Andy McSmith's Diary: James Naughtie, the master of the never-ending question

We will miss efforts like the 183-word blockbuster he put to Condoleezza Rice

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Early mornings will not be the same without James Naughtie, who has been a cerebral anchor for Radio 4’s Today programme for longer than most of us can remember. How we will miss the great Naughtie question – the sort of question that gave you time to shower, dress and have breakfast before it reached its final question mark, like the 183-word blockbuster he put to the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on 31 March 2006.

“But the question,” he said, “is not whether liberal democracy – you talked about this in your lecture on the eve of this programme – is a good thing or a bad thing, as most people in this country, as in yours, think it is a desirable state. The question is how you go about bringing it.

“Now let me remind you, and I’m sure you know these words from President Bush himself in the presidential debate just before he was elected October 2000. He said, if we’re an arrogant nation, they will resent us – speaking about the United States. Now the problem is that many people who try to look at this fair-mindedly, look for example at the question of extraordinary rendition, people taken to third countries where there may be practices that amount under international convention as to torture and they know that they go through our airspace. And the government said, well, really request every time – a permission is requested every time this happens. Is a rendition flight only allowed through our airspace if the British government has been informed?”

Rice replied in 23 words.

A Naughtie disciple?

The Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland caught it from the Speaker, John Bercow, for ignoring a plea for brevity. After a question he was asking had stretched to 64 words, he was sharply told to sit down, and ticked off for “discourtesy”. He did not like that, and let it show – whereupon Bercow told him: “Don’t shake your head, mate. I am telling you what the position is: you were too long.” And as the MP stormed out, the Speaker told his departing back: “Leave! That is fine – we can manage without you.”

Exs’ scandal

Some days you see ex-MPs wandering about the Houses of Parliament, apparently unable to grasp that they are “ex”. The Press Association has obtained a list of 381 who hold passes that allow them back in the buildings, so long as they are not engaged in commercial lobbying. Some may think this scandalous, but generally these lost souls look more sad than seedy. They demonstrate the wisdom of the old Jewish custom that when a body was brought to a cemetery fellow members of the synagogue would shout in the corpse’s ear: “Know that thou art dead!”

As clear as Day...

Doris Day is older than the United Kingdom – so it was alleged by Angus MacNeil, MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (known to the English as the Western Isles), in a debate on the Scotland Bill. This is an interesting but contentious piece of trivia.

MacNeil bases his claim on the premise that the UK has existed in its present boundaries since the secession of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922. He also assumes that Doris Day lied about her age. Last year, the reclusive star made a rare appearance on her balcony to wave to adoring fans who remembered her as one of the greatest box-office draws of the 1950s, and had gathered to mark her 90th birthday.

She has always claimed that she was born in April 1924, but there is scholarly evidence that she was in fact born in Cincinnati in April 1922. If so, it can be argued that she really is eight months older than the United Kingdom.