Gale's Westminster View - December 2009.
A gritting, grinding month. The Chilcot Inquiry grinds onwards slowly, like the mills of God. In Afghanistan the service death toll grinds remorselessly towards and through the 100 mark for the year. Snow follows floods and transport, as usual, grinds to a halt. And the Big Organ Grinder clunks his fist to little avail in Copenhagen.
Will Blair face a war crimes trial? Well, no, probably not but it's a question that the tabloids like to ask on behalf of those that still read newspapers. There is certainly a case for posing the question. His Foreign Policy Advisor, Sir David Manning, indicates to Chilcot that there were secret plans to send twenty thousand troops to Iraq a good nine months before the war was actually commenced. John Prescott helpfully suggests that The Legacy's Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, was not happy about the legality of the Iraq War and Blair himself admits, not to Chilcot but in a television interview, that he would have gone to war whether or not there had been "weapons of mass destruction" but that he would have had to have "deployed different arguments". That, of course, is of great comfort to those on both sides of the House of Commons who now know that we voted to send young men and women into battle on the back of an expedient lie. Not surprisingly, Chilcot’s announcement that Brown and Miliband will not give evidence until the other side of a General Election, generates cries of "foul" while Sir John Scarlett, Head of MI6 at the "dodgy dossier" moment, fails to mention either Blair or Campbell in his own evidence . Bit-part players in the Special Relationship, clearly! Suddenly, the prospects of a war crimes trial and a re-opening of the inquest into Kelly's ”suicide”, seem hugely appealing.
Mr. Yvette Cooper, who loaned his name to Ballswatch and will feature elsewhere in these paragraphs, remains curiously silent when figures reveal that four out of ten children still leave primary school without a proper grasp of the Three Rs and that SATS scores have fallen by 50%. (As a self-proclaimed economic wizard Mr. Balls will also appreciate the fact that the UK’s debt interest bill is now roughly the annual same as his department's entire education budget.) The less than stunning results prompt a junior education, education, education Minister to observe that "over 12 years we have made huge progress in raising standards". She, presumably, attended the same Higher Spin Academy as Health Secretary Andy Burnham who, following an OECD report indicating that Britain is on a healthcare par with Czechoslovakia and Poland at the bottom of the league tables, tells us that the "figures are out of date" and that over the decade we have made "enormous progress" ..
Meanwhile, back in the Cooper household, Mr. Balls appears to be having some difficulty in deciding whether marriage is a good thing or not. Conservative proposals for tax breaks for married couples stir political correctness in Ed and at the start of the month he is to be found taking a similar line to Mad Hattie who describes the policy, curiously, as a "philanderer’s charter". By the end of the month Mr Balls has clearly taken some focus group soundings or, more probably, engaged in a little abrasive pillow-talk with Mrs. Cooper, and, after 12 years of a government that has undermined the family as a unit, decides that marriage is a good thing for children. It is at this moment that Dr. Katherine Rake of the "Family and Parenting Institute", funded to the tune of £1.4 million by the Department for Children, Families and Schools, chooses to announce that "the nuclear family is no longer the norm".
A bad month for Balls. A coalition of seven teaching groups joins in protest against his much-vaunted "Vetting and Barring" scheme which will, they say, place extra-curricular activities such as foreign trips and participation in the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme, school plays, work placements and sporting fixtures at risk as parental and teaching volunteers decline to be vetted, preferring self-barring to intrusion. Sir Roger Singleton, conducting a review into this hare-brained madness, recommends an injection of common sense. Swift climb-down follows and now vetting and barring will only affect nine million of those working with children instead of the previous eleven million.
Room for a little more commonsense yet .I have personally been subjected to two CRB checks in the last six months. The first was necessitated by a fortnight as an Overseas Volunteer with the Ghana Federation of the disabled and the second was rather more topical. Adults will appreciate that Father Christmas is a busy man, cannot be in all places at all times and therefore has to recruit deputies to help out. Given the number of Grottos supported by (in my case) the Lions and by Rotary and by other organisations operating in most towns and many villages throughout the land and the seasonal and urgent need to check the credentials of all of Santa's deputies and elves it occurs to me that there is probably and entire legion of aspirant taxi drivers and others seeking employment whose applications have been put on hold. Ho, Ho! (And by the way I now know from first hand experience that children are no longer allowed to sit on Santa's knee and that Santa is not allowed to promise them anything for Christmas, well behaved or not, for fear of causing financial embarrassment to the family. That suggests not social concern but rather the manner in which the value of anticipated gifts has escalated beyond the dreams of avarice.
While the governing party rifts itself over whether or not the next election should be fought on a class warrior battlefield, with Brown and Balls and a reincarnated Alastair Campbell seemingly in favour, Alan Johnson launching a pre-emptive strike upon "The Public School Party" and Darling, Jowell, Ed Milipede and a still-sulking Lord Foy of That Persuasion hostile, a second front opens up between Number Ten and Number Eleven Downing Street. Chancellor Darling wants a tough line on the economy in his pre-budget statement. This will include a rise in VAT. Vetoed by the Clunking Fist. Pre-budget pre-election report. Hype. No measures to reduce a debt mountain that will, say the experts, take at least thirty years to clear.
