Gale's View from Westminster - June 2012
June. The wettest since the last wettest. The riverbanks are breaking, the national banks are breaking, storm clouds are gathering over the Eurozone, but it`s the Lovely Jubbilee so Britain is Singing the National Anthem in the Rain; U-turn if you want to, the laddies are for turning; Lord`s reforms are published but who will foot the bill? And Labour was wrong over immigration. Official. Ed says so.
Forget, for the moment, the bunch of bankers. This is Her Maj`s month. Prince Charles kicks off the Jubilee celebrations with a delightful TV presentation of hitherto unseen family film footage and scores more brownie points with “Three Cheers for Mummy” at the regal fireworks. This places him, for the first time for a long time, at the head of the public popularity stakes to succeed HM when the time comes and that surely must be gratifying for the Great Lady.
The left wing media try to make the case that The Queen has witnessed the “worst period of national decline” in our Island`s history but cannot prevent Jubileemania from taking hold like wildfire. Yes, it may have rained on the parade and the Salford Broadcasting Corporation`s dumbed down coverage of the Royal Pageant on the Thames was truly awful but that did not prevent what seemed like half of the population from lining the riverbanks to get drenched and cheer themselves hoarse as the armada of vessels floated by. What other eighty-six year old, accompanied by her ninety-year old consort, do you know that would stand without wavering for four hours in the wind and freezing rain to acknowledge the affection and respect of so very many people? Yes, the Duke did, not entirely surprisingly, end up in hospital afterwards with an infection and that left an empty space at St. Paul`s Cathedral and at the fireworks and on the Buck House balcony but the old sailor was back at home in time for his ninety-first birthday and, when asked by a less than astute reporter upon leaving hospital if he was “feeling better” is reputed to have said “I wouldn`t bloody well be leaving if I wasn`t” which seems to suggest that he is happily on the mend.
Having allocated “C-list” commentators to interview “D-list” “celebrities” during the Pageant and having delivered a sound quality during the Concert that left a certain amount to be desired, the broadcasters finally got their act together for the service of thanksgiving in St. Paul`s. That did not prevent a reporter from saying, quite erroneously, that Her Maj was “off to the Mansion House for lunch” but it was gratifying to hear the shouts of “God Save the Queen” drowning out by a thousand decibels the pitiful chorus emanating from a motley band of self-styled Republicans.
From the balcony of Buck House was sent another clear message. Ordinarily, on these occasions, the whole Firm are on view. To receive the Diamond Jubilee accolades from thousands the cast was confined to Her Maj, Charles and Camilla, Wills and Kate and Bro. Harry. The line, and the pecking order, is clear. After The Queen there will be the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and, waiting in the wings, Prince Harry. After that, who knows, but it ought to keep the Royal Family in business long after most of us are pushing up daisies which is, in itself, a comforting thought for that mostly silent majority that still believes that we are rather lucky that our monarchs have kept their heads when all around us were losing theirs. And if there is anyone left up in Salford that still believes that broadcasting is about the common touch then they should watch, over and over again, that masterpiece of understatement that was The Queen`s impromptu televised “thank you” message to the nation. Oh yes, and Huw Edwards` commentary upon the Trooping of the Colour, at which the Duke of Edinburgh reappeared in public, demonstrated the harsh difference between professional and amateur. There is still great talent available if only the ageist clowns in charge of the BBC`s infantile repertory company would let it see the light of day more often.
The rest of the month is downhill all the way, with the occasional slalom thrown in because U-turns on skis are an art that even the “Tory led coalition” has yet to master. Milipede the Younger concedes that to talk about immigration is not, in itself, inherently racist and adds that the last administration, of which he and his big brother were, of course, such pillars, screwed up the policy relating to this subject. “Screwed up” are my words, not his, but they pretty accurately describe the pigs ear that successive Labour Home Secretaries made over the whole business of who should be allowed to live and work in this tiny island and who should not. It was, I recall, one Mike O`Brien, then a junior Home Office duty Minister who said, in the August of 1997, that my own publicised words of warning about the “tide of immigrants and asylum seekers” that was about to hit Kent via Dover, was “the kind of thing that MPs like Roger Gale say in midsummer”. I cannot pretend that my own prose had the impact
Of a “Rivers of Blood” speech but I leave it to you, dear Reader, to judge who was right and who was wrong. I should, I suppose, be pleased to find that Mr. Edward Miliband now appears to be on my side of this argument. That he has clearly recognised that the Wind of Change is blowing through public opinion is clear: when he and Mr. Balls find it in themselves to apologise for the mess that they made of our economy we shall perhaps begin to believe that pigs really can grow wings.
