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I blame the scapegoats, p.7

I blame the scapegoats, page 7


I blame the scapegoats

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  'Woman over fifty, you say? Right, give her a hysterectomy' 'But she only came in with a verruca.'

  What the NHS may lack in menus and decor it more than makes up for in the minor matter of health care. The best doctors and nurses are working in the state sector - paying to go private may save six months' waiting, but it won't buy you better treatment.

  So eventually the clash between the private and public sector will be too much and the cabinet will be forced to hold another emergency session.

  'You were right, guys . . .' says the PM. 'This isn't working at all. There's only one way forward. We're going to nationalize BUPA!'

  Now I realize why Tony Blair never made this announcement in the first place. Imagine the strain it would have put on the health service, everyone in Whitehall having a heart attack all at the same time.

  Defective defector

  15 December 2001

  Poor, poor Paul Marsden. Before he was forced to join the Liberals it sounds as if he had a terrible time. Who could help but shed a tear as we read about how those tyrannical Labour whips talked to him in a cross voice? Who knows what brutal intimidation lay ahead: no Christmas cards and someone sneaking into his office to open all the windows on his advent calendar? Parliamentary whips have always been vicious bully boys. In the last Tory government, Gyles Brandreth was a whip. 'Support the government,' he would snarl, 'or I'll give you a teddy bear and make you wear one of my jumpers.'

  Or could it be that Paul Marsden is just an unprincipled attention-seeker, desperate for his fifteen minutes of fame? Any politician can grab the cheap temporary celebrity that comes from crossing the floor. But real eminence in politics comes from years of hard work and skilful manoeuvring; that's what has earned the deserved celebrity status of the party leaders, Tony Blair, Charles Kennedy and the other one, er - what's-his-face.

  Imagine if other professionals did what Marsden did as soon as someone raised their voice.

  'So, David Beckham, could you explain why you came out for the second half wearing a blue shirt and then got a hat trick for Chelsea?' 'Simple, really - Sir Alex Ferguson was a bit mean to me at half time so I thought I'd start playing for the other side.'

  Football players do of course switch teams, but only in between games and usually for large amounts of money. Perhaps the transfer system could be the way forward for unhappy politicians. 'Tony Blair held a press conference today to show off his new signing, Alan Howarth, who joins New Labour from the Tories for a fee of twenty million pounds. Blues manager Willy Hague said he was sad to have to let the promising right-winger go, while Howarth said it was a dream come true, as he'd supported Labour since he was a lad, especially when he was a Tory minister.'

  We vote for a party and their programme, not for personalities and their individual whims. Of course MPs have the right to a conscience, especially on an issue such as the bombing of another country. Opposition to the war in Afghanistan is a perfectly respectable position held by many MPs (mostly in the party Paul Marsden just left). So why has Marsden defected to a party whose leader also supports the war? It would be far more honest if he defected to a genuine anti-war party - and much more fun when the Socialist Workers Party got their first MP.

  Every morning the policeman could wave him through security with a friendly 'Good morning, sir' and he could scream in anger at being the victim of such vicious police brutality. As MPs filed into the chamber he could sell papers outside the Members' Lobby wearing a donkey jacket and fingerless gloves, shouting 'Socialist Worker! Kick out the MPs - oh, that's me, isn't it?' He could try to persuade Tony Blair to join with other workers in a general strike to get rid of Tony Blair. He could be party leader and chief whip, and have furious rows with himself when he broke the party line.

  If whips weren't bending the ears of our elected representatives, then other lobbyists would be doing so instead. In America politicians are not whipped in the same way, and big business steps into the vacuum. 'During the election my party said it was against Exxon drilling for oil in our national parks. However, following a meeting with several local voters (a man from the oil company and my accountant), I have resolved to make a principled stand for the independence of senators from the party machine.'

  Back in the summer, the voters of Shrewsbury elected a Labour MP. The Labour agent would have worked day and night to see him safely returned. Dozens of activists delivered leaflets and canvassed and gave up their evenings and weekends to explain to voters why they should have Paul Marsden as their Labour MP. And just six months later he has stabbed all those loyal party workers in the back and appointed himself MP for the party that came third in his constituency with just 12 per cent of the vote. The opinion of those 22,253 constituents who wanted a Labour MP counts for nothing. Politicians who swap sides always claim they are forced to do so out of principle. This is the biggest lie since the non-drop Christmas tree. If Paul Marsden has any integrity he should resign and stand for election under the banner of his new party, just as Shaun Woodward should have done when he joined Labour. If there's one thing I can't stand it's a turncoat; some of us have higher principles than to switch sides whenever it suits us. A point I think I made when I had a column in the Independent.

  Immunizing children against the tabloid press

  21 December 2001

  The press have always been too intrusive about the private affairs of important babies. Two thousand years ago the tabloid journos from the Bethlehem Mail went to extreme lengths to get the inside story on the new baby Jesus . . .

  'Look,' said Joseph, 'I know he's the son of God and the saviour of all mankind, but we would rather you respected his privacy if that's all right. So take off that stupid donkey costume and get out of the stable.'

  'Tell us about the conception, Mary,' shouted another hack, who was taking notes for a no-holds-barred biography he was calling 'The New Testament'.

  'Now listen . . .' said Joseph. 'The conception of this baby is a private matter between myself, God and the Virgin Mary.'

  'The "Virgin Mary," you say? I think we have a story, lads . . .'

  Of course, unless you're a particularly toady Labour MP, Leo Blair is not the son of God, but two millennia later the press are still as hungry for any detail about celebrity babes. This week's bit of snooping (masquerading as an important social debate about immunization) has been the demand to know whether or not the youngest Blair has had his MMR injection. As Guardian readers will have observed from

  seeing all the newspapers read by the builders doing their kitchen extension, the tabloids have been hammering on about this story all week. The Blairs have refused to say one way or the other. Cue a hundred articles on Cherie's duty to be a model mother and provide definitive answers to all the complex parenting questions of the day. Does Cherie use disposable Pampers or are there dozens of re-usable nappies hanging out to dry in the cabinet room? Is it right to breastfeed a baby in the workplace, or would that distract the jury? The fact that both Leo's parents are lawyers is one of the reasons that they are refusing to budge on this. They understand the concept of precedent - once you start responding to personal questions posed by the tabloids you are always going to regret it. Because the inquisition wouldn't just stop with the infant. 'Prime Minister, when you were away in the Middle East, did the boys have a teenage party at Number Ten and trash the place? What did Kathryn's teacher say at parents' evening apart from "Can I have more money?" Is Leo walking yet, or does he have another toddler to drive him about in a little plastic car?' Or what about 'Has Euan ever tasted alcohol?' Sadly these are questions to which we will never know the answer.

  The key to the Blairs' apparently obsessive protection of their children's privacy is to understand that Cherie has had first-hand experience of media intrusion from the child's point of view. When she was growing up in Liverpool her father was not just a national celebrity; on Merseyside he was a virtual folk hero. 'Mr Booth, Mr Booth,' the papers would say, 'if your daughter was to grow up and be the w
ife of the Prime Minister, do you think she should get her baby immunized?' It was very hard for young Cherie; every week she would see her father on the telly espousing radical left-wing views. Though some might say that her husband has gone slightly too far to ensure her kids never have to endure this experience.

  Or is there another reason why the Blairs are particularly sensitive about hacks getting too close to baby Leo? It is typical of the British press that they have failed to spot the real story in the middle of all this. There is no Leo Blair. The baby idea was thought up by Alastair Campbell when the Prime Minister's personal rating started to slip a couple of years ago. Since then a variety of infants from a baby modelling agency have been used, but now the casting problem is getting harder and harder. At some point in the New Year they'll come clean and admit that they have only three children, claiming that the fourth child was only an 'aspiration', it was never an actual manifesto commitment. And the Fleet Street editors will kick themselves for their stupidity and promise never to be so gullible again. And then finally Tony and Cherie will be able to turn to little Leo and say, 'Ha ha! Can you believe they bought it, darling? Now the tabloids will definitely leave you alone.'

