The Blair Government and the Afghan Terrorist Crisis
- Traduction(s) :
- Le gouvernement de Tony Blair et la crise afghane
This paper focuses on New Labour’s first two mandates. It argues that the Government’s continued popularity which was confirmed at the polls in the 2001 General Election, is largely the product of exceptional circumstances which contrast favourably with the experience of former Labour governments : the Conservative opposition is in disarray, the performance of the economy is on the whole satisfactory and New Labour has been spared potentially damaging social conflicts. It is however possible to argue that the foundations of the New Labour settlement are more unstable than immediately apparent. The Government’s hope to export the successes of the Blair revolution on the world stage in a bid to achieve international recognition might eventually expose the fault lines which lie at the heart of New Labour.
Notes de l’auteur
This is based on a lecture delivered at the Aix-en-Provence colloquium on “Les années Blair” on 19 October 2001.
1On 8 June 2001, the Blair government ought to have been in raptures of delight. It had been elected to power a second time. For the first time in its century-long history the Labour Party had clearly won a full second term in office. Its majority of 167 was almost as huge as in 1997. Almost all the gains made then had been confirmed, in all parts of Britain. The Conservatives were in a state of almost total disarray. All it had to show for its efforts in the 2001 election campaign was a tally of 166 seats, compared with 165 in 1997 - a gain of just one seat ; William Hague promptly resigned as leader.
2And yet, and yet........ On 8 June 2001 the Labour mood was subdued, almost one of depression. There was no triumphalism, scarcely any pleasure on display at all. Labour ministers, from Blair downwards, talked of a record low poll of only 59 % (11 % down even on the poor figure of 1997) and of voter apathy, especially amongst young people. Blair spoke grimly of the need for the perception that, this time, Labour should not break its promises, especially on health, education and transport. Furthermore, the early weeks after the general election were catastrophic. There was a series of policy errors which gave a sense of a government with little idea of where it was going or what it believed in. There was talk of trade union protest against the government’s ill-defined policy of a private-public partnership in key services. By the end of July, Labour ministers could hardly get off to their holidays quickly enough - while, to make matters worse, because of the foot and mouth outbreak amongst cattle, some of them were pledged to have their summer holidays, not in the usual New Labour haunts of Tuscany or the Dordogne, but in the wind and the rain of Great Britain itself.
3 A new stimulus for the government, so triumphant yet so defeatist, was urgently needed. As the world knows, on 11 September, tragically, it came. Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Britain, Labour and especially Tony Blair have been transformed. Blair himself has been rejuvenated : at the Trades Union Congress later on 11 September he threw away a largely defensive speech on domestic issues and launched a powerful declaration of Britain’s determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the war against international terrorism. Since then, with a high-profile worldwide series of diplomatic missions, Blair has seemed to dominate not just the British but the world stage. His remarkable speech before the Labour Party conference in Brighton (which I heard) was presidential. His style varied between Winston Churchill and William Gladstone, between charismatic war leadership and moralistic evangelism (perhaps the latter coming more naturally to him). From now on the history of the Blair government will have to be significantly re-written. It is, therefore, vitally necessary, and a key to everything else, to try to assess what the impact of the Afghan terrorist crisis may be on New Labour, its ministers, its leader and its sense of mission. Things may never be the same again.
4 As a rule, wars are not good for the British left. Usually, with the second world war of 1939 - 45 being the great exception, they leave Labour divided and unhappy. Partly, this is due to a deep tradition of pacifism going back to founding figures like Keir Hardie. Partly, it shows Labour’s preference for concentrating on domestic reforms at home. Partly, it reflects Labour’s fears for civil liberties during wartime and concern at the irrational psychology of jingoistic nationalism that war tends to produce and which the capitalist right can exploit. The First World War led to huge divisions in Labour’s ranks with anti-war socialists like Hardie, MacDonald and Snowden becoming outcasts for a while. There were immense rows over appeasement and rearmament in the 1930s, symbolized by Ernest Bevin’s bitter attack on the aged pacifist leader, George Lansbury, at party conference in 1935. After 1945, there were internal divisions over the Korean War (with Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson resigning from the government in 1951 over the much increased rearmament budget), over Suez (complicated by the fact that the French government of the time was led by socialists like Guy Mollet and Christian Pineau), over Britain’s attitude to the US war in Vietnam, even over the Falklands when that campaign was marked by the triumphalism of Thatcherism (‘Rejoice ! Rejoice !’). Are there strong grounds, therefore, for believing that the effects of another war emergency in 2001 will be different for Labour this time around ?
