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I blame the scapegoats, p.17

I blame the scapegoats, page 17


I blame the scapegoats

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  Grate Britons

  26 October 2002

  There has never been an election like it. All the greatest people who have ever lived in these islands competing for the title of the greatest ever Briton. In the streets and council estates across the country, canvassers are knocking on doors trying to persuade the electorate to vote for their preferred candidate.

  'Hello, I'm calling about the Great Britons election. I'm canvassing on behalf of Henry the Second - would you like a leaflet about his triumph over Geoffrey of Nantes?'

  'Er, we normally vote for Bohemian Rhapsody, don't we, dear?'

  'Well, you can't actually vote for a song, you see . . .'

  'All right, put us down for Emmerdale then.'

  Meanwhile on television, various commentators are urging us to vote for their Greatest Briton. Last night millions of viewers watched Andrew Marr nominate Charles Darwin. 'Hmmm,' he must have thought, 'should I choose Ernest Shackleton and spend two weeks filming in the frozen Antarctic or should I opt for Darwin and have the BBC fly me to a tropical paradise on the Equator just as the weather's turning a bit nippy? You know, when I think about it, Darwin just seems a greater figure compared to that bloke who went to the very, very cold place. But my mind is open - if you don't want Darwin I could always spend a couple of weeks discussing the inventor of the pedalo.'

  It has to be said that some of the people in the current Top 100 have a fairly dubious claim to the epithet 'Great'. At number 89 is Donald Campbell (driving boats too fast and scaring all the ducks); number 17 is Michael Crawford (saying 'Oooh Betty, the cat's done a whoopsie in my beret'); and at number 51 King Arthur, whose only definite legacy is increased car-parking prices in Tintagel and inspiring the Guinevere Gift Shoppe. It makes you question why other 'great' figures have been left out. Where is Denis Howell, Minister for Sport in the Callaghan government? Where is Bunty James, co-presenter of the long-running kids' TV show How?

  Predictably the radical vote is split among various factions. You would have thought that Thomas Paine, Nye Bevan and Tony Benn could have sat down and agreed which of them was going to represent the left, but no, they are all issuing poorly produced leaflets denouncing each other as splitters and declaring themselves to be the one true socialist candidate.

  When it is all over, we will have an awards ceremony to end them all. When the Great Britons idea was pitched to the BBC, this was the star-studded show that finally clinched it. Cutaway shots of David Lloyd George goosing Jane Austen, slight embarrassment after Cromwell runs Sir Bob Geldof through with a sword, Lord Nelson struggling to hold his plate and champagne glass at the same time, Sir Winston Churchill being asked to put out his cigar, while Guy Fawkes is still stuck at the security desk. Generally speaking, most TV awards are dished out to the celebrity who is prepared to turn up on the night. Since many of the nominees have been dead for several hundred years, this could prove a bit of a problem. 'Sadly, Lord Horatio Nelson cannot be with us this evening as he was shot by a French sniper in 1805. But here to collect the award on his behalf is Carol Smillie.' In fact the very act of dying seems one of the best ways of getting yourself into the Top 100 - hence the presence of Princess Diana, Freddie Mercury and George Harrison, with Edwina Currie planning a strategically timed faked suicide in one last desperate bid to make the list.

  These votes tell us more about current affairs than they do about British history. The only thing that this exercise measures is the type of people who take part. While there is room for Enoch Powell, there is not one black or Asian face in the whole Top 100. The fact that Owain Glyndwr is way ahead of Robert the Bruce simply tells us that more Welsh Nationalists are voting than Scots Nationalists. In fact, the whole undertaking is an elaborate way of finding answers to questions that the government didn't dare ask on last year's census forms. Every time an internet vote comes through another piece of information is added to the Home Office database.

  'Mr N. Smith of Brighton just voted for Boy George, sir.'

  'Okay, put him down as gay, then.'

  And we've had another vote for Boudicca.'

  'Right, mark her as a militant feminist.'

  And another vote for Tony Blair, sir.'

