Wednesday, 27 May 2009

A night of political drama

Last Friday night while thousands of Bathonians were enjoying the opening night of the Bath Festival - which climaxed in a wonderful array of fireworks - I too experienced plenty of fireworks in Bath city centre. But of a wholly different kind.

For as one of those odd people who actually loves politics, I elected to attend and report on a meeting at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which was supposed to be a chance for as many as possible of the 17 candidates standing in next week’s EU elections to make their case.

To be honest, I know precious little about the whole EU adventure and I thought this would be a good chance to improve my knowledge.

But that’s not the way the evening turned out. As the BRLSI had invited all candidates – including the highly controversial right-wing British National Party – I was aware that there could be a demonstration by local anti-racists but I wasn’t prepared for just how big that demo would be or how it would affect the course of a truly remarkable evening.

In the end, somewhat sadly, the presence of the BNP wasn’t just an issue – it was the ONLY issue of the night.

The fact that the BNP was there meant that several of the other candidates refused to take part in the debate – although to their credit many were still there to make their points known outside of the chamber (Labour and the Greens were particularly good at this I thought).

Some of the other parties like the Lib Dems and UKIP were actually prepared to debate (although the Lib Dems wouldn't share a platform with the BNP) but a human barricade of protesters stopped many of these getting into the BRLSI during a tense and unpredictable hour or so in Bath's Queen Square.

Eventually the debate did go ahead but only four of the minor parties got to speak (the Liberats,eu group, the English Democrats, The Christian Party and the BNP itself) and so the big question we should ask is: was democracy served by the fact that the BNP was allowed to be there or was it ill-served by the fact that the party were there at all and many other voices never got heard?

It’s a tough and difficult question – and one I can’t answer – but in spite of all this chaos, I came away with a lot of admiration for many people involved in a night of political drama.

Firstly, I greatly admired the BRLSI for having the guts to continue with the debate despite the protest. The truly splendid convener, Rodney Tye, genuinely believed he was being fair by inviting all parties and doggedly stuck to his guns even when it must have seemed easier just to pack up and go home. I also applaud all the BRLSI members who were determined to hear the debate and patiently waited for the protest to end to do so. It was an example of commendable stoicism and reflected very well on the BRLSI as an organisation.

I also respected the protesters themselves. In a time when political apathy is actually applauded, it was good to see people with a passion and belief to actually stand up and be counted for what they truly believe.

And, I also applaud the police for their actions. This could have got very ugly, very easily but the police were as patient and as understanding as possible and the way they removed all the anti-BNP protesters without making a single arrest among them was a textbook example of good policing in difficult circumstances. They probably don't get too many situations like this - but they performed with real professionalism.

As for the BNP, well, it just left me deeply depressed. Unlike many of the protesters, I did go in to hear the debate (because I believe you have to hear what people say before judging them) and the moment the party’s spokesperson tried to claim he wasn’t a racist but called black people “Negroes” was the moment I realised this party is wedded to racism – despite the fact that many of them now wear nice suits.

In my opinion ther word 'Negroes' is the language of the American Civil War and not 21st century British politics – and I felt chilled and angry to hear it.

It left me with the feeling that BNP should stand for 'Beyond Normal Politics' and on a night when genuine political debate should have been the winner the presence of this party turned the whole thing into something of a circus.


Wednesday, 20 May 2009

My application for role as Speaker

Dear Gordon,

I would like to apply for the position of Speaker as I understand the role is soon to be vacated.

First of all forgive me if I have sent this to the wrong person but I know you are the ‘top banana’ in these things and having seen your winning smile on You Tube recently I sense you are a kind man who will treat my application seriously.

I think honesty is the best policy – particularly in the light of what many of your naughty colleagues have been up to! – so let me say straight away that I don’t actually fully understand what the Speaker does.

I suspect (to be even more honest) that hardly anyone in the country really does know what this odd job is all about but in recent days everyone seems to have been talking about the role with great gravity as if it is the cornerstone of world civilisation.

That sort of ‘kudos’ sounds good to me and can’t harm the old CV, hence this application. (And hey, the perks don’t seem bad either!).

