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I blame the scapegoats, p.16

I blame the scapegoats, page 16


I blame the scapegoats

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  'What are you talking about?' would come the reply. 'That's to keep you in here.'

  Atomkraft? Nein danke!

  7 September 2002

  Yesterday panicking crowds headed for the hills, holding up flimsy umbrellas and clutching handkerchiefs over their mouths. The newspapers had carelessly printed the terrifying headline: 'Britain's Nuclear Industry - Collapse Imminent'. It turns out that British Energy, which runs Britain's eight nuclear power stations, is on the brink of insolvency. Apparently the Sellafield Visitors' Centre Gift Shop is not selling quite as many Chernobyl shaky-snow fall-out scenes as they'd hoped. The sealed nuclear waste paperweights just aren't shifting and the kiddies' glow-in-the-dark plutonium bars are down to half price.

  Although we are not about to be poisoned by a Chernobyl-style explosion, to listen to the shareholders in Britain's nuclear industry you'd think the reality was even worse. On yesterday's Today programme, British Energy shareholder Malcolm Stacey was incandescent that a government rule change had resulted in a 20 per cent drop in electricity-prices for the consumer. Cheaper electricity for the masses or greater profits for shareholders, hmmm, that's one of those really tricky moral issues, isn't it? The sort of thing that would have kept Keir Hardie wrestling with his conscience for years.

  Mr Stacey called on the government to bail out investors whose shares had fallen in value. On hearing this Gordon Brown must have leapt out of bed and straight into action. What greater priority can there be for a Labour government than compensating speculators who've lost money on British Energy shares? 'You know all that money we were going to give to schools and hospitals?' says the Chancellor. 'Forget all that; this is the reason I went into politics, to compensate nuclear shareholders!! These are the real heroes of our society. Sorry, nurses! Sorry, teachers! I need that money to hand out to City speculators who gambled and lost.'

  British Energy was privatized the year before Labour came to power, but although the nuclear industry has been receiving massive subsidies for fifty years, it is still not profitable. Last year BE lost £518 million and remains heavily in debt. They tried to get a mortgage on Sellafield but the valuation had to be halted when the surveyors kept banging their little hammers on the side of the reactor. BE also own nuclear power stations overseas and are hoping to raise money by selling those. Apparently there's a man from Iraq who's very interested.

  At last the nuclear lobby are no longer getting everything their own way. They knew they were in trouble when Tony Blair's ministerial Jaguar was replaced with a purple 2CV with a smiley sticker saying 'Atomkraft? Nein Danke!' It all started to go wrong for them when John Prescott was at Environment. They explained to him the complex nuclear physics that made atomic power possible and he just said, 'Right, but what if the pilot light blows out?'

  Despite support from the Conservative Energy spokesman, British Energy have failed in their campaign for exemption from the £80 million climate-change levy. For some reason the government does not see nuclear power as especially environmentally friendly. Nuclear power can effect climate change; for example, it got much, much hotter around Chernobyl a while back. The chairman of British Energy, Robin Jeffrey, Britain's very own Mr Burns from The Simpsons, audaciously claims that nuclear is the greenest form of power because it doesn't emit any greenhouse gases. 'Doh!' as Homer would say. Yes, apart from the deadly toxic waste that remains radioactive for thousands of years, it really is a very green form of energy; apart from endlessly producing one of the most lethal substances known to man that has to be dumped underground to leak into the water supply and poison future generations, it's as green as an organic mung bean farm. But these bearded sandal-wearers always accentuate the negative when it comes to nuclear power, don't they? The environmentalists never talk about all those years when Chernobyl was supplying clean renewable energy as bunnies nibbled daisies in the surrounding fields. No, they always have to focus on that one particular day when Chernobyl exploded and contaminated hundreds of square miles with highly toxic radioactive fall-out.

