LAST week, to mark the end of the parliamentary session, I had a drink with a prominent Conservative politician who I will not name, either because he is a fictional composite or because I am getting in practice in case the 'personal privacy legislation' floated by Lord MacKay last week ever becomes law.
Strangely, my guest was far more cheerful than I had expected him to be. Admittedly, he would have enjoyed John Major's discomfiture over Europe. (That merely narrows it down to about 100, Lord MacKay, in case you're worried this piece is becoming too personal.) But, after Christchurch and the weekend opinion polls showing the Tories nationally in third place, that kind of pleasure seemed a little like being glad your enemy's house had burned down as well as your own. So I took his jauntiness to be dissembled.
'You poor sod,' I said, when we had got in the drinks.
'What do you mean, old man?'
'Well, I can't imagine a worse time to be a politician. I mean, there are members of parliament going round pretending to be accountants or traffic wardens or lawyers rather than tell people they are part of the Government. There are wives and children telling the neighbours daddy is in jail, rather than that he's at Westminster. You're a member of one of the most despised and unpopular administrations in British political history . . . And the only thing standing between you and total disaster is Sir Norman Fowler . . . .'
'Well, yes, there's something in that. But it's not all bad news, you know. The BBC governors have said that we have to be treated with respect, not be interrupted or hectored when we go on television or radio to Put Our Message Across . . . .'
'Don't be stupid]' I said. 'They can't have said that.'
Now, this particular Tory is a little dense and apt to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. (That scarcely narrows it down at all, Lord MacKay, in case you're worried that this piece is becoming a little too personal.) But he pushed across the table a chunky brochure marked BBC Annual Review, holding it open with his thumb at page 14. And there it was: the BBC governors had instructed the board of management to ensure that 'BBC interviewers maintain standards of courtesy'.
I read it again, to check. 'I don't believe this,' I said. 'It's like giving Guy Fawkes flameproof trousers on November 5th. There are probably more questions to be asked of current politicians than at any other time in recent history. And the BBC is putting out a Pussycat Charter . . .'
'Something had to be done, old boy. You go on some of these shows - that Paxman fella is the worst - and you're treated as if you're some dishonest, hypocritical ignoramus, who's trying to avoid difficult questions by making long policy statements . . . .'
'Yes,' I said. 'And . . . ?'
'Now, that's just the kind of answer Dukey (apparently the BBC chairman, Marmaduke Hussey) and his shooting party are trying to stamp out. Anyway, now you see why we're so careful about who we appoint to the BBC board.'
'That's right] Be firm and hard with him, Shrimpy]', said a buxom young woman sliding in to the bench beside my guest. The politician introduced her as a student of political theory to whom he was giving 'some on the job experience'. She giggled at this. I asked, rather pointedly, after his wife and children, who had looked so very telegenic alongside him on that recent Easter Sunday edition of the television show For The Love of God. I also referred in passing to his well-reported speech arguing that 'the best protection against Aids is a faithful marriage'.
'Nice try, old man]', he beamed. 'But you won't frighten me] I'm carrying some protection about my person. Where the hell is it?'
He began to pat the pockets of his jacket and waistcoat and I was worried for a moment about what he might bring out. But he eventually produced a newspaper cutting. The headline was: 'MacKay Proposes Law To Protect Right Of Privacy'. The report explained that Lord MacKay, the Lord Chancellor, believed that a person's 'health, communication, family and relationship' should usually be free from press scrutiny.
'So, you see,' said the prominent Tory politician. 'It's not as rough being a politician at the moment as you might have thought.'
Just then, the politician was banged heavily on the back by a customer heading to the Gents.
'No, No. I don't know anything about arms sales to Iraq]' he blurted out. I think this politician must have a number of secrets, for I have noticed in his eyes before a clear fear in that any stranger he meets is there to arraign or arrest him. But his assailant on this occasion turned out to be a well-known financier, or well-known at least in financial circles, who was recently described by a newspaper as 'the new Robert Maxwell' before the paper's lawyers insisted on the removal of the phrase. Coming round to the side of our table, the financier said to the politician: 'No, you silly bugger, it's me]'
'I'm sorry,' my guest explained to the financier. 'Bit jumpy. It's just that Lord Scott can't be ordered by any board of governors to ask soft questions. Nor can we claim personal privacy over arms sales. It's the only thing that keeps me awake at night now . . . .'
'Nothing stops me sleeping]' boomed the financier. 'I used to have nightmares about them weakening Britain's libel laws. But what do they do? They offer us this privacy legislation as well]'
The financier raised a glass of champagne and a cigar in a toast to Lord MacKay.
'I didn't realise you and he were so friendly,' I said to the politician, as the money man lumbered away. 'Wait a minute, weren't you on the Trade and Industry select committee . . . ?'
'Steady, now] A friendship is a private matter]' said my guest, waving the newspaper cutting about Lord MacKay's ideas.
'But this is incredible,' I said. 'I mean, you'd think, from all this, that our present politicians were some kind of national treasure, needing to be protected, rather than a national laughing stock.'
'You would]' he laughed, squeezing the knee of the student of political theory, presumably to make sure that she took note of this bizarre paradox in a late 20th-century democracy.
'Well all right,' I conceded. 'Maybe the Pussycat Charter and the privacy legislation look good for you, but what about the row over VAT on fuel? That's going to finish you off, isn't it? BBC interviewers might have to be nice to you about it, but even Lord MacKay isn't going to let you keep VAT proposals private at the next election . . .'
'Haven't you heard the plans on that, old man? Take VAT off domestic fuel and put it on newspapers. If we can't stop the S-H-one-Ts writing about us then we can stop other bastards buying them]' This politician had always been adept at speaking the prevailing language in his party at any time: be it monetarism or swearing.
'It's a triple whammy,' he went on. 'Friends Paxman and Humphrys have to pretend I'm intelligent, what I do in my spare time is between me and the mirrored ceiling and, even if it isn't, the electorate won't be able to afford to bloody read about it. I think it's you chaps ought to be down in the mouth, not politicians . . .'
And with that he and the student of political theory teetered out into the cowardly new world.
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