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I blame the scapegoats, p.6

I blame the scapegoats, page 6


I blame the scapegoats

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  Hey, Mr Taliban Man

  17 November 2001

  The hills are alive with the sound of music! Like Baron von Trapp, the Taliban had banned all singing, but now Julie Andrews (in the guise of the Northern Alliance backed up by B52s) has brought the sound of music back to the hills of Afghanistan. Now in Kabul's west end they are singing the old tunes once more: 'I Have Confidence In George Bush', 'Bomb Every Mountain', and 'How Do You Solve The Problem Of Osama?'

  Even the greatest cynics and anti-war campaigners should celebrate the fall of the most hated tyrants since the advent of car-clamping. Suddenly thousands of Afghan children are experiencing the joy of flying kites once more. And then two minutes later saying, 'Actually, this is quite boring. You haven't got a Playstation Two by any chance, have you?'

  The Taliban was a regime made up of former religious students. Afghanistan is what happens when you hand the government over to those kids at school who actually wanted to do RE. And yet back in Britain we are increasing the role of religion in our schools. As church and state are being separated in Kabul, we are proposing that the next generation of Britons be educated in a more religious environment. Let us be in no doubt of the terrible fate that lies at the end of the faith schools road. The Middle East will come to Middle England; militant Christians will seize power in a religious revolution that will see Britain become the first ever fundamentalist Church of England state (or second, after the Isle of Man).

  After declaring the Archbishop of Canterbury the new head of state, the religious students will impose an austere regime based on the harsh strictures of their own extreme brand of English Christianity. Women will be forced to observe a strict dress code and made to wear long floral dresses with puffy sleeves. Men will wear Arran sweaters and sandals and be too cheerful. A Christian mob clutching tambourines and chanting 'Kumbaya' will surround Tesco Metro, forcing them to close their doors on the sabbath. The only shopping permitted on Sunday will be at the bring-and-buy sale at the vicarage, where the local populace will be coerced into purchasing little spider plants and home-made jam. Where Afghan kids shouted Allah is great!', English schoolchildren will chant the central tenet of Church of England doctrine: 'There probably is a god, though perhaps not in the literal sense, more as a sort of spiritual concept maybe.' There will be no music except Cliff Richard, so there will be no music. An exception will be made for the singing of hymns; it will be compulsory for everyone to go to church and self-consciously mumble their way through the second verse of 'To Be A Pilgrim', and then sing out the last line loud and clear to make up for not knowing the rest of it. It will be an offence to get out of bed in the morning only because Thought for the Day has just come on the radio. School nativity plays will not be permitted to edit the original biblical text and so will go on for several days. Loose adaptations will also be forbidden, so having the Virgin Mary clutching a plastic Baby Annabel from Toys 'R' Us and then singing Spice Girls hits is definitely out. Anyone breaking any of these strict Christian laws will face instant forgiveness.

  Of course, all this is a ridiculous fantasy. Nothing so foolish could ever come to pass. Future schoolchildren will learn about the dawn of a lasting world peace when they study this period of history in their new faith schools. For what could be more conducive to world peace than having all the Christian kids in one school and all the Muslim kids in a different school down the road? Why not stick a Jewish school in the middle and have an inter-schools jihad on sports day? Creating new faith secondary schools now seems about as sensible as a Taliban version of Pop Idol. 'Well, we don't know what she looks like and we're not allowed to hear her sing, so we'll just have to hope for the best.' You'd think the government would have enough problems on its hands deciding what to do with all these Taliban leaders, without setting up new faith schools back home that'll be needing religious heads to run them all. Oh no, they wouldn't, would they? Suddenly it all fits together . . .

  Between a rock and a hard place

  24 November 2001

  It has been decided that the time is right for the Foreign Secretary to begin talks on Gibraltar. The weather's suddenly turned cold here and it's still quite sunny in southern Spain. All sorts of wider discussions have been put on the agenda.

  'Look, we'll give you back Gibraltar - as long as you take Northern Ireland as well.'

  'No thanks - we were hoping you might like the Basque Country . . .'

  Meanwhile Gibraltar's chief minister was outraged that these talks were even taking place and gave it to Jack Straw straight: 'You have talks with Spain if you want. But I'm boycotting them.'

  'All right. See you about.'

  'I mean it! Either the Spanish minister goes, or I go.' 'Okay, bye then.'

  In trying to sort out this post-colonial hangover now, the government is brazenly flying in the face of years of established Foreign Office policy, which is to wait until a territory is the focus of a major international crisis involving hundreds of British troops, with billions of pounds needing to be spent to defend a place we'd forgotten we had in the first place. Maggie Thatcher would never have dreamed of negotiating over Gibraltar. She would have wanted to use it as a base for getting back the American colonies.

  These old bits of empire are like embarrassing LPs that ended up in your record collection after some long-forgotten college romance.

  'The Falkland Islands?' says your incredulous wife. 'How long have you had these?'

  And you blush and stutter: 'Oh yeah, er, they were Victoria's and somehow I've still got them.'

  'And what's this? The Chagos Archipelago?'

  'Oh well, um, when me and India split up, I was all upset so I refused to give it back . . .'

