Captain Moonlight: The other lad from Brixton

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The Independent Online
SHOULD you chance to tune your television to Channel 4 on Wednesday and a programme entitled Naked City, you will come across Tony Banks MP competing with two minor rock celebrities to see who can roll the longest joint (of herbal tobacco, naturally). Mr Banks took part to promote his campaign to legalise cannabis.

The effect is rather embarrassing. Is this really, you ask yourself, what a sharp, clever and witty man like Mr Banks should be doing? And why is he seemingly content to be the House of Commons' principal 'cheekie chappie' (although you can forgive a man a lot for orchestrating that chorus of 'We'll Meet Again' for John Major on Thursday)? And is the Labour Party so packed with talent that it can afford to leave Mr Banks mavericking drolly on the sidelines?

Mr Banks arrives in the Central Lobby late, accompanied by his American researcher and her family, over on a visit. He suggests combining their lunch and this interview. A Banks suggestion is not optional; he has the persuasive powers of a market trader packing heat. Sharp suit, jewellery, smiles rarely, like the best comics - and supports Chelsea.

We eat in the Strangers' Dining Room, with the American parents, from Connecticut, slightly and justifiably bemused. D-Day? D-Day? He is amazed at Mr Major's abilities: 'How can you lose the re-run of D- Day?' County Hall, where he was the last chairman of the GLC, being turned over to a Japanese-Richard Bransonorama of gastrodomes, beds and aquaria? 'I find it offensive to see the Japanese flag flying over County Hall, to be honest. Not that I have anything against the Japanese, except when they buy up County Hall and kill whales.' Whales - and all animal rights - are a Banks cause, for which, last year, he chained himself to the gates of the Norwegian state railways office. There is, he says, no human being on earth more important than a blue whale, including his dear old mum. (His father, now dead, rose from the shop floor via the Eighth Army to become, somewhat improbably, First Secretary at the British embassy in Warsaw.)

As for the County Hall plan, he hopes it goes down with one great big plonk and takes Richard Branson with it. And if Ken Livingstone does accept an invitation to open it, he will personally throttle him.

Tony likes the idea of an elected London mayor, and would like the job. Tony, on ambition, wants 'to be on the inside pissing out, to coin a famous expression. What I don't want to be is in opposition when the Labour government is in office.'

There are problems here. He resigned as shadow social security minister in protest at Labour support for the Gulf war. He is no longer spokesman for London because John Smith gave him the choice of giving that up or his membership of the Council of Europe, the European gabbing-shop. Mr Smith and his Scotsmen, in truth, have problems with Tony's sense of humour. ('Did the Rt Hon Gentleman share my concern at the sight of Mrs Thatcher collapsing in a heap in Chile recently? May we have a debate next week on the way in which old-age pensioners are forced to go abroad to earn a crust?')

'I don't like being referred to as a joker. It's demeaning. People get me wrong . . . it's the difference between not taking something seriously and not being pompous.' And Tony also gets angry. Try him on Tories, people who mistreat animals and the conditions some of his constituents in Newham North West have to live in. Tony thinks human rights and animal rights 'part of the same continuum'. He thinks the world would have been a better place if the human species had never evolved, that nothing by Shakespeare or Mozart can compensate for the barbarity inflicted by human beings on their own and other species.

His pager goes. Tony sets aside his omelette. Chelsea business, he says, and goes off to telephone. No, say the researcher and the American parents, politicians back home are not like this at all.

Tony returns. He started supporting Chelsea just before John Major, in the early 1950s. They were born within days of each other and both grew up in Brixton - 'Listen, the part he lived in we used to dream of living in' - and were both on Lambeth Council. 'He was a fairly competent chairman of housing. Every time he gets up now I keep thinking 'What on earth is Councillor Major doing?' I can't believe he's here and sometimes I think he can't, either.'

He eschews ambition for the very highest office. He says he is not a good team player and that more cautious, calculating and disciplined politicians would perhaps not appear on Norwegian gates and yoof programmes. But he had got his points across. He has never smoked cannabis and he still believes in socialism. A true eccentric. And, what's more, he rolled the longest joint.

(Photograph omitted)

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