5Let us first look back at the causes of Labour’s original triumph in 1997. How will the Afghan crisis affect them ? Well, one factor will almost certainly not change - the almost total uselessness of the Tory opposition ! Their decay and decline since 1997 seems destined to continue. The enforced consensus over Afghanistan makes things even more difficult for them. They still seem a party without a purpose. Astonishingly, they have drifted even further to the right and chosen as their leader the little-known anti-European Ian Duncan-Smith - described as another William Hague but without the charisma ! At the moment, the Tories appear almost an irrelevance ; it has been noted that the average age of party members is 65 so they are hardly the force of the future. There is talk of their possibly being overtaken by the Liberal Democrats as the main challenge to Labour, although personally I think that is most unlikely.
6 However, a second reason for Labour’s long success may perhaps start to disappear. This has been the first Labour government not to experience economic crisis. It is now the Tories who are tarred with the brush of financial incompetence. There has been no financial Dunkirk as in 1931 (resignation after a run on the pound), 1949 (devaluation of the pound), 1967 (further devaluation of the pound) or 1976 (the crisis which brought in the IMF). Things since 1997 have gone astonishingly well. Inflation has remained low (barely 2 % at present), unemployment has been falling compared with France or Germany, a consumer spending boom and strong purchasing power have kept demand for goods at a high level. Gordon Brown’s ‘prudent’ economic policy has been undeniably effective, even if more basic problems of inadequate management, poor productivity or low investment remain below the surface. Here, of course, the events in Afghanistan may lead to a change. We have already a long-running world economic slowdown, with the United States on the brink of a recession. The Afghan war has added further difficulties on top of this, with obvious effects on such industries as the airlines and tourism. Thus the uncertainties of war may throw this key aspect of political assumptions into disarray, especially for plans to revive the public sector and reinvigorate public services like health and the railways. It must be said that, down to late November, the London stock market has thrown off the effects of 11 September with remarkable speed, equities benefiting from interest rate reductions, and consumer spending remaining high. But even so there is obviously the real possibility of a change in Britain’s economic fortunes with inevitable political consequences.
7 A third reason for Labour’s success has been the relative absence of social conflict. In part this may well have been a positive reason for the low poll in June 2001 with a sense of general contentment leading to political apathy. Here again, war in Afghanistan could produce a change. Blair has not experienced the rash of trade union-led strikes as under Heath or Callaghan, nor the poll tax revolt which put paid to Margaret Thatcher. The only major area of instability since 1997 has been, as usual, Northern Ireland. Here, there has been continued republican terrorism and ‘Loyalist’ violence against little children attending Catholic schools ; only in October 2001 did the Assembly resume operations after a vague agreement by the IRA promising to hand in their huge cache of arms. But these events have had no direct impact on England, Wales and Scotland. The near-collapse of the so-called ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland has not impinged on them. Northern Ireland remains a unique part of the United Kingdom (fortunately !) whose troubles are wholly internal, historic and unique. It is noticeable that Northern Ireland was the only part of the country to have a high turn-out of voters in June 2001 : the high levels of voting there (well over 80 % in many constituencies) is a tribute to the old ancestral hatreds of Protestants and Catholics, respective followers of William III and James II back in 1690.
8Otherwise, the Blair government has presided over years of social peace and consumer happiness. The only real protest of significance has come from an unlikely source - the countryside. In September-October 2000, there was a kind of peasants’ revolt, a mixture of farmers’ grievances after the BSE troubles and falling farm prices, the resentment of long-distance lorry-drivers at high petrol prices, and the grievances of the fox-hunting community faced with the abolition of their traditional grisly pastime. Briefly there were pickets at oil terminals to prevent the distribution of petrol supplies for motorists. But it all fizzled out by the end of 2000 and, in a largely urban or suburban society ; it seems very unlikely that rural Britain could ever overthrow the government.
