Eat British beef, Mr Hogg? What a charming idea!

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REPORTS in some of last week's papers suggested that Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture minister, would soon get the sack because of his abject performance over the beef affair, and in particular his failure to convince other countries in the European Union that Britain had taken - that hopeful phrase - all the necessary measures to obliterate mad cow disease. It was, according to the Daily Telegraph, a failure of "style, substance and probably fatigue ... Mr Hogg failed miserably to woo the Europeans with Old Etonian charm".

I wonder about that last idea. Is there some form of charm that is recognisably Etonian? Would you know it if you met it in the street? I know some charming old Etonians. Alexander Chancellor, former editor of the Independent's Saturday magazine, is delightful and Charles Moore, the Telegraph's editor, equally so (though maybe not in the eyes of some people who have recently left his staff, the "wobbly thinkers" - pinkoes, liberals - whom the proprietor, Conrad Black, had on his Blacklist). There are even a couple of Old Etonian charmers on the next page: Neal Ascherson (away this week) and Craig Brown in the shape of Mr Wallace Arnold. But would they have been charming in any case or is it something they learnt with the Boating Song? Does their charm have any uniformity? I can't think it does, other than in one respect that when you have finished your delightful evening/lunch/weekend with them, you're left with the worrying suspicion that they may have found you less charming than you found them.

That was never my problem, however, with Douglas Hogg. When the Telegraph reported that "the Europeans got a false impression and thought he was arrogant", I had a quick bark of laughter. Twenty-odd years ago, Hogg as a young barrister used to do freelance work for another Sunday newspaper, reading proofs for potential libels. Journalists such as myself would bring their stories to him and ask his views on this or that hazard. Although you were on the paper's staff and he had just popped over from chambers in his braces to earn some dosh, you were never left in any doubt about his view of the relationship. Arrogant is a kind way to put it. He was insufferable. If the future of the British beef industry hangs on his powers of persuasion, have pity for the farmers, hard as that may be.

IT IS now very difficult to travel by train. I don't mean that the experience is unpleasant, though it sometimes is. I mean that the experience is becoming difficult to have, because the railways, in their sad and fragmented state, do not want you to have it. Last week we went to a wedding in Clitheroe, Lancashire, and I thought it would be sensible to take the train, which I knew you could do by changing at Preston and Blackburn. We tried to book tickets on the phone to Euston. This was such a stunning request (Clitheroe = Omsk Tomsk) that the booking clerk couldn't cope. In our first call, he was able to trace a connection as far as Blackburn then came a long silence before the phone went dead. The second call had the same result. At the third call another clerk did manage to locate a train to Clitheroe, though she implied that our project was unwise ("It's not an easy place to come back from"). Then came some lengthy negotiations about the tickets - which trains allowed Apex returns, which would let you on with a Superadvance, whether we would need to shell out the standard fare. The clerk sighed in her confusion.

The journey itself was entirely predictable. You will have read many similar accounts in this paper's column on the absurdities of railway privatisation. The concourse at Euston had the usual religious feel; crowds waiting in front of the departures board, praying for a sign from God. Trains to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester had been cancelled; the local service to Watford had been wiped out for the day. Our own train was late - a points failure at Watford, another at Preston - and we missed our connections. Sitting among the bleeping video games in Preston's platform bar, it was easy to resolve to take the M1 and M6 next time. And that, for someone who still believes in the social and environmental good of public transport, is a very sad resolution to make.

THERE are still many fine things about Britain's railways. The food and service in the restaurant car to Preston were good; Clitheroe, when we got there at last, turned out to have a beautifully restored little station - thanks to local government enterprise, it was reopened a couple of years ago - which was staffed by a young man who had an old-fashioned knowledge of train times and connections. Why can't it all be like this? The answer is lack of investment and political commitment. The Labour Party has promised to rectify both, but the doubts grow over how much money or commitment can be read into Tony Blair's pledge to restore a "publicly owned, publicly accountable railway". Probably not very much; perhaps even nothing at all. The pledge might just be a complicated exercise in linguistics, or a downright lie like "read my lips, no new taxes".

IN THE meantime, I have a suggestion. The Labour Party, as a racing certainty as the next government, should raise money in the City and buy Railtrack in a single bid. About pounds 2bn should do it. Then, when it is the government it can hand back the pounds 2bn and be the proud owner of the railway system, if not the trains. Of course, there will be interest charges and you may raise the objection that the Labour Party is not the same entity as the British government, and in any case doesn't stand a cat's chance of raising pounds 2bn through Lazard Bros. But shouldn't somebody - if not the Labour Party then a lobby group such as Transport 2000 - be thinking of something along these lines? Even the tiniest shareholding would allow them to embarrass annual general meetings. Do we believe in this famous stakeholder society or not?

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