INTERVIEW: BLAND AMBITION

Amid rumours that Margaret Beckett MP would be shuffled out of Tony Blair's Cabinet, Will Self questioned her about caravans, campaigns and the common currency. She is, he concluded, the Michael Fish of contemporary British politics
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ASKING WHAT a politician is "like" is - nowadays in particular - a question of such Zen-like absurdity that it's on a par with string- length guesstimates. Of course, anyone who has attended a university in Britain really does know what British politicians are like. You remember them: the committed Y-front wearers; the strugglers after quorums in the JCR; the Nescafe-wired filibusters of the entertainments committee. You can recall how astonished you were, when, 10 years after graduation, these self-same repositories of acne, earwax and ideology, began cropping up as candidates for political office.

Initially you would laugh at this absurdity, but then - as you began to be aware of the following: a) the absolute tedium of the business of so-called representative democracy; b) the almost completely ineffectual character of modern governments; and c) the whole mess of trouble that gifted and charismatic individuals can lead the masses into - you began to feel strangely grateful to these prematurely middle-aged, psychically tweedy types who were prepared to do the work of pretending to run the show. It allowed you to get on with the real businesses of life, safe in the knowledge that there was a dull crew of hands on the rigging of the floundering ship of state.

On the rigging, fair enough - but some years later you became aware that the twerp who used to play air guitar in the TV room and styled himself a "Christian Socialist" (my sick bag runneth over) now had his hands firmly clamped on the tiller! Yikes! So once again it became important to find out what they were really like. Clearly they had all been concealing inner cores of the highest tensility ambition - but could there be worse as well?

Ever prepared to do the dirty work on behalf of my readers (damn it all, I even interviewed an actor for you a few weeks ago), I trolled along to Barry's pile of mock-Gothic in order to find out what Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House, President of the Council, Member of Parliament, Great of the Good ... etc was really like. And I feel confident in reporting to you all that there's nothing to worry about, for Ms Beckett is nothing more nor less than the Michael Fish of contemporary British politics.

Now, when I say the "Michael Fish", I don't mean that Beckett has an inordinate interest in precipitation (she is, as she insisted to me, a "caravanner not a camper"), nor that she ports a mustache like a lip-borne caterpillar. No, the characteristics Beckett and Fish share are straightforward ones: both display inordinate banality of thought and commensurate rhetorical impotence when answering questions.

Years ago when I worked in corporate publishing I interviewed Fish for the Safeway employees' magazine, Focus. After an hour of sublimely dull chit-chat with the telly meteorologist (who'd donned a woolly embroidered with weather symbols especially for our encounter at his Richmond home), I closed on what I thought would be the key to unlocking the Fish psyche: "Tell me, Michael," I enquired, "d'you think that our phlegmatic national character is a function of our temperate weather, just as the Mediterraneans are passionate because of their hot climate?" The secular rain man pondered for a long while before replying: "I don't know - I've never given the matter much thought."

Compare this with the following exchange with Margaret Beckett, in which I attempt to excavate her personality by drawing a comparison between her own marriage (in which she is the overt power-holder, while her husband, Leo, is her agent and amanuensis behind the scenes) with that of her parents (her father was a semi-invalid, and Beckett's mother was the breadwinner).

Self: "Is it oddly like your own childhood, in that you're the manifest power-holder and he's the latent one?" Beckett: "There may be some ... well ... Actually I don't think anybody's ever asked me this, and I certainly don't remember saying it to anybody, but you have reminded me that one of the things my mother said to me after she met Leo was that he reminded her of my father. Now, he doesn't look like my father particularly, although he has the same ... erm, what's the word ... disrespectful sense of humour."

Wow! Cutting-edge stuff. Proustian recall coupled with Freudian insight. Not. But lest you think I'm unfairly extracting insipid pith from the bountiful bloom of Beckett's discourse, here she is on the media's favourite saw-horse, her and Leo's caravan holidays:

