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I blame the scapegoats, p.12

I blame the scapegoats, page 12


I blame the scapegoats

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  Next week a Private Member's Bill is to be tabled which proposes compulsory voting, but sadly no MPs will bother turning up to the chamber to vote for it: 'What's the point, you know, it never changes anything . . .' Maybe we should try thinking in terms of a carrot instead of a stick. Here is one possible idea to radically increase voter turn-out at a stroke. On the Saturday after the election there should be an additional Lottery draw for a £5 million jackpot. For this draw you wouldn't have to buy a Lottery ticket; all you'd have to do is to have gone and voted in that Thursday's general election. The prize money could come from within the system; every time there was no jackpot winner, half a million could be taken out of the amount rolling over to the following week. Over the year the fund would build up until there was a huge jackpot to be won on the Saturday after the election. But you are only in the draw if you voted. Turn-out would shoot up to 80 per cent - with just a handful of billionaires saying, 'I can't see the point, it wouldn't change anything . . .'

  Obviously this 'Voter's Jackpot' idea would need to be piloted somewhere first, and I am happy to suggest my own ward as the ideal testing ground; in fact, just my road would probably be all you needed to try it out, maybe just odd numbers only. It might strike some people as a bit vulgar, but drastic action needs to be taken. In the first normal British election after the Second World War, the turn-out was 84 per cent. But it's not as if there's ever going to be another Nazi takeover of mainland Europe to make us sit up and realize the importance of taking part. Oh hang on, no, that's tomorrow, isn't it?*

  *Jacques Chirac did of course go on to win the French Presidential election after the French answered the inspiring rallying call of 'Vote for the Crook, Not the Nazi!'

  It's what one would have wanted

  I I May 2002

  It's the same in every family. First the shock and sadness at the death of an elderly relative, and then the mad scramble to get your hands on all their stuff. If you look back at the footage of the Queen Mother's funeral procession, you can see that it speeds up considerably towards the end, as members of the royal family compete to be first one back to the house to help themselves to the jewellery. No wonder Edward and Andrew stood guard over her coffin; they were there to stop all the other relatives nicking the crown off the top.

  Like any pensioner, the Queen Mother had acquired a few bits and bobs over the years. Much of her fortune was tied up in a vast collection of coupons cut out of magazines, promising savings such as 10p off a tub of Asda own-brand margarine. A constitutional wrangle is developing over who gets the bundles of £5 notes that were discovered rolled up under the mattress. The old lady also had an impressive art collection, with such paintings as Kitten Playing with Ball of Wool, and on top of the telly were several porcelain figurines as advertised in the Sunday Express colour supplement (including the hand-crafted and individually numbered statuette Man's Best Friend-three monthly instalments still to be paid). There was one piece of abstract artwork that could not be explained: a small Haitian doll bearing a vague resemblance to Wallis Simpson with a lot of pins stuck in it.

  But while most families squabble over who gets the carriage clock, the royal family have the additional matter of a number of palaces and castles that have to be divvied out as well.

  'I think I should get Clarence House, the Royal Lodge at Windsor and her house at Balmoral, because, er - it's what she would have wanted.'

  'Well, I think we should respect her last wishes, the ones expressed privately to me which were that, um ... I should get the whole lot.'

  Charles will now be moving into the granny flat known as Clarence House. It was about time he got his own pad; he was getting a bit old to be tiptoeing past his mother's bedroom at night, whispering to Camilla to skip the third step because it creaks a bit. The Queen Mother's Castle of Mey near John O'Groats has been suggested for Edward and Sophie.

  'Ya, like a sort of holiday home thingy?' asked Edward.

  'Well, kind of. . .' said the other royals. 'But don't feel under any pressure to hurry back.'