I was also further encouraged to apply when I heard on that programme where Jeremy Paxman just sneers at everyone (and boy has he been going into sneering overdrive of late!) someone say that The Speaker is the third most important person in the country after The Queen and The Prime Minister.

Now, I know that is a bit ridiculous – had this guy never heard of David Beckham, Simon Cowell, Peggy Mitchell, Katie Price or Susan Boyle I wondered? – but nevertheless I feel as I am unlikely to become a monarch or indeed the PM any time soon this may be the perfect chance for me to finally hit the ‘big time.’

Clearly I am not an MP which may (in itself) be considered a bit of a disadvantage but I do sort of like politics (I have every one of the West Wing DVDs and I love The Thick Of It) and I am sure I can say ‘order, order’ and act statesmanlike as well as the next man (particularly if the ‘next’ man is called Michael Martin!)

I can’t deny I would also like a crack at a bit of power to get over some of my personal concerns.

For example, if we can get a man to the moon and create peace in Northern Ireland how hard can it be to give Bath Rugby an extra 15 per cent of space in our city centre? And I would also like the chance to persuade you and every other MP that not everyone in Bath actually lives in the Royal Crescent and so yes, we do need Government investment in our schools and health service as well thank you.

But, fear not, I won’t be parochial and I will take an interest in the whole country – yes, even Bristol.

I will also make sure that unlike the last bloke I really will crack down on MPs’ expenses.

I will, for example, ban MPs from having moats wider than the sort children put around sandcastles, I make sure that the only horse manure MPs can use is what they have personally collected themselves from nearby farms (local manure for local people I say!) and I will also ban Hazel Blears.

Above all I can be fair (well, sometimes), impartial (apart from at sporting events) and I am sure I will look very good in black gowns.

Mr Brown, I know this is a tough time for you (I have to keep replaying that You Tube video to remind me what it was like when you actually even smiled) but I believe by making me Speaker you can remove one big obstacle from your life. You can then return to dealing with issues that are obviously easier for you like, err, the economy.

Best wishes from your next third most important person in the UK . . .


Friday, 15 May 2009

Sir Alan Sugar tackles the Expenses issue

Sir Alan’s PA: Sir Alan will see you all now.

(Hundreds of sharp-suited, worried-looking people troop into the boardroom and fight for the few available seats).

Sir Alan: Right, this task was very simple. All the teams had to do was fill in their expenses in a way that was fair and was seen to be fair. First, who was the team leader?

Gordon Brown: That would be me, Sir Alan.

Sir Alan: (To everyone else) Was he a good team leader?


Sir Alan: Interesting... Now according to the figures I’ve seen, this team, as well as claiming all sorts of cash for staying in second homes, even though some of them were in spitting distance of Parliament, have also claimed for things as apparently ‘essential’ to their work as bath robes, loo seats, hanging baskets, pot plants, rug repairs, nappies, oven mitts and a pouffe. This is crazy, who is responsible for this money-no-object mess?

Gordon Brown: Sir Alan, we realise we’ve done wrong and have been doing wrong for a long time and now that the newspaper has exposed us, we’ve suddenly realised we had to do something about it.

Sir Alan: So why didn’t you do anything about it before if you knew it was wrong?


Voice from the back: We were only following the rules.

Second Voice from the back: Jah, ve vere only obeying ze orders.

(A small, strange-looking ginger- haired woman starts waving around a cheque saying she will pay it all back. Sir Alan shakes his head and looks at the other team).

Sir Alan: So who was your team leader?

David Cameron: That would be me, Sir Alan – and can I just say how much I admire you?

Sir Alan: Ummm... So was he a good team leader?

(There are a few appreciative mutterings and one voice from the back shouts “well at least he’s better than Iain Duncan Smith”).

Sir Alan: So tell me, then, how come your team claimed for light bulbs, rodent control, horse manure, a chandelier, pipe work at tennis courts, work around a helipad and swimming pool problems?

David Cameron: I know these things look bad but I’m going to take very firm action because I’m a very firm kinda guy.

Sir Alan: Well, I think it sounds like you’re all a disaster. Nick and Margaret, how much profit did the two teams make?

