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
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
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