LM Archives
  1:17 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Toby Banks

Dishonourable members

Although I think of myself as more or less unshockable when it comes to the cynicism and stupidity of politicians, I am constantly amazed at their public utterances. I'll never forget the sight of a Labour MP trying to claim that angry protesters were 'outsiders', not ordinary local people. When the interviewer remarked that they were all local residents and seemed very ordinary, the exasperated MP complained that they weren't 'proper ordinary people'. Whether you call such outbursts 'errors of judgement' or just brass neck, MPs show no signs of improvement in this age of PR advisers and spin doctors. If anything, they're getting worse as they retreat further into their fantasy world.

Remember the letter to a constituent who complained about council housing which said she was lucky to have a house at all? Or the proposal of a 'cheap-and-cheerful' train service 'for typists'? That sort of spectacular gaffe is usually held up to ridicule, accompanied by some gentle tut-tutting and indulgent 'aren't they awful, but we wouldn't want it any other way' editorials, suggesting that having MPs from another planet is one of the integral ingredients of British democracy's success.

Yet the most outrageous pronouncements usually go unnoticed, occurring as they do 'behind the scenes' in the netherworld of parliamentary committees. In A-level politics they teach you that this is where MPs go about their day-to-day business, doing the unglamorous work that keeps government ticking over. With parliamentary institutions losing public confidence hand over fist, this anonymity is probably a good thing for the honourable members.

After weeks of listening to the evidence of half-starving teenagers on pocket-money grants, the chairman of the parliamentary inquiry into student hardship concluded that it was impossible to say if poverty existed because it was such a difficult thing to define. Nobody asked him what he considered to be a reasonable income, or whether he thought money might be more relevant than a philosophical discussion of the meaning of hardship.

Now a new standard has been set by Sir Ivan Lawrence, chairman of the select committee on home affairs, and MP for the government that keeps thousands of immigrants in a detention camp near Heathrow and is currently deporting record numbers. Sir Ivan has just led an investigation into agencies that advise people on immigration matters. Not surprisingly, he wants them closed down, but his reason for doing so might raise a few eyebrows. Full of righteous indignation, he complains that these outfits offer no expertise and are exploiting vulnerable immigrants - a practice Sir Ivan finds 'reprehensible'. Well, he should know.

Junior heritage minister Robert Keys predicts a fine future for the British tourist industry, with many people 'choosing to holiday at home'. It's not clear whether he means 'at home' in the literal sense - stuck indoors with no money - or as in a cheap-and-cheerless week at the seaside. Either way the government is doing its best to ensure that this economic forecast comes true. I have less confidence in his suggestions for enticing foreign tourists to these shores with a 'warmer welcome'. Top of his list is 'flying more Union Jacks', a flag most foreigners find as welcoming as a skull-and-crossbones, but it is his call for 'more attention to the special needs of foreigners' that I find most mysterious.

'Special needs' sounds like the kind of sleazy deals laid on for middle-aged men on business trips abroad. Paris, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Berlin are the places that spring to mind, rather than Brighton. Even the speciality to which England gave its name, le vice Anglais is very much a minority interest, and government support, however enthusiastic, is unlikely to turn it into a big foreign currency earner.

As for the domestic market, the money just isn't there these days. The government has tried, through assisted places schemes, to encourage private schools which offer gainful employment for enthusiastic caners and birchers, but this is just not enough. And there are always meddlesome parents willing to prosecute.

Meanwhile pent-up frustrations are beginning to spill out. The Sunday Telegraph's Lynette Burrows demanded that a 13-year old joy-rider should be 'thrashed': 'That would take the smile off his face.' And put one on the face of Tory MP John Townend. Children 'need their bottoms spanking', implored Mr Townend, speaking on behalf of needy children. 'A slap does them good', he added cheerfully. Mr Robert Robson, manager of Bilsthorpe colliery went a step further. Asked 'When and where were you happiest?', he replied: 'When I was at school, being caned. It didn't do me or any of my school pals any harm.'

I used to have my doubts about theories that the British were more screwed-up than other people. All a bit glib, this stuff about nannies, toilet training and boarding schools, and it only applied to a small section of the middle classes and a few aristocrats. Since reading the Sun the other day, I'm not so sure.

The Sun is not a 'top person's paper', and advertisers are not in the habit of throwing money down the drain. So I was disturbed to see Royal Doulton had taken expensive space to advertise their latest and (I hope) most disgusting product, a grotesque figurine entitled 'Well Done!'.

'Well Done!' is 'a sweet figure celebrating a very important moment in every child's life'. Translated, that means a fat little cherub with curly golden locks and red lips sitting on an ornate china potty, having its first trained shit. The ad claims that 'every parent remembers that important day for ever'. Maybe this is true. But then, one might say the same about getting piles, and I think it unlikely that even Royal Doulton collectors would want a hand-painted ornament to remind them of that day. Yet Royal Doulton has no doubts: 'Collectors, parents and grandparents alike will appreciate this cheerful figure...Well Done! will become a treasured family heirloom.'

I can reveal that a special limited-edition piece, 'Bad Boy!' is available for 'private collectors', and was displayed during the recent exhibition of obscene publications in parliament. It was one of the items considered unsuitable for the general public and I understand business has been brisk. As they say, 'You don't have to be mad to work there, but it helps'.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk