Gale's Westminster View - February 2008
Now is the winter of our discontent made…………well, probably the spring of our discontent if we're honest.
It has been a literally long month. February has no right to accommodate twenty-nine days. The first twenty-eight were gloomy enough without piling on the agony for an extra twenty-four hours.
February the First. My friend of longstanding, Derek Conway, is suspended from the House of Commons for employing members of his family. I have defended, on national radio, the man that I know and who is not the man described by the paragons of virtue in the parliamentary press gutter. Having sown the wind I await the whirlwind. Curious. A dozen or so letters and e-mails of vilification but at least as many offering some form of support or at least Christian understanding.
All of this is, of course, much more important than what is happening in the wider world because gossip sells newspapers and international politics does not. At the end of last month I said that there was a glimmer of hope in the bloodshed of Kenya. That hope faded but as I write the glimmer is still just about there and Kofi Annan is relentlessly trying to kick some sense into that corner of Africa.
In an adjacent country, Tanzania, two of my constituents, having bought a farm, employed local people and grown vegetables for export, find themselves finally harassed out of the country after four years of torment by a small-time crook who, it appears, has had the tacit support of the local police and judicial system. The crook's brother owns much of the country's media and the government is, of course, dependant upon that media for support. No guesses, then, who was going to win! Notwithstanding my best long-distance efforts and the Herculean attention of a superb UK High Commissioner the relentlessness of vandalism, trumped-up litigation, imprisonment, and threats of violence has taken its toll. They have run up the white flag and quit. Memo to friends: think very long and hard before investing in Tanzania.
The Commons Chamber has become a shrine dedicated to the Great God Brussels and the Book of Lisbon. I am sure that there are other domestic matters that warrant some modest attention but hour after hour the "Not The European Constitution" takes priority. All we want, and all we are not allowed to have in this shining democracy known as the Mother of Parliaments, is a government promise kept and a referendum that will allow the people who sent us here to have their say on what really is a fundamental constitutional principle.
Should we have had a referendum on Maastricht or the Single European Act? With 20/20 hindsight probably "yes" but are we not permitted to learn from past mistakes? Apparently not in this Brave New Gordon World.
And talking of the Big Organ Grinder, he has gone down immeasurably in my estimation - a fact that will no doubt cause him sleepless nights. I have been campaigning for two years now to hold the government to an undertaking given by The Legacy and to provide funds so that bereaved forces families may be afforded legal representation at the inquests of their fallen kin.
It is a very moot point whether these inquests should be held at all but as long as they are it seems to me quite wrong that the government and the Ministry of Defence can spend millions of taxpayers pounds on expensive lawyers to cover their own inflated backsides and then try to claim that because this "is not a court of law" it is not necessary for mere grieving mortals to have some hired legal help. I raised this before Christmas on the floor of the House and Prime Minister Organ Grinder undertook to look into the matter. Fool that I am, and because I have hitherto had some grudging regard for him as being at least more honest than his predecessor, I actually believed that he would keep his word.
What I now have before me is a letter from some New Labour apparatchik styled Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, regurgitating two years worth of platitudes uttered by successive Lords Chancellor and Justice Ministers. Next time that Brown stands at the despatch box at PMs question time and says "I am sure that the whole House would like to pay tribute……." just remember that those words are very cheap. Legal assistance costs real money and that is something that this former Chancellor cannot, apparently, bear to spend, even in the memory of those who have given their lives for their Country.
In mid-month my News Headline notes remind me that "The Virgin-led consortium has been told by the Treasury that it is the frontrunner to take over Northern Rock". If the Treasury is telling the BBC that then it is bound to be wrong. And it is! That was Wednesday 13th February. By the weekend two momentous events had taken place. My daughter accepted, on Valentine's Day, a proposal of marriage and, of rather less significance in our household, on Sunday 17th Alistair Darling, standing in as Chancellor of the Exchequer until a suitable replacement can be found, announced that he (which means the Big Organ Grinder, of course) intended to commit the earthly remains of Northern Wreck to "temporary public ownership". In the Members Tea Room on Monday one was heard to say "The Labour Party has gone back to seventies socialism and nationalisation, the Tory Party is once again run by Old Etonians, the Liberals have returned to the Lunatic Fringe, God's in his heaven and all's right with the World"!.
