Richard Ingrams' Week: History isn't repeated - nor is wisdom

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The Independent Online

A tired, discredited Prime Minister. An honours scandal. A year of drought. Historians poring over the now-released public records for 1976 have seized on all the parallels with the sad situation today.

Tony Blair's resemblance to Harold Wilson is seen as yet another example of history repeating itself. But the great difference between the two is that Wilson was well aware of his failing powers, whereas Blair quite obviously is not.

Wilson's resignation took everyone by surprise. Journalists, myself included, were convinced that there must be some sinister explanation, possibly to do with an MI5 investigation into his contact with the Soviet Union, or perhaps the business dealings of his secretary, Marcia Williams.

Nothing emerged to support the various conspiracy theories. And the true explanation turned out to be much more mundane. It was confirmed to me by my friend Dr Tom Stuttaford, the doctor and journalist who was also a Tory MP from 1970 to 1974.

Wilson had confided in him that his mother had died a victim of Alzheimer's and that knowing the disease was hereditary he had decided to retire at the age of 60 - which he duly did, subsequently becoming an Alzheimer's victim himself.

When it came to quitting Wilson had one great advantage over Blair in the shape of his wife Mary, a shy retiring woman who never enjoyed the stresses and strains of life in the fast lane.

I suspect that Cherie, on the other hand, is not in the least bit keen to give up all the perks and freebies she currently enjoys as the PM's wife. After all, it may not be so easy to get £50,000 worth of holiday in Miami for virtually nothing when she is just plain Mrs Blair, the wife of very unpopular former prime minister.

This urge is 'modernise' is meaningless jargon

The Honours List has become the latest thing to be "modernised". What this means is that it will be adjusted to include more women and more people from ethnic and minority groups. Another word for this approach is "inclusive".

The jargon is by now familiar. We have heard it from the Law Courts - the call for more female and black judges - and most notably from the Conservative Party. David Cameron with the help of his PR man is promoting himself as a moderniser. And again all this means is getting more women and possibly even gays into Parliament, more black and brown faces on the backbenches.

If this is all that modernity amounts to, then there is a strong case for continuing to be old-fashioned.

The public, I suspect, has no particular wish to have more female MPs, judges or recipients of gongs. All it would like is to get more competent, intelligent, dedicated, incorruptible judges, MPs, policemen or recipients of OBEs, regardless of colour, race or sexual orientation.

The public, I imagine, also acts on the sensible assumption that men and woman are different and like doing different things. If there is only a handful of Conservative women MPs, male prejudice is not necessary the explanation.

It is more than likely that women - not just the Conservative variety - have no great urge to become Members of Parliament and boss the rest of us around. That could be seen as another asset that makes them superior to men.

* The minimum fare on the London Underground goes up next week from £3 to £4, making public transport in the capital just about the most expensive in the world. It is a bit of a U-turn on the part of London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, who 25 years ago gained control of the GLC with a promise to cut the price of Tube travel by half. Red Ken is now an older if not wiser man, ready to ditch his socialist principles when the need arises.

But he still seems to retain an element of the batty Red Ken who was such a wonderful target for Mrs Thatcher and the Tory press in the GLC days - proof, just across the river from Parliament, of the all-round folly and extravagance of socialism in action.

Just to show that the old Ken is still alive and kicking, the mayor announced this week that he is planning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution with a "massive festival" involving street parties, museum displays and even the temporary closure of Trafalgar Square. Press reports put the estimated cost at £2m.

There is only one curious thing about this story, namely that the anniversary does not occur until 2009, by which time Fidel Castro will be well and truly dead. It is even possible that by 2009 his heirs will have been overthrown and the Cuban revolution cast into the dustbin of history.

Ken is a clever fellow and is no doubt well aware of these possibilities. So what is he up to? Either there is some canny plot afoot or Ken is just hankering after his old status as a bogey man and knows perfectly well that, if everything goes to plan, he won't ever have to fork out the £2m.