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I blame the scapegoats, p.19

I blame the scapegoats, page 19


I blame the scapegoats

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  Madagascar and the Central African Republic as well.

  I remember as a young activist I once stood up at a Labour Party meeting and said, 'Do the people of inner-city Battersea have the same interests as the fishermen of Greece or the sugar-beet farmers of Belgium?' and everyone rather threw me by replying 'Yes!' And while I was still standing there, various comrades mumbled, 'Better health care . . .' 'Good schools . . .' 'Decent housing . . .' 'Oh and, er, peace!' And so halfway through putting my argument, I completely changed my mind while still attempting to finish the original point I was trying to make. Turkish Muslims want the same things as European Christians: to get together in one happy internationalist family so we can all slag off the Americans. But try asking our leaders if we really want what was once a small common market to be expanded into a huge European super-state stretching from the Atlantic to Asia. Most politicians will say it is high time we had a full and frank debate about this whole issue. Which is their way of saying they haven't the faintest bloody idea . . .

  Feeling travel-sick on the road to nowhere

  18 December 2002

  In December 2002, I sat in for the Guardian's Parliamentary sketch writer, Simon Hoggart. The following piece is from that week.

  Like the distorted delays announced over tannoys in railway stations, the government statement on transport yesterday was completely incomprehensible. MPs glanced at one another, looking confused and irritated.

  The monitors all over the Palace of Westminster had claimed this was a statement on the 'transport investment plan', although most MPs who get the train back to their constituencies every weekend were under the impression that there was no transport, no investment and no plan.

  Members had bagged their places like passengers spreading themselves out on a double seat, though of course they would quickly move their order papers if Julie Kirkbride or Claire Ward looked like choosing the seat beside them.

  The Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, resisted the temptation to refer to honourable members as 'customers', but was received with all the incredulity of a driver proudly announcing that his train was delayed by four hours but this was much better than the five hours that was expected. 'We are committed to the long haul,' he said, clearly thinking of his next rail journey back to Edinburgh.

  Increased road congestion was in fact a symptom of this government's economic success, he claimed, but amazingly no one opposite congratulated him. It's like spiralling drug consumption - it's only happening because more people have got the disposable cash to spend on cocaine, but nobody will give the government credit where it is due.

  Alistair Darling once had a beard, but this meant people remembered which one he was, so he shaved it off again. Now he either dyes his grey eyebrows black or his black barnet grey, but either way he seems to have found a third way on hair colour.

  Labour members leaned forward to congratulate him on his performance, but only because they were all competing to do the Blackadder joke and say, 'Excellent statement, Darling!'

  The Tories' transport spokesman is the chinless puppy Tim Collins, who looks like central casting sent him in straight from filming 'The Upper Class Twit of the Year'. His website boasts that his mother is chairman of Epping Forest Conservative Association and that he got a better-than-national swing despite having an opponent with the same surname as him. This is the stuff of great statesmen! His swimming certificates and cycling proficiency badge are expected to be added shortly.

  Collins's speech was more Thomas the Tank Engine than TGV. There was a lot of noise and puffing steam; he looked like he might hurtle out of control at any second. He talked louder than necessary, like a small businessman on his mobile phone trying to show off to other passengers.

  Labour's Gordon Prentice said Richard Branson got a lot of stick in the House of Commons, but he was eager to report that he had recently travelled on a Virgin Voyager train and was staggered at how sophisticated it was. In a desperately sycophantic bid for free train tickets or a digitally remastered copy of Tubular Bells, he added that there had even been Braille in the toilets! No one told him that this wasn't in fact Braille, but the hardened deposits of passengers who had picked their noses and wiped it on the toilet wall. But the minister David Jamieson added that he too had travelled on a Virgin train and he confirmed that they are quite excellent. MPs now know it is possible to get travel sickness without actually going anywhere.

  Throughout this hellish journey to nowhere, Tories looked as if they would rather have a first-class section separate from all the oiks on the standard-class Labour seats. It was all very entertaining for those present. It was a shame that most MPs were still stuck in a train outside Didcot Parkway and couldn't be there to hear it all.

  New Labour, New Christmas

  21 December 2002

  It looks set to be a tense Christmas in the homes of New Labour ministers. When the families ask where their presents are, cabinet members will be forced to stand up in front of the telly and make a brief statement outlining revised targets for the purchase of Christmas gifts.

  'What, you mean you haven't actually bought me anything?'

  'Er, we remain fully committed to a full allocation of perfume and CDs, although revised targets mean that in some areas these may not come on-stream until June 2008.'

  'What about Granny? She was hoping for a teasmaid.'

  'We hope that by returning to employment many of our elderly will have the opportunity to provide themselves with teasmaids which otherwise might not be affordable within the projected savings gap'

  'Well, happy holidays to you too!'

  'Ah yes, about the holidays . . . with the emphasis now on wealth creation we are seeking to discourage people from taking more holiday than is needed, so it will no longer be compulsory for people to take December twenty-fifth off work. Quite the opposite, in fact.'