  Osama's Christmas message

  29 December 2001

  Well, by now we have all seen that infamous video message and listened to all the experts analysing every detail: those staring eyes, the grey hair, the lined face, that religious fervour. But still the question remains: what was the Queen's Christmas message designed to achieve? Many experts believe that the address may have actually been recorded some time ago at one of her secret hideouts - possibly in the mountains surrounding Bal'mor'al. But why did she choose to release her Christmas message over the Christmas period? Perhaps the recording was an attempt to prove that she is still alive, or perhaps a coded message to her supporters. But why did she not move her left hand? Was it tired from a whole year of waving?

  Sadly, any attempt by the Queen to get her message across was completely upstaged by another millionaire religious leader - Osama Bin Laden. This Christmas the Arabic satellite news channel Al-Jazeera pipped BBC1 and ITV to top the holiday ratings with their Osama Bin Laden Christmas Special. What is amazing is that Bin Laden managed to talk for thirty-three minutes (or an hour, once the Americans had put in the commercial breaks) without answering any of the questions that the West is desperate to know. Where is he hiding? What is he planning next? Why doesn't 'Al-Qaida' have a letter 'u' after the 'q'? And how is it that a parcel containing the video sent from Pakistan a week ago can arrive more quickly than a Christmas card sent a couple of miles across London? In fact, the video really only tells us one thing: Osama got a camcorder for Christmas. (The FBI are questioning Dixons to see if he sent back his guarantee card.) Now Bin Laden's made a video of himself, which is exactly the sort of cry for attention you'd expect from the middle child of a family of fifty-four children. Next week the offices of You've Been Framed will receive a video of a contrived 'accident' of Osama walking past a swimming pool and falling in fully clothed as the Al-Qaida network desperately tries to raise a bit more cash. The delay between the tape's recording and transmission is easily explained. Imagine the scene in the cave: 'Right, we have made the recording, Osama. Now to transfer it onto this VHS tape.'

  'No, not that one - I just recorded the Christmas Only Fools and Horses on that one.'

  'Oh all right, what about this one?'

  'No - that's got the Christmas EastEnders on it.'

  'Oh come on - you're never going to watch that now'

  'I am, I am. Look, what's on this one? Honestly, why can't you label your bloody videos?'

  'Urn, I think that's Before They Were Famous. I wanted to see if they've dug up that clip of you on Junior Showtime in 1973.'

  In his video address Bin Laden discusses the American action in Afghanistan, although his exact words depend on whose translation you read. For example, the Pentagon version has him saying, 'I now see that American foreign policy is totally benign and justified, oh yes. The United States is truly a wonderful country and I never miss Ally McBeal or Sex and the City. Oooh I really fancy an Egg McMuffin and vanilla shake and no mistake.' If you put this version to one side, along with the translation in the Sun in which Bin Laden claims that the best Christmas telly was all on Sky One, there was very little in the half-hour monologue of any great surprise. He criticizes the Allied Carpet Bombing, which raised a few eyebrows (I knew the missiles were inaccurate but I didn't know they'd hit Allied Carpets). He reads a poem and his eyes go all watery, but frankly it's just all too static, too much 'talking heads'. The producers of The Two Ronnies used to get round this problem by having Ronnie Corbett say, And now the Young

  Generation,' and we'd cut to some dancers in T-shirts and flares prancing around Studio One at TV Centre. Or maybe Osama should have put in some sketches to break it up a bit. Either way, his style is too wooden and the content too thin for this unsolicited pilot to get its own series. So a letter has gone back to the Tora Bora mountains thanking Osama for his tape but explaining that BBC Talent get a lot of videos from people wanting to be on television but competition is extremely fierce, etc., etc. - although his details have been sent to Carol Smillie for her new series, Celebrity Cave Make-Over. In fact, the production values on Osama's home video are so poor that it nearly didn't get broadcast at all, but the channel controllers watched it and decided they had no choice. 'No, put it out at peak time,' they said; 'we've got to have at least one programme this Christmas which doesn't feature Neil and Christine Hamilton.'