  Meanwhile, second-tier royals such as Viscount Linley and Princess Michael of Kent are being asked to leave Kensington Palace. Two tattooed men in sheepskin coats with a couple of Rottweilers will be round with the sledgehammers first thing Monday, telling them to clear their stuff out pronto. Kensington Palace will then be let on the open market; Posh and Becks have already been round to measure up for curtains.

  The Queen Mother's estate is reckoned to be worth around £50 million, a figure which could double once they take all the empties back to the off-licence. Normally the Treasury could expect to get about £20 million out of this, but apparently the royals won't be paying a penny in inheritance tax.

  Presumably the Queen just has a very creative accountant who's somehow proved that the firm is operating at a loss. He's spent the last two weeks with Her Majesty trying to think up more and more elaborate expenses, while Philip sits in the corner scribbling random amounts on to a pad of blank taxi receipts.

  'I know, Liz, how about we say you have to spend a grand a week on flowers? That's a business expense innit?'

  'Urn, well, one's public does tend to give one a lot of flowers for nothing . . .'

  'Yeah, but the taxman ain't gonna know that, is he? Now how much shall I put down for crown polish?'

  In fact, the Treasury will not be getting £20 million in death duties because of a so-called 'sovereign to sovereign' deal that was struck by John Major's government in 1993. Of course, it would be very easy for cynics to say that there was one rule for the rich and another for the poor. And the reason that it would be so easy is because it's true.

  But the fact that Her Majesty isn't legally obliged to hand over the money means it would be a greater PR gesture if she did so voluntarily. Or why not donate the money to a specific social project which could bear her mother's name? The Queen Mother Crack Addicts Drop-In Centre? The Queen Mother Refuge for Bangladeshi Lesbians? It's what she wouldn't have wanted. But sadly the royal family will be too busy fighting amongst themselves over all those little incidental possessions, like Caithness, to think about giving any money away. The truth is that they have made millions out of her sad passing. No wonder they were always creeping up behind her and shouting 'Boo!'

  Filthy lucre

  18 May 2002

  .In last month's sizzling edition of Big Ones there was something familiar about one of the Readers' True-Life Confessions. Mr TB from Westminster wrote, 'It was my party and everyone kept giving me presents, but the biggest treat was more than I bargained for! I hadn't had an election for four years and suddenly this porn star with these big wads came up and offered to give me a good funding, just like that! Well, I was desperate for it, I can tell you. I've never had any cheques like it and I didn't feel guilty, even when everyone found out.'

  On Thursday night Newsnight viewers were treated to the sight of Jeremy Paxman listing the titles of the pornographic magazines that were published by Richard Desmond, such as Asian Babes, Spunk Loving Sluts and Big Ones, and then asking the Prime Minister if he was familiar with these magazines. Just off camera, Alastair Campbell was waving at his boss mouthing 'No!' and shaking his head vigorously. Oh, that's cheating, thought Paxman. Just when Tony was about to tell us who were his favourite porn models and mime the most distinguishing features of the girls in Big and Busty: 'I tell you what, mate, that bird who was the centrefold last month - phwoar! Know what I mean, Jezza? Phwoar! Eh? I've got Busty Brenda pinned up in the cabinet office next to that list of New Labour's Aims and Values and no mistake!'

  The PM pointedly refused to condemn the publications of the most embarrassing donor to give money to the Labour Party since Robert Kilroy-Silk resigned his membership. But the association with Richard Desmond finally caused the Prime Minister some grief at home when Cherie was sorting out Tony's old jumpers at the back of his wardrobe and discovered a grubby, well-thumbed copy of the Daily Express.

  'Oh that!' blushed Tony. 'Well, um, t
here's actually some very good interviews . . .'

  Meanwhile, round at Richard Desmond's house, the pornographer's wife was equally upset. 'What are you doing associating yourself with these people, Richard? Have you heard some of the titles that New Labour have published? Towards a Public Private Partnerships. Ugh -it's appalling! No Benefits without Responsibilities^. It sounds obscene!'

