Russian parliamentarians - 27 of them - are in Britain for three weeks to study our democracy. Their first visit to the Commons was last Tuesday for Prime Minister's Question Time. They thought they had entered a madhouse. Later, when they met individual MPs, and especially the Conservative whips, they were convinced they had stepped back in time to a pre-glasnost Soviet Union where parliamentary representatives were kept under strict control and voted according to instructions. They thought the Tory party was very like the Communist party. I understood the comparison the next day.
At Church House behind Westminster Abbey, the Russians met in the Hall of Convocation to hear about life on the front bench from Douglas Hogg, a minister at the Foreign Office in charge of the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe. Mr Hogg is the son of the former Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham, and gravitates towards the centre and heart of the Conservative Party. He said some very interesting things about the House of Lords and so provoked the Russians with an insensitive statement on the fate of their country that one of them, Nikolai Pavlov, walked out in disgust. Mr Pavlov is from the Russian nationalist Rossiya faction in the Supreme Soviet, the 'standing' Russian parliament.
Sitting in on this seminar, organised by Leeds University's Institute for International Studies and financed by the Know-How Fund of the Foreign Office, I thought our MP from Grantham was extremely frank with these fledgling democrats and rather admired him for it. As I left the hall, an official from the university ran after me and said that Mr Hogg had not known a member of the press was present and therefore Chatham House Rules applied. Mr Hogg was free to give his opinions to foreigners, former enemies no less. But his constituents and the British public were to be kept in the dark. It seemed an odd lesson for a democracy to be giving a former dictatorship.
I don't suppose many readers have heard of Chatham House Rules. They were drawn up in 1927 by the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, London, to encourage discussion. Meetings were deemed private, the information could be used, but the speaker, his affiliation, and the site, were not to be revealed. Last year the Institute extended the rules to include not just the speaker but all participants. Like most Establishment matters, you are dealing with a gentleman's agreement. The penalty: blackballing.
The difference between the meeting with the Russians and seminars in Chatham House is that you go to the latter knowing that the rule applies. At Church House the rule was imposed after the event - unilaterally. Here is a report of the Church House meeting under Chatham House Rules:
'A man in London declared to a group of Russians on Wednesday that he favoured abolishing the House of Lords. He said one day the reformers would succeed and he wished them luck. He favoured a bicameral system of government and would like to see the Lords replaced by an elected assembly with powers similar to the Commons. He thought both houses would thus become a much more effective brake on the executive branch of government than the present system.
'This man, of small stature and with a slight lisp, said a nimble minister could easily bluff his way through the House of Commons, but a parliamentary select committee was more worrying - straight answers were demanded there. It was foolish, he went on, to pretend that Britain's parliamentary system was a pure democracy. Its MPs were tools of their party. 'If the question is: do we impose pressure on our colleagues? The answer is yes', this unidentified man said.
'The Russians became extremely agitated when he said the dissolution of the Soviet Empire was a jolly good thing. It was an oppressive state and a threat to 'our freedoms'. One Russian, whose surname began with 'P', walked out, speaking of British duplicity. He said Russia would be reunited with its constituent parts no matter what this Englishman said. Only then would Russia and the West be safe from tyranny.'
A FEW HOURS later, over at the Dorchester Hotel, the comrades from the GMB, who now call themselves 'the general union' rather than the boilermakers, were whooping it up for Bill Clinton. I couldn't see the connection, but an official assured me that for the British trade union movement Mr Clinton's inauguration marked a 'substantial victory for the Left'. I was rather shocked to see some 850 of the 'Left' in the Dorchester's ballroom, at pounds 50 a head, the day before record unemployment figures were announced.
LOST FOR WORDS
I always suspected the world of book publishing was rather odd, and my latest enquiry has confirmed that indeed it is. Kitty Kelley, the American author of those 'scurrilous' biographies of Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan, is said to have quit writing her latest book, for which she is being paid some dollars 4m ( pounds 2.7m). No one in the book trade is sure of the exact topic, but they are certain it deals with the Royal Family, especially the Duke of Edinburgh, and will blow the roof off Buckingham Palace. It seemed a strange time to quit, so I telephoned America to find out more.
My call to Miss Kelley's residence in Washington was answered by a man singing 'Love's been good to me' (a Sinatra hit) against a background of the singing strings kind. I dutifully left my name after the tone, but was not rewarded by a call from Miss Kelley.
