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I blame the scapegoats, p.10

I blame the scapegoats, page 10


I blame the scapegoats

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  'Oh, didn't he know that one?' says his disappointed dad. 'He should have said what a wonderful job the teachers did, adding that this government has raised education spending in real terms as share of GDP from four point six per cent in 1997 to five per cent in 2001.'

  School reports for ministers' children might be another more direct route for teachers to get their point across. 'Kathryn continues to do well in all her studies and could normally expect to go to an excellent university. But unless you give us a big pay rise, I'm going to fail her in all subjects.'

  Everyone keeps telling teachers how marvellous they are, but it doesn't pay the mortgage. The way forward is for teachers to attempt the same condescending tactic themselves. When the bank rings up asking about this month's payment, they should say, 'You do a marvellous job, collecting all that money, well done, you bank managers are marvellous; it's a vocation, it really is.' I'm sure Barclays would be happy to leave it at that.

  Sadly, only 30 per cent of teachers actually took part in this week's strike vote, with the rest of them coming up with some very weak excuses for not bringing in the completed ballot papers. 'The dog ate it, sir.' 'I left it on the bus.' Or, 'My mum said I had to take my sister to Brownies so I didn't have time.' Several other teachers were seen copying off their friends in the playground before the bell went. The Department of Education suggested that the low turn-out in the ballot meant that the strike call lacked legitimacy; not the smartest argument to deploy from a government that was returned to office by only a quarter of the electorate. But Estelle Morris is right that strike action would be very bad news for London's schoolchildren - it would leave them with nowhere to play truant from.

  Five thousand police march (police estimate much lower)

  16 March 2002

  People are always saying they'd like to see more bobbies on the beat. Well, this week there were 5000 policemen all walking down one road in London. Unfortunately, they still didn't notice that bloke smashing the car window and nicking the stereo.

  In what must have been the most unusual demonstration in living memory, no banners were confiscated, no police helicopters drowned out the sound of the speakers, no activists were covertly filmed and the only unpleasant incident was when one officer became so confused that he dragged himself out of the crowd for being lippy and then beat himself up in the back of the van. Some of the marchers from outside the capital were not sure of the route to Westminster; they were hoping to ask a policeman, but you can never find one when you want one, can you? A few anarchists did turn up to act as impromptu stewards, but the police were not willing to do as instructed. For goodness sake, these anarchists are only trying to do their job, they are the thin multicoloured line who prevent our society from collapsing into, er, anarchy, no, hang on, that can't be right. . .

  Of course, for every 5000 policemen going on a march to Whitehall, there are another 15,000 filling out the relevant paperwork back at the station. (This situation is repeated in every area of police work. For every police sniffer dog searching for drugs, there are another four Alsatians putting their paw marks on bits of paper.) The march's organizers claim that police morale is very low, although most policemen I encounter can never stop laughing. All I said was, 'So is there any chance of getting my bike back?' The trouble is that new recruits go into the police force with an unrealistic idea of what the job involves. They've watched The Bill and Cops and they imagined it would be all kicking down doors and finding villains in bed with forty-something peroxide blondes. Police dramas should be forced to be more honest about the mundane reality. Scene One: Inspector Hooper is sitting in the youth magistrate's court waiting to give evidence. Scene Two: He looks at his watch - it is an hour later. Scene Three: He is still sitting there. In fact, this new, no-holds-barred police drama continues in this vein for a whole hour until the final action sequence, when the clerk of the court wanders in to tell him that the case has been adjourned because the defendant couldn't be bothered to turn up. Roll credits as the continuity announcer says, And there'll be more real-life inaction next week, when Inspector Hooper escorts an extra wide load at ten miles an hour down the entire length of the Ml.'

  It is partly to free up the police to spend more time actually solving crimes that the idea of civilian community-support officers was conceived. But the police are also angry about other proposed reforms, including cuts to overtime pay. They don't blame David Blunkett for all this; apparently their chief suspect is a young asylum seeker who they say has just confessed to everything in a police cell in Stoke Newington.