"There are a lot of myths about our caravanning ... There are people who think it doesn't fit in with their image of me ... Normally, for the last 15 years, we've taken one holiday a year. Two to three weeks or thereabouts. Because it's our only holiday and we like to have some security about the weather ... erm ... and about the quality and the quantity of the wine, we always go to France ... also I've got a bit of schoolgirl French and I haven't got schoolgirl anything else - I've got a little bit of metallurgical German [Beckett studied metallurgy at university and briefly worked in the field] but I've never thought that would do me much good. So we go to France, with the van, at some point over the summer for two or three weeks. We don't other than that caravan, not because we probably wouldn't if we had more time, but because we don't have time. And ... we normally, erm, don't take any other time off ... erm, Leo's always saying we've only taken one bank holiday off since 1983, well now we've taken two and one of them was last Whitsun [When the European Parliament elections, for which Beckett was Labour's spectacularly unsuccessful Campaigns Manager, were under way], where we took the bank holiday and two other days ... But actually it's quite an interesting little insight in a sense because we decided that we were going to have the bank holiday and a couple of days, which is what we did. But immediately everybody latched on to it that we'd gone caravanning, and despite the fact that people do now know that we didn't they still go on writing that; and they also still go on writing that we went away for a week even though also they know we didn't go away for a week. But that's just one of those things, there's no point in getting excited about it. That's the relationship between media and politicians."

No, indeed, there is no point in getting excited about it because it makes for extremely boring copy. And please bear in mind that this soliloquy on leisure time and the media was entirely unprompted by me - I'd asked Ms Beckett about her caravanning in all sincerity. I actually wanted to hear about the joys of the open road. But hist! In what follows I really do want to avoid any possible accusations of partisanship or misrepresentation. I want you to, as near as is possible, experience the Chauncey Gardener- like fatuity of the Minister of State who I talked with for over an hour. In order to be certain that I've achieved this, I've decided to set down, verbatim, a range of her replies to my questions, so that you can witness for yourselves the powerful reducing valve which is her intellect.

Here is my attempt to get Beckett to discuss the objective assessment of her career. Self: "How do you obtain the judgement of your peers in politics? And when do you know you're doing your job well?" Beckett: "One thing I would agree with you about is that I have very rarely seen what I understand to be the judgement of my peers, in so far as it's ever conveyed to me, form part of any part of ... any comment that's been made about me ... And in fact there have often been times when my peers here have been saying one thing to me and entirely different things have appeared in the news media; which I take to mean either that erm ... people in the news media have got a different point of view ... or that some of my peers are saying different things in the news media from some of the things that I'm hearing in here. But, you know, that's life, isn't it." Self: "Surely a seasoned political analyst will know nowadays which lobby journalist has been briefed by whom?" Beckett: "Oh dear, you're making me feel very ashamed ... I should, I know I should ... I'm sure this is a deeply unprofessional confession and I ought to know, and every now and again I say to people: I ought to know who is, and people nod sagely, but nobody bloody tells me. But I mean, I've gradually over the years I've gathered a bit, but apart from anything else... maybe I do people ... I don't know if it's an injustice or too much justice - but, I think it is a bit unfair to assume if you see somebody's byline on a story, that means that so-and-so has told them that, because everybody's a bit more rounded a person than that, surely?"

Well, the temptation to observe that the Minister herself looks distinctly mono-dimensional in the light of this tedious ingenue act is almost unavoidable. But let's not condemn her on the basis of her comments on comments, let's look at something substantive like the Government's policy on Northern Ireland. On the afternoon we met, Beckett had just come from the House of Commons, where the Prime Minister was marking a further deterioration in the "peace process" with a statement.

Self: "It seems to me in a commonsensical way that arms decommissioning has to be the very nub of it for anyone talking about peace, but when you look at the Orange Order marching on the Garvaghy Road and you look at the way in which people's notion of tradition in Northern Ireland is translated into acts of symbolic oppression with such consistency, don't we need, as it were, a cultural decommissioning as much as anything else; because there is an ingrained culture of bigotry and sectarianism on both sides?" Beckett: "I can see why you became a writer - 'cultural decommissioning', what a wonderful phrase ... erm ... it should go into somebody's speech ... although it might be a dangerous thing to say - that's the only thing. Certainly I think ... I don't think there's any doubt that over the last few years there's been something of a change, erm, and maybe that's more at the kind of governance level because - I'm no expert, but my recollection is that there have been places and periods down the years where, on the whole, different communities, mixed communities, have lived relatively peaceably together and then things, then perhaps there have been other areas where maybe they've hardly ever lived peaceably together, and then the position's changed because of something. So clearly there always has been the possibility of more disengagement from violence than has been the case in recent years, and I think that's where the hope lies, erm, and surely most people want their children to grow up in a more peaceful atmosphere, erm, and want them worrying about the things all children worry about?"

Strewth! One hundred and eighty-one wholly underwhelming and vacuous words on a protracted, violent imbroglio of such fundamental importance to our polity that for 400 years it has, arguably, adumbrated our very sense of nationhood. I am writing this piece in the shadow of a possible Government reshuffle, in which Beckett's own position in the cabinet has been the subject of much speculation. From the above, it's obvious what the Prime Minister should do/have done: shift the ever-popular Mo Mowlam over from Northern Ireland so that she can shore up the New Labour satrap of London's mayoralty; and name Margaret Beckett as her successor over the water.

