Babar's vision

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The Independent Online
Never mind your D'Arcys and Biggleses; if there is any fictional character that I envy, it is Babar the Elephant. In his adventures, he is rescued from a circus by an older woman who buys him clothes, a nice sports car, and expedites his escape to a picturesque part of Africa. There he becomes king of all the Elephants, defeating the Rhinoceroses in battle by the simple ruse of painting eyes on his followers' bottoms, thus scaring his enemies away.

But it isn't for his early success as an overweight toyboy or performance artiste that I am pro-Babar. My fascination is with Babar the social engineer, the constructor of a New Order. On the banks of a flowing river, he built the garden city of Celesteville, complete with public park, a palace of culture and hospital - all with its own town council.

Unfortunately, the Babar books neglect to inform students of political science which system of election the progressive pachyderm installed. But this week we may have had a glimpse of what it might have been. Imagine Celesteville divided into, say, 18 constituencies, each with five councillors. Different parties (representing the well-ordered strata of elephant society - artisans, manual labourers, bottom-painters, etc) would stand, and electors would make a single selection. Finally, to ensure minority groups (such as monkeys and flamingoes) are represented, each of the 10 parties with the most votes would get an extra two councillors.

This is, of course, the system proposed by John Major on Thursday for the election of a "peace forum" in Northern Ireland, and it looks good to me. True, unlike Celesteville council, the forum does not have a clear role. Some of its members will take part in talks leading to an eventual settlement, and many will not. But with truly Babar-ian wisdom, the Government recognises that they can play a role by meeting from time to time, and having a chat. About things.

Unaccountably, the jowly patriarchs of Ulster politics have not taken to the idea. It is messy, unprecedented and over-complicated, they complain. But surely, no system of itself guarantees wise choice.

One example will suffice. Few nations are more committed to (a) democracy and (b) Europe, than the Greeks, who invented both. Yet at the last (nicely proportionate) elections to the European Parliament, they voted for large- boned chanteuse Nana Mouskouri to represent them at Strasbourg, despite the fact that she admitted that she was only standing as a favour to a friend, and would never attend. "Personally, I have no interest in, or understanding of politics," she said.

Conversely, are there many electoral processes as historically successful as that which selects a new pope - 120 cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel, God guides them, they cast secret ballots, and when there is a two-thirds majority for one of their number, bingo, he becomes infallible. The only reforms in 2,000 years have been one to prevent bribery, and another, last month, to force cardinals to bring doctors' certificates with them (presumably to prevent God from making an expensive error). "Dottore Schmelz begs to reassure The Almighty that Cardinal Spinotti will not soon be knocking at his door."

This proves that what is important is not the elegance of the system but the outcome. And I believe that the same will be true in Ulster, where the plus-Babariste aspect of the Major proposal means that the Natural Law Party - the smiling devotees who brought us yogic flying and other paths to enlightenment - will almost certainly be represented at the forum.

To appreciate the significance of this, cast your mind forward. The forum is in session, Paisley in the middle of a violent diatribe, Hume halfway out of the door, Trimble puce and trembling. Jowls are wobbling. Then, from the Natural Law corner, comes the soothing hum of a mantra. The room goes quiet, and Gerry Adams and Patrick Mayhew, legs tucked beneath them, levitate above the heads of the forum, slowly float toward each other and embrace in mid-air.