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Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Let me count the ways

IT’S a funny thing, but as I get older I get more tolerant.

Increasingly, people’s characteristics, foibles or even crimes provoke only a rueful shake of the head, perhaps a disapproving tut. After all, I reflect, to err is human, we all of us fall short.

But I find that this understanding only extends to real people, those whom I know and meet in the flesh. When it comes to the famous, who appear on telly or in the papers, politicians or some other variety of celebrity, then it is far, far more likely they will be on my ever-lengthening list of those I hate and despise.

It might be jealousy on my part, resentment that they earn more than me and are more famous than me; yet there are a few in those categories whom I tolerate and even admire, such as Jeremy Paxman, Eddie Mair or Silvio Berlusconi.

There are others I used to hate but now – reluctantly – find myself indulging.

Take Germaine Greer, whom I usually find merely stupid, but who, from time to time, can be engagingly stupid.

Then there’s Janet Street-Porter who is so famously detestable it would be otiose to catalogue her qualifications. But, occasionally – just very occasionally - she comes close to talking sense. Maybe it’s because she’s getting old and sucking up to `yoof’ would be too painfully ridiculous even for her. Of course, she still has the capacity to rocket right back up the ratings, as when, for example, she expressed her disapproval of Kate Middleton on the grounds that she was thin and not always shooting her mouth off. Presumably Street-Porter wanted Prince William to marry someone fat and opinionated. Maybe Anne Widdecombe (pretty consistently on the hate list) would have fitted the bill.

But I can also hate seemingly inoffensive. I hate Andrew Marr because he is so pedestrian, so predictable and so clearly blithely unaware of his utter averageness: a Michael Parkinson de nos jours, though Parkinson was a professional Yorkshireman and that’s a whole separate world of hate.

Obviously I hate Stephen Fry – the national tosser – for there has to be a lot of hatred directed against him in this world to balance his self love. For once, I agree with Piers Morgan (also on the list) who said Fry was `a crashing bore with delusions of intellectual grandeur’. My hatred is stoked by the certain conviction that Durham University is poised to invite Fry to be its chancellor, as the next middle-brow, populist faux intellectual to succeed two of my other hate figures: Bill Bryson and Peter Ustinov.

Yes Ustinov, because I can still hate dead people. I hate Alan Clarke, a pretend historian, pretend politician and pretend womaniser. In the words of Craig Brown, Clarke was `second generation mock toff’, or, in the opinion of Auberon Waugh, merely `preposterous’.

I hate John Bercow and his wife; I hate Paul McCartney and all his wives; I hate Marcus Brigstock and all unfunny people; I hate both the Attenboroughs and all the Murdochs; I hate most Labour politicians and all Liberal Democrats; I hate Syd Little and I hate Eddie Large.

To drop another quote, this time from the film City Slickers: “If hate were people, I’d be China’’.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A Modest Proposal

THERE is a growing awareness among our politicians that they are not terribly popular.

They appeared genuinely shocked by the public’s reaction to the expenses scandal and, I think it’s fair to say, they think that reaction was an overreaction and the popular perception of them undeserved.

There has been a recent series of programmes on Radio 4: In Defence of Politics, in which Prof Matthew Flinders argued in support of the politicians and how honourable their trade really is. This was echoed in the latest This Week by Haitian presidential hopeful Wyclef Jean. The general thrust is that politicians are decent folk doing a necessary job.

Well, up to a point Lord Copper. That the job is necessary goes without saying, but to ask us to accept the probity of our politicians is stretching credulity

People are prompted to go into politics for motives which don’t prompt admiration. There are those, such as say an Edwina Currie or an Anne Widdecombe, who do it to show off, craving attention and the approbation of their fellows and who, even when they have left the trade, cannot resist the lure of the limelight, however demeaning the circumstances.

Others are possessed by the Harriet Harman syndrome, an urge to boss other people about and to make their behaviour and beliefs conform to their own. Many seek wealth and status, as was revealed by the expenses scandal. Even those who only pursue a political career for the excitement and interest or sense of self-fulfilment and achievement are fundamentally driven by selfish motives. Few – very few – however much they seek to convince us, or themselves, are striving to serve their fellow citizens. Gordon Brown did not obsess about succeeding Tony Blair as Prime Minister because he thought he was uniquely suited to run the country (surely even he, during his worst carpet chewing phase, couldn’t have been that deluded) but because he thought it was his turn.

But, even if they were driven by the purest of motives, I would contend that the nature of democratic politics – indeed all politics – is essentially corrupting.

At the very lowest level politicians become embroiled in a culture of mendacity which, if they are to prosper and even survive, becomes second nature, so much so, that you can read in their faces, when discovered, their genuine bafflement at ordinary people’s disgust at their behaviour. Lies, half truths and evasion become an every day currency, to an extent to which they seem to forget the standards which normal people transact with each other. Statistics are fudged, enemies traduced and wrong-doing flatly denied.

