I blame the scapegoats, p.4
I blame the scapegoats, page 4
They've run out of IDS
22 September 2001
There's a sign on the wall of Broadmoor Prison workshop that says 'You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps'. So it is with membership of today's Conservative Party. What the election of Iain Duncan Smith has proved is that 61 per cent of the Tory membership are completely insane. Ken Clarke knew he'd lost when he saw that a majority of the envelopes to Central Office were addressed in green ink. Suddenly it was official: three out of five Tory members believe that the Earth is flat, that Elvis was abducted by aliens and that Iain Duncan Smith has the best chance of leading them to victory.
Yet people were still surprised by the new leader's choice of shadow cabinet. When lunatics take over the asylum, they don't reassure everyone by announcing a bi-annual audit and getting the photocopier serviced. They make the bloke who thinks he's Napoleon head of carpet-chewing and abolish Tuesdays. So wearing his big badge that says 'Lose Votes Now, Ask Me How', Iain Duncan Smith has appointed a shadow cabinet that is the logical extension of the collective madness that has seized the Tory Party Electoral appeal and political effectiveness do not matter - Europe is the only issue. With the final rejection of Ken Clarke, the Tories have ceased to be a political party and are now a single-issue pressure group. 'I'm going to lobby my MP night and day. Now - who is my MP? Oh it's me, isn't it.' For IDS, all roads lead to the Treaty of Rome. Expecting him to put Europhiles in prominent positions would be like asking the RSPB to have a couple of cats on the executive to even things up. 'Do we have to have Kitty on the committee? She keeps dragging half-dead pigeons into meetings.'
Ken Clarke was always fighting an uphill battle in a party whose average age was 117. Conservative organizers took this into account and so the wording on the ballot paper said in extra large print: 'WHO DO YOU WANT AS TORY LEADER, DEAR? I SAID, WHO DO YOU WANT TO VOTE FOR AS TORY LEADER? NO, YOU CAN'T HAVE WINSTON; HE'S DEAD, DEAR.' But amazingly, Clarke still made it to the final two in what had become the most thrilling political contest for days. For one of them it would mean a future in the wilderness, disappearing from public life for ever. But for Ken, it would mean going back to working for British American Tobacco. 'I look forward to working with Ken,' said IDS in his victory speech, so I suppose we can expect to see the new Tory leader flogging fags out in Vietnam as well. IDS is the first Tory leader not to have served as a minister and looks set to keep it that way. The result was only the second decision the Tory rank and file has ever had to make, the first one being when they chose Jeffrey Archer as their candidate for Mayor of London.
One week later IDS has assembled a Tory front bench that perfectly reflects the outdated reactionary views of the people who elected him. Normally we only get to hear these sorts of opinion when the grandparents come to stay at Christmas. 'I don't know why they have to have all these queers in showbusiness nowadays. In my day we had proper gentlemen like Rock Hudson and Noel Coward.' And you half choke on your turkey but stop yourself saying anything because there's really no point. Now it'll be like that in the House of Commons - everyone will sit there patiently, silently smiling to one another until the shadow minister has finished his little rant about the foreigners and then they'll just carry on as if they hadn't heard him. 'Well, it's not worth getting into an argument - it's only the opposition.'
It seems to be the received opinion that a weak Conservative Party is bad for democracy, but excuse me if I don't shed too many tears. I agree that we have to have an opposition, but the present government needs to be pulled to the left, not the right. The Scottish Assembly's decisions on tuition fees and care for the elderly offer a visible working alternative - that's a real opposition. What is required is sustained pressure to push the Conservative Party even further off the political map. So now it's competition time once more. The challenge is to write a letter to a local or national paper saying that you are resigning from the Conservative Party because Iain Duncan Smith is proving to be insufficiently anti-European. The best letter published and forwarded to me will win £25 worth of book vouchers. Your letter must contain a reference to the Second World War, your made-up name should be double-barrelled and please include your former military rank. Best of luck, although given the insanity of today's Tory Party, I have this terrifying feeling that the funniest entry will be from Iain Duncan Smith.