9The Afghan war could change this, through the presence of anything up to 2 million Muslims in Britain, a high proportion of these from Asia and the Indian sub-continent. There were ethnic troubles just after the election in northern towns such as Bradford and Burnley involving clashes between whites and Asian, mainly Muslim youths. Two Leeds United footballers are being prosecuted over the alleged murder of an Asian. In some of these places, the pro-fascist National Front polled unexpectedly strongly. Muslim communities in our northern towns have often been forceful elements, almost cultural colonisers, who hold themselves to some degree aloof from British society, who demand their own schools and who have generated some white racism in return. Relations with the police are often poor for this reason. Large numbers of Muslim figures have spoken out against American bombing in Afghanistan and British support for it ; a handful of British Muslims have even gone to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. To date, the only British casualties in the war have been on the Taliban side, especially around Kabul. It is possible, therefore, that if the war goes on for a long time, and even more if it is extended to take in other Muslim countries such as Iraq, that the social cohesion and racial harmony of urban Britain could diminish significantly. As yet, there is no great sign of this, and Britain in the past has experienced neither the tension with Muslim communities (African not Asian, of course) prevalent in parts of France from St. Denis to Marseilles, nor anything comparable to the kind of anti-immigrant backlash identified with Le Pen and his supporters. Tony Blair has gone to great lengths to emphasize that this is not a war against Islam or the Muslim people, and has repeatedly upheld the Koran as a book of peace and brotherly love (for all its colourful talk of ‘jihad’). Even so, it would be foolish for the historian not to acknowledge that new ethnic and cultural tensions (which could extend into other areas such as schools and housing) might not be an outcome, and that New Labour might not thereby face new challenges.
10 The war has above all underlined the outstanding feature of Labour’s ascendancy since 1997 - the overwhelming central domination of the party by Tony Blair himself. Labour is a hybrid coalition of political and industrial elements, in which leadership has always been difficult. Since the time of Keir Hardie, the party has tended to fear overmighty leaders - the ‘treachery’ of Ramsay MacDonald when he broke with his party in 1931 and formed a secret alliance with the Tory enemy has always served as a warning on this front. Previous Labour prime ministers, Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan have always favoured the collective style. Attlee had his Bevin and Morrison in Cabinet beside him ; Wilson had Brown and Callaghan ; Callaghan had Healey and Foot. Blair’s domination is, therefore, without precedent. He has been totally in the ascendant since his victory in abolishing Clause Four in 1995, appealing over the heads of the union block vote to individual party members. Amazingly for a Labour leader, he taunted the Conservative premier John Major with lack of leadership – ‘You follow your party, I lead mine !’ All the traditional forces of rebellion against the leadership have been curbed by internal party reforms - the National Executive, the unions, the party conference have all been political neutered. The old left is virtually powerless - though Ken Livingstone’s remarkable victory in the London mayoralty election shows that it can still carry a sting if the circumstances are right. But the party is remorselessly led from the centre, through Focus Groups to keep links with the membership, through the use of information technology, through the key role of Alastair Campbell in handling the media, through centralist devices to keep the members ‘on message’ and docile. There has been a huge presidential-style elevation of Tony Blair himself, with no dissent tolerated.
11 This was true when Blair was opposition leader in 1994 : he dominated the 1997 election. But these factors have been even more intensified during his premiership, and especially since the June 2001 general election. He now runs a virtual Prime Minister’s Department, with the merger of his private office with the policy unit. There are over 200 advisers working for Tony Blair personally in 10 Downing Street alone. As Prime Minister he has increasingly ignored parliament and the parliamentary Labour Party ; he has by-passed traditional committee structures ; unlike Wilson or (especially) Callaghan, he steers clear of the House of Commons tea-room. The Cabinet is largely a formality and no longer a decision-making body : it held just two short meetings in the fortnight after 11 September and a typical Cabinet lasts barely half an hour. He has operated in presidential mode especially in foreign affairs issues as in the Kossovo crisis or policies against Iraq, in personally negotiating the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, and at times in handling the various crises in running the National Health Service. He has appeared at times to be acting not just as head of government but almost head of state, as in directing the nation’s response to the death of Princess Diana soon after he became prime minister. His immediate power over the government machine is greater than that of an American president. He is truly our first post-modern prime minister.