For the record (almost) the "Banking (Special Provisions) Bill", which gives Edinburgh's Favourite Badger the right to nationalise any bank for the next twelve months, was whistled through both Houses of Parliament and given the Royal Assent in short order. Boy George fights a good corner and loses gracefully. Younger members are overheard describing midnight as a "late sitting". Those were the days! La Reine Le Veult? I doubt it. Nevertheless, Her nation now owns a bank. Apart from the profitable bit known euphemistically as Granita. No. Sorry. That's a restaurant isn't it Gordon?
Part of my constituency lies in the Canterbury City District and I have always felt a degree of affinity, therefore, with the Archbishop of that Town. Poor Rowan Williams, the present incumbent, has found himself in a spot of bother following an indication, made during a learned address, that some aspects of Sharia Law might find their way to adoption in the UK. Its not what he says, it’s the way that he says it! His Grace is sometimes so intellectually oblique that I am not certain that he himself is aware of the content. Curiously I find myself, mid parliamentary delegation to Tunis to discuss democracy and all that, trying to interpret the Primate's meaning to a Moslem journalist. In French. At this distance I think I may safely say that I do not appear to have inadvertently caused an international incident but it was a close run thing.
The Archbishop may be espousing aspects of Islam but there is one such custom that Young Multi-cultural David is clearly not keen on. Speaking in Bradford he lashes out, to use the tabloid vernacular, at the "bizarre and unacceptable" practice of forced marriage. The next, Cameron, Conservative government, will make this a criminal offence.
You thought it was the Year of the Rat. To the Chinese that may well be so but to Biaza it is The Year of the Frog! The All Party Parliamentary Zoo and Aquarium Group (be honest: you didn't know there was one and neither, until this week, did I!) has hosted the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums and a couple of visiting amphibians in vivaria to promote awareness of chytrid fungus. It seems that this disease, along with the usual loss of habitat, pollution, pesticides and an over-collection as pets and food is, after three hundred and fifty million years, leaving frogs and toads facing their biggest crisis since the disappearance of the dinosaur. Amazing, is it not, what you can learn in the Palace of Westminster. Go to www.biaza.org.uk for more information and find out about Amphibian Ark.
The Media, who will no doubt be eager to support a Private Members Bill to compel Press Gallery Pass Holders to publish their salaries and expenses, are now hot in pursuit of Mr. Speaker. Michael Martin is not everyone's cup of tea but I have personally found him to be a kind and decent man. I was certainly influenced by the speech that he made at Her Majesty's Golden Jubilee gathering in Westminster Hall. I found the then Lord Chancellor (the real one, not the present Commons cut-out) to be wooden and pompous. By contrast the lad from the Gorbals seemed warm and sincere and heartfelt. And as a member of the Speaker's panel of Chairmen I perhaps enjoy some small insight into the difficulty of the job that he is required to do. We all try, in the Chair, to be impartial and by and large, but not always, we and the Speaker succeed.
No matter, it is his wife's taxi bills and the manner in which he is alleged to have deployed his Air Miles that is of burning interest to those that seek to bring him, and what he stands for, down.
Forgive me. He stands for democracy and that is rather precious. If there are - and indeed there are - things wrong with the way that we conduct ourselves and our business then we must put them right. If even Mr. Speaker has erred then he is accountable to Parliament. I do not, though, think that we should be required to take lessons in probity from the gentlemen - I use the word very loosely - of the fourth estate or from that handful of aspirants who themselves fancy a crack at sitting in the Speaker's chair.
Faites vos jours. The Government has confirmed plans for the creation of sixteen regional casinos while officially scrapping the "Super Casino" that had been destined for Manchester. You would have got poor odds on the betting that such a project would ever have been allowed to proceed but the real loser is Blackpool, a town that was looking to Vegas-style gambling for much-needed regeneration. The other losers from the government's dreadful Gaming Act are the proprietors of seaside amusement arcades and the manufacturers of one-armed bandits. In a stroke of pure genius New Labour has managed to give the kiss of death to some of our few wet-weather family resort facilities while breathing life into the spread of betting shops offering gaming machines and big prizes! The Bookies lobby always was powerful. You bet!
On the last day of this fragmented month my parliamentary colleague and geographic neighbour, Julian Brazier (Canterbury) seeks to introduce a private members bill to curb films featuring violent and sexual material. When "Leading Academics" scream that "suggesting a causal effect between watching a violent act and carrying out a violent act is staggeringly unsophisticated" you know that you are on the right track. A fair bit of a professional lifetime in front of and behind the camera has taught me just a little about the power of the visual image. If this Bill "flaunts all the hallmarks of a classic moral crusade", to cite one critic, then count me in as a Crusader. Fridays are valuable in the constituency but this one is well spent in the House of Commons