Rather gratifyingly, I did receive a sack of brilliantly nutty letters that were published in local papers across the country. The only problem was that lots of people sent me the entire letters page and much of the other correspondence on other issues was no less rabid than the parodies.
Edward - stalker laureate
29 September 2001
The media should leave Prince William alone. His arrival at university should barely be reported. Obviously, intelligent critiques on media intrusion are excepted; it's important for commentators such as myself to examine the conflict between private life and public duty, but that is the only valid reason for even mentioning Prince William in the newspapers right now. Anyway, doesn't he look like his mum? Aaah bless him, I hope he settles in all right. I wonder if he'll get a girlfriend? More pictures, pages 7, 8 and 9.
Prince Edward's production company has managed the impossible: now we have the bizarre reversal of Andrew Neil (the rector of St Andrews) lecturing a member of the royal family about media intrusion. Edward has clearly forgotten the words of Diana's brother at her funeral. Maybe this was because he was secretly filming it for release on Ardent Royal Videos, a great Christmas gift at only £12.99. It's one thing for the paparazzi to be caught trying to film Prince William, but for a modern-day royal to attempt to cash in on his royal connections — it would be like Vlad the Impaler buying shares in Stakes 'R' Us.
Apparently Prince Charles is beside oneself with anger. Personally I don't think he should attack members of the royal family because they can't answer back. It is in fact possible that Prince Edward has
unwittingly ensured that his nephew's university life will remain private for the time being. Which if we're really honest is a bit of a shame because it would have been quite entertaining to watch the everyday life of a royal undergraduate.
'Now listen, young man, if you don't work hard and get a good degree, you'll never get a decent job, will you?'
'Yes I will. I'm going to be king.'
'Er, well yes, but er, you'll still need to earn a living before then.' 'No I won't.'
'Er, well no, but that aside, we're going to treat you like any other student. So here's your first essay: two thousand words, please, answering the question "So what do you really think of Camilla?" '
William is studying History of Art, but his comments in his first tutorial apparently showed he was a little confused. 'It's amazing how Van Dyke managed to do that picture of Charles I while balancing on a stepladder peering over the palace wall. And Holbein's eyesight must have been fantastic - the picture of Anne of Cleeves has amazing detail considering he didn't have a telephoto lens.'
If Ardent's cameras had never been spotted, we could have seen William in the student production of Waiting for Godot, with that memorable scene where the tramp wanders out alone on to the bare stage followed by seven Special Branch security officers. We could have watched him break the college record on the rugby pitch as the opposing players decide against jumping on him whilst all those police marksmen are taking aim up in the trees. We could have seen him get up to all the usual undergraduate high jinks: sneaking into his friend's bedroom and getting his equerry to make them an apple pie bed; the late nights sitting on the floor and talking about life, as the butler brings in a silver tray with mugs of blobby coffee; all of this will take place in private. Or perhaps the real reason Charles doesn't want William filmed is that he doesn't want everyone witnessing the embarrassing period when his undergraduate son goes all left wing, arguing for the abolition of the monarchy and desperately trying to play down his privileged background.
Actually my family aren't that well off
And he'll cringe when dad phones to say he's coming to visit. 'Well, don't all arrive in the big ostentatious Sikorsky. Come in the little helicopter. And tell granny not to wear her crown.'
Poor William is as desperate to be a normal student as Edward is to run a normal production company. In the old days there were pretenders to the throne. Now the royals pretend to be commoners. But Uncle Edward can't remain a royal and monopolize broadcast access to the royals. Since his company has always struggled, Edward should now return to state duties. A new position in the royal household needs to be created - Edward should be appointed the 'Stalker Laureate', official harasser and invader of the royal family's privacy. 'The strange man who got inside the royal apartments today turned out to be the Queen's youngest son. Police found pictures of the Countess of Wessex in his wallet and said he had regularly been filmed trying to get into royal residences.' Edward might even find his celebrity status back up with the rest of them. Then the only problem would be stopping him making a documentary about himself.
