Tony the Terrible takes a tip from the Tudors

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN MY desultory reading of history, I have often wondered how the tyrants of the past managed to get away with the most dreadful deeds. Why, for example, in the age of the later Tudors, did people generally tolerate the wholesale plunder and regimented religion, the rigged trials and cruel executions? And why - a more puzzling question - was there a need for a justification of these terrible events by later historians: the sycophantic JA Froude, the drivelling John Neale, the quite appalling Geoffrey Elton?

The curious could find answers at Brighton last week. It came down to the worship of prospective power. The equivalents of the Protestant historians were the commentators of our great liberal newspapers. Ms Liz Davies had clearly to be disposed of because Mr Tony Blair, the equivalent of King Henry VIII, did not want her. I am not suggesting - heaven forbid! - that Ms Davies found herself in the position of one of the old monster's unfortunate wives. Rather she was accused of treasonable adherence to the Old Religion.

As Elton wrote of Thomas Cromwell's regime, it was not a question of interfering with anyone's freedom of conscience. It was a simple matter of obeying the law. This was the kind of fraudulent case which Ms Clare Short deployed last week. Having seen to it that her sister was securely tied up, she solemnly told us, before setting light to the faggots, that the lady had been found guilty of being a member of the editorial board of a newspaper, Labour Briefing.

It is not, I confess, on my reading list. I make do with the Spectator and Private Eye. But it is, it appears, always being rude about Labour leaders. If this is true, it demonstrates an admirable consistency of purpose and impartiality of approach. In any case, there is nothing in party rules against editing magazines. Altogether Ms Short's indictment reminded me not only of one of Henry VIII's lackeys but also of the customs officer in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies:

"This book on Economics comes under Subversive Propaganda. That you leaves behind ... as for this autobiography, that's just downright dirt, and we burns that straight away, see."

We have already been told that this is not the conference some of us have come to love, in much the same way as we guiltily enjoy the boxing on television of a Saturday night. Indeed, there was only one contest. In former times, it would have been a warm-up for the big fight of the evening. Happily for the substantial anti-boxing element in the party, this year there was no big fight. We had to make do with the bout between Mr Roy Hattersley and Mr David Blunkett.

Mr Hattersley is not an embittered man. He feels that life has treated him pretty well on the whole, and so it has. But he is moved by a sense of genuine outrage at what he sees as the abandonment of non-selective education. Mr Blunkett says there is no such desertion. But he is being disingenuous. For how can you have "foundation schools", or separate schools for the specially gifted in music, mathematics, dancing or whatever, unless you have selection? Labour's education policy has been given a nudge forward - or, according to your point of view, forced to take a step backwards - by Mr and Mrs Blair's decision to send their son not merely to an opted-out school but to one of a highly traditional character.

This brings us to Mr Blair's speech. It has received a warmer reception than any comparable performance since Harold Wilson's oration on science and socialism in 1963. Indeed, there were conscious echoes of that speech in Mr Blair's own.

Every household in the land is, it appears, to be issued with a compulsory computer. It will be connected to the Internet. In exchange BT will run cables into people's houses giving them an additional choice on their television sets of pornographic films, old black-and-white films, ice- hockey and motor racing. Pornography will also, of course, be available on the Internet.

This column is not censorious. De gustibus non est disputandum, or, there is no arguing with tastes: that is the motto here. Mr Blair's fallacy is to imagine that children are going to learn anything by fiddling around with electronic machines, occasionally coming across pieces of misleading information supplied by, well, I suppose, much the same kind of young people who are now bustling about advising Mr Blair.

The speech contained other pieces of nonsense. For instance, it is untrue that you cure unemployment by educating people or making them more skilled. This country is full of skilled engineers. Most of them are out of work. Or again, you cannot spend money on some desirable object by transferring to it cash which the present government is not spending at all and has not even decided to spend. This is what Mr Blair said he was going to do with the money saved by not introducing identity cards. With only slightly more plausibility, he adopted the same approach to the assisted places scheme, on which the Government really is spending something, and which Mr Blair promises to abolish.

He does not go as far as the Liberal Democrats in wanting to allocate taxes to specific ends. Instead he assumes large commitments by promising to abolish schemes which are either less expensive or do not exist. If Mr Blair behaved in this way while running a public company he would soon find himself in the Southwark Crown Court, where, after a trial lasting several years and costing millions of pounds, he would doubtless be acquitted, or compelled to do a few hours' community service. As for the minimum wage, Mr Blair told us that this had not been brought about by Wilson, by Attlee or even by Keir Hardie.

"But Keir Hardie was never Prime Minister," I remarked to Mr John Humphrys, who was standing by my side.

"You cynical journalist, you," Mr Humphrys replied.

In fact Hardie not only failed to become Prime Minister, as most Labour leaders, after all, have failed to do. He was hopelessly incompetent even as leader, and had to be replaced after a couple of years by Arthur Henderson. Wilson really was a Prime Minister, one of only four Labour occupants of Number 10. This year, following his death, and a lengthy period of conference ostracism, an attempt was made to honour him by having Lady Wilson very publicly take the platform before Mr Blair's speech.

She was approached through Lady Falkender and said she would be delighted to appear. But she did not look very happy about it. To me it was a tasteless, even rather horrible event - a bit like DG Rossetti opening up his wife's coffin. The party got away with it. Mr Blair more than got away with his speech later on. But then, I am made of sterner stuff than the susceptible Tory commentators. Having been brought up among the nightingales and psalms of South-west Wales, I early acquired an aversion to Uplift in all its forms.