Too many assemblies and no one decent to fill them
Sunday 09 May 1999
No doubt there are some regions of the country where the election of a local candidate amounts to a matter of "round up the usual suspects". The Rev Ian Paisley, for example, is an electoral hardy perennial who appears as an MEP, a Westminster MP and a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Perhaps, in spite of the low turn-out at the polls, we really do cherish our democratic institutions, and perhaps there really are enough decent politicians to fill up all the seats in the various assemblies which we have created for them. Every so often, I have my doubts. The facelessness of the current Westminster Parliament is almost eerie. In the old days, whatever its idiotic faults,the Labour Party could be relied upon to fill the House of Commons with a rich mixture of eccentrics - gay sex-maniac spies like Tom Driberg; Balliol wine-topers; stringy viragos who could remember the Jarrow hunger-march and had been to bed with Michael Foot. Now it's just the suits and Blair's babes. On the other side of the House, the blimps, weirdos, pseudo-country gents and younger sons on the blue benches have all been replaced by dullards. Imagine the mustachioed Gerald Nabarro trying to get a seat today.
It is easy for us, who have never dreamed of standing for any of these assemblies, to sneer. But I do worry about the future of "democracy" if absolutely none of us - none of the intelligent people and none of the amusing people - would ever dream of standing for our local council or parliament.
When we try to justify our lack of public-spiritedness, our unwillingness to be lobby-fodder ourselves, we will perhaps invoke two spectres, who arose from the Stygian gloom last week like Dantean lost souls. One is Clare Short. Our Clare. The one who used to have all the principles, and whom we all respected and loved because she stood up even to Mandy and the spin doctors. Put her in power and within a matter of weeks she turns her verbal abuse on the poor people of Montserrat ("They will be wanting golden elephants next" was our Clare's compassionate response to the islanders who had just lost everything beneath a heap of volcanic ash). Next, the near-pacifist Clare comes on our screens as Bomber Short of the Balkans. Oh dear, oh dear. We wouldn't want to go into politics if that's what it does to you.
But hark! From the Infernal Shades, we glimpse another sad figure, that of the former Foreign Office Minister George Walden. Clare's sin, Dante might say, was love of office. George's was the worse one - hatred of it.
The former MP for Buckingham, George Walden has had some pretty lousy reviews for his inordinately long memoirs, which attempt to explain why he gave up politics early in order to be a "writer". None of the reviews which I read, however, made the right point. The politicians who reviewed the book were too busy concentrating on Walden's unlikeability and arrogance as a man.
Certainly, this abrasive, gum-chewing figure from the Foreign Offfice does not go out of his way to charm. When he came for a job on the paper where I worked, the Evening Standard, he leaned forward and said to our highly intelligent associate editor - whom he had obviously dismissed in his well-stocked and brilliant mind as a bimbo: "There's just one thing I should warn you about: I do use words." He smiled knowingly as he said "words", his manner implying that beautiful young women might not be familiar with the things. It's a bit sad that he has made so much of his superior literacy, since his own book begins with a grammatical error which, if it meant anything at all, would mean the opposite of what one guesses that he intends.
No matter. The point which Walden makes in his memoirs, and with which for the sake of argument we shall agree, is that he is a giant, morally and intellectually, among the lobby-fodder with whom he felt constrained to resort during his 14 years in the House.
Last week, as he did the rounds of the radio studios plugging his book of anecdotes and blaming Mrs Thatch for being in her anecdotage, no one said: "Hang on,Walden! As you have told us many times, you're an educated chap - fluent in Chinese, familiar with the literature of four continents, irresistible to the women of ditto. We need people like you in Parliament!"
When he actually turned up to work in our office, of course, Walden was perfectly OK and we all forgot the rebarbative introductions. But I couldn't shake off the feeling that he shouldn't have been there.
It was all right for us, with our childish gossipy concerns and our bone idleness, to be journalists and writers. But damn it, he was meant to be grown-up. What sort of a country have we become if everyone of the smallest talent starts saying they want to be a writer? No wonder the elections are so dull, and the resultant assemblies even duller.
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