Comment: Put on daft clothes and hog the headlines


This is the silliest silly season that I can recall - made all the sillier by the politicians who have behaved in ways which they should have realised would attract ridicule. The eco-warriors were the only people to take advantage of the serious news-famine which preceded the harrowing Turkish earthquake stories. Despite their close communion with nature they are clearly graduates of the Richard Branson School of Public Relations which propagates the principle that funny clothes are the certain way to get pictures into papers. Dressed like Horsemen of the Apocalypse, they basked in the glory of saturation coverage as they destroyed genetically modified crops.

The nightly appearance of the assorted spokesmen of the Greens must, in the jargon of Madison Avenue, have heightened their profile to record levels. I hope that other viewers reacted to the conspicuous piety with the sort of confusion that their sanctimonious justifications always provoke in me. I was not sure which annoyed me most, their irrationality, their selfishness, their arrogance or their self-righteousness.

Their irrationality was graphically illustrated by a Lincolnshire lady who told a news bulletin that she was against GM testing because "she wanted her children to live in a stable and secure environment". Unfortunately the interviewer omitted to ask her who she imagined wanted their children to live in an environment which was insecure and unstable.

No doubt the campaigners - relying on feeling rather than thought - will bitterly resent my accusation of selfishness. Yet the campaign against testing - opposition even to finding out the consequences of modification - is essentially part of the Highgrove Syndrome. Anyone whose extravagant life-style is subsidised by unearned income can afford to support all the variants of fancy farming. But life looks different from sub-Saharan Africa. GM crops might just be the way to feed the starving world. I put the prospect no higher than a possibility. However, the need is so great that nobody in the prosperous West should stand in the way of the faintest hope that we can find an antidote to drought, flood and famine.

Yet, cocooned as they are in their superstitions, the eco-warriors abrogate for themselves the right to break the law. And men and women, of a normally gentle and peaceful disposition, praise them for behaving like agricultural vigilantes. One high official of Greenpeace justified the destruction of the GM test crops on the grounds that a farmer - who was following his legal trade - had defied the opinion of the majority.

Most of the population, he said, disapproved of the experiments. The vandals were working on their behalf.

That argument combines arrogance and stupidity in almost equal measure. And, if it were applied to other issues, most of the Greens would recognise its inadequacy. There are almost certainly more people in favour of re- introducing capital punishment than there are in support of destroying GM crops.

Yet only lunatics would argue that the failure of politicians to bring back hanging justifies lynch mobs breaking into maximum security prisons and summarily executing convicted murderers. Destroying the GM test crops is an essentially Fascist activity - if you cannot get your own way through the political process, then impose your views on society by force.

Not before time the Birmingham Bull Ring is to be demolished. News of its impending death was augmented on television with pictures of its opening in 1964, a few months before I became a Member of Parliament for the constituency which begins a hundred yards down the road from the extraordinary example of the "new brutalism" school of architecture.

The Bull Ring wasn't described in those pejorative terms when it was built. The Duke of Edinburgh, who performed the opening ceremony, said that the city council - by approving such a revolutionary design - restored the nation's faith in local government. It was, almost certainly, the only occasion on which he has commended the work of a Labour administration.

His host for the day was Frank Price, the Lord Mayor, who - as the city's planning chairman - had been elected "Mr Birmingham" in a poll conducted by the local evening paper. His popularity was a recognition of the way in which he had demolished the city centre and replaced the noble Victorian buildings with a network of ring roads and underpasses.

Frank Price and I had a great deal in common. I had spent much of the previous three years, as chairman of the Sheffield city council housing committee, pulling down old houses and replacing them with what we called "multi-storey development". Frank Price's Bull Ring lasted longer than my Hyde Park - even though, unlike my high-rise housing scheme, it was unpopular from the start.

I doubt that offices in the Rotunda - a giant toilet roll standing on its end at the centre of the Bull Ring - were ever fully occupied. But in the Sixties, prospective Sheffield council tenants waited extra years in the slums in the hope of getting a Hyde Park key. Then the novelty wore off. Self-help laundries on each landing had no charm for a new generation of families who owned their own washing machines.

But the Sixties, when Frank Price and I were pulling down and building up, were heroic days. We really believed that by changing the physical environment we could make the world a better place - kinder, gentler and more tolerant. Perhaps we chose the wrong designs with which to achieve our noble purpose. But, as well as clearing the slums, we contributed to the last era of real confidence that this country has known.

Only Alan Williams (of Swansea West) remains in Parliament to represent the brave new wave of Labour MPs who were first elected in 1964. Tam Dalyell won a by-election two years earlier. John Morris was the infant prodigy of 1959. Tony Benn goes back further still. But he has "broken service" as Gerald Kaufman pointed out to the House of Commons' authorities when Benn, returned to the House after the Chesterfield by-election, tried to use his seniority to acquire office space already occupied by the Grand Old Man of New Labour.

The sad fact that the Men of '64 are passing into history was revealed by an article in The Times. It was headed "Veteran Labour MPs refuse to go quietly" - an interesting example of the way in which fact and comment are now intentionally confused. I left Parliament several years before I was entitled to a bus pass, but I do not subscribe to the cult of youth that puts vigour ahead of wisdom. The pictures which illustrated The Times article reinforced my geriatric prejudices.

Featured among "Labour MPs who are 65 and over" were Gwyneth Dunwoody, Dennis Skinner and Tam Dalyell. The "Labour MPs younger than 65 who will turn 70 during the next Parliament" included Audrey Wise, Austin Mitchell and Paul Flynn. It is reasonable to assume that not one of them anticipates imminent promotion. So - unlike their juvenile colleagues - they are spared the terrible temptation to say whatever increases their prospects of preferment.

In a Parliament largely composed of ambitious sycophants, they are essential to genuine democracy. I thought of reminding The Times that Mr Gladstone formed his fourth administration when he was 83, but I was afraid that I might give the elderly dissidents hope of office and, in consequence, discourage their sturdy willingness to speak their minds.

Tony Blair returns from holiday this week - no doubt glad to sacrifice the delights of Tuscany for an end to the controversy which his choice of venue caused. There was nothing remotely improper about the arrangements which he made with a provincial government. And I would gamble most of the pounds 20,000 which his Tuscan holiday cost that many of the journalists who wrote sanctimonious criticism have taken advantage of what are euphemistically called "facility trips".

But his decision to accept so much free hospitality puzzled me. No Prime Minister in history has been more anxious to accommodate public opinion. He should have known that a combination of jealousy and malice would produce days of continual sniping. Perhaps Philip Gould's focus groups got it wrong again.

I applaud his decision to allow the citizens of Tuscany to pay, through their regional government, for his days in the sun. Indeed I welcome it as a major psychological breakthrough.

It proves that the Prime Minister is not as opposed to tax and spend as I had once feared. If he extends the principle of beneficial public expenditure from the villa at San Rossore to hospitals and schools in Britain, his summer holiday will have been well spent.

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