Alas poor Parliamentary Philistine, I knew him well

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time when it was quite impossible to debate the subject of arts funding in Parliament without someone standing up and denouncing the scandalous abuse of taxpayers' money. The budget for some touring production of a Harrison Birtwhistle opera would be converted into the number of kidney dialysis machines it could buy (the British Standard Unit of Fiscal Mismanagement) and loud noises made about the inequity of making the poor man pay for the rich man's pleasure - or even the rich man's purgatory.

The former Tory MP Terry Dicks was a great stalwart in this respect though he was ably seconded on both sides of the House - many Labour MPs also taking the view that prancing about in tights was not an activity that their constituents would be happy to subsidise. These days, though, a sedate consensus about the benefits of culture seems to reign.

Indeed it's my sad duty to announce the apparent extinction of the Parliamentary Philistine as a flourishing sub-species - since these raucous creatures provided a cheap and harmless amusement. Without them a parliamentary debate on the arts seems as lacklustre as a safari park without baboons to sit on the bonnet eating your windscreen wipers.

Not that Culture, Media and Sport questions are now entirely bloodless, since there is always the prospect of Tony Banks getting heated. It happened yesterday because the Government was accused of downgrading the importance of team sports, after announcements that Key Stage Four pupils - that's 14 to 16 years old - might be allowed to opt out of the time-honoured humiliation of being chosen last. This didn't strike me as being anything for the Sports minister to be ashamed of - compulsory rugby having successfully extinguished every athletic impulse in me for a period of almost twenty years. Surely this was a time for pride. But Mr Banks appeared to be genuinely furious as he stood up to scotch the suggestion.

So committed was he to the expansion of competitive team sports, he said, that if he believed the Government was backsliding he would tender his resignation. Daily cold showers will presumably be added to the national curriculum in the next parliamentary term.

Nor are other compulsions being neglected by New Labour in the formation of tomorrow's citizens. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) wanted to know what was being done to make opera, ballet and theatre available to working- class children. "It is absolutely central to our strategy," he was assured, an answer that conjured a vision of exhausted 13-year-olds being bused from the playing fields to touring productions of King Lear, mud still drying on their goose-pimpled limbs.

If the philistines are vanishing, however, the hecklers are still present - Mr Mackinlay in particular making clear that he wants to be considered for the role of Heckler-in-Chief when Dennis Skinner eventually retires from office. He was in good voice yesterday, though not all of his interventions quite came off.

He needs to brush up on his technique, since he has some stiff competition from Nicholas Soames (C, Mid Sussex), a more patrician heckler whose forte is sarcastic approbation. "Oh, excellent," he says, after some Labour MP has stammered out an intervention, "Marvellous question!"

This style involves considerable economy of effort, since you don't actually have to think of anything funny to say, but it delivers results even so. When it was proudly declared that government funding will enable a million schoolchildren to visit the Millennium Dome, Mr Soames needed only one word to deflate the boast. "Paradise!" he boomed, and suddenly everyone could see how hellish it might be.