Mark Steel: At least the US Secretary of State speaks English

Not one bit of Beckett's answer made sense, especially about being too early
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The Independent Online

How about this for a piece of prose. Margaret Beckett, asked on radio yesterday whether she opposed the latest report that claims the war in Iraq has made the world more dangerous, said: "Well, yes, I might well, um, yes, it's a very serious, um, discussion and it's not, um, er, one for doing in two seconds early in the morning, but I would say that a lot of these contentions are flawed, er, but certainly the underlying thesis that we've been because it's not just in America or Iraq the argument is that we don't have any influence in Europe."

Maybe this is a new low in journalism, because they were clearly interviewing the poor woman so early in the morning she was talking in her sleep. They probably cut out the bit where she was asked about ID cards, and answered: "Peweeugh, I've lost the custard powder watch out for bandits abawau the caravan's got a puncture."

Or this could be the Government strategy for interviews, in which ministers play random word association. And when Blair gets back from Dubai, his first reply to a reporter about his trip will go: "Iraq oil olive stuffed Ashes soot chimney Santa Happy Christmas everyone."

Not one bit of her answer made sense, especially the part about it being too early in the morning. Did she think they'd say: "As yet another report claims the war is a disaster, with me is the Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. Margaret - what's the weather like where you are?" We can't have a Foreign Secretary who won't discuss foreign policy before elevenses. Are they all like this? Does Gordon Brown say: "I won't even look at the economy before the end of Cash in the Attic."

But then she got worse. On two separate occasions she said that Tony Blair had never claimed Saddam was a threat to Britain. So she was reminded about the claims made by Blair that Saddam could launch his weapons at us in 45 minutes, and she said: "That statement was made only once - and nobody thought it was relevant." Not relevant! It was the argument that justified the whole escapade. The Nazis should have tried this at the Nuremburg Trials. "We only mentioned the final solution once and no one thought it was relevant."

The report that caused the upset in the first place was from Chatham House, which described the war as a "terrible mistake". And the language of these groups is usually incredibly measured. If they were publishing their findings about the Charge of the Light Brigade, they'd say: "Within certain quarters there existed a tendency towards erroneous calculations with regard to the outcome of the charge." So when they say "Terrible mistake", that's official language for: "Look what you've done, you steaming wankers!"

So Margaret said the group hadn't said that at all, actually, even though the bloke running it was there, and said that it had. This is a similar strategy to when the head of the army said the war was going dreadfully wrong, so Blair claimed there was no disagreement. Soon they'll say: "No, what Saddam actually said was he recognises the difficulties but hopes by being hanged this can help establish a democratic free Iraq. And vote Labour."

Almost every week now a group of ex-Generals declares the war a disaster, but Blair still beams that it will all come right, and even informs us he's the man to bring peace to the rest of the Middle East. This is despite the fact every Palestinian hates him for being the only leader not to call for Israel to stop bombing Lebanon, and Iraqis hate him to the extent that 61 per cent of them support attacks on British troops.

And they've all become so out of touch with reality that they can't answer questions about the war without talking gibberish. Poor Margaret Beckett might as well be replaced with a two-year-old child. So an interview would go: "Foreign Secretary, yet another report refers to the war as a fiasco," and she'd answer: "Look. Bus. There's Bus, daddy. Big bus." Then the interviewer would have to say: "Well, you've heard the minister's reply. Mr Galloway, how do you respond to that?"

Possibly the only reason they get away with it at all is because most people are so cynical now about the politicians who caused the war, there's no level of deceit that surprises them. People are no more outraged than if you said: "You know that burglar who lives over the road. Well, you'll never guess what he did - he burgled someone."

But the carnage goes on, and with no change in the levels of incompetence. For example, Bush has just sent 1,000 staff to work at a new embassy in Baghdad, only six of which speak Arabic. Somehow this is still better than the British effort, because at least the other 994 speak English, which appears to be something our Foreign Secretary can barely aspire to.

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