12 All this has been much reinforced by the Afghan crisis since 11 September. Blair has seemed in total presidential command. He governs largely through a small War Cabinet, including a number of little-known private advisers, ex-diplomats and defence experts. He has operated as his own foreign secretary, with Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, and Geoff Hoon, defence secretary, as supporting figures easily pushed aside ; even the massive brooding presence of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been sidelined. The dispatch of British forces to the war zone was not discussed in Cabinet at all. In late November, the sending (or otherwise) of up to 6,000 British troops to assist in the distribution of aid and providing a stable environment for a post-Taliban regime to emerge, rested on discussions between Blair and George Bush, not on decisions taken by the British government. And yet, in mid-October, Blair’s policy was endorsed in opinion polls by 88 % of the British people. He has never seemed more popular, more obviously in charge.
13 Blair’s role, of course, has been enormously magnified internationally, in his jet-setting diplomacy which has taken him around the world, to Washington, Ottawa, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Moscow, Jerusalem, Amman, Riyadh, Damascus, Karachi and New Delhi in a high-octane, high-visibility series of international journeys. They have not always been obviously successful : he was harangued by President Assad in Syria and briefly shunned in Saudi Arabia. Back home in Britain, a few critics said he should be spending more time in handling domestic problems. But the general effect has been overwhelmingly positive for him.In the United States, he has at times almost seemed to overshadow Bush to the extent that many Americans have declared that they would prefer Blair as their president. He has been hailed in the American Senate as one of them.
14Blair for the moment has attained a level of authority not matched in Britain since David Lloyd George in 1919 at the time of the peace treaty of Versailles. By contrast, Churchill in 1940 was a traditional parliamentarian (whose electoral defeat in 1945 was to be humiliating indeed), while Mrs.Thatcher always faced internal resistance to her policies throughout her eleven years in Downing Street. So far Blair has swept aside all internal opposition even if his relations with Gordon Brown remain a cause for press speculation and rumour. Blair, after all, is the first Labour party from Keir Hardie to John Smith, not to be any kind of socialist. Yet he faces no threat at all from the left. The Old Left, a bugbear for labour leaders from Gaitskell to Kinnock, has virtually disappeared. There is no Bevan, no Benn. The presence of aged figures like Benn and Arthur Scargill and veterans of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament like Monsignor Bruce Kent at peace rallies during the Afghan crisis is almost a statement of defeat in itself - that is the best they can produce. Of course, the collapse of the old left is the result of many wider factors, including the social changes that have undermined trade union and socialist militancy, and the end of the cold war since 1989. But Blair’s own personal charisma is important too.
15 Now all this carries great potential dangers. Blairism, after all, depends on Blair. It depends on how successful he is personally. He has been typically adroit in emphasising the wider diplomatic and humanitarian objectives of the Afghan war, and in putting pressure on Bush and the Americans to restrain their original ‘dead or alive’ aggressiveness against Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaida in Afghanistan and perhaps in Iraq. Blair skilfully placed the old leftist dissenter Clare Short, Minister for Overseas Development, in the War Cabinet. But what may be the effects if the war drags on, without an evident political solution and amidst growing humanitarian tragedy ? What if there a terrorist attack by suicide bombers in Britain itself ? So far, the extreme rapidity and brilliant success of the Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan backed up by American bombing that was generally more accurate than in the past, has reinforced Blair’s position. But it will not last for ever. Long before the election, Blair’s uniquely personal style was making him a target - there was the fiasco of the Dome, the problem of Peter Mandelson, the elevation of ‘cronies’ to the House of Lords, the opposition he met even from the non-political Women’s Institute. Within the government, even Blair is not all-powerful - witness delay over the Euro or contemplating reform of the voting system. In the movement at large, the Labour Party respects Tony Blair but does not love him ; he has reinvented the Labour Party, after all, almost like reinventing the wheel. For the comrades in the local parties, Tony will never be ‘one of us’. Blair’s present isolation, even at a time of apparent triumph, is therefore dangerous. There is a huge danger of hubris leading to nemesis, as with the ancient Greeks. The British political culture has no place for Bonapartism ; it could not accommodate a de Gaulle, or any British version of it. The fall of Lloyd George in 1922 and Margaret Thatcher in 1990 are warnings against the over-mighty leader. A more balanced consensual system will have soon to return if Tony Blair is not to be laid low by his apparent moment of omnipotence during the war in Afghanistan. Beyond these personal matters, the Afghan war might highlight key areas of policy on which New Labour has been so far ambiguous or unclear. Three of them stand out.