  There are currently no plans for another march, although personally I think it would be an excellent idea. Except next time they should march in uniform and spread out much more, so that there'd be a couple of them marching through every major crime spot of the inner cities. But it's hard to know where the police can take their protest next. They could try withdrawing goodwill, refusing to do some of the additional extras that so brighten up our lives. Imagine no more big yellow placards on the pavement saying 'Murder, Rape, Kidnap in your very road just the other day. Were you scared? Well, come on, you must be now.' Or in court they might resolve only to read out their evidence in a dull monotone, making it impossible for anyone actually to listen to what they're saying. But if none of this worked, then perhaps they'd be forced to break the law and down truncheons. A national police strike could be this Labour government's greatest test. Hundreds of ex-miners would have to be recruited to prevent the striking policemen from travelling around the country. Pitched battles would be fought as the police formed mass pickets around Wormwood Scrubs, trying to prevent the delivery of convicted felons.

  'We are asking our comrades from the criminal fraternity to support our action by refusing to cross this picket line.'

  'Oh, all right, I'll go home then.'

  Conservative Party activists would set up strikers' support groups, providing hot meals of roasted pheasant and donating cast-off clothing such as old Barbour jackets and green Wellingtons. At which point the public would decide the police had suffered enough. But of course we could never really have a police strike - if we did there might be lots of crimes and most of them wouldn't get cleared up. And a scenario like that - well, it's almost impossible to imagine.

  Criminals in the community

  23 March 2002

  This week David Blunkett announced that thousands of non-violent offenders would be released from prison early. Panic spread around the country as everyone simultaneously had the same terrifying thought: 'Will this include Jeffrey Archer?' Prisoners will be released sixty days early but will have to wear an electronic tag which can only be removed by a designated police officer or by using that machine on the clothes counter at British Home Stores. Of course there is a danger that the tags will become something of a status symbol, and before long kids will be mugging each other for them. And some might argue that just wearing a little bracelet is not much of a punishment for somebody who was supposed to be in jail. But digital signals emanating from the tag mean the convicted criminal is prevented from having too much fun while he is out and about. For example, if the wearer goes to the cinema, the device keeps ringing like a mobile phone just to embarrass him. The gadget is also designed to block out all television signals except Channel Five and UK Living, a feature that has prompted widespread criticism from Human Rights organizations. And at all other times, a built-in MP3 player plays 'Music Is My First Love' by John Miles over and over again. More serious offenders get a loop of 'Like To Get To Know You Well' by Howard Jones.

  Electronic tags were originally piloted when New Labour was first elected to office. A specially selected group were forced to wear them at all times so that their every movement could be tracked and recorded. Back then the tags were called 'MPs' pagers'. The technology has now advanced to the stage where the movements of thousands of offenders wearing tags could be monitored, so if the satellite picture shows a particularly heavy build-up of criminals in one particular area t
hen local radio stations could warn commuters. 'A lot of trafficking near the Hanger Lane gyratory system, where a lorry has just been turned over, so do expect further hold-ups at banks and post offices in the area.'

  The idea of releasing criminals into the community was begun by Group 4 security a while back. The private firm who won the contract for transferring offenders from one prison to another were shocked to discover that their vehicles were not secure enough and that the convicts kept jumping off the back of the tandem. But now 'Criminals in the Community' has become official policy and the next stage will have to be finding suitable jobs for the people who are serving out their sentences in our midst. For some industries it is a great opportunity: 'Estate agent seeks experienced con-artist to lie convincingly and obtain large amounts of money for no work.' 'Electrical retailers require fraudsters to swindle gullible customers with extended warranty scam.' 'Experienced in daylight robbery? We need you to sell our designer greetings cards and wrapping paper!'