  'Tell Alastair to stop wasting our time.'

  But despite all the tactics and lobbying, I for one will be treating the exercise with the serious historical consideration that it deserves. Irrespective of fashion or prejudice, I shall vote for whoever I sincerely believe has made the greatest contribution to the history of this country and its people. Oh, and most of all, for whoever's got the best chance of keeping Maggie out of the Top 10.

  Je t'aime (moi non plus)

  2 November 2002

  Jacques Chirac lost his temper with Tony Blair this week, calling the Prime Minister 'rude' and cancelling the scheduled Anglo-French summit. All Tony had said was, 'So how did France get on in the World Cup?'* For a French president to call a British leader 'rude' is a bit like us accusing the French of having warm beer. One of the problems was that Tony Blair insisted that he got a B in his French O-level and said he was perfectly capable of conducting the summit without a translator. So the PM asked the French President in no uncertain terms 'Brother Jacques, Brother Jacques - Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?' Things went from bad to worse when he added, 'Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?' Now the diplomats and civil servants are working round the clock on the delicate rebuilding of trust and mutual respect between our two governments, which basically involves ringing their opposite numbers in France and slagging off politicians.

  The row erupted over plans to reform the Common Agricultural Policy. The Sun editorial team wrestled for hours about the angle to take on this story. Which way should they go? Explain the complex

  The reigning world champions crashed out of the 2002 World Cup without even scoring a single goal. When I commiserated with the owner of my local French cafe, Monsieur Le Patron explained that it was hecause a lot of the French team played in the English Premiership. Of course! It was our fault! subsidies of the CAP that have underwritten European food producers and undercut Third World farmers? Or just say that Chirac is a typical garlic-smelling frog with terrible personal hygiene who'd beg the plucky Brits to bail them out again as soon as there was another world war?

  Anti-French sentiment has never been far below the surface in this country. Way back in the fourteenth century thousands of Englishmen were persuaded to join the English army fighting the French. 'Darling, I'm going off to fight in the Hundred Years' War . . .' 'When will you be back?' 'I dunno, it could be ages . . .' (The Hundred Years' War actually lasted 116 years, but the last sixteen years were spent arguing over which language the peace treaty should be in.) And to this day, in terms of domestic popularity it does not damage Tony Blair to fall out with Jacques Chirac. But this spat does not come at a good time for the European project as a whole. Negotiations are currently under way regarding the expansion of the EU to include countries such as Poland and Hungary, which is widely supported by British cabinet ministers because it would mean their au pairs could stay here legally. Meanwhile, one of Chirac's predecessors has just published a draft constitution for the EU, carefully worded to stir up the paranoia of the British Euro-sceptics. Among his suggestions for the future of Europe is the election of a European president. Whatever the merits of this idea, the prospect of lots of endless godawful cartoons in the Daily Telegraph featuring badly drawn Adolf Hitlers and Napoleons might make it more than we can bear. These proposals represent something of a comeback for Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who failed to retain the French presidency when it was realized that he had a girl's name. Other controversial suggestions were that the European Union consider adopting a new title (he thought the name 'France' had a certain ring to it) and that Terry Wogan be prevented from hosting the Eurovision Song Contest.

  The British reaction to the falling out of Blair and Chirac underlines a deeper problem with the whole concept of European integration. There is no such t
hing as European patriotism. While people can be proud to be Scottish and British, or proud to be Californian and American, it's hard to imagine us sneering at the continent of Antarctica for being not as good as Europe. Each member of the Union is out for what's best for their country, which is why Chirac has put protecting the CAP above alleviating poverty in Africa.

