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I blame the scapegoats, p.11

I blame the scapegoats, page 11


I blame the scapegoats

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  The liberalization of gambling wouldn't be so bad if it was being used to raise more money for public services. But the tax charged at bookies was recently repealed so the Treasury no longer even gets 9 per cent of the child benefit back again. The National Lottery established the principle that gambling could benefit good causes, but this opportunity should have been taken to make all gambling give a similar percentage to charities. Or even better, nationalize all casinos, bookmakers and the Lottery and keep all the profit for our schools and hospitals. Imagine the scene in Park Lane at the glamorous setting of British Casinos, the new state-run gaming club:

  'Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen!'

  'Fifty pounds on thirteen black, please!'

  'No, you can't really place your bet here - you have to go over to our other office in Peckham, fill out form CF/R7 - unless your stake is over a hundred pounds, in which case you need form CF/R12. Send it off to the sorting office at Didsbury and we should have that bet processed for you in three to four months' time.'

  Today's big steeplechase would be a nationalized Grand National, though the tannoys might relay a slightly different commentary: 'We apologize for the late arrival of the runners and riders for today's three o'clock. This is due to jockey shortages. For those horses that wish to travel to Becher's Brook, a temporary bus service is in operation.'

  But I still think it's a great idea. New Labour to nationalize all gambling? You'd be able to get pretty long odds on that one.

  Does the working class exist?

  13 April 2002

  This week a writ was submitted to the High Court which stated, 'The words "working classes" are not now capable of any meaningful definition.' The judge looked up from his copy of the Daily Star, took a stubby pencil from behind his ear and said, 'Ooh dear, nah, mate, a court case like that's gonna cost yer innit? And we're booked up for ages - tell you what, I'll see if one of me mates can adjudicate for yer, I'll just get me mobile from the van.'

  The assertion that the working classes no longer exist is being made by a property company who want to develop a site in central London for luxury housing despite a 1929 covenant which states that the land may only be used to provide housing for the working classes. The clause goes on to say that they must have stone cladding and a satellite dish on the front, a car stacked up on bricks in the front garden and a doorbell that plays an electric version of 'Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner'.

  The original 1929 clause was clearly intended to safeguard housing for ordinary people doing low-paid jobs, and today this need is greater than ever. Obviously the working classes are not the same as they were in the 1920s. They're not all wearing flat caps and saying to a wobbly-black-and-white camera, 'Well, I'm just a simple working man and don't know nuffink about no gold standard but if that Mr Churchill says we's ought go back on it, well that's good enuff for the likes of me!'

  To hear some of the commentators on this story over the past couple of days you would think they'd never met a working-class person in their lives. (Presumably their cleaners are from the Philippines so that doesn't count.) It's like we're talking about some near extinct species that could only be tracked down after days spent trekking through the urban jungle. You can almost imagine the next nature documentary from the BBC, featuring a memorable piece of footage in which David Attenborough encounters a surviving family group of the endangered species known as 'working-class people'. He whispers to camera that he is going to try to get closer. At first they are wary of him; the dominant male grunts and furrows his eyebrows before returning to feed on his natural diet of crisps and Tango. The mother seems anxious about her new offspring; he's still not back from the shop with her fags, but the older cubs are more playful, and before long are climbing all over David Attenborough and nicking his mobile phone.

  In the old days you could tell what social class people belonged to by the way that they voted. The middle classes voted SDP and the working classes all voted for Maggie. If you go further back in history it was even more confusing: the rich people were fat and the poor people were all thin. Apparently the poor didn't eat much and had to walk everywhere; in direct contrast to today, of course, where the Royle family lie around all day in front of the telly eating bacon butties while the high earners are starving themselves on a lettuce leaf and spending an hour a day on a Stairmaster treadmill. But there are also all sorts of ways in which the classes overlap. I might decide to get myself a proletarian supper of fish and chips, but then I'll go and give myself away by asking if the vinegar is balsamic. (I hadn't had such a funny look since I asked if it was organic free-range chicken in the KFC bargain bucket.) Ultimately it still comes down to money. The working classes are embarrassed that they don't have more of it, and the middle classes are mortified that they have so much. All of these determining factors will be gone over in the High Court later this year. My prediction is that the court will rule in favour of the property company, thereby finally establishing in law that the British working class is indeed finally extinct. In other words, the law courts will have sided with the posh chaps from the property company in Surrey. And what more proof do you need that the English class system is alive and well and still screwing the working classes as much as ever? It makes my middle-class blood boil so much I want to tut and say, 'Honestly!', but best not make a fuss, I suppose.

  Labour to increase taxes shock!

  20 April 2002

  The day before the budget the government heard some terrifying news. The Conservatives stated that they would not support increased health spending unless it was accompanied by reform. Panic spread through the cabinet. 'Oh no - the opposition have threatened to oppose us! What are we going to do? Without those crucial votes the budget will only be passed with a wafer-thin majority of a hundred and sixty-seven votes.'

