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Toby Banks

We are all Belgians now

The only surprising thing about our national summer of shame is the surprise itself, particularly in relation to the cricket and football teams. During England's pathetic performance against Norway, John Motson's grip on reality (never exactly firm to begin with) slipped completely. 'This is like a dream come true for the Norwegians!', he burbled, as they strolled through the England defence. 'They probably can't believe this is happening....They're not just beating England, but totally outplaying us!' Then as England lost to the USA the following week, ITV followed suit: it was 'like a dream' for the Americans, their greatest sporting triumph, etc.

When are people going to get it into their heads that the rest of the world does not lie awake at night dreaming of beating England (although their sleep might occasionally be disturbed by the thought of losing to them)? England is on a par with Sweden, Belgium, etc, and everybody knows this except the English. As an American journalist wryly remarked, their victory was 'the biggest since we beat the mighty Trinidad and Tobago'.

Even in cricket, a sport only played seriously in former British colonies, and with a team shamelessly stuffed full of West Indians, South Africans, New Zealanders, and now even an Australian, England can't compete. The former Australian test cricketer Rod Marsh summed it up when he said that on future tours of Oz the English visitors should be treated 'like the tyros of Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe'. (Sri Lanka beat England last time they played).

The British Army of the Rhine has just lost at cricket to a German team, prompting the usual jokes about how it's OK for the Germans to beat us at our national game, because 'we beat them twice at theirs'. True enough, I suppose; but even then most of 'our' side were foreigners.

Embarrassed champagne socialists have joined in the chorus of disapproval that greeted Lord 'squeeze the rich until the pips squeak' Healey's advertisement for Sainsbury's smoked salmon and Moet & Chandon. I'm no Denis Healey fan, but I find the old fraud more palatable than Labour's current mealy-mouthed front bench. Even on aesthetic grounds, he is an improvement on, say, Sir Robert Mark's endorsement of car tyres, or Lord George Brown's P&O Normandy Ferry commercials, in which he was amusingly 'interrupted' by a gigantic stuffed seagull.

At the end of the Sainsbury's ad, Healey raises his glass of bubbly and does something with his eyebrows before archly delivering the line: 'That really puts the top hat on it'. Money for old rope, you may say, yet how many other politicians could do it? For all the talk of the 'media age', few of today's crop can string a soundbite together.

John Major's recent attempts to cultivate the air of an English gentleman make an old bruiser like Healey look like Oscar Wilde. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Major is quoted as not giving a 'tuppenny hoot' about class. Yes, that's right - a tuppenny hoot. What does the man think he is playing at? Does he seriously believe that poncing about like a PG Wodehouse character is going to impress anyone?

Although I'm sure there has never been a shortage of ridiculous MPs, in the past the most loathsome specimens would have stayed under their stones. Today they fight for a place in the media sun, only to wilt under its merciless glare. Unfortunately, the worst of them seem to have a worm-like ability to reproduce themselves every time they are cut to pieces. So every time Gerry Hayes and Tony Banks - the pipsqueaks who squeak loudest - 'die the death' on chat shows and quizzes, their appearances become more and more frequent. Now, with an awful inevitability, a programme has been specially devised to satisfy their craving for the oxygen of publicity.

A Kick Up the Ballots, the game show for MPs, has been deservedly slaughtered by all and sundry, with most of the ridicule directed at the pathetic lack of wit displayed by the contestants. For sheer toe-curling embarrassment you'd be hard put to beat the spectacle of Hayes and Banks jumping about in their seats like a couple of schoolboys trying to get Sir's attention, and spouting their puerile 'jokes' to the amusement of nobody.

Hayes (Con, Harlow) is one of those lucky people who embarrasses everybody except himself and yet remains blissfully unaware of it. I'm sorry to report that I can't remember any of his bons mots. The efforts of Banks (no relation, Lab, Newham North West) were no better, but easier to remember, because he simply interrupted whoever was talking by shouting: 'John Major can stick it up his bum!' I never thought I'd find myself siding with Gerry Hayes, but every time Banks opened his mouth I found myself doing so. It got to the point where Neil Kinnock, of all people, tried to shut him up, and even David Mellor looked ashamed to be there.

When parliament was televised most people expected MPs to lose esteem. They now have none left to lose. It's not just that they are a bunch of buffoons who wet their pants when they win a point on a poxy game show. What is really shocking is their lack of respect for their own politics, or even for themselves.

The club-like atmosphere of Westminster used to signify its strength as an institution; now it reflects a jaded bipartisan cynicism. This wasn't attractive self-deprecation or a humorous sense of perspective. The contestants clearly expected some kind of kudos for poking fun at politics, as if they were Ian Hislop or Angus Deayton, rather than time-serving politicians. The empty shell of democracy was held up for all to laugh at, as if the whole thing was nothing to do with them. The overriding impression they gave was of contempt for their voters.

After two pilot episodes, it is hard to imagine this programme reappearing. But let's hope it does, in the spirit of open government.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993

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