In the meantime it has to be said that Her Majesty`s Coalition Government has not exactly covered itself with unalloyed glory during the past four weeks. Too many about-turns leave a parliamentary party dizzy while those that have stoically nailed their colours to the Party mast find it a tad dispiriting when the skipper comes along and without so much as a by-your-leave chops the whole wretched spar down. `Twas on a Monday Morning that the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, was allowed to say that the Chancellor`s planned 3p rise in fuel duty was here to stay and that we should look to the oil companies to reduce their prices at the petrol pump to reflect the considerable fall in the price of crude oil. It now looks as though a decision to scrap the duty rise in response to orchestrated public and jittery backbench pressure had already been taken and that La Greening was wrung out and hung up to dry. After a rocky budget Chancellor George`s stock is not exactly riding high and instead of beetling off to a party he might have been wise to have faced Mr. Paxman, on Newsnight, himself. Instead, the Government put up a junior Treasury Minister, Chloe Smith, who had also clearly been kept in the dark, to be beasted by the man who likes to think of his arrogant self as The Great Inquisitor. Chloe is a bright and decent young lady and she will yet go a long way but the dark art of dealing with overpaid bullies has yet to be assimilated by her. In the meantime, what nobody has to date satisfactorily explained is which Government projects , or how many more regiments, will have to be sacrificed to pay for this latest turnaround. And while we`re on the roundabout subject, keep a watchful eye on Heathrow Runway Three and High Speed Two. For the Prime Minister to say that “we`re listening instead of ploughing on regardless” is admirable but it might be a good idea to remember that there are other colleagues trying to keep the furrow on a straight line.
Talking of eU-turns, Frau Merkel has ended the month on a rather different note to that upon which it began. Back at the start of June there is talk of an “EU Superstate”. Man David tells the German Chancellor to “act or face the break-up of the Euro”. Threats of a veto and talk of a referendum are once again in the air. Borat O`Bama enters the American pre-Presidential Election fray with an “International Statesmanlike” warning of “risky” austerity measures while the economies of Spain and Greece and Cyprus are hanging by a thread. Thanks Borat. Have you ever visited any of those countries for even five minutes? In Cyprus there is, as they say, no word that conveys quite the sense of urgency of `manana`.
The UK recovery is, says Chancellor George, being killed by the Euro-crisis and dithering on a Greek exit from the eurozone must stop. Will Berlin sacrifice Greece to save the currency? “Drachmageddon“ looms amid fears that the wrong election result will reduce Greece to third world ruin. Stalemate. Neither New Democracy nor the anti-austerity Syriza have a majority but in the end, and with queues for the Mediterranean equivalent of soup-kitchens lengthening, it is the right-ish that forms a government. That The Milipede should choose this moment to seek to forge an EU anti-austerity alliance with Le Pudding Hollande shows a sense of political timing that may yet enable him to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Oppositions, as well as governments, can lose elections. At the same time our own Prime Minister`s invitation to wealthy French citizens to avoid the tumbrels by crossing the Channel to live and work and invest their boodle in the UK receives a large framboise from the land of Asterix.
Into the EU summit with the eurozone teetering on the edge. A single currency needs a single government, does it not? In Iberia eighty billion euros` worth of sticking plaster is not going to bail out the economy of Spain. Surprisingly, under late night pressure from the underbelly of mainland Europe it is Germany`s iron Chancellor that blinks first. What was, ten days earlier, unthinkable is not only thought but delivered. For how long this elegant finger will plug the dyke is not clear but it could cost UK taxpayers some 1.3 billion sterling via the European Investment Bank. Not surprisingly a reported 100 Tory MPs put their names to a letter to the Prime Minister calling for a referendum. On what question, exactly, is not quite clear.
The economy is no laughing matter and neither, as comedian Jimmy Carr has found out the hard way, is taxation. The long arm of Downing Street reached out from a summit in South America to strangle a loophole, legal possibly but unacceptable, that has been used by some of the rich and famous to reduce their liability to Her Majesty`s Revenue and Customs. The Legacy, on the other hand, is squeaky clean. He says so, so we know that, like Weapons of Mass Destruction, it must be true. Mr. Blair pays full tax in the United Kingdom. That one of his companies is reported to have paid a mere £315 thousand on a £12 million turnover is neither here nor there. The Legacy pays “50% on all his earnings” in the UK. He also believes that opening the door to Eastern Europe and letting seven hundred thousand migrants settle in the UK was the right decision and he would quite like to be Prime Minister again. Another small problem for The Milipede. How to deal with the politically Undead?