  Tragically, one of the most obvious jobs for them would not be possible because their curfew would prevent them from turning up to sit in the House of Commons in the evening. Although, on second thoughts, that hasn't seemed to bother anyone else. The released offenders have to be inside their own homes by seven o'clock in the evening otherwise their tag bleeps and their carriage turns back into a pumpkin. So for twelve hours a day they are effectively swapping their old prison cells for their own houses. When offenders realized that this meant they had to pay for their own dinners they nearly rioted, but they'd just had the roof mended and didn't want to chuck any tiles into the begonias. 'I refuse to share a cell,' said the painted sheets hanging out of the windows. 'Conjugal Rights Now!' said another, and his wife shouted through the loud hailer, 'Well, make your bloody mind up!'

  Apart from relieving prison overcrowding, the idea of the tag is to help reintroduce prisoners to normal society. They are prevented from going out after dark so that they end up just falling asleep in front of the telly and eventually struggling up to bed. So in that sense it works fantastically: they're behaving exactly like the rest of society almost immediately. The prison population now exceeds 70,000, which is about the population of Bedford. It's hard to imagine things getting much worse for prisoners, apart from having to live in Bedford. The chances for rehabilitation must be greater if former offenders are playing an active role in normal society, and now they can walk around our towns and cities once more and see how things have changed since they were first sent to jail. And then they can get mugged, have their car hijacked, be burgled and then be set upon by a gang of drunken yobs; at which point they'll go running back to Wormwood Scrubs, bang on the doors and shout, 'Let me in - let me back in - they're all bloody criminals out here!'

  War! Hurr! What is it good for?

  30 March 2002

  Twenty years ago this week the news came through that Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands. Details were sketchy in those first few hours, though some people thought they might be in the Indian Ocean maybe, or perhaps near Australia somewhere. While the Foreign Office were still leafing through their big dusty atlas with the British Empire bits coloured in pink, Margaret Thatcher had already decided to go to war. Almost overnight she went from being a vulnerable and deeply unpopular Prime Minister to being an unassailable politician who was then in a position to do to British industry what she'd just done to the Belgrano. A fascist dictatorship was toppled in Argentina, but apart from that, everything went the way she wanted it.

  Now in the same way George W. Bush has been turned from discredited leader to popular national hero by embarking upon military action overseas. They are rewriting the lyrics to Edwin Starr's classic peace anthem. Now it goes: 'War! Hurr! What is it good for? Approval ratings for national leaders, yeah! War! Hurr! What is it good for? Deflecting attention from complex domestic problems! Say it again!'

  Back in 1982 America supported Britain in the Falklands War on condition that the British government signed a special contract drawn up by the Pentagon which stated, 'In return for US backing, Britain hereby promises to support every armed intervention that America undertakes for ever and ever.' There can't be any other explanation for this country's consistent enthusiasm for every America bombing raid or new missile deployment. When the White House declared a war on drugs, British jets were scrambled ready to bomb a solitary dope-dealer in downtown Detroit. If the President's daughter reveals her battle with underage drinking, then the SAS are sent in to battle with the demon drink on her behalf.

  But if we believe we can influence US foreign policy by sticking beside America, then we are deluding ourselves. Britain can no more affect the direction being taken than some teenage girl gripping onto the passenger seat as her joyriding boyfriend speeds out of control.

  One day in the not too distant future, Tony Blair will appear in tears opposite George W. Bush on the Jerry Springer Show. 'On today's programme, "World leaders who promised special relationships".' The host will put a reassuring hand on the British PM's shoulder as a bitter Tony recounts how much he did for this guy; he went to war for him, he stuck up for him when no one else would, even though all his friends warned him not to get too close. Because George had promised Tony that they would always do everything together. But then Bang! Bang! and it was all over; George had got what he wanted and he wasn't bothered about Tony any more. And then the audience will boo George from Texas as he shrugs and sneers, 'Hey, I get into bed with whoever suits me - who knows what I promised Terry here.' Cue the shouting and the undignified scuffle as they cut to the ads and Jerry Springer says, 'Coming up after these messages: "My brother screwed Florida"!'