  The way to achieve greater understanding at the highest level is for our top politicians to do French exchanges. Tony should have to go and stay with Jacques' family for a couple of weeks and vice versa. Imagine what it would it do for Anglo-French relations to have the PM spending a fortnight in a Parisian suburb, taking up smoking and whizzing round on a little moped without a helmet. Then for the return visit Chirac could meet all Tony's friends. 'This is Jacques, everyone,' Tony will say and all the girls in the cabinet will gasp and swoon as the cool French boy raises an eyebrow and casually lights up a Gitane. Obviously there might be the risk of a diplomatic incident when on the last day of his trip Jacques is arrested for shoplifting in Carnaby Street. Stuffed into the pockets of his cagoule, the police will discover one stolen Big Ben cigarette lighter, a Beatles keyring and an ashtray from the Hard Rock Cafe. But by now Blair and Chirac will be lifelong friends. More importantly, Tony can say, 'Right, Jacques, either you agree to reform the CAP, or we're telling your parents.'

  The butler didn't do it

  9 November 2002

  Let's just get this straight. Diana's former butler was just about to go into the dock to answer lots of awkward questions that would deeply embarrass the royal family when the Queen suddenly had a flash of memory. 'Oh yes, um, one definitely remembers now, he told me that he'd taken a load of Di's stuff for, er, safekeeping, read this out, Ma'am, so Paul Burrell gets let off. Whoops, I don't think one was supposed to say that last bit.' To slightly misquote Measure for Measure, 'There's something well bloody dodgy going on there and no mistake.'

  Everyone will be trying this tack now; teenagers ripping car radios from the dashboard will claim they're just taking them 'for safekeeping'. Next time Winona Ryder is done for shoplifting she'll say, 'Look, I told the Queen of England I was taking the stuff for safekeeping . . .' and they'll call Buck House to check and she'll say, 'Look, one can't remember, she probably did . . .'

  Frankly, if the Queen is going to interfere in court cases then I'm afraid she's going to have to take the stand in the witness box like everybody else. 'The Crown calls that old lady wearing the crown!' And then she'd walk past the jury, wondering why they weren't waving plastic union flags and handing her bunches of flowers.

  'Would you tell the courtroom your name, please?'

  'The Queen.'

  'And your occupation?'

  'The Queen.' That's if she could remember these pieces of information - her memory seems to have been a little dodgy of late. Before long Her Majesty would be buckling under the aggressive cross-examination of the prosecution counsel. 'One can't remember! You're putting words into one's mouth . . .'

  Eventually her suitability as a witness would come into question. 'Your Honour, I ask the jury to consider the background of this so-called witness. She's been living off the state all her life, the police are always round her house and her family's constantly in the papers.'

  The tragedy for the Queen is that, although they managed to prevent Paul Burrell revealing lots of embarrassing secrets in court, he then went and revealed them in the Daily Mirror instead. The other tabloids were appalled at this shameful betrayal that they failed to land for themselves. Of course the Sun still ran the whole story with the words 'World Exclusive' plastered across its front page. It's one thing to copy everything from the Mirror, but you'd think they'd remember to cross that bit out. Apparently when the Queen shed a tear at the Cenotaph this week it was because the Mirror had got the rights to the expose and not the Sun.

  Among Burrell's revelations, we learned that when Charles was in hospital and needed a wee, he got his valet to hold the bottle. I suppose it's better than Charles holding the bottle and the valet doing the other bit. 'Shall I give it a little shake now, Your Highness?' We also learned that Diana had a crush on Dr Hasnat Khan, and turned up at his house wearing a sumptuous fur coat under which she was completely naked. The great British public were appalled by this. They don't mind their future queen having it off with all and sundry and jeopardizing the future of the monarchy - but wearing fur, well, that's just beyond the pale. Diana also had lovers smuggled into Kensington Palace in the boot of her car - except on the nights when no one was available, when she went to bed with a spare wheel and a load of newspapers that they'd been meaning to take for recycling.

  No one seems to escape the wrath of Diana's former butler. The Spencer family has come in for particularly severe criticism. Burrell says that he would never have paraded Diana's life in a museum for £10.50. Certainly not; he wanted £300,000 and not a penny less. He recounts how the Queen would ask him to keep her company when she was watching telly and that he had to stand to attention the entire time.

  'I know, Burrell, let's watch the entire Star Wars trilogy!'

  'Um, yes, Your Majesty, or we could just watch a couple of Tom and Jerrys and then call it a night.'

