Gales View - Westminster March 2011
The long March. Cameron leads, Obama dithers, Gaddafi murders. Fuel prices rocket, Prince Andrew feels the media heat. Then comes the earthquake and tsunami. Thousands dead, floods, fire and possibly nuclear brimstone in Japan. There is a budget and inflation hits a 20-year high. Riots on the streets. In Westminster, MPs tweet on.
At the end of such a month what happened at the beginning seems like a very long time ago. On 1st March we were not engaged in active warfare in Libya, Japan was still in one piece, Portugal had a government, petrol was under £6 a gallon and women were able to obtain concessionary motor insurance rates on gender grounds.
Roll forward just a few days. Lord Foy of That Persuasion finds himself defending the Gaddafi clan and claiming that Britain was right to befriend the despotic Libyan regime. Talk of military force against that country begins as Cameron denounces Blair`s position . Rebuffed by China, Russia and even, at this stage, France while the United States describes as loose talk” his suggestions for a no-fly zone over Libya, Man David finds himself isolated but battles on. At home Sir Howard Davies resigns from the London School of Economics following revelations that that university has received £1.5 million in donations from Saif Gaddafi who happens to have been awarded with a PhD. A food and fuel price spike hits the inflation figures as petrol breaks through the six-pound mark to reach, at £1.40 a litre, £6.37 a gallon in real money. Thirty miles south of Benghazi eight SAS operatives arrive by night with our man from MI6. Unceremoniously apprehended by farm workers they are released and despatched aboard HMS Cumberland amid questions asking why they did not simply land in daylight and from the sea!
Echoes of Hungary in 1956. Revolution encouraged but where is the US cavalry when it is needed? We will not let Gaddafi murder his people” says our Prime Minister, who now has the support of President Sarkozy. With refugees streaming from Libya westwards into to Tunisia to be air-lifted home, with tented refugee camps springing up along the border and with Gaddafi`s remaining forces wreaking death and destruction upon women and children, schools and hospitals in the East, Borat O`Bama is noticeably missing, inaction”. Libya, we are told at the middle of the month, will be back under Gaddafi control in 48 hours”. On 18th March the United Nations Security Council eventually finds a voice and votes, by ten votes to nil with five abstentions that include Russia and China, to carry out air strikes against Gaddafi`s ground forces. By the following day French and British war planes are in action following a decision endorsed, also, by the Arab League. The spin” says that had the US supported action earlier the Arab League would not have given support. An unintended but fortuitous possible side-effect of the dithering and mixed signals that had been emanating from the White House.
Gaddafi declares a ceasefire” even as his forces continue to bombard homes and hospitals with rockets, while he himself shelters in his Tripoli compound behind a human shield of civilians. Cameron describes our actions as necessary, right and legal” and, by an overwhelming majority of all parties, the House of Commons agrees. Loose talk” saves lives, it seems but as a result of the delay we and the rebels are playing catch-up while the Battle of Benghazi” marks, perhaps, a turning point.
No long-term or exit strategy. Policy on the hoof and the debate about our own strategic defence review and consequential cuts re-opened and, at the time of writing, an outcome far from clear. Gaddafi clings onto power and the ground war between Government and rebels ebbs and flows along the Libyan coast. At Misurata a town and its people are reduced to rubble but it is, at this stage, still arguable that without United Nations intervention the loss of life and potential genocide would have been far, far worse. Is Al Quaeda backing the rebels? Will Gaddafi and his whole rotten family flee or will they stand and die and, either way, will a democratic government, fundamentalism or chaos reign in their stead? Today, only the Good Lord knows.
On the other side of the world the tectonic plates shift, the earthquake and resulting tsunami follow and hundreds of thousands of Japanese are left homeless, injured, dead. In scenes matching the horror of the pictures of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and with television images of the distress and destruction available instantly and worldwide it is clear that this is a disaster on truly epic scale. The rare public appearance of Emperor Akihito underscores the severity of the situation.
The resulting damage to the Fukushima Nuclear power generation plant and subsequent and truly heroic efforts of a small band of very brave men risking their lives to limit the environmental impact prompt all manner of noble and less attractive responses. Inevitably, the whole future of the nuclear industry is immediately called into question by those historically opposed to nuclear power while few, if any, realistic suggestions are made as to how we will, in ten years time, keep the lights on without the help of another generation of nuclear power stations. Simultaneously the aid agencies of the globe move into action. Yes, Japan is an economic and industrial powerhouse and very rich but at times like this a country needs all of the help that it can get to even begin to address the enormity of the event. It will be many years before the nation recovers and, for some people, the damage will remain with them for all time.
