I’ve always been a bit perplexed by William Hague.
He’s witty, God knows. He can have you in stitches with a string of jokes at your own expense. He’s clever. Witness his suitably priggish and surprisingly Whiggish books about Wilberforce and Pitt.
But I always feel as if there are three different people vying for control of the inner Hague. There’s the very serious statesman, Sir William as it were, who crafts a nuanced, balanced mandarin-esque position, modulates his voice, chooses the dullest Hermès tie in the rack, and reads out his prepared text as if it were the results of the Yorkshire county cricket junior league. But there’s also Billy Hague, who’s determined, sharp of mind and of elbow, keen to cut a deal, eager to please. And there’s a Just William, too, naughty, up for a laugh, ready for an adventure (even a 14-pint one).
You can see all this play itself out in Hague’s attitudes on the Middle East. Remember that botched expedition in Libya in the early days of the uprising, when a number of British intelligence and military officers were caught near Benghazi without any pretence of a legal standing? That was pure Just William adventurism and we were lucky it didn’t end in greater calamity.
My fear is that this rather cauterised and conflicted character is leading David Cameron – and therefore all the rest of us – down a very dark alleyway in relation to Syria. Hague has made two mistakes. From the moment he got the keys to the Locarno suite in the FCO he has wanted to do business with Putin’s Russia. Forget the inconveniences of Litvinenko, Magnitsky and Khodorkovsky. Ignore the fact that Obama’s “reset” with Russia delivered diddly squat. Billy was interested only in British businesses doing more deals in Russia.
But Putin doesn’t respect weakness. And the end result has not been a more co-operative Russia. Far from it. Russia has toughed it out and defended its military and economic advantage in Syria.
So now Just William is back in the frame, campaigning for a military adventure in Syria, persuading the EU to loosen its grip on the arms embargo so that he might be able to arm the rebels. Surely we know how this Just William adventure would end – with British troops facing British weapons in radicalist hands.
Four times on Monday and Wednesday, Cameron refused to promise a binding vote in the Commons before any such move, probably because he knows he would lose. But if Just William is to be given his head, we must be given a vote.
A press intrusion too far
I despair of the British press. Thursday’s tabloid front pages screamed at us about the desperately sad attempt on her own life by the 15-year-old Paris Jackson. How any editor can ever think that devoting a front page to a suicide attempt is a compassionate way of reporting mental health problems, I don’t know. Nor for that matter do I understand how an online editor can justify the following, courtesy of the Mirror: “Follow the latest updates as the daughter of Michael Jackson recovers in hospital following an apparent suicide attempt.” The latest updates? How often do we all have to scream that people (yes, even famous people and even the children of celebrities) are not commodities?
He read it, we wept
What with the cash for questions sting operation, tales of sexual shenanigans involving No 10 and the untrue allegations made by Richard Drax’s nanny, the atmosphere in the Commons has been febrile, as evidenced by the raucous debate on the A&E crisis on Wednesday. We were infuriated by the tendency of Conservative politicians to confuse correlation with causation. After all, Marathons were renamed as Snickers in the UK in 1990, the same year as Mrs Thatcher’s fall, yet I don’t think anyone has yet identified a causal link between the two events. Which is why the Tory attempts to pass the problems in A&E off on everyone under the sun are so tedious. So far they have fingered GPs, women, the weather, the EU, the Welsh, having targets, not having targets, the private sector, the public sector, the old GP contract and the new one. They even alleged that it was all down to the influx of immigrants, even though your A&E doctor is more likely to be a migrant than see one. Pathetically, Jeremy Hunt, up just after Andy Burnham, started with an attack: “What we have heard today will rank as one of the poorest speeches ever given by an opposition on the NHS.” The fact that he was reading out what his civil servants had written for him long before he heard Andy completely undermined his argument. Oh, we laughed.
And now a word from the other Billy
Later that day, I sped up to the Union Chapel in Islington for a Billy Bragg gig. As always with Billy there was plenty of politics, including attacks on the BNP and EDL and reminiscences about being in Calgary when he learnt of Mrs Thatcher’s death. Loads of hope, not fear – activism, not cynicism. He even sang the Kirsty MacColl version of “A New England”, which starts with the words “I was 21 years when I wrote this song. I’m 22 now” despite sporting a middle-aged beard, which, he told us, “covered a multitude of chins”.
He told of touring in Seattle and asking how liberal Democrats there had managed to get two referendums carried on the same day in 2012, in favour of same sex marriage and legalising cannabis. Wasn’t that a bit risky, trying two in one? Apparently not, as one lady explained. “It says in Leviticus that when two men lie together they shall be stoned. We took them at their word.”
Twitter: @ChrisBryantMPReuse content