  By endlessly talking about the need to reform the NHS, political leaders are implying that the Health Service is somehow to blame for its own shortcomings. 'You can't solve these problems just by throwing money at them,' they say. What, problems like shortage of money? 'Exactly,' they continue. 'You might think that the solution to under-funding would be more funds, but nothing could be further from the truth.'

  Maybe doctors should attempt this trick on the next politician to be rushed to casualty? 'Quick! He's lost four pints of blood; get him a transfusion quick!'

  'Yes, but you see you can't just solve this shortage-of-blood problem by throwing blood at it,' says the doctor.

  'But my blood pressure is dangerously low!' gasps the politician lying on the trolley.

  'Not in real terms,' says the doctor. 'The rate of decrease is actually levelling out and it's still much higher than it was under the last government.'

  'And my temperature is a hundred and five - that's critically high, isn't it?'

  'Not when seasonally adjusted, and we remain firmly committed to a year-on-year reduction to bring it into line with the European average by two thousand and seven.'

  It is of course wonderful news that this Labour government is committing £40 billion to the National Health Service so soon after ousting the Tories in, er, 1997. In the NHS the effects were immediate. There was a sudden drop in the number of Labour Party members being treated for severe depression. The budget was cheered by Labour back-benchers because, unlike previous budgets, they understood several words of it. The sentence 'more spending on the NHS' is actually five words in a row and constitutes a record for the longest any MP has concentrated on a budget speech without closing their eyes and dreaming that they are Martin Sheen in The West Wing.

  The trouble is that most people on the left didn't get involved in politics because they felt passionate about a prudent stewardship of the national economy. Not many of us ever went on marches chanting, 'What do we want?' 'Abolition of the national insurance ceiling in order that NHS spending as a proportion of GDP can be brought into line with other Western democracies!' Our solution to the complex economic problems of this country was basically that there
was this woman called Maggie, and we wanted her out.

  Then the Labour Party rather threw us by actually coming to power and on day one they set about putting the economy straight. 'So, interest rates?' said Gordon. 'What do we think - up or down?' And the various junior Treasury ministers pretended to think really hard as a way of covering up the fact that they had no idea what was the expected answer. 'Um - I dunno, maybe just move them sideways a bit?' Ten minutes later it was agreed to hand this particular decision over to the Bank of England. Maybe that's why the Tories invented laissez-faire economics: it meant you didn't even have to pretend to comprehend any of it.

  But this 2002 budget was different because everyone understood it. We're going to pay more National Insurance and get a better NHS. It is indeed great news, even if it shows how bad things had got that this should seem such a radical idea. 'Hooray, hooray! Labour government to raise money to pay for health service! You know that car we've had for all these years, well, they're going to let us put petrol in it too!'

  While many Labour MPs cheered the news, some of the 1997 breed of New Labour clones were bitter about this betrayal of everything they stood for. 'Typical Labour Party sell-out!' they shouted angrily. 'Oh yeah, in opposition it's all "Down with the workers and up with big business" - but as soon as you get into power you change your tune!' Some of them are thinking of forming a faction called 'Old New Labour'. But most people in the country welcome last Wednesday's great news. This government is putting £40 billion pounds into the NHS because at last they finally understand what is most important to the people of this country. If that's how much it's going to cost to mend David Beckham's toe, then so be it.

  Match abandoned (following inspection by accountants)

  27 April 2002

  There were ugly scenes in the Commons yesterday when rival supporters clashed over the collapse of ITV Digital and the future of the football league. Playing way out on the right wing, Blues forward Tim Yeo missed another open goal, prompting the usual groans from the dwindling band of long-suffering supporters behind him. Soon they turned their frustration on the yuppie supporters opposite, jeering at the hundreds of New Labour fans and chanting, 'Where were you when you were shit?' Afterwards new signing Tessa Jowell said she was 'sick as a parrot, but at the end of the day, we give it our best shot but it weren't to be and that's football innit?'

  ITV Digital was born out of the presumption that there was no limit to the amount of football that the viewing public would watch. On BBC1 there was football, on Sky Sports there was football and on ITV, well, there were highlights of Leicester City versus Derby. Of course, there were still plenty of other things on telly. There was drama about footballers' wives or quiz shows featuring retired footballers. The clamour to get more football on television reached such a fever pitch I'm surprised that even infant school friendlies weren't televised. I'm sure Des Lynam and his guests would have done their best to provide expert half-time analysis:

  'I'm worried about the shape of this under-eights team, Des. Instead of playing four-four-two, they've opted for the less conventional formation of eleven. If we just look at the replay here, watch the marking from seven-year-old Jamie. He should be tracking back to mark the centre forward, but no, he's waving to his mum and the striker goes straight past him and scores.'

  'To be fair, Andy, the striker is from the same side and is scoring in the wrong goal there . . .'

  'Well, that's another area of their game they're gonna have to work on, Des. At this level if you keep scoring in the wrong goal, you're going to lose games.'

