Tony Blair might have got in touch with a higher being by embracing Catholicism, but even he has succumbed to that hard drug few can resist: bargain-hunting. Our former prime minister spends his time these days jetting around the world trying to kick-start peace in the Middle East, but he rearranged his schedule to be first through the door at the Armani sale in swanky Knightsbridge – they even opened an hour early so Tony could spend thousands on clothing discounted up to 50 per cent, unmolested by fellow shoppers.
Christmas saw the usual array of church leaders pontificating about the evils of capitalism and rampant consumerism, but their words were falling on largely deaf ears, unless you were David Cameron and family, who just happened to leave York Minster at the same time as a local photographer. In these uncertain times, one thing you can be sure of: whatever you've paid for something, it's bound to be cheaper elsewhere. Once, sales were big events; now they're everyday acts of retail desperation. In pre-Gordon days, you set money aside for Christmas – that old-fashioned thing called "having a budget". These days that is irrelevant. In our roller-coaster world of boom and bust, who knows what the right price is for anything any more?
The past 12 months have seen us all become a nation of hustlers, indulging in the kind of behaviour we once reserved for Moroccan souks. Now, we're not ashamed to haggle. Everyone does it, no matter what they earn. Every major supermarket started the ball rolling early in 2008, when they embarked upon a price war, wooing us with Bogofs and phoney discounts. Why, if Tesco and Sainsbury's are so keen to save me money, does my bill come to £85, no matter what I buy? I sometimes think that it would be easier just to hand over the notes when you enter the store, and be allowed to cart away as much as you can carry. I don't believe that any of these stores want to ensure we leave their premises having spent less. It's not why they are in business.
Phoney pricing then spread up and down the high street: as major chains experienced dipping sales in the past few weeks, they started "special" discount days, from M&S to Debenhams. You'd be pretty fed up if you'd bought any gifts early in December, because a couple of weeks later you could have purchased the very same stuff 30 per cent cheaper. Woolworths, facing death row, hit back with a massive "everything must go" event. At this point even I succumbed, queueing in a sad branch of Woolies in Ripon, clutching a non-stick baking tray, a Father Christmas gift sack and a couple of wooden spoons.
Boxing Day saw thousands of shops offering discounts of up to 90 per cent, and by 27 December many a major retailer was desperately trying to shift stock to avert bankruptcy.
Makes you wonder why we bother with Christmas presents at all. Wouldn't it make more financial sense to move the exchanging of gifts to New Year's Day, and reserve Christmas for hanging out with friends and family, eating, drinking, telly and a spot of religion for anyone who fancies it? That gives ample time to compare prices online, or buy and sell unwanted stuff on eBay. The current crop of sales won't save many retailers – up to 15 chains are predicted to go bust over the next couple of weeks. We're not just witnessing the death of some familiar names, but the end of the kind of shopping we grew up with. Now, you should name your price – and then halve it.
Foul! 'Panorama' can do better than Potty Mouth Skinner
Was the biggest scandal of 2008 really the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross affair? If 42,000 people rang the BBC to complain (about a programme that attracted just two complaints on transmission), should we be concerned? 'Panorama' thinks so: the programme has commissioned a special report on taste and decency that will be broadcast in a month's time and presented by someone who, over the years, has certainly flirted with bad taste on the airwaves, Frank Skinner.
When I worked for the BBC we secretly filmed Frank's stand-up show, because he was the subject of 'This Is Your Life'. Michael Aspel was going to walk on to the stage of the London Palladium and surprise Frank with the big red book. Unfortunately, before Michael made a move, Frank told a revolting story about persuading his girlfriend to have anal sex – it went on and on for about 20 minutes, and the BBC executives present were ashen-faced. It was cut for the transmission at 7pm on BBC1, to ensure Frank didn't offend a mass audience.
'Panorama' was once a heavyweight programme; now it's been castrated to just 30 minutes, and ordered to have mass appeal. There is no shortage of important issues, but using Frank Skinner hardly means the programme will be impartial or even that meaningful. Even if he is now shunning swearing, he has been reprimanded for his own behaviour on the airwaves and says that swearing "can be truly beautiful". It's another bit of BBC self-flagellation. Meanwhile, ITV is planning a Trevor McDonald special on exactly the same subject.
We need a remedy for lousy law
Pensioners generally make headlines when they are treated badly, but maybe it's time we reassessed our view of senior citizens, following the conviction of a very unusual milkman in Burnley.
Robert Holding provided a special service for pensioners – if they left a little note in an empty milk bottle, he helpfully popped a small chunk of dope in an eggbox and left it on their doorstep, claiming it "helped them with their aches and pains".
Sadly, the plea that Holding was performing a social service didn't impress the judge, and he's been told to expect a spell in jail. We really ought to decide where we stand on cannabis. The Government should make it available on the NHS. What's wrong with letting people suffering from horrible pain find some proven relief?
Straight on for Adlington Avenue
The Government's latest attempt to interest the young in modern history involves renaming streets after "inspiring and evocative" contemporary figures. They've suggested a Beckham Park in Manchester and Adlington Avenue in Mansfield (after Olympic gold medallist Rebecca), while Harrow has been quick off the mark with plans to rename Elton John's old road in Pinner Elton John Avenue, but why not Reg Dwight Drive? After all, that's his real name.
Once we named roads after our great British cars. As our car industry seems to rely on foreign investors and government handouts, maybe the best way of commemorating our past glories is by naming new roads after Jaguar, Land Rover and Mini Cooper, not footballers.