My notes suggest that with these events dominating the agenda anything else pales into trivial insignificance. Nevertheless, while the Four Horsemen roar across the skies the British tabloids still find the time and space to obsess themselves with the behaviour and private life of that volunteer trade envoy, Prince Andrew. Let us charitably accept that the Royal Prince`s circle of friends includes some fairly unsavoury people and that his choice of holiday venues leaves a certain amount to be desired and you have a toxic mixture that can only delight the editors of the gutter press. Naked Pool Parties” and The Prince of Sleaze” are just a couple of the more temperate headlines that have promoted both tattle and tittle and lead to Ministerial concerns” and Cabinet fears” for Andrew`s position. We may, I am sure, expect a resumed assault once the dust of graver matters has begun to settle.
Meanwhile, it may only be early Spring but Midsomer Nights are in the news. A modest little row breaks out in an English country garden as the Executive Producer of the highly successful, charming and eccentric Midsomer Murders” ITV series, Brian True-May, is pilloried for daring to suggest that the inclusion of ethnic diversity in this frothy nonsense would dilute the Englishness” of these rural villages. The settings are clearly surreal: not only do the Midsomer clusters not boast ethnic minorities but they still have pubs and post offices and village shops and butchers and buses and other attributes that mark them down as places of fiction! None of this prevents the all-white and mostly male board of Independent Television, led by one-time MP Archie Norman and the Adam Crozier that many feel spectacularly failed while in charge of Royal Mail, from being shocked and appalled” by Mr. True-May`s remarks. So we can, no doubt, anticipate a clear-out of the ITV Board to make way for an executive more truly representative of the ethnic mix of Modern Britain rather than the Anglo-Saxon population of Mythical Midsomer! (Fact: There have been 251 deaths in Midsomer since 1997.)
With effect from May 1st Eastern Europeans from Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic will all be entitled to full benefits in the United Kingdom. We, meanwhile, are still struggling to secure for ex-pat UK citizens who have worked and paid taxes in the UK all their lives but now live on mainland Europe the Disability, Carer`s and Attendance benefits to which we believe them to be entitled. A funny old place, Europe. Harry Shindler is (with my full support) still trying to secure permanent UK voting rights for UK citizens resident abroad while the Noble Lord Lester, QC, remains adamant that, in accordance with EU Human Rights law convicted criminals detained at Her Majesty`s pleasure must be afforded the opportunity to vote for those who represent them outside the prison walls. The lunatics are still in charge of the asylum.
The TUC has apparently amassed a £35 million `war chest` and so the Brothers and Sisters, with the help of a smattering of anarchists, take to the weekend streets of London to protest against those cuts” that the Blair Broadcasting Corporation is so fond of. As the BBCutsC screens an interview with Treasury Minister Justine Greening we hear only the Minister`s voice while the TV screens pictures of second-hand actors on the march, scenes of glass-breaking violence in the West End and TUC strapline quotes at the bottom of the picture. (Before he leaves, I hope that the Editor-in-Chief will find time to explain this apparently less than even-handed approach to what passes for journalism in his newsroom.) There has, also, to be a huge question mark over the wisdom of Milipede the Younger who addressed the TUC Spring Rally in his capacity as Leader of Her Majesty`s Opposition. A shrewder politician, with no answers or alternatives to offer to address the economic wreckage wreaked upon UK Limited by his predecessor, might have found it more prudent to ponder his forthcoming wedding arrangements, with his bride-to-be, at home.
The little town of Wootton Bassett, through which the bodies of our fallen servicemen and women have passed on their sad final journeys, is given, at last, the Royal Charter. Malta received the George Cross in recognition of wartime heroism in 1942 but before that only Royal Tonbridge Wells, as a Spa favoured by Monarchs, was favoured in recent memory for its bathing facilities, in 1909. That the good people of Royal Wootton Basset, who have so staunchly and with such dignity and determination lined the streets of their town to honour the homecoming of the brave without ever seeking notice or reward, should be applauded by Her Maj must be a source of satisfaction to all but the meanest of spirits. The Republican Movement, of course, voiced its objections.
The Budget. A reduction in the price of petrol that is not swiftly reflected by retailers at the pumps. £100 million to mend the potholes left in the wake of a harsh winter. Corporation tax reduced by 5% and a windfall tax on oil companies profits. The sight of Ken Clarke listening with his eyes closed” on the front bench resurrected an ancient parliamentary chestnut. I dreamed that I was making a speech in the Chamber and woke up to discover that I was”.
A budget for small business and enterprise designed to give the recovery a nudge. George is a Boy no longer. As the Times said following his speech, he played a bad hand very well. A pity that Portugal stole some of his headlines: £300 a family to bail out another failing eurozone country does not seem very good value when you have just listened to austerity writ large.