  Gibraltar was gained during the War of Spanish Succession, which was fought in order to bore people doing History A-level three hundred years later. Invasions of Spanish territory by the British have always taken the same form. Eyewitness accounts of the occupation describe how hundreds of sunburnt English lads in Union Jack shorts, clutching Stoke City scarves and copies of Loaded, stormed the local tavernas at dawn shouting, 'Oi, Manuel! Ten pints of lager pronto.' And the Spanish fled in horror as the victorious English struck up a chorus of 'Ere we go! Ere we go! Ere we go!' During that war Britain also gained the island of Minorca, and quickly went about establishing another vital naval staging post by building the Benny Hill Bar, providing Premiership highlights on satellite TV and paella and chips with Yorkshire pudding.

  Minorca was handed back, but Gibraltar remains an embarrassment. Imagine if a 300-year-old war had meant that Clacton-on-Sea was still a Spanish colony today. Would we demand the return of that Essex coastal resort? Okay, bad example. Opponents of surrendering sovereignty insist that Britain has a right to Gibraltar under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. The same treaty handed Sardinia to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ceded the island of Sicily to Savoy. This week the government of Savoy was saying nothing. The settlement in 1713 also ensured that British companies had a monopoly of the transportation of African slaves to the Spanish colonies. Only a handful of Tory MPs still argue that these rights should be upheld today.

  If people want to remain British, I know an excellent place they could live. It's called Britain. I have never understood why the Union Jack-waving expats living thousands of miles away from the mother country are always so self-consciously more British than the people who live here. If they really want to be like everyone back in England they should wear NYC baseball caps and eat Big Macs while watching Friends and Sex and the City. Gibraltarians have no more right to perpetuate the anachronism of the British Empire than the descendants of Jewish settlers in the West Bank should have a right to veto a settlement in the Middle East.

  Till now it's always been presumed that sovereignty might possibly be shared at some vague point in the future - a sort of ‘manana split'. But the brave way to deal with this problem would be to set a definite date for Gibraltar's return to Spain. It should be far enough away that the Gibraltari
ans can't really imagine it ever coming round, but soon enough for the Spanish to think it's not worth making a fuss between now and then. How about 2029 - the two hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Seville when Spain renounced its claim to the Rock after its failed invasion? But the government must make this announcement soon before the Gibraltarians realize that they have one very persuasive negotiating ploy left up their sleeve. What if they were to ally themselves with other Britons living further up the Spanish coast? Suddenly they might find their wishes being respected. Round the conference table would be the Spanish Minister, Jack Straw and Mad Mick from Romford who moved to Marbella in a hurry after the Brinks Mat heist.

  'Well, Mr Straw, you can overrule the Brits living in Spain if you like. But I'm afraid it means I will have to saw your legs off and have them buried in the concrete of the Stratford East Rail Link.'

  'Urn . . . yeah, well, maybe we shouldn't rush into any decision just yet. . .'

  And the Spanish will say, 'Oh no - it's just like negotiating with Maggie Thatcher all over again.'

  I blame the scapegoats

  I December 2001

  It's a mistake any of us could have made - spending three years studying cows instead of sheep. I'm always getting those two mixed up. All right, so they are the Institute of Animal Health, but it doesn't mean they can be expected to spot all the subtle variations between every single species; to know the difference between, say, a bank vole and a short-tailed vole, or a wood warbler and a sedge warbler. Or a sheep and a cow.

  The latest twist in the BSE saga is even more farcical than anything that has gone before. In the quest to establish whether British sheep have contracted the disease, scientists spent the last three years studying sheep tissue and reached a distressing conclusion: the British flock did indeed have BSE. Except the animal samples they'd been studying for three years were the wrong ones. The creatures which they had diagnosed with mad cow disease were cows. The clue is in the name. We shouldn't be too hard on them - this sheep/cow mix-up happens all the time. Thousands of sheep farmers have recently realized why they've been finding it so hard to make a living: they've been shearing cows all this time. Last year in a packed Spanish arena, one bullfight had been going for about half an hour, with the nervous woolly bull running away from the matador and bleating occasionally, before someone in the crowd said, 'Are you absolutely sure that

  is a bull? Because I can't help thinking it looks a little bit like a sheep.'

  For future reference, sheep are small, with thick white fleeces and go 'Baaa!', whereas cows are much bigger and go 'Mooo!' I know it can be confusing, but they are professional biologists. If it's not in any of their scientific manuals, there are some pre-school picture books which set it out quite clearly.

  This week's report into the fiasco points the finger at a laboratory in Edinburgh, although no one seems very sure. What seems even more incredible is that nobody noticed for so long. Lots of us have days at work when we feel we're wasting our time, but three whole years down the drain must make you a little bit depressed. And all because someone got the wrong bottle out of the fridge. That's the last time he'll be making the tea.

  'Are you sure you put milk in the mug, cos it tastes a bit strange . . .'

  'Oh sorry, I must have used the liquidized cows' brains by mistake. It's not my fault, they've both got pictures of cows on the side . . .'

