"La cle, s'il vous plait," I said to the pretty hotel receptionist on my return to our hotel, at the end of last week. "Chambre numero onze," I added, to show that my French was almost limitless.
"Ah, Monsieur Kington - you must return home at once," she said, handing me the key and fighting back a tear. "We shall be sorry to see you go, but go you must! Have you read the paper? Your country is leaderless!"
"It was leaderless when I left," I said. "Mr Major was in charge."
"It is even more leaderless now," she said. "Now nobody is in charge."
I glanced at the headline in the French evening paper she was waving at me. It said: "John Major resigns as head of Conservationist ruling party after England's humiliating defeat by the rampant French XV, ha ha, messieurs les anglais, at last we have you by the short and curlies, rest of the news on page xiv, now that stupendous rugby result again, France first, England nowhere, full photo coverage pp xiii-xix!"
"Is this your English constitution?" she said. "That a prime minister has to resign after a big defeat by the French rugby XV, the very same French XV which came so heartbreakingly near to conquering South Africa in the mudbath that men call the Durban stadium?"
"Well, there are a few misconceptions contained in that naive and artless line of questioning," I said. "For a start, we in England have no constitution. For another thing, if we did have one, it would not be English but British. And for a third thing, Mr Major has not resigned as prime minister. He has only resigned as leader of the Tory party. Beside, it is the first time you have won since 1988."
"The Tory party?" she said. "But I thought that he was head of the Conservationist Party?"
"He is also head of the Conservationist Party," I explained. "You see, in our country we have become so accustomed to doublethink that we have two names for everything. We say Tory and Conservative Party. We also say Labour or Socialist Party. We say Plaid Cymru or Welsh Nationalists. We say England and Britain. But we always mean the same thing."
"This is very confusing for a humble receptionist such as myself who has only been trained in the basics of Cartesian logic," she said, dimpling prettily and training a charming smile at the centre of my heart. "Tell me more about your pragmatic but baffling lack of a constitution."
I understood her bafflement perfectly. After all, I had lived in Britain all my life and still didn't have the faintest idea how we were governed. My father had tried to expain it to me one day, on my 21st birthday.
"You are now 21 and qualified to vote," he said. "So I am going to explain how these things work."
"Hold on," I said, "I've been qualified to vote since I was 18!"
"Yes," he said," but you weren't ready to understandthen. Not that you are now, but I haven't got all my life to wait."
"Anyway," I said, "I thought I would get a cash present on my 21st birthday, a lump sum to help me on my way through life, not a long lecture!"
"You've got it!" said my father delightedly. "That's how politics works! Everyone thinks they're going to get a pay-out, but all they get is a load of words and hot air."
"What about the voting?"
"Waste of time," said my father. "All you have to remember about British politics is that no matter who is voted in or out, it is money at the end of the day which calls the tune."
"What about democracy?"
"We exported democracy all over the world," said my father. "Unfortunately, we forgot to keep any at home."
These words of my father came back to me now as I stood at that French hotel desk.
"Ecoutez, cherie," I said. "No matter who is elected, it is all about money."
"Millions of pounds of debt."
"Of the British government?"
"No. Of the Tory party. The Tory party is millions of pounds in the red."
"Ah!" she said. "I understand now! The party has millions of pounds missing, so they suspect that John Major has taken it, so they have forced him to resign! So you in Britain sometimes have financial scandals like us! I thought you only had sex scandals in Britain!"
It was at that moment that my wife turned up.
"I have been standing at the hotel bedroom door for five minutes waiting for you to bring the key," she said meaningfully.
"I have been explaining to mademoiselle the finer points of Mr Major's predicament," I told her.
"Bring the key," she said, "and I will explain the finer points of yours."
C'est difficile, la politique, as Descartes used to say.Reuse content