Everybody has been calling everyone else a bully this week. Rather touchingly, the Lib Dem MP Malcolm Bruce called me one when I pointed out on the radio (I thought not unreasonably) that we effectively have a two-party state now that the Lib Dems vote with the Tories on every financial issue.
Most spectacularly, David Cameron, who seems completely obsessed with Ed Balls, decided to launch a volley of abuse at him in the Chamber apropos of nothing during Prime Minister’s Questions, accusing him of being “a bully who can dish it out … but can’t take it”. The irony, of course, was that this was coming from a man who belittles women MPs, has a notoriously short fuse and yet bridles whenever anyone has the effrontery to criticise him.
There is another, deeper irony, though. For the character Flashman, whom Cameron seems to emulate, originally appeared in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which was written by the Victorian Liberal MP and declared Christian socialist Thomas Hughes, who among other things campaigned for a national health service in the 1840s.
Thanks to George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman got his own series of books between 1969 and 2005 in which he always appears as a scoundrel. His most important skill, apart from horsemanship and fornication, was flattery; and his least pleasant trait, his determination to avoid responsibility for anything.
Which is where Cameron comes in. Leave aside for a moment the fact that when in Opposition he blamed every jot and tittle of our economic woes on Gordon Brown but now he blames the snow, the lack of snow, the wrong kind of snow or, if in doubt, foreigners, for our every malaise. No, my biggest complaint is that his whole economic strategy is a way of running away from danger.
Take my local authority, Rhondda Cynon Taff. Because of Westminster’s cuts to the Welsh Assembly budget, the council will have to find £13.5m in cuts next year. Last year it avoided major closures and made no redundancies but cut staff terms and conditions. This year it is going to be far tougher – and the same process is going on around the country. Local authorities will be cutting everything that they are not required by law to provide – and that means swimming pools, theatres, arts centres, museums and centres for the elderly.
OK, you might say that that is what councillors were elected to do: make tough choices. True. And every council needs to live within its means. But the exasperating truth is that the person who has really made the decision to close the Shelley Winters memorial swimming pool in Upper Magna or the Alf Garnett over-50s club in Dunroamin Street is not the local council at all. It’s Cameron. And that’s what bullies always do: cover their tracks and make sure someone else takes the rap.
Truth, lies and heart attacks
There have been signs all over the Palace of Westminster advertising “defib classes”. This is part of the Occupational Health team’s efforts to get more people trained in the use of defibrillators, but everyone has been jesting that politicians have long needed to be defibbed. Ha-ha, ho-ho.
I tried explaining to a friend who had casually suggested that all politicians lie all the time that, in reality, the one thing a politician (an elected one anyway) tries desperately hard not to do is lie, quite simply because even a gross incompetent is better than a liar. Many an MP has escaped public wrath for their misdemeanours, but then been undone when they were discovered to have lied, even in a relatively minor detail.
Indeed, that pillar of rectitude Stafford Cripps, the austere Labour Chancellor in the late 1940s, felt that his authority had crumbled when he was asked whether he was planning to devalue the pound just days before he did so. He had little choice but to lie in the public interest, but he hated himself for it. My friend, though, asked, “So it’s just a fear of getting caught that stops you lying?” I’m not answering that one.
Christmas cheer for the lone vicar
Amid all the noise about women bishops and same-sex marriages in church, spare a brief thought for the local vicar this Christmas. You will probably have the delight of singing all six verses of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” only once or twice. The vicar will almost certainly have notched up two dozen carol services, a couple of Christingles and a bout of carol singing in the local old people’s home, and I can assure you his heart will not be jumping for joy at the idea of the additional seventh verse you get to sing on Christmas Day itself.
As a curate on Christmas Eve in 1986, I counted how many times I had belted out “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” that Advent – 67, which happened to be its number in our hymn books. That did not include the 7.30am service on Christmas morning in the hospital chapel. As usual, the walking ill had been shipped home for the day so I was a congregation of one, broadcasting on hospital radio to the few remaining patients in the wards. I managed to do the responses all right – “The Lord be with you”, and then, in a gruffer voice “And also with you” – but I just caught the eye of an orderly pushing a trolley past the chapel door as I launched into my extraordinary solo rendition of “Hark! The Herald”. He clearly thought I was bonkers.
Don’t try to make sense of carols
Incidentally, there is something rhapsodically off-the-wall about Christmas carols, as if you’d taken Christianity, dunked it in honey, splattered it with hundreds and thousands, and stuck a sparkler in the top. After all, Bethlehem is neither small nor still, midwinter in Israel is remarkably temperate, not frosty or bleak (except perhaps politically), and the assertion that “Christ our Sa-aviour was born on Christmas Day” is as clear an example of a tautology as you’ll find.