  When BSE was discovered in the samples, ministers seriously considered destroying the entire British sheep flock. Fortunately they didn't have to take this drastic step, because all the sheep had already been slaughtered during the foot-and-mouth epidemic a few months earlier. The scientists' error was discovered only after a last-minute DNA test on the samples. Well, they claim they tested the DNA - for all we know it might have been a jar of sundried tomatoes. And now the report into the fiasco has concluded that the standards of labelling and storage were well below international standards. You don't say. Perhaps the description of the animal samples was done by people who write posh menus. You could never write anything as straightforward as 'Liquidized sheep's brains' - you'd have to write 'Cerveaux de mouton presse a la formaldehyde''. One theory is that somebody got confused about the words 'bovine' and 'ovine'. Often scientists use the Latin names for different species, but since the Latin for sheep is 'ovis', we should just be grateful that they didn't spend three years studying a brand of sliced bread from Yorkshire.

  Who knows what other similar slips have occurred in other government departments? For all we know, British jets might have been bombing Uzbekistan for the past few weeks . . . Intelligence assessments of Taliban positions are being carried out by MFI. Right now all sorts of frantic calls are being made from Downing Street. 'You did what?' says Tony in disbelief. 'Nationalize Railtrack?! I said "rationalize", you idiot. God, I hope Gordon heard me last night. We were trying to get a cab and I said this country needed more taxis.'

  Meanwhile the work of the Institute of Animal Health was defended by Elliot Morley MP, who apparently has the misfortune to be the 'Animal Health Minister' (although this post was obviously invented last week to save any proper ministers the embarrassment of defending it). He called their work 'world class'. Sounds like someone's got their labels mixed up again. This was in fact a catastrophic series of errors, which nearly caused the extermination of all British sheep and has left us still ignorant as to whether BSE exists in our sheep. Heads should roll, except they'd probably only fire the wrong person by mistake. 'Don't worry, minister - we've found the person responsible for this animal mix-up and sacked him. It won't happen again, we promise: he's definitely not a token scapecow.'

  Hotel health service

  8 December 2001

  The decision was taken by a handful of ministers, late one night in Downing Street. Thousands of NHS patients still waiting for operations . . . hundreds of private hospital beds lying empty . . . there had to be a solution in there somewhere.

  'So what do you think, Tony? Shall we nationalize BUPA and seize all private health companies in the name of the workers?'

  'Hmm, no, it doesn't feel right. . .'

  'Raise more cash for the NHS by putting a super-tax on all those toffs who always go private?'

  'No . . . How about we work in partnership with the private sector, and pay BUPA a load of money to treat NHS patients?'

  And there was an excited gasp of breath around the room and they spontaneously leapt to their feet and sang 'The Red Flag'.

  The announcement that the government is signing a deal with BUPA to fill up one of its hospitals with NHS patients was heavily criticized by union leaders this week. No one on the left likes private health companies - what could be more symbolic of uncaring capitalism than profiting from the sick and the dying? 'Why should our money go to line the pockets of BUPA shareholders?' we say angrily, and then get even more irritated when we are informed that BUPA doesn't actually have any shareholders - it is a provident association.

  'Yeah, well, er, exactly!'

  Various schemes were considered. One idea that went out of the window quite early was for Alan Milburn personally to take out private health insurance and then see if they could get 12,000 people who were on the waiting lists to go into a BUPA hospital and pretend they were Alan Milburn. The long-term solution is, of course, to increase the capacity of the NHS and, to the government's credit, they are actually spending a fortune building new hospitals and doing up old ones. But these refurbishments take ages; when the builders are trying to swing the steel girder into position, they have to keep being extra careful not to whack that bedridden pensioner on the head.

  Meanwhile the waiting lists remain and the government has been gazing across longingly at the plush private hospitals that were sitting there half empty. BUPA hospitals are basically just very expensive hotels where you can get a bit of medical treatment as an optional extra. Sometimes they even host two-day conferences of sales executives and after the discussions the delegates try the Jacuzzi, have a massag
e and then decide to get themselves a plastic hip joint before they head home. Now one of these BUPA hospitals will be used to treat only NHS patients. The government are not saying 'The lists are so long you should pay to go private', they are saying 'The lists are too long, so we'll pay for you to go private.' Health care remains free to all at the point of delivery. That is the Rubicon that must never be crossed.

  There is a lot of confusion about how a hospital can be part private and part NHS. Let's take mealtimes as an example of how it will work. For their entree the patients will be served honeydew melon balls with seedless grapes in an elegant cut-glass bowl. Then the main course will be a big dollop of mince with a crumbling over-boiled potato on a big metal plate, and then for the dessert it's back to the posh menu, zabaglione with langue de chat biscuits. They used to serve 'Death by Chocolate', but one of the elderly residents died half way through eating it and they were worried about a law suit. Every private room will have its own television, but in order to make you feel as if you're still in the TV room of an NHS ward, the telly will be much too loud and will be tuned to Shafted with Robert Kilroy-Silk when there's something really good on the other side.

  There will, of course, also be a clash of cultures. When a health service has been created with a profit motive, as in America, expensive things like tests and exploratory operations can be considered a waste of money.

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