And so to the Copenhagen Climate Summit. My favourite cartoonist, Matt, pictures two polar bears on a diminishing ice floe listening to a portable radio and saying "Dreadful to think that this is the last Terry Wogan breakfast show". And some would argue that that was about the best thing to come out of thousands of air-miles and days of hot air that generated more CO2 in a week than is produced by a modest African nation in a year. This gathering of the World's leaders and the World's led, jetted in on a wave of hype and culminating in the arrival of the Nobel Peace Prize Winning "I'm at the beginning not at the end of my labours on the World Stage" President of the united States, was described as a triumph of spin over substance. A not legally binding, toothless communiqué emerged to deliver no vestige of real hope for the future of the planet. An opportunity squandered on the back of short-term parochial political and economic advantage.
Back at home in the UK the climate changes and transport grinds to a standstill. In a spirit of festive zeal train operators had already planned major engineering works on five of seven main lines over the holiday period. Add to that a vote, by 92% of British Airways Cabin Crew, in favour of a twelve-day Christmas suicidal strike and then, for fun, just mix in a little snow. Roads, railways, airports, congeal and shut. "Too fluffy" flakes are given as the cause for Eurostar stranding some fifty thousand passengers, including some stuck in darkness in the Channel Tunnel for eighteen hours, and finding Chief Executive Richard Brown facing angry passengers at the St. Pancras terminus. British Airways’ Willie Walsh must be overjoyed that that somebody else came along in time to deflect a little of the anger away from the head of the nation's "Fly the Flag" airline! Perhaps Walsh and Brown (Richard not Gordon) should swap jobs? Or go?
It takes a High Court judgement to rule the BA strike ballot unlawful and to save the Christmas travel plans for thousands of travellers and it takes a swift thaw to get most of the country, and Eurostar, moving again. At Kings Cross a little old lady boards a train for Kings Lynn. Press photographs reveal that the pensioner in question is in fact The Queen. She has, it transpires, made a habit of travelling to Sandringham by public transport but this is the first time that Her Maj has been pictured boarding the train. .Earlier in the month Buck House had intimated that the Head of State was fed up with the paparazzi taking "intrusive and unacceptable" pictures of the Royal Family over Christmas and that legal action was on the cards if this year produced a repetition. Nice railway pictures in the newspaper, no snappers incarcerated in The Tower! In her Christmas message The Queen remembers with gratitude that in addition to British forces there are some thirteen thousand serving men and women from the Commonwealth in Afghanistan. She pays tribute to the sacrifice of the fallen and their families and intimates that 2009 is a year that will probably be best forgotten. She might, come to think of it, have extended that sentiment to embrace the whole, wretched, decade.
A two hundred and fifty thousand pound two-year ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety study has determined that 10-pin bowling alleys might be dangerous. No paying punter has yet suffered much more than back strain and injured pride photo-electric cut-off beams will have to be installed at vast cost in case some wayward bowler strolls down the piste hell-bent on getting crushed in the re-setting machinery.
OFSTED (Chief Executive Mrs. Tony McNulty) seeks to impose CRB checks upon parents teaching their own children at home.
With Yuletide ever in mind the British Turkey Federation establishes a "Turkey Helpline." Government MPs in marginal seats found calling to declare "I don't want to vote for Christmas"?
On one of a number of broken down trains a steward declines to serve a passenger an egg sandwich on the elf ‘n ‘ safety grounds that "you might choke on it". Clearly First Great Western have been taking lessons in passenger care from South Eastern Trains.
The blame culture has reached the New Hebrides. Descendants of the cannibals of Erromango have apologised to one Mr. Williams because their forebears ate his great grandfather, the Reverend John.
An outbreak of further common sense in my hometown of Poole in Dorset where the ridiculed and unloved "Witches Hat" cone purporting to be a "safe" Christmas Tree is replaced with a thirty-foot spruce. And in Pangbourne, Berkshire, people power secures the removal of an unsightly thirty-five foot CCTV pole that has been blotting the landscape. O Yay!
Thomas the Tank Engine is revealed, by Professor Shawna Wilton of the Department of Political Sciences in Alberta, to be not only sexist but to "inhabit a world blighted by conservative political ideology". That should have boosted pre-Christmas sales of Thomas.
In the Grand Arcade in Cambridge an eighty-four year old is told to remove her hood on the grounds that it is our wish "to provide a safe and secure shopping experience for everyone” - except, apparently, pensioners with cold heads.
A bingo caller in Sudbury is restrained from using the traditional calls of "two fat ladies" for number 88 in case sensitive and physically challenged customers are distressed by calls that have been used since God first shouted "house".
Next, Market Harborough and a dozen reindeer are banned from appearing in public in case excited onlookers slip on the snow. The fact that the snow will remain there to slip on with or without the reindeer seems to have passed the Safety Elf by.
And one F. Christmas is reported to have been accused of, variously, obesity arising from a diet of stale mince pies, driving drunk in charge of a sleigh from an overdose of sweet sherry and not wearing a seatbelt. But at least he passed his CRB check.
The year ends as it began with rumours of a change of leadership at the top of Government. The "Fearless Five", as they are dubbed by the press, are preparing to persuade the Big Organ Grinder to stand graciously aside before the General Election. Old Windy’s Almanac notes that on past performance Messrs Straw, Harperson, Milipede, Johnson and Darling have proved to be rather less than fearless and predicts that hell will freeze over before Gordon voluntarily relinquishes his grip on the door handle of Number Ten.
And may the next decade bring you peace and good health and joy.