Matthew Norman: So who said satire was dead?

In one memorable moment, New Labour told us more about itself than a hundred text books ever will
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The Independent Online

Kidnap the staff of Private Eye, Rory Bremner, Armando Iannucci, Craig Brown and every one of Britain's top ranked satirists, lock them in a room with electrodes strapped to their genitals, and not in a year could they contrive a sketch as gloriously revealing as the one produced on Wednesday in Brighton. So unconscionably perfect is the case of Walter Wolfgang that two days later it retains the quality of a dream. Is it really possible that one brief interlude could encapsulate everything that is so poisonous, demented, dangerous and plain daft about our ruling party?

A sweet old Jewish gentleman of 82, childhood refugee from 1930s Germany, exercises the sort of basic democratic right for which this country supposedly fought Hitler, shouting "Nonsense" at Jack Straw, and is treated as if he'd screamed "Death to the Führer" at a Nuremberg rally.

This is clearly wild hyperbole, since he is still with us. Even so, the snapshots of Mr Wolfgang having his collar literally felt by a bouncer, and later framed by two enormous coppers outside as they refused him re-entry under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, brilliantly capture the air of semi-fascistic authoritianism that has swirled around New Labour High Command for so long.

Were I David Davis, David Cameron, Ken Clarke, Liam Fox, Pam Ayres, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh or whichever poor sod eventually gets lumbered with the Tory leadership, my first act on winning that thorny crown would be to commission the ad agency to start work on the posters now. The image of this ferocious-looking suspected terrorist being manhandled like a drunk outside a nightclub for daring to state the obvious about Mr Straw's speech on Iraq should adorn every bus stop and billboard in 2009. Every election broadcast should run the footage on a loop, and every speech hold his treatment up for public inspection as an iconic representation of what New Labour is about.

Yet if anything, the aftermath of Mr Wolfgang's removal is even more revealing than the incident itself. Admittedly, with Alastair Campbell elsewere, no attempt to smear Mr Wolfgang as a commie agitator was made, despite the quaint-looking CND badge on the lapel of his fetching mauve suit. However, a glance at the apologies offered in a wild crack at damage limitation tell their own tales.

Firstly, Ian McCartney - just the sort of chap, ironically, one might picture heckling a stand-up at the Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night - had his twopenn'orth. Mr Wolfgang's breach of etiquette, argued Labour's chairman, was in making his point in the hall when there were reporters outside ready to listen. If a supposedly old-style leftie like Wee Ian has adopted the notion that political protest should be made to the press rather than during a debate, that makes the point about New Labour's democratic instincts and modus operandi better than I can hope to do.

And then, making a rare foray into John Humphrys's lair (generally a sign of post-fiasco panic), the Prime Minister offered a classic vignette of his leadership style. "Look," he told that great broadcaster, "I wasn't in the conference hall at the time ... As I say, I don't know because I wasn't there."

Cut Mr Blair open for further surgery, and branded on his heart you'd find the words: "I wasn't there." Whether the misjudgment is trivial, grubby or horribly tragic, he never is. He wasn't there when someone decided to hijack the Queen Mum's funeral, he wasn't there when Cherie resolved to buy a brace of Bristol flats at a discount brokered by a con man, he certainly wasn't there when somebody determined to destroy David Kelly ... whatever the crime, it is Mr Blair's genius always to be absent from the scene of it.

The telling thing about this denial is that no one accused the PM of being directly responsible in the first place. Hecklers have been hauled out of Labour conferences for years, not because Mr Blair gave specific orders but because the prevailing ethos of the party within a party he created is to tolerate no internal dissent, however anodyne, and especially when it might interfere with lovingly cultivated television images of unity and accord.

Mr Blair made the point for two reasons. One is that "I wasn't there" is as reflex a reaction for him as for Ms Pollard. The other is the borderline sociopathy that renders any event meaningless, or even non-existent, unless he is at its epicentre ... a mirror image of the sovereign belief that anything he says is axiomatically true for the simple reason that he said it. So if he wasn't there, it probably didn't happen at all; and even if it did, it couldn't matter less.

An investigation into L'Affair Wolfgang has been promised, and even if Lord Hutton isn't wheeled out to conduct it, it will find that no one was there when instructions were given to whip hecklers out of the hall, and it was just a case of over-zealous stewards misinterpreting their duties.

But frankly, who cares? What matters is that in one banal but memorable moment, New Labour told us more about itself than a hundred text books ever will. The plain nastiness, the paranoia, the obsession with presentation over content, the brutal intolerance, the preference for making points privately to journalists rather than in open debate, the blundering incompetence, the evasiness ... all that, and a useful glimpse into a future in which legislation allegedly designed to preserve human life will be routinely misapplied to stifle freedom of speech.

In the annals of unintentional self-satire, there's been nothing like it since Mr Blair went to Stormont Castle and declared "A day like today is not a day for sound bites ... But I feel the hand of history on our shoulder."

With his days in office running out, the hand of history is on his shoulder again, as surely as that bouncer's hand was on Mr Wolfgang's on Wednesday. The winners write history, after all, and the time approaches for the extended non-apologia that will comprise his memoirs. If Mr Blair is looking for a title, how about "I Wasn't There"?