As the late Sir John Betjeman might have written:
As the late Sir John Betjeman might have written:
"Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Blair.
There's nothing much to bomb now, there."
As this column continues to maintain an unfashionable belief in parliamentary government by political parties, it is, of course, a serious matter. At the same time it is, there is no getting away from it, very funny. Thus a transparent screen is erected to shield the members of the chamber of deputies from the gawping proletariat. But (as is the way in people's democracies) special seats are reserved at the front and sides for members of the central committee and their chums. Alas, a lowly member of the committee auctions her allocation. No doubt the lucky winners are searched by the hardened veterans of the eastern front who are allowed to eke out their military pensions through "security duties'' in the assembly.
"This condom full of mauve powder, sir. Would it be for your personal use, so to speak? ... Well, that's all right then ... And good luck to you, sir."
Clearly, no one had the faintest idea of what he or she was supposed to do. In the circumstances, everyone I observed - Mr Tony Blair, Mr Gordon Brown, Mr John Prescott - was a credit to the Movement. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the other attitudes which the government front bench has been striking.
An orthodoxy is now in the course of being established. It is what Cambridge historians of the last century used misleadingly to call a "rhetoric" and what more consciously up-to-date figures now prefer, equally erroneously, to term a "narrative". It goes more or less as follows. This government is one of the most successful of modern times, perhaps the most successful. The condition of the people has been improved beyond measure. It is a land overflowing with beer and burgers.
Unhappily, the citizens do not realise their good fortune to be living in such a paradise. They will admit grudgingly that their local health service - surgery, group practice, hospital - has improved perceptibly. But, against the evidence of their own experience, they retain the stubborn belief that the service as a whole is in a state of chronic deterioration. The same is supposed to be true of education. Ministers and their hangers-on trot out this line with such regularity that one can only assume it has been laid down sternly by whoever is now doing Mr Alastair Campbell's old job.
Naturally, it has its limits. Not even the most brazen minister - and, to be fair, Mr Alistair Darling is not one of them - is prepared to claim that transport has improved. Again, in certain parts of the country (Oxford is an example) the postal service has broken down completely. Ministers never talk about this. Nor, for that matter, do the newspapers report it, certainly not with any great prominence. It is not allowed to disturb the new orthodoxy of public services by stealth, unappreciated by the masses.
There is something else which spoils the picture. That is Iraq. The story here is not that the citizens do not properly appreciate what is being done on their behalf - though those ungrateful Iraqis may be guilty of that. It is, rather, that Iraq can somehow be put on one side; detached from the Government's record. It was, after all, Tony's big adventure, nothing much to do with the rest of us, when you come down to it. Speaking for myself (this is the minister talking), between you, me and the gatepost - and I don't want this appearing in your column - I was against the whole shooting-match from the start, but Gordon told me not to rock the boat.
In fact the invasion of Iraq was neither an aberration nor an unfortunate mistake. It was wholly consistent with Mr Blair's approach to government: not only his faith in the Anglo-American alliance at all costs, but also his urge to do good in the world, if necessary by force. Having failed to find weapons of mass destruction, he now boasts at every opportunity of having rid the world of a horrible tyrant.
Mr Michael Howard is in a weak position to attack Mr Blair over Iraq because he has to preface every observation on the subject with the admission that he supported the war in the first place. Mr Charles Kennedy is in a stronger position because he opposed the war until British troops went into action, after which he adopted a wishy-washy attitude.
And yet it is Mr Howard, not Mr Kennedy, who is causing Mr Blair the greater trouble over Iraq. The reason is not far to seek. Mr Kennedy's policies for the future, insofar as one can make them out, would not be so very different from Mr Blair's plans, involving as they would in practice a British military presence (even if under the auspices of the United Nations) lasting till the Day of Judgement. This is what I meant when I criticised Sir Menzies Campbell previously for displaying a typical Liberal vanity and conceit in foreign policy.
Thank goodness Mr Howard is not so high-minded. High-mindedness is not his stock-in-trade, though he can put on a show when the occasion seems to require it. Last week was not such a time. He wrote no more than that Mr Blair might perhaps, just for a change, show some independence of Mr George Bush. There were, in Denis Healey's phrase, howls of anguish from the Cabinet. Mr Howard was accused of "opportunism", for all the world as if Labour politicians devoutly shun such an activity themselves! A special Lobby briefing was convened, at which the assembled journalists were solemnly informed that Mr Howard was endangering the lives of "our boys" in Iraq. This manifestly absurd charge was dutifully reported in Pravda, also known as The Times.
Samuel Johnson once described patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. By this test the Cabinet is the most rascally since Anthony Eden's Suez government of 1956. It must, in a way, be pleasant to be able to reverse - or to try to reverse - the positions of that time, when the Labour Party generally and Hugh Gaitskell in particular were accused, on the whole successfully, of letting down our lads. Mr Blair rarely misses a chance of hinting, usually in an underhand kind of way, willing to wound but afraid to strike, that Conservative and Liberal Democrats alike are doing the same today.
But somehow I do not think it will wash this time round. The war has lasted longer; more people have been killed; some people have been tortured; there is no end in sight; Mr Bush does not know where to turn next; Mr Blair will surely pay the price. As Galatians (vi. 7) puts it: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."
By Alan Watkins
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