Terence Blacker: We need the awkward squad

In a few days' time, memories of the behaviour of these mini-rebels, Walter Wolfgang, Sylvia Hardy and Rhys Gray, will fade like old newspaper cuttings, but perhaps, taken as an unlikely group, they should not be forgotten so quickly. They are, significantly, rather old or rather young. At a time when middle-aged values are settling on the country like a warm duvet, they represent something awkward, vital and good in the national spirit.

Rarely have we been in greater need of rebelliousness. The tide of conformity, in politics as in everyday life, has not been as powerful since the early 1950s. In the Labour Party, Blair and Brown, in spite of differences between them of which the pundits keep reminding us, have been made to look so remarkably similar in style and policy that the cosy handover from one pair of safe male, fiftysomething hands to the next will be achieved almost without our noticing.

Put the candidates for the Tory leadership in a line-up and, with the possible exception of Kenneth Clarke (fatter, smokes a cigar), they could be participating in a competition for Mr Bland UK 2005: they sound similar, look similar and, on most important issues, they agree not only with one another but very often with the smooth men of the same age and class who run the Labour and Liberal parties.

Take that grim, dreary homogeneity of political life and add to it a tendency in government towards smiling, self-righteous authoritarianism, and the picture becomes more alarming. Whether dealing with antisocial behaviour or threats to national security, two problems which occasionally become conflated, ministers have developed a clever new way of deflecting criticism.

It is all very well for cosseted commentators to prate about freedom of expression or the dangers of extending police powers, they say, but it is the job of government to stand up for the weak in society, whether they be religious minorities or little old ladies cowering behind their doors on council estates.

The right of those people to be free of fear is the most important right of all. This pose, introducing bullying, illiberal powers while pretending to stand up for the vulnerable, has served them well. Everyone, after all, is against the antisocial and the dangerous.

Each of the week's sitcom characters has been guilty of some form of antisocial behaviour. The pouting public schoolboy expelled by Marlborough might on the face of it seem the least laudable, but the more his masters have testified about his scandalous school record, the more conventional the bad behaviour has seemed. School rebels of that type are as old as the public school system and quite often they grow up to be useful members of society. If it were not for his idiotic, egotistical father taking the matter to court, Rhys would have been expelled, sorted himself out and put his rebelliousness to good use; maybe he still will.

No one could claim that Rhys Gray was acting out of political motives, but then nor, I suspect, was Sylvia Hardy, another inmate of an institution glad to be shot of her. "We never want to see her again," a spokesman for Eastwood Prison said after the 73-year-old council tax rebel had been unwillingly released following the payment of her fine by a stranger. "She was belligerent and aggressive and did nothing but complain since the moment she got here." Having complained about the council tax and then about the court and then about the standard of bedding and food in prison, Miss Hardy has turned on the person who paid her fine. Good for her - she sounds a marvellously grumpy character.

Beside these troublemakers, Walter Wolfgang, the old man who dared to say "Nonsense" at a Labour conference, is a lesser, more reasonable rebel. But together, these young and old members of the awkward squad have struck a politically important blow for the rights of the individual to be out of step with the middle-aged majority. In a sea of greyness, they offer a splash of colour and of hope.

terblacker@aol.com

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