  During an awkward discussion in cabinet, ministers admitted that Desmond's porn mags were not the sort of family publications with which the Labour Party ought to be associated. 'These magazines, they never show the love involved in sex,' said Robin Cook. 'And all the others that I researched - they didn't show any love either; very little sign of any love in over a hundred publications, which I thoroughly checked and rechecked.'

  In the old days they used to say that the Labour Party tended towards financial improprieties while the Tory ministers would get caught out with sex scandals. Now New Labour have shown what is meant by the Third Way with a story that manages to combine both. The whole sordid episode raises many questions. Why did Desmond want to give this money? Why did the Labour Party accept it? And just who is that weirdo that goes into the woods and scatters pornographic magazines everywhere?

  Clearly the decision to accept the cash was a political decision, not a financial one. To send the donation back would have stuck up two fingers to the owner of a major newspaper in the run-up to the General Election. It is quite possible that Desmond gave the money with exactly this test in mind. Perhaps he hoped that the association would make people see him as a respectable mainstream publisher. (Desmond does not like to be called a pornographer, according to people close to the pornographer.) Once upon a time Clare Short strode into W. H. Smith and took the pornographic magazines off the top shelf. Now the government has effectively marched back into the shop and put them back on the shelves lower down.

  But if the Labour Party are going to take donations from a pornographer, why don't they cut out the middle man and just raise the money this way themselves? 'It's ladies' night at Spearmint Rhino. Live pole-dancing with Stephen Byers! You simply won't believe it!' Or 'Live on tour - The Full Monty, starring Jack Straw and John Prescott. Watch those dark suits come off to the tune of the Red Flag!' Soon the telephone boxes around Westminster will be full of little cards stuck up with Blu-tack, featuring pictures of eager young-politicians with black bars across their eyes: 'Young politician - fresh in town - Lobby Me!' 'New Labour MP - I'll do whatever I'm told!' Or how about a live website: '"Tony-cam", featuring X-tremely X-citing X-certs of the PM's bedroom action, featuring Tony sitting up in bed reading "Whither the Euro"'? They might never need to have another Labour Party fundraising dinner ever again. Or is the depressing truth that more people are turned on by pictures of naked women than they are by our politicians? I suppose there will always be a fundamental difference between pornography and politics. With the magazines you only imagine you're getting screwed.

  School's out

  25 May 2002

  Two major educational problems emerged this week: truancy and exclusions. It seems that if children are refusing to turn up for lessons, it makes it very difficult to expel them.

  'Listen, lad, if you keep being absent from school like this, you won't be allowed into school, do you understand?'


  'No, neither do I.'

  The DFES says that exclusions are only being used in extreme circumstances, such as when children are dealing in hard drugs or bringing weapons into the playground. Honestly, did these ministers never play swapsies when they were at school? 'I'll swap you my plastic snake for your Bobby Moore Esso Cup Coin,' or 'I'll swap you this kilo of heroin for your Kalashnikov semi-automatic' Yet another innocent playground pastime banned by the do-gooders of the political correctness brigade!

  Apparently some of these schools are so rough that the few kids having music lessons have to smuggle their violins into class hidden inside machine-gun cases. Last week an eleven-year-old girl was excluded for punching a teacher, which might be worth bearing in mind when they come to update What Katy Did Next. This week's figures represent the first increase in school exclusions since Labour

  came to power. And the number looks set to rise further, with whole classes expected to be sent home next month. The fact that this will happen to be on the days of England World Cup matches will be pure coincidence.

  It is a bit hard to know what to do when teenagers have already strayed so far outside the system. Iain Duncan Smith has come up with a few tough suggestions of his own to punish Britain's errant schoolkids: officer cadets will be denied permission to wear their uniform on St George's Day and boarders won't be allowed to read the lesson in chapel. But it's possible that this may not be enough.