16 First, there is Labour’s view of the state. New Labour here has never made its mind up, even though at least since 1945 the Labour Party has seen the enabling and energizing power of the state, especially central government, as the key to creating a more just and equal society. Its key theorists from the Webbs to Tony Crosland have been statists. New Labour too has used the state, like its predecessors, in promoting the public services, and protecting the vulnerable. It has used measures of redistribution, notably the family tax credits and the campaigns against child and other poverty, and signed up to the European Social Chapter with its minimum wage. Yet it has also been most reluctant, almost Thatcherite, to use state power in interfering with the mechanisms of the unregulated free market. The deregulated economy and the so-called ‘flexible’ labour market has been an article of faith for the centre-left British Labour government as it has never been, say, for President Chirac and the French centre-right. Labour has had only a limited sense of using the state to promote the public good ; this has been very evident in higher education, where free university tuition and maintenance grants for students have been abolished. The debate over the public-private finance initiative after the Afghan war may be fundamental to how Labour perceives its future, notably in how far the Blair government will still be able to provide greater resources for health, education, public transport and the environment. If they cannot do so, if enterprises such as the London underground lapse again, there will be trouble.
17 Secondly, there is devolution. After referendums, Labour has given a parliament to Scotland and an elected assembly to Wales ; there is also an assembly in Northern Ireland, and a mayor in London, with the vaguer prospect of some kind of regional administration in England. Blair rightly claims that he has given more power away than any previous prime minister. Yet there has equally been, to adopt a famous French term, dirigisme. In Wales and in London there were centralist pressures to dictate the choice of leader (Rhodri Morgan in Wales, Ken Livingstone in London) which led to disastrous defeats for Millbank and the party leaders in London in each case. A key test now will be Scotland, now with its first non-Westminster first minister in Jack McConnell, where a series of Old Labour policies have been put through including free university tuition and free health care for the elderly. The entire political culture in Scotland seems markedly more radical. The Afghan crisis could heighten the internal Labour tension between devolution and dirigisme. It could encourage the development of enhanced centralism - already evident in attempts to curtail civil liberties such as in the Anti-Terrorism bill where its enhanced powers for the police and its partial derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights have led to massive internal arguments. The government suffered some significant defeats in the Lords in the last parliament in the civil rights area, for instance over restricting trial by jury, and they remain vulnerable. The new Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is no libertarian any more than his predecessor, Jack Straw, was.
18 Finally, there is always Europe. While being free of the Tories’ brand of Europhobia, Labour has been astonishingly cautious here since 1997, in a way that goes beyond any personal rivalry between Blair and Brown. Even with a majority of 167, with the Tories hopelessly feeble and with the support of the pro-European Liberal Democrats, with Social Democratic governments throughout much of Europe - still there has been hesitancy. Over involvement in Europe, the Blair government has shown much of the same indecisiveness shown by all British governments since Attlee’s government refused to join the Schuman proposal for a Coal and Steel community in 1950, or Eden’s ignored the 1955 Messina conference and the lead-up to the Treaty of Rome. Blair, like all his predecessors, dithers between being enmeshed in the ‘special relationship’, so-called, with the United States, and being ‘at the heart of Europe’, in John Major’s famously deceptive phrase.