Nick: They both made an enormous amount for themselves – but not much for anyone else.

Sir Alan: I just cannot believe what I’m hearing. People from the team sitting on the left have clearly forgotten their roots and those sitting on the right seem to only represent people with swimming pools and chandeliers. You’re an out-of-touch rabble – you’re all fired.

David Cameron/Gordon Brown: But who will run the country?

Nick Clegg: I will!

Sir Alan: And who are you? I’ve never seen you before in my life but I know your lot were stupid enough not to choose Vince Cable as project leader so so you’re all sacked as well.

(MPs troop out sadly, get into a fleet of waiting taxis and the BBC studios to talk to Adrian Chiles. Cut back to boardroom...).

Margaret: Well, it looks as if there’s nobody left, so who is going to run the country?

Sir Alan: I suppose I could. I’ll be Prime Minister; Nick, you can be Chancellor; and Margaret, you can be Home Secretary. We can always get Joanna Lumley to take over defence.

(There is a knock at the door and in walks the aforementioned strange-looking woman with ginger hair, still holding her cheque. Sir Alan dismisses her. Another MP then files in).

Anonymous, greedy, snout in the trough MP: Can I confirm Sir Alan – can we claim for the taxis?

Car booting to prove Napoleon right

It is Napoleon Bonaparte who is said to have first uttered the phrase: 'L'Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers'. For those of you who aren't too hot on their French (and, yes, I speak as someone who got a D at GCSE), the term is probably better known as 'the English are a nation of shopkeepers'.

It is not my usual style to quote French (or any other type) of dictators but on this occassion I think Boney got it spot on. And I give you the peculiarly British pastime of 'le car boot sale' as primary evidence.

Over Easter we had got into active spring-clean mode as we attacked our garage and store room in an attempt to finally dump the junk. We had decided to be quite brutal (for a change) and started loading many rubbish bags for the tip and also (in the case of clothes in particular) making up lots of other bags for local charity shops. But we were still faced with loads of other unwanted books, DVDs and curious bits of bric-a-brac.

These all seemed to have the words 'car boot sale' stamped all over them.

So it was that at 7.15am on the last Bank Holiday Monday, I headed off into deepest Wiltshire with my son Oliver to set up the first ever Holliday & Son shopkeeping enterprise. He had been forced out of his beloved pit on the promise of 50 per cent of the profits which, to be fair, considering much of the stuff was his anyway, wasn't probably as magnanimous on my part as it first may appear.

I had done a few boot sales some years ago which I enjoyed but this was the first time I'd done one in the South West and I was reminded again of just what fun they are.

We took great pride in setting up our stall and then indulging in the banter and the bartering that characterise the splendidly convivial community spirit that surrounds these events.I found this bartering lark especially intriguing.

Although every single holiday brochure in the world talks about haggling as something you should always do when you're abroad, I have to admit I'm rubbish at it and so I crumbled easily as people offered 40p for the paperback I felt was worth at least 10p more. Thankfully my son is the business brains of the operation and was far more ruthless than I was and if ever the going got tough, I let him do all the negotiations. This seemed quite apt as in our experience the best barterers were definitely younger people who seemed to enjoy the thrill of knocking down prices as much as claiming the goods they received.

From our first venture in deepest, darkest Seend, we discovered that the good people of Wiltshire like their DVDs, have a good understanding of the best in children's literature (our own Jacqueline Wilson, pictured, was especially popular, as were books by Anthony Horowitz and Darren Shan) and no weird or curious nick-nack is weird or curious enough not to engender interest. We sold a couple of things which, I swear to you, I have no idea what they actually were and I was particularly impressed with one lady who bought an odd bag-like contraption (which I think is used for carrying drinks) and she said the real fun for her would be finding out how it actually worked!

At the end of our three hours of relaxed toil, Holliday & Son were able to announce 'pre-tax' profits of £44.50 (and that was after our entry fee, two teas, a burger, a coke and a couple of purchases had been paid for). Most importantly of all we have now got the bug and will no doubt be ruffling through the garage once again ready for the next bank holiday where we can show again that old Napoleon may have misunderstood the Moscow winter but he sure knew the English.