  Amazingly, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd have been lobbying to be allowed to construct a new generation of nuclear facilities. They might as well build power stations that burn £20 notes. But in the mind of the British public, the biggest worry will always be safety - no matter how many times we simple folk are told that British nuclear reactors are completely safe, that there is absolutely no possibility of an accident here. So what do we know? Maybe we should take their word for it that more nuclear power stations across Britain would be a good idea. Because it's not just the safety experts from the nuclear lobby who say this. The pilots at the Al-Qaida Flight School think so too.

  United Nations States

  14 September 2002

  American officials are currently lobbying hard at the UN. It's the name they don't like: 'United Nations' - there's something not quite right about it.

  'We're prepared to compromise,' they say. 'You can keep the first word.' 'United?'

  'Yeah, but that second bit sounds wrong - what other words are there?'

  'United Countries?' 'No . . .'

  'United Places . . .'

  'No, no, there must be another word for nation or country . . .' 'State?'

  'Hmmm . . . United States, yes, that has a ring to it. So we'll call it the "United States", with its the United States . . . Now this UN flag. We're prepared to compromise: you can keep some of the blue, but it needs a bit of red and white in there as well.'

  George W. Bush is trying to hijack the UN. Delegates thought it was just a routine peace-time trip; they were settling back in their seats for a snooze when suddenly a scary-looking American President broke through the flimsy doors into the United Nations cockpit, grabbed the controls and attempted to steer the UN into a catastrophe. Will anyone have the courage to overpower him or will they nervously sit it out, hoping that they might somehow survive?

  Of course, he tried to appear conciliatory and courteous. But Bush's speech to the UN this week was like a headteacher pretending to respect the newly formed school council. It's not that he was patronizing to the UN, but at one point he stopped his monologue and shouted, 'Canada! Are you chewing? Get up here and spit it out!' His message was that the only way to ensure that UN policy was implemented around the world was to change it to American policy. Some of the more subversive translators were having great fun. Bush said, 'Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?' And into the headphones of one European minister came the translation, 'Listen, suckers, I'm going to bomb who the bloody hell I like, so sod the lot of you!'

  'The world now faces a test and the UN a defining moment,' continued Dubya, as African leaders heard him apparently saying, 'I've never heard of half your countries! Why are you wearing those funny costumes? I might bomb you next! I've got B52s and sidewinders and everything, neeeeeoooow, boom! Bang! Ker-pow!'

  Despite his efforts, Bush does not have the backing of the international community and so makes the most of his support from the British Foreign Secretary. Diplomatically he is a drowning man clutching at Jack Straws. Admittedly the United Nations is not the speediest means of deciding policy. At the beginning of the Afghan conflict a UN committee sat down to hammer out a resolution and this week they nearly agreed on whether it was 'Taliban' with an 'i' or 'Taleban' with an 'e'. But changing the world takes time. It is a laborious and painstaking process.

  In North London an extended campaign by local residents recently managed to prevent a branch of Starbucks opening in their area. In my road another Starbucks has just opened and someone keeps smashing the windows. (It's amazing what you can get the Cubs to do in Bob-a-Job week.) Bombing Baghdad is the diplomatic equivalent of protestors who smash windows. It makes them feel tough and hard, it's quick and easy, but it doesn't actually make anything better for the people who really need help. It's instant espresso politics to go.

  Meaningful change is brought about by long-term strategies, patience, painstaking persuasio
n and taking people with you. In this crisis we have to ensure that the United Nations is the ultimate authority; the UN has to agree a meaningful line and then eventually we might find a way to rid the world of the new Starbucks in my road.

  Saddam might seem a little harder to shift, but quick wars don't bring long-term peace. American foreign policy is like their television. It has to keep jumping from one thing to another because the President has the remote control in his hand and his attention span is very limited. That thrilling adventure Take Out the Taliban! held his interest for a short while, but now the explosive opening action sequence is over and it's got bogged down in the complex story of rebuilding a war-torn country. Bush's finger is hovering over that button, itching to see if there's any more exciting stuff somewhere else.

  'Don't you want to stick with this and see how Afghanistan turns out?' says Colin Powell. 'Nah, it's got boring now.'