Her agent, Wayne Kabak of International Creative Management in New York, was also out, but his assistant Laura, who told me she had an unpronounceable surname so there was no point in even spelling it out, filled me in.
Laura said Miss Kelley was writing a book, full stop. Whether it was about the British Royal Family or the man in the moon was known only to Miss Kelley. No one, not even her agent, still less her publisher, would know the topic 'until the last second'. She had signed a contract with Warner Books Inc on 15 January last year for a book to appear in 1995. Had she quit, or perhaps changed her mind? Not to our knowledge, said Laura.
Over at Warner Books, a spokesman said they had heard the rumour about the Kelley book. Had she changed topics mid-stream? It was possible. And what was she writing about? Don't know, and we won't know until the end. Isn't it odd to hand out dollars 4m as an advance for a manuscript on a topic the author has not disclosed? 'It might sound a bit odd, but not when the author is Kitty Kelley,' he said.
Any reader who disbelieves her agent and publisher can telephone Miss Kelley direct. Her number is 010- 1-202-3420606. The publication of this number could be construed as an invasion of privacy. But Miss Kelley has been invading other people's privacy for years.
YESTERDAY MARKED the Chinese New Year and the beginning of the Year of the Rooster. Bill Clinton, whose inauguration very nearly coincided with the start of the year, will, according to my Chinese soothsayer Miss Peachblossom, have an 'extraordinarily eventful' time. As a 1946 baby from the Year of the Dog, this canine has a gigantic will and an honesty that people find difficult to resist. As a fiery dog to boot he is highly dramatic and - watch out Saddam - won't make threats he cannot carry out: his bite is as strong as his bark. Mr Clinton will be flung from one crisis to another, but there will also be good fortune.
John Major, on the other hand, is a goat. In more polite Chinese circles he is a sheep. Miss Peachblossom says the Prime Minister should not try to please everyone and should watch the country's finances carefully. I think she was trying to tell me something when she added that recreational activities were highlighted for him this year. When I sought clarification, she said the Year of the Rooster was an ideal time for goats to retire.
What about that special transatlantic relationship? Dogs and Goats are an incompatible team and barely tolerate each other, says my soothsayer. And pace Baroness Thatcher (a 'resolute and stubborn' Ox), they have 'no special need for each other's company'.
I begged her to read the entrails once more and she chose Prince Charles. This royal Pig was in for a hectic year with lots of surprises. There were new 'partnerships' ahead, but Miss Peachblossom warned (not particularly presciently) that his personal life would be subject to stress. His career, whatever that might be, would take precedence over home matters.
Rupert Pennant-Rea, the editor of the Economist who was appointed deputy governor of the Bank of England on Friday, is the very model of an Economist man - rather cold, rather clever, and extremely confident of his ability to influence the world. His firm views on free trade follow the magazine's tradition since its foundation in 1843 as a propaganda sheet against the Corn Laws, though its status owes more to a later editor, Walter Bagehot.
Considering the wonky state of Britain's economy and the Economist's support for the policies that got it there, it wields a paradoxical influence on business and politics in the world - more than half its 500,000 circulation is sold abroad, most in the United States.
It has been a nursery for bright young opinionated things, always opining anonymously, since the 1930s. Its post-war crop of graduates include Sarah Hogg (wife of Douglas), head of Downing Street's policy unit; Andrew Knight, the extremely rich but monarchically muddled boss of Murdoch's British newspapers; Andrew Neil, the poorer but less-confused editor of the Sunday Times; Lord St John of Fawsley; and the late Kim Philby, who seems to pop up whenever anonymity and the Establishment come together.
BURNS NIGHT tomorrow and memories of the Great Turnip Divide. The North of England, Scotland and Ireland call that yellowy orange thing with the haggis a turnip; southerners say it is a 'swede'. And, yes, a turnip to a southerner is a swede to the rest. So where is the boundary? My guess is north of Watford and south of Wetherby. Perhaps readers can pin it down precisely.
I look forward to turnip harmonisation. A swede is merely a Swedish turnip, and now that Sweden wants to join the EC, let us hope the Brussels bureaucrats pounce on this anomaly with the same gusto with which they once attacked sausages.
Say what you like about . . . Clive James, but:
Fame is fleeting.
He was once a very good television critic.
He has given new heart to the fat and the bald - or would have done if all fat, bald men had smart patter and television shows.
He's not Barry Norman, Michael Parkinson or Dame Edna Everage.
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