Beaver Dobson's attack shows the value of yogic flying
Wednesday 15 May 1996
Bit of a blow for Douglas Hogg, then. The good news is that Edward Heath and Betty Boothroyd, robed in saffron, will be asked to lead MPs in daily meditation and yogic flying.
Earlier, Tony Blair had been espousing similar values of calmness and contemplative deliberation for the Commons. His party (presumably now rechristened Natural Labour) wants to rid the House of adversarial, "yah- boo" politics. Points of agreement, as well as difference, will be emphasised. MPs who interrupt and shout will be made to sit on the naughty step.
Depressingly, it took some time for his own members to get the message. Health questions were barely a minute old when Labour frontbencher, Henry McLeish (Fife Central) chided ministers for displaying "their characteristic complacency", "the situation" (kidney dialysis in this instance) was "grotesque" and "totally unacceptable". Not many marks for constructiveness there.
Natural Labour also promises to reform Parliamentary procedure. Which would have helped when John Bowis, the gentle junior Health minister answered a written question thus: "Madam Speaker, I last did so on March 13th at the Council of Ministers". Did what? Talk dirty? Play draughts? Meet a European? We never found out.
Barry Field, the erratic member for the Isle of Wight, confused me even more by congratulating the Government on extra resources given for mental health in his constituency, and then asking the Secretary of State whether he was aware that, "on Friday I had a tooth extracted on the NHS, which brought me relief and the dentist satisfaction". The additional money cannot arrive too soon, I thought.
But Prime Minister's Question Time was bound to be the greatest test of the political Age of Aquarius. And, indeed, Mr Blair asked his opponent a nice, soft-voiced question about school security, which Mr Major answered in pleasant, modulated tones. You could practically smell the incense. Liz Lynne, more Democrat than liberal, invited the PM to disapprove of violent movies, which he did. Teresa Gorman pointed out that the extra costs of the single currency for Marks & Sparks would mean "knickers going up". The trouble is that up is exactly where the straight-laced Major, Blair and Lynne think knickers ought to be.
The desirability of Natural Labour's approach came home to me fully later on, during the Frank Dobson Show. If ever there was a politician for whom the terms "unnecessarily adversarial" and "cheap political point scoring" were invented, it is Labour's environment spokesman. Furry and round, an eager, toothy smile on his face, Mr Dobson is like a cartoon beaver on speed - when he gets going you can hear his tail thrumming on the seat. And his overblown vocabulary is almost entirely taken from the boys' comics of 40 years ago; villains (the party opposite) are fixers, fiddlers, twisters, "up to their necks" in this or that "squalid" or "scandalous" affair.
As a result it is tempting to discount what he says. Which is what I was doing during Labour's debate on Westminster council. Until, two-thirds of the way through Beaver's evidence, I realised that in this case all his epithets were entirely justified. But so devalued is the currency of outrage and condemnation (will there be no patients waiting for dialysis under Labour, Mr McLeish?) that we sometimes do not know truly dreadful behaviour when we see it.
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