  The trouble with our royal family is that this sort of deference and respect is hard to maintain when you start to find out a bit more about them. No wonder they desperately want total secrecy when each tiny revelation confirms how ludicrous they really are. Before she got him off all charges, the Queen told Paul Burrell, 'There are powerful forces in this country about whom we know very little.' That'll be your memory playing up again, Ma'am. They're called the royal family.

  Dial 999. Ask for 'Fire'. And wait for strike to end ...

  16 November 2002

  It has been twenty-five years since the last firefighters' strike, but those trusty old headlines and cumbersome puns that haven't seen active service since 1977 were dusted down and wheeled out once again. 'Blazing Row!' 'Burning Question!' 'Fanning the Flames' -they were all trundled out despite fears that they were no longer up to the job. Television news crews were eager to get some dramatic pictures of the first day of the strike, and they weren't disappointed when a spectacular blaze broke out at a fireworks factory in Manchester. One eager young TV crew seemed to be on the scene particularly quickly, getting all the best footage of rockets shooting out of the windows, pausing only to cover up the petrol can sticking out of their bag. The blaze spread rapidly; burning timbers crashed all around while the intense heat sparked hundreds of explosions as the inferno tore through the massive stockpile of fireworks. But still the bloody Roman Candle wouldn't light.

  Military fire crews rushed to the scene, armed with mulled wine and parkin cake, and then stood back going 'Oooooh! Aaaaah!' as the multicoloured rockets lit up the sky. They did their best to stop the fire spreading to the jacket potato warehouse next door and one or two soldiers attempted to get closer to the blaze, if only to try to give a nudge to that Catherine wheel that wasn't spinning around properly. But it was striking firefighters that came off the picket line to rescue a man trapped inside who had made the mistake of returning to a fireworks factory once it was alight.

  This is a peculiar strike in that the firemen are withholding their labour except when it is most needed. Despite a generally hostile press, the firefighters have managed to keep the moral high ground. They are not dealing with the smaller, less dangerous incidents; indeed in most news footage of picket lines, there have been small fires in oil drums right under their noses that no one has made the slightest effort to put out.

  At this time we should, of course, all be taking extra care and I for one almost unplugged my television before going to bed. Nobody wants a house fire, but if it means having to re-set the clock on the video because you pulled out the wrong plug by mistake, then it's a risk most of us are going to take. Somebody ought to be using this opportunity to persuade more people to get smoke alarms fitted, because after all there is no surer way of finding out when some
body is making toast in the kitchen. (If these 'toast alarms' do go off accidentally, then it's a very simple operation to turn them off. You stand on a chair in the kitchen and yank out the battery, leaving a useless bit of plastic hanging from the ceiling until it is finally destroyed in the fire that burns down the entire house because you were too cheapskate to buy a decent one.) Other extra safety precautions taken this week brought severe disruption on the London Underground, which so delayed exasperated commuters that they almost made eye contact with one another and tutted. Meanwhile, Al-Qaida terrorists have been asked not to detonate any nuclear bombs in Britain until the strike is over.

  But despite all the worry and inconvenience, public support for the firefighters remains high. Nobody believes that people who save lives for a living would suddenly become greedy or go on strike just for the sake of it. Forty per cent of a healthy wage would be asking too much, but that's not what firefighters have been paid in recent years. All they are asking for is £8.50 an hour, and if we think that's too expensive, then we deserve to see what life without them is like for forty-eight hours.

  It's at times like this that Labour Party supporters would be so much more comfortable if the Tories were in power. The left can't really cope with being cast as management; we'd much rather be oppressed and victimized by a ruthless Tory government than find ourselves trying to be responsible and even-handed. The only way forward is to appoint an independent pay review body consisting of Norman Tebbit, Jim Davidson, Peter Hitchens and a Dalek. Then when the firefighters' wage demands are turned down, we can boo these tight-fisted Tories for their typically miserly response and reassure ourselves that things would be very different if it was Labour making the decisions.

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