  And then a full-blown row ensues, with the minister's wife saying she has lost patience with this government and tearing up that nice Christmas card from the PM with the message 'Peace to all Mankind except those concealing weapons of mass destruction'.

  Which will make it all the more tense when the neighbours pop round to 10 Downing Street on Christmas morning. William Straw and Euan Blair will skulk in a corner saying how fascist Christmas is, while Cherie goes around offering drinks.

  'Bitter, Gordon?'

  'I am not!'

  'Or Scotch on the rocks?' 'How dare you!'

  Tony will be wearing his wife's present of a bright red-and-green jumper (chosen by Carole Caplin) while the younger kids will be arguing over who gets to board up the last window on the advent calendar.

  Then it's into the drawing room where the little ones perform a moving recreation of the Christmas story. Despite having travelled many miles, Jesus and Mary find themselves detained at Sangatte Detention Centre. In the humble stable a cow looks on, but then staggers sideways and falls over before being quickly whisked off to the abattoir. 'Though I am a single mother,' says Mary, 'I am determined to get back to work and create wealth!'

  'Good idea!' says Joseph. 'Then maybe the Child Support Agency will get off my back!' The shepherds get their lines all wrong and start waving Countryside Alliance banners and then come the three Wise Men who had been following a bright star across the Middle East. 'No, you idiots!' says the innkeeper. 'That's not a star - it's a rocket from the US Missile Defence system, on its way to Baghdad.'

  The younger children at the party will at least have had the consolation of all the presents that were left in their stockings, but even that looks set to change. This will be the last year in which children get free presents from Santa. As from next December, the government is planning to introduce a system of loans whereby children will eventually have to pay back all the money spent on toys and games that generations of kids have always taken for granted. It is estimated that by the time the average British child goes to secondary school he or she will owe Father Christmas approximately £10,000. The gover
nment has defended these so called 'Santa Loans', pointing out that they will be at a low rate of interest and there will be exemptions for children from poorer families. Children in the capital will be particularly badly hit following a ruling that Santa's sleigh will not be exempt from the congestion charge, which transport groups say will inevitably be passed on to the kids, or 'customers' as they are now known. Last year a misguided attempt to get Santa off his sleigh and onto public transport backfired when he spent the whole of Christmas Eve stuck in a tunnel on the London Underground with a load of drunken office workers in nylon Santa hats. Many of them were later sued for having unofficial Santa merchandise.

  Labour left-wingers do not know where to turn, particularly since Naomi Klein's recent expose on the appalling working conditions endured by the elves in Santa's sweatshop. A press spokesman for the Father Christmas Corporation denied that any elves were being paid three cents an hour to work fourteen hours a day in dangerous conditions, but this is probably because he no longer employs any elves - production was recently shifted from the North Pole to subcontractors in Indonesia.

  The traditions of Christmas have always changed to reflect the spirit of the age, but suddenly it seems that so much that we took for granted has gone out of the window. So this will in fact be the last year that there will be any Santa, any presents, any days off work or indeed any peace for all mankind. But hey, Happy Christmas anyway.

  Election battle

  28 December 2002

  In the United States it is the custom to include in your Christmas card an annual update on all the things that your family have been up to during the previous twelve months. Needless to say, this practice has become the excuse for highly selective reporting, thinly veiled boasting and general one-upmanship between friends and relations.

  Colleagues of ex-President Bush were particularly irked by the round robin they received from George Snr and Barbara this Christmas: 'Young George W. is getting on just fine in his new job of President of the United States (thanks for the help, Jeb!). He is looking forward to starting World War Three in the new year and Dad has been helping him find Iraq on the old family atlas. Coincidentally, this is also the time that he'll be beginning his campaign for re-election, and as Dubya says: "I will not be impedemented!" '

  Yes, believe it or not, we are now more than halfway through the American electoral cycle, which is of course a far more important factor in the timing of any war than Iraqi winters or UN resolutions. You can understand why George W. Bush wants a military victory a year before his presidential election, but why do British troops need to be involved in his crude bid for electoral popularity? Apart from all the death and suffering that British squaddies would inflict upon the already oppressed Iraqi people, the troops themselves would be at great risk of being killed, injured, or entertained by Jim Davidson. So wouldn't it be safer and far more honest if our boys were simply deployed in key marginal states across the pond to go canvassing for the US Republican Party?

  Instead of helping George W. Bush get re-elected by joining a war in the Gulf, Her Majesty's armed forces would be parachuted into New Hampshire, where they could give out glossy leaflets saying 'Re-elect Bush and Cheney 2004!' Dubya would still be grateful to Tony Blair, but no horrific war crimes would be committed and British servicemen would all come back safe and sound, except for the unfortunate few who got lost in downtown Detroit.