Lack of identity cards
6 October 2001
When identity cards were brought in by the BBC, a comedy producer I knew decided to test the system by making a few changes to his pass. For a while he was waved through without question. Then one eagle-eyed security officer called him back. The guard took a good look at the photo on the card, which featured a shady man wearing sunglasses and a headscarf. He then checked the name on the pass which read 'Abu Nidal'. Now completely satisfied, he said, 'All right, sir! In you go . . .'
It still seems possible that compulsory identity cards will be the response to the heightened state of world tension. Because the great thing about ID cards is, of course, that they will prevent terrorism. Yup, after years of plotting, encrypted messages, international coordination, secret training and smuggling weapons, the terrorists will be asked for their ID cards and they'll go 'Drat! Foiled at the last minute! All those years of planning and I forgot to forge an identity card!'
ID cards would of course represent an outrageous infringement of basic human rights. Because they'd mean regularly presenting strangers with a deeply embarrassing photo of yourself. And to make sure the authorities recognized you from the picture, you'd feel the need to pull the same gawky expression that was momentarily caught in the photo booth at the back of Woolworth's. Perhaps to set an example our politicians will agree that their own identity cards should feature excruciating pictures of themselves from their younger days. A long-haired Tony Blair with huge round collars and sideburns; a young John Prescott with a big quiff in his Teddy boy gear; Estelle Morris with a perm and huge Deirdre Barlow glasses; and then Robin Cook - well, he's fine as he is.
Whether it means the end of historic freedoms cherished since the Magna Carta I somehow doubt, but I'm against them for other reasons. They've got all the information they want about us already; the trouble is that most of it is wrong. There's probably a computer database somewhere that thinks that 'Mr Duke Edinburgh of Buckingham Place, London' might be interested in subscribing to Reader's Digest prize draw. Because the real oppression of identity cards would not be some Big Brother surveillance nightmare - it will be the more mundane tyranny of having to endure yet another crappy-piece of technology that doesn't work properly.
Imagine what fun students will have by drawing an extra couple of lines on each other's bar codes. 'I'm afraid, young man, you are not entitled to a student discount because according to this scanner you are a Muller twin-pot yoghurt.'
'No, I am a student, really, ask my friend here.'
'Well there's no point in talking to him - he's a small tin of Pokemon pasta shapes.'
Those in favour of ID cards talk in glowing terms about the wonders of modern technology. Identity cards would do more than just prove who you are. All the information that can possibly be needed about you could be stored on one handy smart card replacing all the others in your wallet. A quick swipe will establish that you are prepared to donate your kidneys in the event of an accident, that you are due a free cappuccino at Caffe Nero and that eleven months ago you paid a lot of money to join the local gym but have only been there twice.
Then police officers will be able to swipe the cards through their machines and say, 'Look, Sarge, we've got him now. It says here that Barney's Big Adventure was due back at Blockbuster Video yesterday before eleven p.m.'
'Oh yeah - and look at this - two thousand Sainsbury's reward points accumulated. Been doing a lot of shopping recently, haven't we, sonny?'
Because there is, of course, a civil liberties issue. As a middle-class white male I don't suffer much aggravation from the police. Whenever my car is pulled over, I utter a few words and they are suddenly very polite.
'Is this your own accent, sir?' 'Yes it is.'
'That's fine, sir, thank you. We're just doing a random check of accents in the area. Sorry to have troubled you.'
But for young black men, failure to produce an identity card on demand could be used as a reason for further harassment. Asylum seekers, stigmatized enough already, will be made to feel even more like non-persons without an official ID card.
The opposition should not be so obvious as to come out against ID cards altogether. Instead they should insist that the processing is done by DVLA Swansea. That should hold things up for the next couple of decades. And then just when they're getting on top of it all, the shadow cabinet could send in their own forms. That'll really put a spanner in the works.