Next time it will, of course, be budget by twitter. While I was busy chairing a piece of legislation the Procedure Select Committee, in which I am a minor cog, elected in its wisdom to allow Members of Parliament to use electronic communications machines in the Chamber. The report was no sooner published and still un-debated when the powers that be implemented its recommendations. We may now expect a flow of comment, informed or otherwise, from people who might ordinarily have been listening to the matter under discussion. A new Labour lady has gone down in history as the first MP to read a speech from a tablet”. Nobody seems to have had the courage to tell the girl that the reading of speeches –at all – is frowned upon. This is called progress”.
Commenting on the Strategic Defence Review that ever-observant cartoonist, Matt, observes of events in Libya that It is depressing to think that we couldn`t even attack our own civilians”. We are trying to save money and cannot at present afford aircraft for the carriers that are to be built. I know it`s candle-ends but why does the MoD allow its procurement Johnnies to spend £22 on light bulbs that you can pick up in Aldi for about 65p?
The Ministry of Justice has signed its own death warrant. Officials have ordered a Supreme Court Flag (some heavily weighted scales of justice?). Colour. Euro-blue, of course. That should colour-co-ordinate nicely with their recently issued 20-page handbook detailing prisoners` rights. The latter advises prison governors that transsexual convicts are to be entitled to mail-order dresses and that Warders must be instructed to call them Miss”. These gems from the MoJ `gender recognition policy team` also authorise, for sex-swap customers, padded bras and make-up to conceal stubble.
They will no doubt be also given access to BBC Active which is screening sex-education for 5-year olds. In blissful harmony, presumably, with Stonewall who are being given a £25 thousand grant from the Training Agency to propagate, also for five year olds, a the story of a fairytale Prince called King and King”.
While we`re talking justice it is, of course, comforting to know that some two hundred foreign criminals, including killers, are allowed to remain in the United Kingdom because they are `entitled to a family life` The families of the dead, of course, have no such `rights`.
And talking of facelifts, the Baroness Ashton of Upholland, occasional European Commissioner and High Panjandrum for Foreign Affairs, is paying megabucks out of your taxes to improve the image of her office”..
Departing BBC Chairman Michael Lyons has described as a toxic combination” the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand duo that tormented Andrew Sachs in 2008. Curious how strangely silent he was on the subject at the time.
Up North the BBCutsC moguls, having spent getting on for one billion pounds (about the amount that they now say that they want to save over the next four years) to move the Blue Peter Garden and a few other bits and pieces to an office roof in Salford known grandly as Media City” are now spending more license-payers cash to provide training on transport for staff who managed to find their way around London but cannot, apparently, be relied upon to read Lancashire street signs. This programme, targeted at the 1500 staff working on Children`s, Sports, Radio 5 and the Breakfast strands is catchily entitled Getting to Work”.
When they have found their offices and stocked the drinks cabinets the new kiddies team might care to Get to Work to salvage Dennis the Menace from the scrapheap of the politically correct. Auntie`s version of the schoolboy, now celebrating his sixtieth birthday, has had his catapult, his peashooter and his water pistol confiscated under BBCutsC compliance rules.
Only specially trained water unit fire-fighters” says `Elf and Safety, are allowed to effect water rescues. For others, entry is not appropriate”. Which is, we are told, why a forty-one year old shop worker was allowed to die in three feet of water in a boating lake while the crews of two fire engines, two police cars, 2 ambulances and one air-ambulance were immobilised by the rulebook.
The Chief of that government expenses watchdog, the Audit Commission, (salary £180k per annum) is reported to knock up £18 thousand pounds a year in hotel bills, which even by parliamentary standards is not cheap. Given that the hostel that he stays in is only a 1-minute walk from his office it is difficult, also, to account for the £4 thousand in travelling expenses which, some genius has calculated, works out at £25 per yard per year. A case for the Audit Commission to look into, perhaps.
Those constituents who have received eye-watering tax demands for unpaid tax arrears arising from mis-calculations by Her Majesty`s Revenue and Customs will tale small comfort from that organisatiuon1`s Chairman, Mike Clasper, who says that the internal chaos is like to continue until 2013 adding, in evidence to the Treasury Select Committee, that I am not happy with the service that we have been providing”. At the time of writing Mr. Clasper is still in his job.
PGIs are the order of the day. Hard on the heels of the Cornish Pasty as the subject of a Protected Graphical Indication product comes the Cumberland Sausage. Only the British would name a warship after a sausage” said a wag as Her Majesty`s Ship steamed to the rescue off Libya but Cumberland has the last laff. Cumbriawurst is now a protected species.
As the month staggers to an unlamented end thirty thousand Census Police are poised to check on those who have failed to return the forms that, by law, were to be completed on the night of the twenty seventh of March. At a cost of £500 million pounds we shall, eventually, know more about ourselves than we ever wanted to know and this will be of huge value to people marketing hamburgers and life insurance. Just possibly this might also be the last paper exercise of its kind and the days of the legacy born of the Doomsday Book by way of King Herod may have drawn to a close. They are unlikely to be missed.