If there's good work to do, Emma will have done it

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The Independent Online
Easily the longest entry in the new register of MPs' interests belongs to Emma Nicholson. In last week's newspapers it took up six column inches of the tiny type size that used to be held in reserve for the fish prices - a good two inches more than the highly-rentable David Mellor could manage. This isn't because Emma Nicholson earns lots of money outside her parliamentary salary and has been particularly rigorous (unlike David Mellor) in obeying the new rule that says she has to disclose both the source and amount; Ms Nicholson reports that her extra-parliamentary income is mainly from public-speaking and that all her fees go to charity. Nor is it because she has taken many foreign freebies; over the past year she has been to Oman, Kuwait, Paris and Venice - a homebody compared to the highly-flyable Lady Olga Maitland. No, Ms Nicholson's great stature in the register comes neither from greed nor from battling for Britain in sunny Turkish Cyprus. It comes from a desire - though a psychologist might have a different word for it - to do good.

If I've got my sums right (the type size makes counting difficult), she has her name on the letterheads of 60 charities or non-profit-making bodies, in unpaid positions that range from chairman to vice-president to humble trustee. Of course, as someone who has fought the handicap of deafness, she is well placed to advise the National Deaf, Blind and Rubella Association. And as the MP for Torridge and West Devon, who better to serve the North West Devon Canine Association? But Ms Nicholson wants to do so much more, and, oh, there is so much more to do, so many causes to be helped. Freedom, for example (trustee of the Freedom Council), and Methodism (the Methodist Church Home Missions Division Appeal Committee), and bad marriages (Plymouth Relate), and women (the Women's Engineering Society), and Iraq (chairman, the Iraqi Humanitarian Relief Committee), and childcare, Aids, Opera South West, small farmers, Arab understanding, grammar schools in Berkshire, orphans in Romania, psychotherapy, medical research.

You can see why such causes want Emma Nicholson. To judge from her television appearances she is clever, likeable and kind. But are there no limits to her compassion? There may be. I doubt that she is still, as listed, the vice president of the Conservative Technology Forum, having quit the Tories for the Lib Dems last year. But how she found time to worry about the small matter of party allegiance, in between Devon dogs and Saddam Hussein, is a mystery.

ON Wednesday I went to what's called an "open day" at a London primary school. The idea is that parents who might want to send their children to the school have a chance to talk to the teachers and weigh up the school's atmosphere and standards as potential "customers" in the "market" of state education. (Choice! We must all have it!) The head addressed us, answered questions, and we were all, I think, very impressed by her firmness and cogency. Her school has a good reputation, which is why so many parents turned up - and also why the children of many of us, fairly debarred by the geography of where we live, which street and how far way, will not get in. Then what? If we have money, a private school; if we have strings, we shall pull them; if we have neither, an inferior school (rough kids, tired teachers, containment rather than education perhaps the only practical objective). There is a "market" in state education like there is a market in divine mercy. Good schools have supplicants. You put your name down on their lists and pray.

INDIA has appointed Gopal Gandhi as its new high commissioner to South Africa. This is good news for Pretoria and sad news in London, where for the past five years Mr Gandhi has been the nearest thing to a cultural ambassador that India has ever had in this country. He had an official role as an employee of the Indian government who was paid to run the Nehru Centre in Mayfair, but he ran it brilliantly, openly and inventively.

Instead of India in aspic - a solemn procession of sitarists - we got novelists, journalists, politicians, academics and a series of lively debates which demonstrated India's liberality and sophistication. In a small way, he offered the Indian equivalent of the BBC World Service: the finest, most credible form of national propaganda (if only the Foreign Office would see it that way).

In India, a lot will be made of Gopal Gandhi's new posting. His grandfather was the Mahatma, and it was in South Africa as a young lawyer that the Mahatma first grew concerned with social justice. You may remember the scene in the Attenborough film Gandhi where he is evicted, because he is the wrong colour, from a first-class railway compartment. It certainly happened and Gandhi was certainly angry. Part of his anger, however, stemmed from the fact that he then had to share a carriage with Africans. I can't now remember exactly the words of his complaining letter to the railway company, but I think they included "kaffirs" and "Godless in their nakedness". I don't point this out to denigrate Gandhi; he was a great and rare man. But he was also a Victorian whose experience until then had been of two very class-divided and colour-conscience countries, Britain and India. Sainthood is always a tricky status.

ON Friday Tony Blair outlined his vision of a richer Britain defined by decency, hard work and fairness. Let's hope so. But here is a worrying statistic. In the past 20 years Britain has earned about pounds 150bn in North Sea oil and gas revenues. It used to earn about pounds 12bn a year; it now earns pounds 3bn a year; in 10 years' time it will be pounds 2bn a year. Who would want to be a British politician?