Major's knights of the retreating army

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The Independent Online
The elevation of one of the Saatchis to the peerage has obviously puzzled many people, judging from the faxes, letters, e-mail, phone calls and suicide notes which I have received in the past 24 hours. It has obviously puzzled the Tory party as well, judging from the fact that Mr Michael Portillo was hauled out to defend this round of peerages, and when Mr Portillo is hauled out to defend something, that is a sure sign that it is indefensible.

My feeling is that in one sense the creation of Lord Saatchi is a good thing, as it gives encouragement to all those who have odd names. The British have always been quite good about accepting people with exotic names (Portillo, Rifkind, de Savary, etc) but even they have found Saatchi a curious arrangement of letters, like an unfortunate Scrabble hand. It seems to have no obvious derivation. It isn't an anagram of anything. It almost looks as if it has been made up by an ad agency ...

But this is idle speculation, for quite clearly no one gets a peerage for having an unusual name, otherwise we would by now have Lord Boateng in the upper house. To get at the mystery of Lord Saatchi and Lord John Gummer's Brother, we have to go back to a man called Bernard Hollowood, who was editor of Punch when I joined the magazine. Unlike Malcolm Muggeridge, his predecessor, Hollowood was a convinced socialist and indeed when I joined Punch Bernard Hollowood was highly delighted at the recent election victory of Harold Wilson.

"At last," he said to me, "at last the chance to introduce a bit of socialism into this country. As long as they hold their nerve. And as long as they don't ..."


"As long as they don't try to be nice. Whenever a left-wing government gets elected, they spend the first few months convincing people that they are nice, gentle, caring people, not savage monsters. It's a terrible mistake. By the time they get round to seriously trying to introduce their policy, it's too late, because they are already caught up in a currency crisis, or budget crisis, or national strike or something. What a socialist government must do is introduce big changes from day one. They must do as much damage as soon as possible otherwise they will never get the chance again."

He must have been disappointed by Wilson's government, which did not exactly abolish public schools and private wealth at any time. He may, however, have been warmed by Mrs Thatcher's methods, if not her policies, when she did as much damage as possible to the trade unions' power as quickly as possible in the first few months of her tenure. Maybe John Birt, in his youth, read something by Hollowood which prompted him to do as much damage as possible in the BBC when he first arrived.

I think, too, that Hollowood would advise Mr Blair to have a ruthless few months when he gets elected, for which the British public have already been prepared by the recent Tory ad campaign showing Blair as a devil. Blair should also bear in mind Quentin Crisp's analysis of the difference between Reagan and Thatcher. "They both wanted to rule the world, which is natural for a politician. But Mr Reagan also made the mistake of wanting to be liked, a mistake which Mrs Thatcher never came near making..."

But there is also a corollary to Hollowood's idea, and that is the afterthought which says: "If you are going to be voted out soon, if you are soon going to be an ex-government, now is also the time to do as much damage as you can." An incoming army can do what it wants, and so can a retreating army. It's only an occupying army that sometimes has to behave itself a bit better.

There is a good chance that the Tories will soon be evicted from their current territory, so quite naturally they are behaving as a retreating army does, blowing up railway lines, looting the treasury and making things difficult for the next lot. The Tories aren't actually blowing up railway lines, they are just privatising them, but the effect is much the same. They are not actually taking national treasures from the Tower of London, just awarding themselves and their supporters vast windfall pay rises, but it smells the same to the rest of us.

If anyone asks why Mr Saatchi is soon to take his place as Lord Saatchi, all I can say is that the Tories are following the old adage: "Gather ye knighthoods while ye may".