  Obviously, getting the SAS to do a little light political canvassing on a Saturday morning might involve a small amount of retraining. On their first attempt, the elite forces would probably try to make contact with the voters by abseiling down from the roof and smashing through the upstairs windows, before detonating stun grenades and smoke canisters. The residents, lying quivering on the floor with a British army boot pressed down on their head and an SA80 assault rifle pointing at their temple, would then be asked a couple of politely worded questions about their current voting intentions. And when they stammered that they would probably be voting for Ralph Nader, they'd be shot through the back 127 times. So the SAS's usual approach is probably going to need toning down a bit, though in its favour no one would accuse these particular Republican canvassers of being soft on gun control.

  Other British servicemen could be brought in as well. Instead of blowing up Baghdad, the RAF could just blow up thousands of red, white and blue balloons. Chieftain tanks could be converted to fire tickertape and streamers, and the band of the Royal Marines could learn to trumpet their way through such US election classics as 'Simply The Best' and 'You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet'.

  Of course we would all prefer it if the delivery of US Republican Party leaflets could be done by the whole of the United Nations working together. But if the UN fails to take this historic opportunity to make itself relevant to the post-9/11 global scenario and it falls to US and British forces to get George Bush re-elected on our own, then we will not shirk from our moral duty to mobilize our troops to give out little lapel buttons with pictures of George W. to key voters in swing states.

  Between you and me, there is another reason why this is by far the best solution. During the last Gulf War, there were so many military cock-ups and disasters that you can be sure that the same thing would happen if the US and British armies were in charge of Bush's re-election campaign. The 1991 conflict saw allied troops killed by friendly fire, Patriot missiles repeatedly failing to knock out Scuds, and SAS troops being dropped in the wrong place with the wrong equipment. Bringing all this inexpertise to bear on Bush's election campaign is the only chance that the Democrats have.

  So call up the reservists, send our boys over the Atlantic with their jamming rifles and their crashing Royal Navy destroyers and, God speed, with our help Dubya will be cast out of the White House in 2004. Some have said that it is not the job of the British army to bring about 'regime change' in a sovereign country. But in Bush's case I'm sure we can make an exception.

  Intelligent hominids (due any century now)

  11 January 2003

  Anthropologists are hailing a major new breakthrough that occurred this week in Spain. Sadly, it was not a British holidaymaker attempting a few words of Spanish; that may yet be hundreds of generations away. This was a discovery concerning another primitive human subspecies known as Homo heidelbergensis who died out after several million years of evolution having only just learned how to pronounce their own name. The unearthing of an axe head in a primitive burial chamber has proved the existence of intelligence and abstract thinking 300,000 years earlier than was previously thought. An organized burial chamber with tools for an imagined after-life suggests that these early cave-dwellers had some sort of religion. Many of them may have been awoken early on a Saturday morning by smiley Neanderthals calling round to the cave to ask them if they'd heard the good news about the Sun God. 'Molten rocks will fall from the sky and the seas will freeze over,' preached the zealots, and the cavemen sighed, 'No change there then . . .'

  While the excavation of the site in Spain continues, archaeologists can only guess as to how the prehistoric funeral service might have been conducted. 'What can I say about Ug?' says the priest. 'He liked the simple things in life. Which is probably just as well. And he certainly didn't suffer fools gladly!' he adds, and there's a brave, affection nod from Ug's brother whose arm was ripped off and eaten during a particularly lean bit of the last ice age. Cremation may have been an option, although this would have involved a slight delay while they waited around for someone to invent fire. But however primitive this society, we now know that some sort of social order and culture did at least exist - setting the earliest hominids apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. (Although intelligent social behaviour has been observed in other primates such as chimpanzees, many scientists now believe that the chimps were put up to behaving like this by PG Tips.)

  Of course the evolution of Homo erectus was a slow and painful process. Indeed, we still haven't reached the stage at which we are sophisticated enough not to want to giggle whe
n we hear the name Homo erectus. Neither did it progress in a straight line - it was greatly affected by external factors such as the coming of the ice age, when all the cavemen went outside during their lunch hour to throw snowballs at one another.* But no other species has developed religion, art, abstract thought, science or little tear-off strips to prevent static in the tumble drier. This journey now has its first milestone in central Spain, where thousands of sub-humans migrated because of its warmer climate and lack of any extradition agreement.

  Primates had begun using the first tools several hundred thousand years earlier - a crucial moment of human history, memorably recreated at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. What did that apeman do with his new club? Did he use it to break open fruit for his family or was his first instinct to smash in the skull of his fellow man? Perhaps another apeman bowled a pine cone at him and that's how cricket got started. A million years later and we are no closer to knowing the answers to these questions or indeed to understanding what the hell is going on in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thanks to an earlier film, One Million Years B.C., starring Raquel Welch, many people are still under the misapprehension that primitive man inhabited the Earth at the same as the dinosaurs. In fact, the film is

  *This week had seen the first heavy snowfall in London for over a decade and hundreds of grown adults spontaneously ran out of their workplaces and started throw ing snow balls at each other, with only a minority of the cabinet hiding lumps of brick inside theirs.

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