All right, sarcasm isn't called for here, but believe me the bitterness in my tone is mostly a function of really and genuinely wanting to like Margaret Beckett and have faith that she and her ilk are a good thing for us all. The sarcasm wells up because Beckett was, in a way, all too successful at making me like her; and I'm forced to conclude that that's why she's a politician at all, let alone a successful one, because her other gifts were far from manifest. Yet, while we were seated opposite one another in the comfy seating of her comfortable office, slap bang in the middle of the comfortable seat of governance, it was easy to warm to her. But this "liking" for Beckett faded with every step I took away from the Palace of Westminster, and once I had read and noted what amounted to the thoughts of Chairman Margaret it had disappeared altogether. Beckett herself talked to me of "painful and wounding" press coverage, and I don't wish to contribute to this unnecessarily, but you have to ask yourself: isn't the decline of our political class overall very much a function of these touchy-feely, intellectual lightweights who just want to be liked?

Beckett's Press Secretary, Ailsa McIntyre, met me in the Central Lobby and led me through the weighty, oak-panelled corridors of power at a brisk pace, while she extolled her new boss's virtues in Roedean tones: "She's really fab - I think you'll like her." Indeed, when Beckett and I came to discuss the "trappings" of power, while she was probably thinking of her grace-and-favour apartment in Admiralty Arch, I was thinking of the lovely Ailsa, whose blue eyes, mahogany hair, elegant dress and plain gold accessories were reminiscent of one of the more staid Bond girls. This servant of civility sat in with us for the entire interview taking notes. In retrospect I wonder what she was there for? Presumably only to make sure that her mistress wouldn't say anything of any significance whatsoever.

Ailsa MacIntyre sat beside me and the Minister sat in an armchair on the other side of the coffee table. Beckett is a smallish, slim woman, with an open, friendly face. She gives good gum when she smiles, which she does frequently - and I liked that. She curled her feet up in the chair and sipped on a glass of white wine, in a way that made it exceedingly difficult to confront her with tough, demanding, incisive questions. Although, that being said, even the most uncomfortable of issues was neatly elided by Beckett into more tedious non-revelations. Here she is, for example, exposing the uncomfortable - if not to say uncertain - relationship which now exists between the Labour Party and the trade union movement which gave birth to it:

Self: "You're a T&GWU-sponsored MP?" Beckett: "I am indeed; well we -" Self: "Don't call it that anymore?" Beckett: "But I'm a member of the T&G - I can never remember ... but anyway, I'm a member of the T&G, I have a relationship with the T&G." Self: "So in a sense you're a party-party person?" Beckett: "Oh yes, oh yes." Self: "And I wondered whether you must be one of those people who're constitutive of parties; a connector rather than a fixer?" Beckett: "I don't think - whether that's become part of it in later years, possibly. In the beginning I don't think that was true, it's just that I had, er, worked with people in the government and got on with them, and apparently was thought to be doing a reasonable job and was brought in. And I've never minded doing ... I've got a slightly perverse streak, I suppose, but I get a kick out of doing things that other people find difficult and boring. Erm, and, it's probably deeply psychologically revealing, but there you go."

Is it? All it seems to reveal to me is the arid preoccupation with minutiae evinced by the career anal-retentive. And as for "doing a reasonable job" and "being brought in", on that basis half the country are fit for ministerial office. No, I wish I'd known before I encountered Margaret Beckett what a human bottle of kaolin and morphine she is. She's a stopper-up, a political blocking-agent. To listen to her expatiate on how she's accosted in the street, and told that she's been "seen on telly", but that her interlocutors "say that, when what you've been on for is some absolutely carefully worked- out, passionately argued and very important statement ... " is to beg the question: can I have just one iota of passion please, or importance, or could you even just show some working!? Like a child doing a maths problem.

If Beckett was going to manifest any passion at all, or even a blush of pink around her gills, perhaps it would be evinced by talk of her own special responsibility for the Millennium Bug. Come now! For even the most incredulous of us there's a distinct frisson about the idea of the world's computerised technology grinding to a halt, and precipitating us into a new dark age. You don't have to have the star called Wormwood firmly fixed in view in order to find the prospect of the end of this troubled era just a little bit apocalyptic. So, how does the woman charged with negotiating this cosmological singularity view the choppy waters ahead?