19 But here, the Afghan crisis could mean a real change or direction. Blair talks transatlantic rhetoric. His language, cultural taste and dress sense look and sound American, even if (unlike Gordon Brown) he likes to take his holidays in France and actually speaks French, the first British Premier to do so since Eden. Blair is by far the closest European ally to Bush and the only one to offer troops in any numbers (though France and perhaps Germany may also do so). Yet he is becoming more European all the time. The process of building up a European approach to security and a co-ordinated continental response to terrorism drives him closer to Europe. He took the opportunity in his speech at party conference at Brighton to make his strongest declaration yet in favour of Britain’s joining the Euro, although there has been further typical uncertainty since then. Chancellor Schroder was another leading personality present at the seaside at Brighton, and was warmly received. Blair’s speech to the European Research Institute at Birmingham on 23 November took the process further when he argued that Britain had lost opportunity after opportunity in Europe since 1957. He was reinforced by opinion polls which showed that the British public, even if generally hostile to the Euro, felt it inevitable that Britain would eventually join while 81 % felt that the events of 11 September meant that Britain and its European partners would work far more closely together. It seems quite possible that the British referendum on the Euro will take place in 2003, assuming that the next general election will be in 2005. There could, therefore, a major shift of emphasis here. The Afghan crisis could, just could, make Britain a definably European power in a way it has never been before in the whole of its history.
20 The Afghan crisis underlines the fundamental ambiguity that lies at the heart of New Labour. The grass roots in northern England, Scotland and Wales have little point of contact with elitist mafia of fashionable Islington. The Labour Party today straddles two constituencies, not just geographically but ideologically. There is much uncertainty about what Labour stands for - other than a bland assertion that it is simply ‘new’. It has no political philosophy, though the Fabian Society makes valiant efforts to provide one. Its attempts to define its purposes have been derisory - witness the ‘blanc-mange of generalities’ (to quote Blair¹s sympathetic biographer, John Rentoul) that makes up the Third Way and its doctrines, or half-hearted attempts to find ideological soul-mates in Australia, Singapore or Clinton’s Democrats. There is a vacuum at the centre of Labour’s system of values and beliefs. It has shown itself to be a highly effective party of government and a marvellous vote-winning machine, as never before in its history. But it needs to re-connect with the party and with the country. In France, the party of Jospin is still in many ways recognisable as the party of Jean Jaures and the party of Leon Blum. New Labour, claiming to be reborn does not have that kind of rooted quality. Attlee and Blair are clean different. Many of the newer accretions of New Labour strength amongst businessmen and the middle class of ‘middle England’ could melt away like the Social Democrats of the mid-1980s (in some respects, indeed, they are the same people !).
21The next general election in Britain, probably in 2005, will not be won in the mountains of Afghanistan or on a war platform. It will be won in Kettering and Kilmarnock, not in the Khyber Pass or Kabul. It will be won on how far Labour has fulfilled its social and economic pledges on the economy, health, education and public services generally - and how far the people care for it. The voter apathy and 59 % turn-out in the 2001 election is a profound warning note. There is a relative lack of affection for the government (and indeed the whole political system) at present. During the Attlee years, the Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank in 1951 symbolised a nation with clear sense of its history and its identity, climbing out of the trauma of war and post-war austerity. I know because I was there, marvelling at it as a young 16-year-old schoolboy, and enjoying all the fun of the fair at the Battersea funfair down river. Labour’s election manifesto in 1945, “Let us Face the Future” embodied that sense of hope. By contrast, the Greenwich Dome in 2001 was joyless and symbolically empty, a monument to political correctness sponsored by McDonald’s, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, to quote Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
22 It is, of course, true that after the 1951 Festival of Britain, Labour lost the election - but it did so with a vote of nearly 14m. (more than the victorious Tories and a record until Major’s victory in 1992) and 48.8 % of the total vote. In 2001, by contrast, it won a majority of 167 with a vote of 7m. (despite a much larger population, of course) and on 42 % of the vote. Even in electoral defeat in 1951, Labour still had a sense of the past and a vision for the future. New Labour under Tony Blair, for all its electoral successes, must move on swiftly from the Afghanistan crisis to connect both with its past and its prospects if it is to ‘face the future’ with confidence again.
Pour citer cet article
Kenneth O. Morgan, « The Blair Government and the Afghan Terrorist Crisis », Observatoire de la société britannique, 3 | 2007, 275-286.
Kenneth O. Morgan, « The Blair Government and the Afghan Terrorist Crisis », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 3 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : http://osb.revues.org/333 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.333Haut de page
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