I shouldn’t be pelted with pies for asking difficult questions
‘But what was it all about?” said a kindly woman on my left as I arrived late for dinner last night in Bournemouth. “I mean, what did you actually say?” she asked, as I slumped into my chair.
I felt like a wrung-out dish cloth. It was like being a survivor of the Jalalabad gulch. For a whole 10 minutes I had been dandled before the maniac eyes of the media King Kong. This way and that it had prodded me as it roared its incomprehensible roar and bathed me in the terrifying afflatus of its nostrils, and at the end of the experience, frankly, I was just as baffled as my friend.
What was it all about? I stared at my plate and tried to collect my scattered impressions. All I could remember was having a quiet time at the Tory conference, and round about tea time I was in the press officers’ area, borrowing a computer in order to crunch out a piece for the Times Higher Educational Supplement. I was composing a particularly tricky passage when I became aware of a sort of Apache whooping outside. A mob was gathering. They started drumming their feet.
They started calling my name and bashing on the tinny little partition wall of the Tory press officers’ zone. Then they started thumping on the walls. Then to the sound of rhythmic chanting a ladder appeared over the top of the wall, and the red eye of a TV news camera was trained on us; and at this point the sweet Tory press people said would I mind hurrying up and finishing the piece, because the whole thing was getting a bit Gordon at Khartoum.
So we went outside and immediately they not only started yelling for me to “apologise!” and “resign!” but also to eat various cupcakes that they thrust under my nose.
Eh? I said. What is the story, exactly? And they said that it had been a very slow news day, and that I had said four atrocious and unpardonable things, and they shrieked them unintelligibly into my ear.
I have now been able to consult the morning papers, and to grasp the charges. But I find no gaffes, my friends. I find pure unvarnished common sense. I find important questions of political philosophy, and instead of trying to answer them everyone thinks it’s much more fun to shut down the debate and scream “gaffe”.
I was accused of being rude to the Scots and saying that a Scot could never become prime minister. Rubbish. I repeatedly said how much I adored the Scots, but that it was difficult in the current constitutional circumstances to see how Gordon Brown – sitting for a Scottish seat – could command the loyalty and support of the English electorate.
It is increasingly felt to be unjust that English MPs can be outvoted by Scottish MPs on very controversial questions affecting their own constituents, when they have no corresponding say over health and education and other questions in Scotland – and when the Scottish MPs have no say over those questions in Scotland itself! I said that Gordon Brown, sitting for Dunfermline, must address this if he wants to be prime minister. If that is a gaffe, then heaven help us all.
Then I was accused of being provocative in prophesying that parts of Bradford might have sharia law.
Balderdash. I was drawing attention to a theoretical problem in the localising agenda that we all support. Not only was there a risk that the NHS would become even more balkanised, I said, but you could imagine in a totally devolved system that Islamic zealots might take control of some inner-city area. I was illustrating the classic difficulty of any federal system: that a local majority may do something disapproved of by a national majority. Is that really such a blooper? Especially when I went on immediately to say that the experience of running councils and levying taxes might be a great thing for often alienated Muslim communities, since they would have a real stake in this country and its good government. Is that so frightful? Of course not.
Well then, they screamed in my ear, I was in the soup for my attack on booster seats for 11-year-olds. I will not repeat the argument, but let me summarise by saying that you could regulate with a far lighter touch.
Of course there will be good parents who want to use every possible precaution, even when the risks of not using a booster seat are very small indeed. Surely the best thing would be to have an information campaign about the potential benefits of these seats, rather than impose booster seats wholesale on the entire population, wasting police time and causing total chaos for schools who want to take children of varying sizes on trips. Is that such an epic clanger? Come off it, folks.
And finally I was pelted with pies for having allegedly dissed Jamie Oliver, when the whole point of what I was saying was in support of what he is trying to do. All I said was that it was hard to persuade the kids to eat the lovely healthy stuff when they still had the option of the chocs and the crisps in the packed lunch. One possible solution was to go the whole hog, I suggested, and have a completely paternalist approach in which you bring back mandatory school dinners – delicious, Jamie-style liver and cabbage – and stop kids eating anything else at school but what they are given.
The reason the mothers were posting the pies through the fence is that there is still total confusion about who is in charge of the school meal, schools or parents, and Jamie’s campaign won’t work properly until that ambiguity is cleared up.
I was elected to ask difficult questions. These four “gaffes” conceal very big and very deep issues of democracy and accountability: the West Lothian problem; the consequences of true federalism and localism; the boundary between voluntarism and compulsion in health and safety; the shared role of parents and state in children’s diet.
Sometimes I have an answer, sometimes only part. In all cases we need much more debate and thought, but all my beloved press chums want to do is chuck pies and yodel. I suppose it’s been a long conference season.