Christine Hamilton: In praise of the great loose cannon

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The Independent Online

People who rock the boat by stating uncomfortable truths are essential in all walks of life, but especially so in politics. That's why I applaud Clare Short for her actions last week. Her politics are not mine, but she doesn't give a damn what she says and I admire her for that. She has done the nation a great service.

Loose cannons liven things up. Their unpredictability carries a frisson of danger, sharpening our minds and reflexes. Having broken free of their ties, they career around the deck, firing in all directions, posing danger to friend and foe alike. Many accidents in Iraq have been caused by so-called "friendly fire". They can happen in politics too. But I doubt whether "friendly" is quite the epithet Tony Blair applied to Clare's salvo of last week.

We don't yet know whether she was firing blanks or Exocets. But I put her up there with other contemporary Loose Cannon Greats. I love them all - dear old Tam Dalyell, Tony Benn, Ann Widdecombe, and, of course, Alan Clark. It cannot be a coincidence that all share a robust devil-may-care style, driving them onwards to tell the truth as they see it. Where Clare comes in the ordnance list I'm not quite sure yet, but she is shaping up well.

You have to admire anyone who goes on the Today programme and non-plusses John Humphrys as spectacularly as she did. I love radio because the pictures are so much better than on television. I could see Humphrys' mouth opening and shutting soundlessly like a goldfish, totally gobsmacked by Clare's astonishing claims made without warning or prompting from him. Humphrys spends his life playing word games with evasive politicians, desperately trying to trap them into saying something they don't want to. Suddenly, Clare just flung all that gripping stuff into his lap. If all politicians were like her he would be out of a job.

But the Clare Shorts of this world are just what politics needs. Governments want everything to be all neat, tidy and buttoned-up. It's vital that someone comes along from time to time and bursts open the seams.

Political apathy is growing apace. Millions vote for their favourites on I'm A Celebrity but cannot be bothered to turn out at general elections. Four in 10 of us didn't last time. We are slumped in our armchairs, deep in democratic torpor. People are fed-up with bland politicians who won't speak the truth. Despite having worked there for 26 years, I've now joined the 98 per cent of people who don't give a damn what happens at Westminster - the real sadness is, of course, that that 98 per cent includes Tony Blair. But my interest revives instantly when politics turns into theatre. A refreshing blast of drama from the likes of Clare Short's can save politics.

She is the diametrical opposite of those creepy Blair babes who wouldn't dare to say boo to a banana unless they were ordered to do so. "Clare-ite" candour is the antidote to Blairite control freakery and spin.

Clare has a fiery independence and refuses to be bound and gagged by convention or personal ambition. Of course she should have resigned last year when she threatened to, and I was disappointed by her failure to do so. But, paradoxically, had she done so she would not have seen the transcripts whose existence she so sensationally revealed. Clare is a Great British Battleaxe in the tradition of Boudicca. She is a life enhancer. Let's pop her on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square or, in Japanese tradition, create her a Living National Treasure.

Given my political history, I can be forgiven for delighting in Blair's discomfiture. Yes, of course I love it. Blair is in direct line from his slippery predecessor, Harold Wilson. Question: "How can you tell when Wilson's lying?" Answer: "When his lips move." But, truly, I would admire Clare Short whoever was on the receiving end. I suspect she has plenty more grapeshot to fire. Roll on the next time she lights the red touchpaper.