  In the hysteria of the moment all wars can seem justifiable. During the War of Jenkins' Ear, all the woolly liberals were going around saying, 'Well, this Jenkins, chap did have his ear chopped off after all, so I think an all-out war against Spain is the only justifiable course of action.' But if the invasion of Iraq is such a great idea, why weren't we lobbying America to pursue this policy before they told us about it when they faxed through the infantry request form? We would all love to see Saddam Hussein being overthrown, but this has to be brought about by the people of Iraq. There are plenty of appalling regimes around the world and some we arm and some we bomb. In Saddam's case we have done both just to be on the safe side. If ever Arab support for peace in the Middle East needed to be courted it is now. So what does the American President think? 'I know! Why don't we invade Iraq? Because things are so quiet between Israel and the Palestinians at the moment that a US bombing of an Arab state would probably go down really well.' I had PE teachers more intelligent than George W. Bush. Tony Blair has to put some distance between himself and the Global Village Idiot. The Labour Party might be able to forgive its leader for behaving like a president, but they could never forgive him for behaving like that president.

  And then our Prime Minister should explain to Bush that Britain can only go to war in extreme circumstances and when very precise criteria have been met. 'I'm sorry, George, but Britain can only bomb or invade a country where the leader has not been democratically elected and where the regime has recently executed British citizens. Oh no, hang on, that's America, isn't it? Um, look, I'll get back to you . . .'

  Nationalized Grand National

  6 April 2002

  Today is the Grand National, the toughest challenge in the horse racing calendar and preparations are already under way. All leave at the glue factory is cancelled and the dog meat vans are reversing up to the side of the course. Perhaps it would be a fitting tribute to our recently departed Queen Mother's love of horse racing if the winners of this year's Grand National were used in Tuesday's funeral procession. It would certainly speed things up a bit to have the gun carriage pulled along by a couple of galloping racehorses, clearing the fence into St James's Park, leaping over the water and then speeding down the final straight of Whitehall as thousands of punters cheered them on from behind the crash barriers.

bsp; The Grand National used to be a special date in the British calendar because it was the one day a year when everyone would have a flutter; one harmless dabble in the world of gambling and that was it. Then suddenly the National Lottery had us throwing our money away fifty-two weeks a year, soon followed by a second mid-week draw just in case anyone had any income support still left by Wednesday. But still this wasn't enough. Now Britain's gambling laws are being relaxed after Robin Cook bet Tony Blair that they wouldn't be. The government has announced it is repealing those petty regulations that for some reason had banned one-armed bandits from nurseries, churches and operating theatres. Apparently the idea is to help tourism by turning Blackpool into a British Las Vegas. The gangsters of Nevada must be really worried - all those hardened American gamblers who now play poker and blackjack are suddenly going to be rushing over to Lancashire to try their hand at bingo. 'Guns on the table and clickety click, eyes down for a full house! Two lines of coke - eleven! A pair of Uzi pistols - seventy-seven!'

  But where was the demand for all this? Where were the demonstrations from outraged citizens denied the right to give all their money away to dodgy casino owners? How often have you sat in a pub and thought, 'The trouble with this place is there just aren't enough fruit machines!' (It is no longer politically correct to call them 'one-armed bandits', following intensive lobbying by a number of people who are actually bandits by profession and have lost one of their upper limbs in robbery-related accidents.)

  It's not a question of being a kill-joy, because there is very little joy in today's instant forms of gambling. Where's the fun or skill in scratch cards, fruit machines or the Lottery? You spend a quid, and in one split second suddenly realize you've just lost a quid. Wow, that was worth it! The reason that horse racing is such an infinitely superior way of throwing your money away is that it provides a narrative, an unfolding drama in which you discover that, despite all your expert analysis of the form and conditions, random factors have conspired against you, and so after a few minutes' thrilling or exasperating entertainment your money is finally lost. Or rather the money your partner put in that charity envelope by the front door is lost. And now you can even bet from home; online betting is replacing many bookmakers as computers are programmed to grunt at you and give you the wrong winnings.

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