'Oh no, the Conservative front bench have just blown the whole ID cards scheme out of the water.'
'We should have thought of this. They've got no identities to put on the cards.'
The wrong sort of shares
13 October 2001
Occasionally one reads about the tragic plight of a desperate group of people in our society and one is moved to tears by the terrible injustice they've had to endure. Such a group is Railtrack shareholders. After years of receiving healthy dividends on their investment, they are suddenly to be denied any more free money from the taxpayer. Where is Michael Buerk's moving report about the anguish of these poor victims? Where are the old ladies rattling tins in the High Street? Where is the Band Aid-type charity record featuring Bob Geldof and Ginger Spice singing All Aboard the Love Train - Oh no, it's just been de-railed outside Ealing Broadway'
When I was eight my brother and I had a small train set but we could never get it to work properly. The little bits of track wouldn't fit together and whatever you did the trains kept stopping and starting and then they'd simply refuse to budge altogether. I now realize that this is the most futuristic train set ever developed - it was just preparing us for the real thing later on. Railtrack has been an unmitigated disaster, and anyone who was stupid enough not to have sold their shares ages ago has no right to complain now the company's been taken into administration. You've heard of 'the wrong sort of snow'; well they bought 'the wrong sort of shares'. I don't remember a disclaimer on the advert saying 'Remember - the value of shares will only go up and up'
In the years since it was created, money has poured out of Railtrack into the pockets of shareholders almost as fast as the taxpayer has been paying it in. The week after the Hatfield rail crash they all got massively increased dividends as a reward for opting to invest in such an efficient and well-run company. But now that the government is no longer prepared to keep throwing bad money after bad, the shareholders' indignation is beyond belief. Crispin Oddey, founder of Oddey Asset Management, said, 'There is very little difference between what Robert Mugabe has just done to white farmers in Zimbabwe and what Byers has done to Railtrack's shareholders.' Yeah, fair comment I suppose: Robert Mugabe and Stephen Byers, I'm always getting those two mixed up. So look out for thousands of Stephen Byers supporters storming into the Railtrack offices wielding machetes and torching
Now Railtrack shareholders will have to try to make a quick buck somewhere else. I can't wait to see them approaching the pay-out desk at Ladbroke's after their horse has come in last.
'Hello - yes, I popped in yesterday and put fifty pounds on Lively Lad, running in the three o'clock at Kempton.'
'Yeah, well, he lost, mate.'
'Now look here, I invested a lot of money on that bet, and through no fault of mine the horse fell at the third fence, so I must insist that you give me my winnings.'
'Listen, pal, there's no winnings if your horse doesn't win.'
'What? But that's ridiculous. Surely the government steps in and pays up for me?'
It is a measure of how appalling Railtrack has been that it's actually made us nostalgic for British Rail. Yes, who can forget those happy days of BR when charming guards would help you aboard before dashing to the buffet to make a few more rounds of delicious cheese sandwiches. In reality the railways have always been a disaster area. If the classic film The Railway Children had been a bit more accurate, Bernard Cribbins would have been a grumpy old stationmaster who's only line would have been to tell the kids to piss off, before Jenny Agutter and her siblings disappeared to amuse themselves by chucking stones at passing trains and leaving dead birds on the line to watch them get squashed. In fact, at the very first passenger railway trip in 1830 the train ran over and killed the former cabinet minister William Huskisson. The inquiry into this event is due to report next month. (The incident prompted the first ever railway apology: 'We would like to apologize for the delayed arrival of the 11.04 from Liverpool. This is due to a former colonial secretary on the line.') Okay, so the British government has waited a very long time to get revenge on the railways, but Railtrack shareholders have no case for complaint. They got the shares for a fraction of their real value, and we have been subsidizing them ever since. For years they have been riding in the first-class carriage without a ticket, but the gravy train stops here.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes