A great fall, but Sir Norman puts himself together again

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The Independent Online
AT SCHOOL fetes and local fairs, they often have a side-stall which consists of a local dignitary poking his head through a board. You are invited to throw wet sponges, or something similarly harmless, at his projecting visage, for the simple fun of seeing a familiar figure made undignified. Most of the time the wet sponges miss their target, but every now and again there is a splosh on his features, and everyone roars with laughter, though oddly enough the victim tends to gain dignity in the long run if he bears it all with a smile.

A very similar exercise involves getting Sir Norman Fowler to go on radio and asking him about election results. He was on the other day, being grilled about the results of the local elections. I was shaving at the time, and was not able to get to the set in time to turn it off.

Bang, bang, bang went the wet sponges. Yes, yes, yes grinned Sir Norman Fowler. It was the worst night for the Conservatives since blah blah blah. But we now have a chance to bounce back. Yes, but we must rebuild and get our ideas across to people blah blah blah . . .

Then the interviewer bowled him a googly.

'You said before the elections, Sir Norman, that were they to go very badly, you would be the one who took responsibility.'

'Yes, I did.'

'So will you now resign?'

Sir Norman was briefly and audibly thrown by this; it was a wet sponge he hadn't seen coming. But, spluttering, he said he hadn't any intention of resigning (although any sane man who is chairman of any political party must feel every fibre in his body shrieking at him to get out of this thankless pit). He was going to go on and on and on until the Tories got their ideas across to the country blah blah blah . . .

'Yes, but you said you would take responsibility, Sir Norman. Surely this means that you will resign?'

I don't know why the interviewer was so keen to make Sir Norman Fowler squirm. Perhaps, in the same way that Tories always have a favourite answer which they spout when in doubt ('We must work even harder to get our policies across . . .'), interviewers similarly have a favourite question, to which they keep returning when in doubt. And that is why these interviews are always so excruciating, and why I keep leaping to the radio to turn it off, except when hampered by shaving lather.

But what was interesting here was that, when Sir Norman Fowler had recovered from the shock of being asked to resign live on Radio 4 - and possibly from the fleeting temptation to do so - he tried to make the point that being responsible for something did not necessarily mean resigning. He could have said - although it was quite early in the morning, when Tory minds are apparently not at their brightest - that the act of resignation is the act of running away from a problem, not of tackling it, and that resignation is the opposite of taking responsibility. What he actually said was something about bouncing back and getting our policies over to the country . . .

The sole outcome of this arid exchange was, for me, the perception that the same word can mean two totally different things. For the interviewer, responsibility meant 'taking the blame and jacking it in'. For Sir Norman it meant, 'getting on and doing something about it'. Neither of them came close to even acknowledging the meaning that the other was using.

It all seemed very familiar, and suddenly I realised why. It was Alice and Humpty Dumpty all over again, from Chapter VI of Through the Looking Glass . . .

'There's glory for you.'

'I don't know what you mean by 'glory',' said Alice.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't - till I tell you. I mean 'there's a nice knockdown argument for you]'.'

'But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument',' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

Yes, if they are looking round for a new party chairman for the Tory party, they could do a lot worse than Humpty Dumpty. It only needs Humpty Dumpty to say that we must get our policies across to the country, and the country will start believing that the Tories actually do have policies. They don't, of course. How often, for instance, have we heard the cry: 'If only the Tories had a national transport policy]'

But when Humpty Dumpty comes along and says that we must get our policies across to the country, a little conjuring trick may take place and we may get the impression that policies really do exist.

Tomorrow: lots more words and how to make them mean what you want.