No politician will tell us that we are living beyond our means and that our living standards must drop significantly and for many years; nor will they tell us that they are powerless to have any real effect on levels of immigration; that most of our laws are made in Brussels; that A-Levels have been debased; that the National Health Service, or our police, courts, armed services are anything short of perfect.

And the only defence they have for not telling us the truth is that we would not vote for them if they did. Perhaps so, but it is our politicians who have infantilised us, not we who have corrupted them.

But their lying is only a part of it, it seems inevitably to lead to an even deeper corruption.

Take Tony Blair. 

I know, I know, it’s unfair to cite `that pretty straight sort of guy’, who was, after all, in a league of his own, but two examples repay examination, to understand just how low the species can sink.

Blair was brought up an Anglican but, it was an open secret for many years that he wished to convert to Rome. Whatever one’s views on the Roman Catholic Church or on religion in general, this must surely be a serious matter for a religious person, involving as it does - in their terms – the health of the immortal soul. But Blair would not convert while in office because, as he later admitted, people would not have understood, would have thought it strange. In other words: he feared it would have cost him votes and that consideration trumped his conscience and his Christian witness.

The earlier example was in October 1997 with the Bernie Ecclestone affair.

Such political scandals are often convoluted and the truth difficult to discern, but, in this case, the facts surely speak for themselves.

Blair’s government had decided to ban tobacco advertising, presumably on the grounds that advertising tobacco encourages smoking, which in turn leads to life threatening diseases such as lung cancer.

But, it emerged that the Labour Government changed its policy to exempt Formula One motor racing from this ban and, co-incidentally, Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone had given Labour £1m.

One can draw one own conclusions from these facts and the conclusion I draw is that Tony Blair and his government were happy to change policy – presumably in the belief that such a policy change would lead to more human beings dying miserable and painful deaths – in return for money.

At about the same time Gordon Brown was prosing on about his Presbyterian minister father having provided him with his `moral compass’, by which he was implying he had been blessed with a moral compass better calibrated than those of the rest of us mere mortals and therefore had a right to lead us.

But I thought then, and still think, that anybody with any kind of moral compass whatsoever, however wonky, would have felt a deep disquiet at any association with a government, party and prime minister implicated in the Ecclestone affair.

In fact, I would have thought that anyone with even a barely functioning conscience, let alone `a moral compass’, would have resigned.

It is not dangerous for democracy that we recognise our politicians for what they are, it is healthy.

Indeed, contrary to the argument of In Defence of Politics, we should despise our politicians even more than we do, in order that we trust them with minimum power and are ever alert to its smallest abuse, just as we would be with a deceitful and light-fingered servant.

To this end, I propose a new element to our constitution in the form of a national ceremony whereby once a year, all MPs are tethered to stakes on Tower Hill for an afternoon during which the general public should be free to pelt them with ordure and insults. This would be healthy for them and healthy for us.

Particularly egregious MPs such as the thoroughly slappable Tim Farron – who opposes abortion except in so far as it is ever politically inexpedient to do the opposite - would attract more of the opprobrium than someone jovial and largely decent like Stephen Pound. Over time such a ceremony would have a corrective effect on behaviour; an annual lambasting with dung would tend to make Mr Farron more like Mr Pound. What’s not to like?

The truth is politicians are like hangmen: no well-ordered society can dispense with their services, but, in all honesty, you would not want your daughter to marry one.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Sign of the times

The Vatican has condemned a BBC’s suggestion that religiously “neutral” terms should be used in dating years rather than “BC” and “AD”.
The semi-official newspaper of the Holy See, L’Osservatore Romano, has described the guidance from the BBC’s ethics advisers as “enormous nonsense” and accused the broadcaster of “senseless hypocrisy”.
The guidelines suggested that the modern phrases “the common era” and “before the common era” should be considered as potential replacements for Anno Domini and Before Christ to avoid offending non-Christians.
A question that seldom seems to be asked among those who create these eggshells, on which we must not tread, is: who is likely to be offended?
Is there anybody: anybody that is, who is not an aggressive secularist or Islamist, only out to make mischief with a wholly inauthentic sense of grievance? Surely, if there are people who are so offended, then it is a jolly good thing to offend them.
Just as the BBC no doubt thinks it’s a jolly good thing when people are offended by their "edgy'' comedy or drama productions.
And I bet, by a spooky coincidence, that it’s the same kind of people who are offended by much of the BBC’s output who would quite like to retain “AD’’ and “BC’’ - in other words, traditionalists who are not on the same side as the BBC.
For there are things which the BBC thinks are good things and which it seeks to promote: causes such as European integration, secularism, social democracy and Andrew Marr.
And there are other things of which it disapproves: such as the United States of America, capital punishment, the Conservative Party and the Church of Rome.
Surely now though that the BBC chairman is Chris Patton, a Roman Catholic, the enormous nonsense condemned by L’Osservatore Romano will be ditched.
Or maybe not; maybe Patton’s Roman Catholicism will prove to be as orthodox as his conservatism.