Gale's Westminster View - March 2008

Mad March days.

Eighty eight per cent of the British electorate wants a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon and the House of Commons votes to deny them that manifesto promised right.  Government Ministers and "prominent back benchers" campaign against their own proposals for the closure of two and a half thousand sub post offices, sign the futile Early Day Motion on the subject and then troop through the voting lobby in support of the policy that they have so vigorously opposed!  Banks used to lending money with gay abandon (are we still allowed to say that? What is" straight abandon"?) meet with the Governor of the Bank of England to seek to borrow money, in the United States the economic meltdown sends the world’s stock markets into freefall and we are told that mortgage arrears and rising household bills in the UK are indicative of a "not-the-recession". Would the Big Organ Grinder settle for "financial crisis" as a fair description? As he no longer inhabits the same planet as the rest of us, possibly not.  Oh yes, and somebody called Alastair Darling read another of Gordon Brown’s budgets.

Then came Spring and the Sarkozies.

I acquired my basic French at a boarding grammar school in Dorset.  This was, of course, before political correctness was a gleam in Mr. Blair's embryonic eye and when those of modest means were still able to enjoy the benefits of boarding and a style of  education that were otherwise the prerogative only of families with inherited wealth or new money.

My mentor was a literally shell-shocked Channel Island war veteran. He was brave and amusing but his linguistic skills left a certain amount to be desired.  This "learning experience", as I imagine we must now call it, has probably enabled me to pass the time of day with any chain mail clad Norman that I might happen to come across in Thanet. And the friends that I visit in France in the summer are kind enough to contain their bewilderment at the arcane phrases and dismal lack of regard for gender and tenses that characterise my attempts to speak their language but it has scarcely equipped me to comprehend the finer points made by a President of the Republique rattling along like a TGV at a zillion miles an hour!

I discovered this not during the most recent State Visit, of which more in a moment, but upon the last occasion when a French President sought to address both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery.  M. Mitterrand, for it was he, spoke so quickly that only that handful of linguists in the Lords and Commons ( a number far fewer than those that claim or affect to slip easily into foreign tongues!) understood a word that he said.

On that occasion the fiercest argument, that raged for days before the Great Event, was whether or not to cover up the pictures.

Those that have visited the Royal Gallery will know that this vast hall is dominated by two huge murals representing, respectively and with wild inaccuracy,  the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo and the Death of Nelson.  My history is little better than my French but even I am aware that the score at the end of these two fixtures was two-nil to the Brits and the question was whether or not the sensibilities of M. le President might be offended by a reminder of that fact. As one present  I am able to record that the paintings were displayed in all their glory, which may be why M. Mitterrand spoke so swiftly and left so hurriedly.

Spool forward to the visit of M. Sarkozy and his bride and once again most of us were left reliant upon the interpreters for the fine detail of his observations.  There was, though, even to the unpractised ear, a liberal helping of fraternity.

Now, there are those naive enough to believe that the Hundred Years War has ended.  Others, more politically cynical perhaps, recognise that the contest may have moved from the battlefield to the rugby pitch but the game is still being played .Let’s be hard-nosed about this: France begins at Sangatte and when we've sorted out the asylum problem and the small matter of strikes that clog up the roads of Kent with lorries waiting to cross the Channel then we'll look at the bigger picture - if you'll forgive the unfortunate metaphor!

Like one or two others my invitation to the State banquet at Windsor appears to have been lost in the post so I was compelled to watch upon television as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom lost his way back from the lavatory to the dining room while Her Maj. demonstrated for all the world’s viewers to see precisely why she and The Firm remain the classiest act in Town. Whether she was still smarting at the fact that G. Brown had announced that school leavers would be required to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown without, apparently, consulting the owner of that headgear I know not.  Revenge is best served cold!

Be in no doubt, though, as a stylish First Lady Mme. Sarkozy went down a storm and her husband bathed in her sunlight.  Those critics, male and female, who found only sour words to say seem to have based their opinions, largely, on good old-fashioned envy and so far as the more red-blooded of the young at heart men in both Houses were concerned I have a sneaking suspicion  that thoughts were rather more carnal than fraternal!   Au revoir Sarko. A bientot.  Back to grim reality.

While the Chinese grab the Olympic torch of freedom Tibet is in a turmoil of oppression . In Zimbabwe the waiting goes on as, at the time of writing, Mugabe clings onto power. In the chamber of the House of Commons a Home Secretary tries to extinguish some of the last vestiges of Magna Carta and seeks to ram through Brown’s apparent obsession with extended detention before charge.  And the Westminster Village is obsessed with……..Members` expenses!

As we go to press the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards announces that he is to investigate the cost of taxis taken by the Speaker’s wife.  This follows on from weekend assertions of vast sums of money spent on air conditioning for the Speaker’s apartments - a claim made as though the Speaker himself was responsible for maintenance works.  Like the celebrated "Lord Chancellor’s Wallpaper" story  this is a cheap shot and as an aside I seem to have missed the headlines faithfully reporting the millions of pounds of taxpayers money recently spent refurbishing the Commons Press Gallery facilities including, most notably, their bar and dining room. Shome Mishtake Shurely!

The Bourgoise Women’s Tabloid, the Daily Mail,  has had it in for Speaker Martin for some time and behind the scenes there are indubitably dark forces at work, embracing some that hanker after his job,  that would seek to drive him from office early.  I do not believe that the Speaker, any more than any other Member, should be allowed to squander money but what is the man’s wife supposed to do? Queue in Parliament Square for a Number Eleven bus?  In most Western democracies a person in a position of importance would be granted the courtesy of an official car and driver for his or her use and for the use of those close enough to them to represent, in this day and age, a terrorist target. (Interestingly, Cherie Blair’s Range Rover was more heavily armoured than those used by some troops in Iraq!) Taxis are cheaper, if less secure.

We live, it seems, in a mean-spirited age. The Royal Yacht and the Royal Train have already gone, "Blair Force One" has been put on the back-burner and Her Maj. has felt it necessary, in the interests of austerity, to cancel a Diamond Jubilee party at the Ritz.

I am not suggesting that  we should fiddle, literally or metaphorically, while Gordon Brown’s economic miracle burns but are we so  seriously on our uppers that we can no longer allow our leaders some dignity and respect? Apparently we are.

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