  'But we don't even know if they catch Bin Laden . . .'

  'Ooh wow, look what's on CNN! Bombers Over Baghdad! Let's see if this baddie Saddam gets it instead . . .'

  War on Iraq will not make the world a safer place. Perhaps the only way to make US policy successful is radically to change the aims. Then, as the troops are brought home and the flags are waved, the White House could declare that they'd definitely achieved all the objectives in 'Operation Kill All the Wrong People and Make the Problem Much Worse'.

  The Quiet Man with a lot to be quiet about

  12 October 2002

  At school I was taught that the purpose of an opposition is to oppose, propose and depose. Frankly 'decompose' looks more likely at the moment. In fact, if you watched footage of this week's Conservative Party conference, a number of Tory members were forced to take their seats in the audience despite having died several weeks earlier. Newsnight interviewers did their best to get delegates' reactions to the various speeches, despite being unable to find any party members who were still actually alive.

  'Were you concerned that Theresa May described the Tories as the Nasty Party?' (Delegate stares open mouthed into the middle distance and then slumps forward on chair.) 'Urn, I see you're avoiding answering the question. Is this a make-or-break conference for Iain Duncan Smith?' (Interviewee's head falls off and is hastily put hack on by Tory Party activist.)

  Coming back from the dead was the challenge that faced the Tories this week and they told us loud and clear that they were on the way back. Actually it wasn't loud and clear; it was quiet and unclear. They were definitely looking to the future, but they'd be completing the unfinished business of the Thatcher revolution. I'm delighted to hear that they're going to carry on where Thatcher's ministers left off;

  now we can look forward to seeing this lot banged up in prison as well.

  When they took the register on Monday morning, there were a number of notable absences. Thatcher? Not here. Major? He just pulled out, sir. Currie - she's tucked up in bed as well, sir. Aitken? Absent. Hamilton? Absent. Archer - he might turn up later, sir, he said he'd see if he could get away. The remaining Tories unveiled twenty-five new policies or, put simply, one each. They tried to make it sound exciting but, strangely, the voters seemed to be less interested in opposition policy initiatives than they were in the sudden revelations about Edwina Currie shagging John Major.

  Conference began with some tough talking from Theresa May, the new Tory Party 'chairman'. (The Tories couldn't possibly say they had a new 'chair'; it might make people think they couldn't afford a set of six.) She has obviously heard that it's a good idea to nick a few lines from your political enemies and so they spent the whole week saying 'Don't Vote Conservative! The Tories are dreadful!' Her job on Monday was to try to present the human face of the Tory Party. So she thought, 'Hmm -I think I'll get them to concentrate on the shoes.' Just in case the delegates did not believe that they were the Nasty-Party, she then made way for a succession of unsavoury characters whose policy ideas were a combination of the unworkable and the dangerous. 'Localization' is just another word for privatization. The idea of tax breaks for using private health would leave the NHS as a skeleton service, pun intended. I'm not saying these ideas were written on the back of a fag packet, but when one shadow minister read out his new policy he shouted, 'We will let patients set up their own hospitals high tar, smoking causes heart disease!'

  The conference ended not with a bang but with a whimper. Various newspapers reproduced Iain Duncan Smith's speech yesterday, but to really convey the sense of it they should have printed the text in an extremely small font. IDS needs to spend a few weeks at BBC1's Fame Academy learning how to project his voice and stop making strange hand gestures. But if I was IDS, I would whisper my achievements. If I was leading my party into third place, I wouldn't feel like shouting. If my policies were reducing the housing available to low earners or creating a two-tier health service or leaving the work of social services to charities, I'd mumble them as quietly as I could. This week we were presented with the new image of the leader of the opposition - Iain Duncan Smith is the Quiet Man. But then he has a great deal to be quiet about.

