Time to kick ass

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The Independent Online
We all have our guilty pleasures. Perhaps yours is luxuriating in the messy divorce of an acquaintance, or comparing your own child's performance in the ballet exam with that of arather pushy neighbour's offspring. Mine is fascism.

Not the kill-all-foreigners, Volk-and-Vaterland kind, but the trains- running-on-time variety. Compelled by my intellect to admit that X's argument contains some truth and that Y's thought has validity, I nevertheless long for the moment of pure action, where decisive force cuts through prevarication - and does what needs doing.

So I applauded when Gillian Shephard announced on Thursday that the "hit squad" was going into an inner London school to sort it out. Over the years Hackney Down School had fallen victim to the modern equivalents of the Deadly Plagues of Egypt: a plague of suicidal teachers, a plague of quarrelling councillors, a plague of high local unemployment etc. Things had declined to the point of massive truancy and gang rivalry. Now the governors have all been sacked, the local authority is ousted and the Educational Association has taken over. It has the power to close down the whole shooting match and begin over again, if need be.

And more applause for Heather Rabbatts, chief executive of Lambeth council. Ms Rabbatts is the Clint Eastwood figure recently brought in to clean up the worst borough in Britain. She has been given carte blanche by the hung council - hapless inheritors of the consequences of mixing together Trotskyism, trades union militancy and fraud.Those employees who are guilty of fraud - or who cannot pass competency tests - are being given the boot.

Yesterday, clad all in black in the manner of Hollywood enforcers, Ms Rabbatts was being interviewed at length about the Appleby report on Lambeth. No one was very interested in what the democratically elected councillors had to say. It was as though Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, were to be quizzed by the press about the Nolan committee report, the Prime Minister reduced to squeaking ineffectually in the background.

You will not easily find a resident of Lambeth, or a concerned parent in London, who does not sincerely wish the hit squads well. The most likely reaction to all this toughness is not that it usurps local democracy, but that it has all taken too long. Who cares who runs the school/council/service, as long as it is properly run? To borrow an unlovely Americanism, it is "time to kick ass".

When I first encountered this phrase I imagined it had been coined in the old West, when an obstinate burro on a canyon trail could cost you your life. The old Mexican in the vast sombrero would tell the squeamish gringo that it was necessary to "keeck the ass", till he moved. Gradually I realised that it was human beings, not donkeys, that were being kicked. Today "kicking ass" is used to suggest decisiveness, strength and - even - a certain moral courage.

When Peter Mandelson and New Labour opted for the slogan "the strong choice" in the Littleborough by-election, it was a carefully chosen appeal to kick-assism. When John Major was under sustained assault from the Tory press earlier this month it was because of his inability to kick enough ass. Senator Bob Dole wants to kick ass in Bosnia (or rather, he wants to help someone else to kick it). And I instinctively agree. Ass must be kicked.

But something takes me back to 1973, and the last days of the Colonels' junta in Athens. My then girlfriend's Labour-voting family used to holiday in the Aegean and I remonstrated with teenage subtlety. "They may not be democratic," she agreed, "but they brought water to the islands."

Two years later they were gone, unlamented, their torture chambers never to be used again. Now, I am not saying that Lambeth and Hackney will usher in rule by unelected hit squadristas, tolerated by a weary electorate. But it is worth asking, in the spirit of Quis custodiet ipsos custodiens?, who will kick the ass-kickers' asses?

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