We now have a difficulty. How do you talk about banking in polite company? A flicker of light when, early in the month, Chancellor George and Mervyn King announced £140 billion for banks to lend to small firms is swiftly eclipsed by a catastrophic IT systems failure at the State owned Royal Bank of Scotland/Natwest Bank. This “glitch”, which led to branches opening on a Sunday in order to try to pacify irate customers, leaves some twelve million customers without access to their accounts or wages or transfers to pay bills or debts or mortgages. Royal Banker of Scotland Stephen Hester apologises but the “glitch” is still glitching two days later and ATM machines sport “Out of Order” notices. After more than a week of this incompetence the blame-game is in full swing. Is it outsourced IT facilities in India or staff in Edinburgh that will carry the can? More important still, what compensation will be paid to those customers who have suffered real loss? A sorry Hester is unlikely to be sufficient.
Oh dear. Bob is not a Diamond. Barclays Bank is found to have been party to a rigging of the London Interbank Offered Rate. (LIBOR) As a result those with mortgages, credit cards or small business loans may have paid too much in interest. Alright to fine Barclays £290 million and then, as it turns out, to fine RBS a further £150 million but what, under the Blair/Brown years, were The Serious Fraud Office, the Financial Services Authority, The Office of Fair Trading and the Association of British Bankers, all doing? Sleeping or just useless? During an end of month visit to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg I learned from a man who had been there and seen it and done it that the manipulation of LIBOR was a commonplace throughout many of the Blair/Brown years. Given that in any other walk of life this practice would be regarded as either fraud or obtaining money under false pretences what criminal charges will now be brought against those responsible?
Notwithstanding the economic and financial cesspit into which the Eurozone and the United Kingdom would seem to be plunging it is reassuring to know that parliament can still find plenty of time to absorb itself in the minutiae of political obsession. So it is that we blunder ahead with proposals for same-sex marriage, espoused by only about 27% of the homosexual community, and with the Reform of the House of Lords. On the former Mr Gove, the Education Secretary who wants to return to “traditional values” in schools will presumably be lining up against the Government on a “free vote”, The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sachs, predicts a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights if the bill is passed and gay marriage is barred from churches, temples, mosques and synagogues, `Old Beardie` Rowan Cantua announces that people must “overcome their disgust” and the issue threatens to split Church from State.
The Lords Reform Bill has now been published and represents the predicted dog`s dinner of a piece of legislation. Or am I being over-generous? There will, notwithstanding the recommendations of the specially established Joint Committee, be no referendum upon a constitutional measure that proposes to create, by the proportional representation that Conservatives oppose, a “mainly elected” Upper House, of what? Lords? “Senators”? Of 450 Members, whatever their title, it is proposed that, on the “little bit pregnant” basis, 80% shall be elected and 20% shall be appointed. By whom and upon what basis the 20% will be selected remains unclear. Once in post, these worthy people – elected and appointed – will remain in post for fifteen years or until death do us part, with no further electoral accountability, free to rampage at will across a `constituency` with no constituents that need to be heeded. The bill suggests that “The Primacy of the House of Commons will be maintained”. Given that that primacy has hitherto rested upon the power of an electoral mandatre4 it is intellectually difficult to see how the view of one elected House shall be seen to prevail over the opinion of another that has even a second-rate mandate. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has described the bill as a nonsense designed to confuse voters and undermine the Commons. The bill is a nonsense designed to “compensate” the Liberal Democrats for their defeat in the AV referendum. St Nicholas of Clogg has indicated that if Tories oppose the bill “it would be an act of bad faith”. The kind of “bad faith”, I suppose, demonstrated by Mr. Clogg when he allowed our coalition colleagues to abstain on a three-line whip confidence motion in relation to the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. He will, perhaps, understand if a very significant number of Tories do indeed oppose the Lords Reform Bill when it is debated early in July.
My old friend Ian Stewart, Labour Member of Parliament for thirteen years, is now the Mayor of Salford. His Worship has no less than thirteen `assistant mayors under a process that he has dubbed `humanegement`. He means, surely, `huge management`, a custom that he has, perhaps, picked up from the Salford Broadcasting Corporation.
`Elf `n safety`s contribution to Jubilee goodwill was to try to ban bunting in Whitehall`s offices – but also decreed that civil servants should not attempt to remove installed flags from Cabinet Office and Treasury premises because it was “clearly not sensible” for staff to stand on desks. The response from one G. Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer? “Carry on Bunting”..