  The Ballad of Lincoln Gaol

  19 October 2002

  For years now the left has been campaigning for a more humane penal system, protesting that British prisoners are forced to subsist in degrading and barbaric conditions, in desperate need of a more liberal and enlightened approach. And then they go and transfer Jeffrey Archer to an open prison. I mean these criminals, they might as well be at a bloody holiday camp. What sort of deterrent is that, playing table tennis and gardening and watching telly all day in their luxury penthouse suites while us law-abiding tax payers have to foot the bill? I reckon they should bring back the stocks and the birch, except those Tory public-school types would probably bloody enjoy it!

  Campaigners for improved prison conditions have gained some unlikely new allies this month. The man who once roused Tory-conferences by calling for young offenders to be locked up while awaiting trial has teamed up with that longstanding ally of Britain's convicts, the Daily Mail, to expose 'the shocking reality of the jail system'.

  Of course Jeffrey Archer cannot be paid for having his prison diaries published in a national newspaper; indeed, he has had his prison pay docked as punishment for naming other prisoners. Twenty pounds it has cost him. That'll make him think twice next time. The estimated £300,000 payment for the diaries will be transferred later to

  the Worldwide Fund for the Assistance of the Former Prisoner, namely Jeffrey's bank account.

  Not since the Diary of Anne Frank have readers been so moved by the private thoughts of an innocent free spirit locked away against his will. His transfer to the open prison this week was recounted in the usual truthful yet inspired literary manner: 'Suddenly the black Maria swerved off the mountain road and with a giant splashing noise we splashed into an icy river. I kicked open the back doors of the prison van and dived into the wet wet water. Swimming against the swirling current was not made easier by the iron ball and chain around my ankle, but my years as Olympic Backstroke Champion stood me in good stead and I dragged the panicking prison officers to safety, stopping only to rescue a frightened lamb that had slipped off the river bank. Overhead I noticed the famous Tamar Rail Bridge which I of course designed when I was at Harvard. As I handed the shivering lamb back to the grateful farmer, his hair turning grey from the ravages of Blair's countryside policy, he remarked, "Ooh-arrr! You be that novelist fellah, I've read all your books, ooh-arr! 'Tis not you who should be in prison - it be those Labour politicians and journalists what stitched ye up." Our simple country folk have such wisdom.'

  So much of what Archer has said about himself in the past has been fabrication that it made me wonder if his prison diaries are a complete fiction as well. Perhaps Archer never really went to jail? Maybe the whole thing is another desperate bit of attention seeking by an experienced trickster used to pulling the wool over the media's eyes.

  Now that he is safely installed in Hollesley Bay Open Pr
ison, Archer will be able to give an honest account of a less austere regime. He will have access to a gym (or did they say access to 'Jim' - prison can do strange things to a man), there's a library and playing fields, all set in a 1400-acre estate overlooking the sea. The prison even has its own herd of cows, and one of the smarter prisoners has already begun work on a spoiler book entitled Jeffrey Archer's Prison Dairy. It is not clear whether Hollesley Bay allows conjugal rights but, on the off-chance, a number of prostitutes he's never met before have begun hanging around the gates in the hope that he might wander out and just hand over £2000. Archer will even be allowed home visits 'once he has satisfied the governor that he can be trusted'. So that shouldn't take long.

  It is unlikely, however, that he will be permitted to do any more community work after the furore that surrounded his trips out from Lincoln Gaol. On one occasion he was taken from the prison to a cocktail party packed with Conservative MPs. One has to say - surely prison is punishment enough?

  When you read Archer's harrowing accounts of life inside Belmarsh, the suffering goes beyond what any human being should be expected to endure. Time drags inexorably slowly as you read, you feel worthless and depressed with every passing paragraph, but the sentence seems to drag on and on with no prospect of its being rewritten, while you reflect upon the shame of having your friends and family know that you've been reading the Daily Mail.

  But whatever the paper intended by publishing Jeffrey Archer's prison diaries, the accounts must have served as some sort of deterrent to Britain's would-be criminals. Make no mistake; commit a serious offence and there's a very real chance that you might find yourself sharing a cell with Jeffrey Archer.

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