  Top dog collar

  10 January 2002

  This week George Carey announced that he would be stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury in order to spend more time with his tambourines and immediately the race was on to become the new top dog collar. Traditionally the Archbishop of Canterbury was one of those jobs that you wouldn't get if you were too obvious about seeking it. It's like the leadership of the Tory Party, or being boyfriend of the most beautiful girl at school. It should seem as if you just happened to be standing nearby looking cool when the vacancy came up.

  But this time round the shameless battle for press attention began only minutes after Carey announced he was hanging up his cassock. Senior bishops desperate for a bit of coverage trampled all over each other in the rush to come up with the story most likely to get them splashed across the newspapers. 'Harry Potter is my bastard love-child claims Have-a-Go Bishop', 'Cheeky Cleric streaks at Old Trafford', 'I was dumped by EastEnders love-rat says Booze-Hell Bishop'. That worthy 3000-word piece in the Church Times entitled 'Whither the General Synod?' never stood a chance.

  Incredibly, the post is still not open to women and a couple of the front-runners have grown beards just in case anyone wasn't sure. The bookies already have the Bishop of Rochester as favourite at 3-1, with the Bishop of London at 4-1 and the Muslim terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden looking very much a long-shot at 5000-1. Sven-Goran Eriksson has made it plain that he does not want the job, while a suggestion that it might help end religious divisions if we gave the job to the Pope was only broadcast in order to wind up Ian Paisley. One rogue application has been received from a local parent who wants to become the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in one last desperate attempt to get his kids into the local Church of England primary school. Another pitch was made by a leading property company hoping to convert Lambeth Palace into luxury riverside apartments.

  When St Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury back in 597 it was a very different job, as many of today's churchgoers will probably remember. Evensong would often be disturbed by hordes of Viking heathens charging into the churches, shouting and tipping over the tables and smashing priceless artefacts - an atmosphere not dissimilar to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve after the pubs have just closed. Most Britons were not Christian; more people believed in the mystical power of the stars, magic crystals and the energy fields around Stonehenge - so in fact there's not been much change there ei

  Of course, back in the sixth century the service was given in Latin; no one could understand a word the Bishop was saying, so the clergy generally busked it with what little Latin they could remember from school: 'Amo amas amat, Caesar adsum jam forte, habeas corpus, nota bene, status quo et procul harum.' The Latin versus English debate continued to split the church for hundreds of years after the great Synod of Whitby of 664 settled on the messy compromise that the Bible would still be published in Latin, but they'd put the answers in English at the back.

  But of course the relevance of language is still an issue today and any new candidate to lead the Anglican church should now declare himself in favour of an even more modern version of the Bible, that would express the good book in today's inner-city street slang: 'And yo man, that bro' Herod; him was one bad-ass mother chillin' big time with the Judea Massive.'

  Even if the Church of England does not go this far, the appointment of a new Archbishop is its big chance to get back in touch with ordinary people. Frankly, leaving the decision to the Crown Appointments Commissions is unlikely to get the great British public caught up in the excitement and heartache of today's ecumenical hopefuls. A nationwide phone-vote should follow a twelve-part fly-on-the-wall TV show in the manner of every other show on telly at the moment. Various clerics should have to audition live on air and then stand there trying not to look embarrassed while their efforts are ripped to shreds by the industry experts.

  'So, Bishop of London, you've done really well to get this far,' Pete Waterman will say. 'I think you chose a hymn that was not great for your voice - "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" is not the catchiest tune in Tin Pan Alley. I loved that little twirl you gave us on the lines "Did e'er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?" Okay, it was a shame your mitre fell off, but you recovered well, so congratulations, you're coming back next week on Pick a Prelate!' But of course in the end none of them would win, because if it was a straightforward popularity poll there could only be one contender. 'The Archbishop of Dibley' - it has a ring to it, doesn't it?

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