Self: "Is the Web going to crash? Are air-traffic controllers going to implode?" Beckett: "I don't think air-traffic controllers are going to implode ... erm ... What we hope - and a huge amount of work has been done on it, more than on any project since the Second World War - is that more or less life will go on pretty much as usual. But that's pretty much as usual in the context of a much longer than usual public holiday, a much bigger than usual public holiday, at a time of the year when you get bouts of bad weather, when you get, y'know, people having flu and things of that kind. So, it's your normal Christmas/New Year writ large."

Beckett did go so far as to say that there might be "needless anxiety" about "ill-founded" stories in the run-up to the millennium, but really you'd have to say that she is the ideal Minister for Calm, devoid - as she appears to be - of any imagination whatsoever. Nor, I have to say, does she seem to have much awareness of the extent to which problems associated with the environment really are troubling the taxpayers who elected her, and how much we still - pathetically, it now seems - look to our Government to help us solve them. Here's Beckett really kicking ass on the environment:

Self: "It's the many small decisions of the multitude that are making our roads unbearable. You're both the legislature and the executive, do you believe you have the right to curb these behaviours, to stop us emitting so many noxious fumes?" Beckett: "I think you have to strike a balance. I mean you've got to have sufficient controls, or else there's always a temptation for people to act in their, erm, short-term commercial interest ... And often it can even be to your own long-term advantage to invest in the things that will also make you a better corporate citizen, or member of society, or whatever. The classic example is that people don't want to invest - because they don't want to spend the money short-term - in insulation. But actually they not only reduce energy consumption, but cut your electricity bills."

That's it! That's what we need ministers for - to advise us to purchase good cavity wall insulation, and perhaps double-glazing for good measure. Damn it all! Margaret Beckett isn't only the Michael Fish of British politics - she's the Ted Moult as well! Actually, in fairness to Beckett, she did go on to discuss how frustrating it could be to travel on public transport, and how it simply wasn't possible to abandon all car journeys, but it was the kind of thin chit-chat which would make you abandon a saloon bar. Far more involving and significant was her defence of the Government's enthusiasm for the "buy now - pay later" ethos of the Private Finance Initiatives, which are being touted as the solution to our ailing welfare state.

Beckett: "It's not necessarily the right idea for everything - but then nobody's trying to use it for everything." Self: "There's a lot of buying now and paying later going on." Beckett: "Well, that's a fair point, and you've got to look at the balance of that and try and make sure you get it right. But let's face it ... I had a friend years ago, who came from a really - well, by my standards, not by hers - well-off family, and she said to me one day, because she was thinking of moving house, 'Somebody's been talking to me about a mortgage ... is it sort of hire purchase on a house?' I said, 'Yes,' and she said 'Have you got one?' And I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'Oh well, I don't like the sound of that.' And the idea that you have to save up for your house and pay for it over a long period of time, now of course you pay more, but it's the only way 99.9 per cent of us would ever get a house!"

So, there you have it. Just remember you wouldn't have any healthcare at all, were it not for the existence of hire purchase. Thank you Margaret Beckett - thank you socialism. Of course, Beckett doesn't dispute that she's altered her own policy positions over the years, in order to perform the volte-face required for Tony's merry confreres to gain power. When I enquired as to what happened to a plethora of diehard Labour policies, from nuclear disarmament to the closed shop, she said simply: "Times change." Indeed they do, but I don't need an elected official to tell me this any more than I need one to tell me that there will still be a political entity which is "recognisably Britain" in a generation's time. And this was in response to my enquiring after the Minister's views on European integration.

Really, I suppose I shouldn't have bothered with Margaret Beckett at all. Or if I did, I should have confined myself to discussing her childhood, in the hope of being able to abseil down into the musty pothole of her psyche. As it was, after an hour-and-a-quarter of this comforting waffle it was time for me to go. Given only a few minutes to wrap things up, I asked the Minister why it was that she had agreed to see me at all, given that it's widely known that I am strongly anti-Blairite.

It transpired that Beckett wasn't aware of this - she had merely accepted the proposed interview on the grounds that my writing was "interesting". So, I suppose she wasn't being disingenuous earlier on, when she averred that she was "unaware" of journalists' agendas. On the one hand I suppose we should view this as a good thing, proof positive that the writ of Campbell does not run as firmly in the land as we had feared; but on the other hand, doesn't it reveal a Minister whose sole motivation in being interviewed is to gain whatever exposure she can? Really, Minister, you may well be able to palm the electorate off with endless platitudes, but to coin your Leader's favourite nonce phrase: I say to you - you can't do it to the readers of the Independent on Sunday. 2

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