'With respect, Jeremy,' they smile

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Indy Politics
One of the forgotten heroes of the past 18 years of Conservative government is Sir John Nott, the defence minister, who behaved with unusual valour in the face of the enemy during the Falklands war: he walked out of a television studio in mid-interview. I can't remember the questioner or the question. What I do remember is the sight of Nott removing his microphone clip and tossing it disdainfully on the desk. At the time, it looked like thin-skinned arrogance. Looking back, it looks refreshingly human and dignified. Which politician would dare be so brave now?

None, probably. They are all so scared of "gaffes". Walking out on an interview would, in these times, be a sensational gaffe. Head-butting Jeremy Paxman would be off the Richter scale of gaffes. One of the wonders of the age is how politicians have become so armour-plated to insult; how the only evidence of the interviewer-inflicted wound is the phrase: "With the greatest respect, Jeremy."

On Wednesday's Newsnight, I watched Paxman with Paddy Ashdown. The Paxman v Blair contest the night before had been rough enough, but on poor Ashdown - or so it seemed to me - Paxman rained down bolts of unprecedented bluntness. Ashdown was too old at 56 ("past it", Paxman said), his party was going nowhere, he would be removed as Lib Dem leader after the election. These weren't so much questions as offensive statements which taunted Ashdown to come up with a civilised response. He cae up with one, of course. He sat tight and smiled, a rabbit frozen in the television headlamps, and said things like "Nonsense!" and "with respect". But there must have been some part of him - the Special Boat Service part perhaps - that longed to grab the interviewer by the tie and crash the Ashdown forehead against the Paxman nose.

I enjoy the side of Paxman that teeters on the edge of personal abuse, but I wonder if it serves any purpose outside popular entertainment. In his cross-questioning barrister mode he gets much more illuminating results. Blair was a sorry sight trying to explain how his party's education policy was against (a) selection in schools and (b) the abolition of selection in schools. And when Paxman asked Ashdown - and asked him again and again - if the Lib Dems' famous 1p on income tax to pay for better schools was 1p on the present rate, or 1p on the rate from next month (when it is reduced by 1p), you could tell by Ashdown's blurry answers that his pocket calculator had never been required to work it out.

Paxman's producers need to be careful in perhaps just one respect. In the Ashdown interview there were far too many cutaway shots of the great interviewer looking sceptical, bored and incredulous. I want Jeremy to ask questions on my behalf, but I don't need him to tell me what to think of the answers.

According to a piece in Friday's Telegraph, the Tories could yet win because the middle class will suddenly see that their economic circumstance has changed. This wasn't the usual argument - that Britain is doing jolly well and all that Major needs to do is get the message through - but its opposite. Niall Ferguson, billed as a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, predicted that somewhere between now and 1 May, the financial markets will crash; he offered this Tuesday, 25 March, as the likeliest date. Other than the precision of the timing, there's nothing new in Ferguson's prediction. One piece of conventional wisdom is that stocks are vastly over-valued and riding for a fall on Wall Street and in London. There may already be signs of jitters; 10 days ago the Dow Jones recorded its biggest one-day fall this year.

To many people this might simply signify that now was not the best time to buy a Pep (could this be why Nigel Lawson is flogging them so hard on television commercials?). Ferguson, however, saw a silver lining. A financial crisis would "not necessarily" rebound on John Major because "it's when things are going well economically that voters have the confidence to gamble on change". In other words, a new feel-bad factor would have the English middle classes flocking back to nurse.

Obviously, this explains why F D Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher got elected. The booming economies of the USA in 1932 and Britain in 1979 made people feel they could take a chance. Mr Ferguson describes himself as "a simple economical historian". I don't think that they will be pinning his words of hope to the noticeboards at Central Office, but, life being so desperate there, you never know.

At The last general election this newspaper recommended an anti-Conservative vote. Or at least it tried to, because it was then bound by the convention of its founders to avoid endorsing any political party, which also meant avoiding the positive non-endorsement of a particular political party. Perhaps this is still the case - I see worrying signs of it in the Independent's new television campaign - but it has always seemed to me an odd kind of newspaper that in its leader column dished out advice on all kinds of subjects in the years between general elections, and then at the vital moment withdrew into some kind of holy opacity, with a price above rubies etc.

Anyway, the way around this house rule in 1992 was to write a signed leader, a personal statement from the editor. As I wrote it, I can say, without worrying about offending anybody, that I think it was far from brilliant. On the other hand (a phrase which may well have occurred in the leader itself) I have always been rather disappointed, like the editor of the Skibbereen Eagle with the Tsar, that so many people disobeyed my advice. Politics in this country reached a natural turning point with the departure of Mrs Thatcher; five years of neo-Thatcherism, filled with mad schemes which even she would have thought twice about, has done nobody (even Thatcherites) much good.

But now, like Niall Ferguson with his paradoxical view of the coming financial crash, I can detect a faint silver lining in the perversity of the British voting public five years ago. If Kinnock had won, the Tories would have sacked Major. There would have been five years of Kinnock-baiting (you can certainly bet the Sun wouldn't be changing sides). And Michael Portillo might be 28 per cent ahead in the polls.