by 930 million. By mid-century it could rise still further, from more than six billion to nine billion. The UN estimates that already 15.2 per cent of the world's population goes hungry every day. in future, world security will face growing threats from disputes over control of and access to water and food supplies, and over the raw materials mat China is so energetically engaged in cornering.
That is why Hilary Benn's latest initiative is doubly important. Defra's Food Matters, published on 10 August, does an excellent job of hiding the big issues. There are endless pages on food threats, but on further investigation, the reader finds that the department is actually referring to food poisoning, eating out and the dangers of being overweight. There …