  ITV Digital paid hundreds of millions of pounds for the rights to the Nationwide League, but then to everyone's shock and amazement it turns out that no one was particularly interested in paying lots of money to watch Kidderminster Harriers v. Cheltenham Town. Who could possibly have foreseen such an outcome? That clubs that were only attracting a couple of thousand supporters in their home towns would not attract millions of viewers across the country! It's the greatest surprise since a stunned nation learned that Wales had failed to qualify for the World Cup.

  Now dozens of minor clubs who had been promised large amounts of cash from the deal are faced with extinction. Century-old clubs that are part of this country's sporting heritage will be bulldozed to make way for garden centres and DIY superstores. But will anyone actually go to these garden centres? Will these supermarkets really make any money? All right, yes, they will, but that's not the point. There is more money in the game than ever before, and yet the smaller clubs are going bankrupt. When they said that football was a metaphor for life, now we know what they meant.

  The Football League chairman is called Keith Harris, which was always a worry. How did we hand over our national sport to someone whose only experience is putting his hand up a duck's bottom? But the real soccer hooligans in this story are Carlton and Granada, the companies behind ITV Digital. They were very keen to make a quick buck out of the beautiful game (or 'the rather dreary game', when we realized which matches they'd bought), but despite their poor business judgement they're happy to walk away and leave the football clubs to perish. Those expensive set-top receivers will still have their uses, of course. Anyone in need of a sturdy paperweight or handy doorstop need look no further.

  A major shake-up of the league structure now looks inevitable. At the beginning of next season the clubs will have to stand against a wall and then Nationwide Divisions One and Two will take turns to pick. 'Stoke City, we'll have you. Er, Coventry - over here!' Meanwhile Torquay and Lincoln will be standing there with their hands up saying, 'Pick me! Pick me!', knowing that no one wants them and they'll just have to play rounders instead.

  Despite this fiasco, the onward march of digital technology continues. Because it's just better, apparently - if you had been reading this column online, for example, you'd be getting much funnier jokes than in the piece on the printed page. That's the brilliant scam about anything digital: it does exactly the same thing, it's just much more expensive.

  'Excuse me, why is this cup of tea seven pounds eighty?'

  'Well, it's digital - it's digital tea; everyone has got to switch over to digital tea soon, digital coffee, digital Ovaltine - they say the price will come down eventually . . .'


  'Yeah, unless it all goes bankrupt, of course, and then no one will have any tea whatsoever. There's your digital sugar - that's another five pounds please.'

  Talking ballots

  4 May 2002

  Lionel Jospin and his wife had a terrible row this morning. All she said was, 'I bet you never thought you'd be voting for Jacques Chirac tomorrow!' Honestly, some people can be so touchy sometimes. To understand the misery of French socialists this weekend, imagine yourself having to vote for Margaret Thatcher to keep out the BNP. Alone in the polling booth, your hand would shake and then recoil at such an unnatural act, and then your other hand would be needed to grip it and physically force it to put that supportive cross next to the words 'Thatcher, Margaret, the Conservative Party candidate'. Outside, Labour activists would be on hand to treat traumatized socialist voters, dispensing sympathetic counselling and vomit bags, while in the distance hard-left demonstrators chanted 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, In! In! In!'

  In Britain's local elections this week, turn-out was up from appalling to just dismal, prompted in part by the French National Front's success and the spectre of gains for the BNP. The lazy excuse that 'they're all the same' now seems a little hollow.

  'I mean, what's the point in voting? One lot say they're going to invest in education and the other lot say they are going to invade Poland - I can't see any difference between them frankly'

  'Exactly, one party promises more bobbies on the beat and the other

  promises to create lebensraum for the Nordic master race - there's nothing to choose between them any more.'

  We won't always be able to rely on French fascists to push up our local election turn-out a meagre 5 per cent or so, and drastic
action is still needed to tackle voter apathy. On Thursday all sorts of pilot schemes were attempted to encourage people to take part. In Hackney the entire election was done by postal voting and we are expecting the result as soon as last year's Christmas cards are finally sorted. Residents in other boroughs were able to vote using the remote control on their digital television. After pressing the wrong button residents in one ward have discovered that their local councillor is now Will Young from Pop Idol. Another experiment was internet voting, which was heralded as the greatest leap for democracy since the hanging chad. If only they'd had voting by computer in Florida, that would have made people less suspicious, wouldn't it? It's not just the idea of hacking that's so scary; it is the political opinions and interests of those anoraks who spend endless nights alone in front of their computers. And the winner of the Antrim North by-election, by over a million last-minute online votes, is Pre-Op Ladyboy Lola of the White Supremacist Bondage Party.' Other votes on Thursday were cast using text messaging. Imagine the arguments at the count while the returning officer tried to sort out all the messages that said 'IM VTNG 4 LB' between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the zany Lord Dyslexia. Next they'll be suggesting voting by telepathy. Mystic Meg will be employed to sit in the polling station and say, 'I can sense that Mr Jones at twenty-three Station Road wishes to vote Lib Dem, but would mistakenly vote for only one council candidate instead of the permitted three.'

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