  One mother was recently sent to prison because her daughters were consistently missing school. Except the prison governor suddenly-spotted her with her daughters in the Arndale Centre. 'Hang on -you're supposed to be in jail - what are you doing coming out of Asda?' To which her daughters replied, 'Nah, she had to come shopping with us today. She might be in later in the week . . .'

  Being teenage daughters, the girls were probably not too concerned that their actions had sent their mother to prison. 'Oh god, why's there no food in the fridge? Honestly, she's so selfish!' Suddenly teenagers have another means of bullying their parents. 'Right - either you let me get my eyebrow pierced or I'm skiving off school today and you'll be back inside. It's your choice, Mum.'

  Obviously many of these problems start at home. My old English teacher told me that when he took a class on a school trip round the local police station his most disruptive pupil glanced into the cells and said a cheery 'Hello, Dad!' The way things are going, this might be the only way for truants to see their parents, but at least they'll be taking part in school trips.

  However, the idea of taking child benefit away from the parents of consistent truants is not acceptable. You can take parents to court and the judge may choose to fine them. But child benefit is not a special treat for best-behaved parents, it is a hard-fought-for right for all. 'These parents are living in poverty and have lost control of their children.' 'Okay, well, the solution must be to make them poorer!'

  Of course it's not always that easy to track down the kids who are playing truant. One effective method is for teachers to ring the phone numbers of their stolen mobiles and then when someone answers they say, 'Why aren't you in class today?' Some excuses are better than others:

  'Why isn't your fourteen-year-old daughter in school this morning?'

  'Because she's giving birth to twins.'

  'Oh, I see. What about her little brother?'

  'Well, someone had to drive her to the hospital.'

  Most truancy actually takes place with the parent's permission. By 'truancy' we are obviously only referring to working-class children being off school - it is an entirely different matter if middle-class parents are taking their kids out during term time, because that was the only week the villa in Tuscany was available: 'Oh yes, I mean, think of the educational value little Henry will get from seeing the architecture in Florence and Pisa.'

  'Quite, and last year he learnt several Italian words, like, erm, "pizza"

  Local authorities are now employing truancy officers to question parents who are out and about with their kids during school hours. The next stage will be to patrol Legoland and Disneyland Paris, where they'll catch thousands at a time. They'll hide inside the Mickey Mouse costume and just when Mum and Dad think a giant cartoon character is hugging their kids, they'll suddenly realize Mickey is picking them up and slinging them in the back of a police van.

  'What's this ride called?'

  'Back to school-land. Now shut up.'

  God bless the World Cup

  I June 2002

  The Queen has been in a fantastic mood this week. Her Golden Jubilee appears to have prompted an enormous surge in patriotism, with pubs and cafes all decked out with the flag of St George.

sp; 'But why do all these people celebrating the Jubilee have "Come On England!" all over their white vans?' she asked her advisers.

  'Er, well, Ma'am, they are urging the rest of England to "come on" and celebrate Your Majesty's Jubilee . . .'

  'Oh, I see. But why does it say "Owen For Ever"? What's Owen?'

  'Ah, that, well, yes, er, that's an acronym, Ma'am ... It stands for, erm, "Onwards With Elizabeth's Nation" . . . yes, that works . . .'

  'Well, I must say one hasn't seen such an outpouring of national pride since you pointed out that everyone was celebrating my fortieth birthday back in nineteen sixty-six!'

  As a simple test of how the English people channel their patriotism, support for the national football team has totally eclipsed any interest in the Queen's Golden Jubilee. It's a complete walkover: England Flags 5, Union Jacks 1. (Of course all the flags were actually made in China, but that's another matter.) If the Queen had broken her lower metatarsal two months ago, it's hard to imagine the nation fretting quite so much as to whether she'd have been fit to do royal walkabouts in time for the Jubilee bank holiday. 'And the news from the Buck House dressing room is that the Queen is looking fifty-fifty for the royal balcony waving on June the third. The physio laureate has said he doesn't want to push her too fast; some of those red carpets can be pretty treacherous.'

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