Salford Broadcasting`s producer, Ben Weston, overseeing the coverage of the Thames Pageant, wanted the “lighter touch” generated by younger, more populist presenters such as Ferne Cotton and Blue Peter`s Matt Baker. This led to the transmission of such gems as the description of the “ninety one thousand ton” HMS Belfast, a warship that in fact weighs 11,500 tons, and attention drawn to “the hat that Nelson wore at Waterloo!” The outgoing Director General, Mark Thompson, has said to his staff that “you`ve all done very well” while the occupants of the Dimbleby and Talbot family vaults are to be heard spinning.
Under the “bandwagons we wish we had not jumped on” heading must come the over-hasty, condemnation, by the Guardian Newspaper and by Lord Prescott on the Today programme, of the “stranding” of young “slave labour” security volunteers who were parked under London Bridge in the rain just before the dawn of pageant day. The bus delivering the young people arrived rather too early, for sure, but the rug was pulled out from under the “labour camp” accusations when the “victims” began to speak for themselves. “We had a great time” and “we had a good laugh” did not suggest quite the degree of worker oppression that Two Jags had envisaged.
The English Folk Dance and Song Society has, with good reason, been up in arms. The Thought Police have sought to re-write and sanitise Humpty Dumpty because it is no longer considered “suitable for children”. Humpty apparently has now “bungee jumped” and “didn`t get bumped”. Watch out for Jack and Jill!
“Ooncle Eric” Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, has a view on problem families. They are, he says “fluent in social work”.
Armando Ianucci, the creator of the Downing Street satire “The Thick of It” has aroused the ire of one Alistair Campbell, widely regarded as the original for the foul-mouthed spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker character. Mr Ianucci has, it seems, sold out by accepting a gong in the Queen`s Birthday Honours list. The three little letters, OBE, have upset the man who claims to have twice turned down the offer of a peerage from The Legacy. Mr. Ianucci reminds Mr. Campbell of his own `three little letters`. WMD. Ouch!
Police in Wiltshire have developed a new tactic for dealing with truants. Armed with information provided by the schools they yank the young sleepyheads out of bed and march them off to class. The policy is yielding results. So far no second-time offenders and the kids are kept off the streets where they once were engaged in anti-social behaviour. National Service next?
As one who has, for the second time, become a grandparent I have no difficulty in believing a report that suggests that the energy expended by a toddler in the course of a working day is the equivalent to eighty-three rounds in the boxing ring!
Ascot has this year banned ladies with bare shoulders and `fascinators` and staff were seen offering erring racegoers pashminas and hats. For the gentlemen, waistcoats and ties were also available. Meanwhile, over in Wimbledon the Women`s Tennis Association has at last decided to take action to “drive excessive grunting out of the game”. Maria Sharapova`s shrieks and grunts come in at around 105 decibels which is, we are told, the equivalent of standing within three feet of a chainsaw. Stacey Allister, the Association`s CEO, plans the introduction of maximum noise levels to be monitored by a “gruntometer” with replays or lost points as sanctions against excessively noisy girls.
A notice has appeared on a lamppost alongside the Great Ouse indicating that Ely Council may impose a fine of up to £2500 upon those feeding birds upon the land. The “deposition of foodstuffs” is now regarded as littering and causes duck mess beside the river. A warning, followed by a £60 fine for a second offence and then the jackpot £2500.
Paul the Octopus became one of the stars of World Cup 2010 when it was discovered that he could `predict` the football results. But animal fortune-tellers are being sidelined because their use is “an abuse and violation of their dignity”. I bow to few people in my concern for animal welfare but were Paul the Octopus or Yvonne the cow or Xavier the bulldog really seriously offended by their celebrity.. Stars are all the same. They want the fame but not the intrusion into private life.
Bomber Command at last has its own war memorial. With 19 VCs among their ranks and a calculated 16% chance of survival for bomber crews it has been a long and shameful time in coming but now it is there, on the Piccadilly side of Green Park, as a tribute to a large number of British and Commonwealth airmen who gave their lives in the course of obeying orders in a cause that they believed to be just. That post-war criticism has been levelled at the terrible loss of civilian life arising from bombing raids should never be allowed to obscure the bravery of the young boys who went out in search of very probable death in the interests of our Country. In the House of Commons the Armed Forces Parliamentary Group hosted a dinner in honour of a small number of highly and rightly decorated aviators. I found myself seated next to an ancient Air Commodore who, having flown, been shot down and survived, had spent eighteen months in Stalag Luft 111 at the time of the Great Escape. On the evening before our meal he had been involved, as a passenger, in a car crash that had left him, for some hours, practically unable to walk. He was a bit battered and bruised but absolutely nothing was going to stop him coming to raise, with a few old friends, a glass to the memory of those who could not be with us. And then, in spite of all protestations, he wandered off into the night with a buddy and caught the underground train home. I don`t know what these old boys are made of but I would love to get my hands on the recipe.