Sordi affair

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The Independent Online
How chastening it must have been this week for Emma Nicholson to contemplate the political advancement of Home Office minister Anne Widdecombe. One left the party portfolioless, the other represented her government incessantly on radio and television.

The contrasts are complete. Emma exudes caring from every pore. In the 19th century she would have dressed up in an elegant (though restrained) bonnet and spent Sundays distributing alms. Anne, who seems to possess all the spiritual qualities of a Torquemada, would have set up a soapbox in the village square to bid us remember that God had a purpose in creating poverty, and that we tampered with it at our peril.

Today's Emma wears discreet suits. Nothing is showy. Anne, on the other hand, seems to buy all her clothes in job lots at a theatrical costumier. On Wednesday's Newsnight she was garbed in a jacket of the McWiddecombe tartan - a combination of scarlet lines, with purple and green background - nicely set off by a rakishly loose leather tie. By Thursday she had donned an alarming black-and-white striped effort, besplattered with jewellery and slicked-down, jet-black coiffeur. She looked like nothing so much as Henry VIII's jousting tent, as displayed at the Tower.

Yet there is something that Emma and Anne share - they both care about Arabs. Emma has done sterling work to try and save the Marsh Arabs from Saddam Hussein. Anne adores the no less proud and exotic traditions of the Saudi (or "Sordi" as she idiosyncratically pronounces it) royal family. And she wishes to save them the distressing and time-consuming business of negotiating lucrative contracts with countries other than Britain.

Arabism is, of course, an old Tory trait. For many Conservative men over the years, Arabs have seemed very attractive. For a start they weren't Jews. And the knights of the desertunderstood about deference and defence, calling chaps Carruthers Pasha and putting chaps in charge of their armies. Their hospitality was legendary. After finishing your sheep's eyes it was considered bad manners to refuse a boy for the night. For those educated at British public schools, inedible food washed down with pederasty was home from home.

This relationship worked well for Britain. It has meant a bonanza for our finest entrepreneurs, jobs for our workers and a chicken in all our pots. The only cloud has been this difference in emphasis between us and Arab regimes over matters like public beheadings,bribery and human rights.

So when the Sordis objected to the dissident refugee, Mr al-Masari, being allowed to use Willesden as a base to bring down their royal family, there was a dilemma. We couldn't deport him to certain death in Riyadh, and we couldn't keep him for fear of the chickens leaping out of the pots. Would anyone take him? John Major, Anne Widdecombe and Malcolm Rifkind hit the phones. Many of our best pals said no thanks, they had quite enough dissidents of their own, and that actually an arms deal or bridge contract in Sordi would be good. Had the PM tried Cuba?

One hundred and fiftieth on the list was the tiny island of Dominica. Yes, they'd take him - in return for a large backhander. This was a brilliant stroke. The Sordis would be pleased, we would be rich, the Dominicans (who do not trade with the Sordis - or anyone else, really) could stop growing bananas, and even Mr al-Masari would eventually be reconciled to swapping Willesden for Bermuda shorts in the Caribbean.

Having come this far, Ms Widdecombe, why stop? You have admitted the triumph of self-interest over fair play - why wait upon the exigencies of exile and banishment? Could we not arrange (in return for preferential treatment over trade) to ship dissidents directly from other nations to small islands in the sun? Cut out the middle man. True, Emma wouldn't like it. But you don't have to worry about that any more.

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