I consider it my patriotic duty to find a destination as sunny and foreign as possible.
Well, my friends, it’s been nice knowing you. I like to think this column has acquired a reputation for daring. I flatter myself that I have occasionally blurted truths that more tactful and successful politicians have avoided.
Today, however, I feel driven to make an admission so provocative that it may well terminate my career. It is now getting on for the end of July. The hols are upon us; my wife is urging me to make a booking – and I tell you what, I simply can’t stand all this humbug about our duty to holiday in the UK.
So let me lay it on the line. Some time before the end of August, I will grab a week’s leave, like a half-starved sealion snatching an airborne mackerel, and whatever happens that leave will not be taken in some boarding-house in Eastbourne. It will not take place in Cornwall or Scotland or the Norfolk Broads. I say stuff Skegness. I say bugger Bognor.
I am going to take a holiday abroad, and in my view it would be absurd, hypocritical and frankly inhumane to do anything else – and here’s why. There is ample precedent for the Mayor of London to fly off and fill the upper air with his vapour trails. It wasn’t long ago that I met a very nice woman who specialises in catering for top-end villa parties in Corfu. Guess who she had cooked for one year, she said: Red Ken himself!
And she described the lavish repasts of Livingstone the Marxist burgermeister, and the way he blended in with his fellow holidaymakers, clinking round the local offie with his string vest and yellow bermudas; and don’t for one minute think I reproach my friend Ken. I congratulate him. I approve of his exuberantly bourgeois desire to bunk off to the Med in the maximum possible luxury; and in case anybody is disposed to give him stick, I would remind them that Ken the socialist sunseeker was only following the pattern of other British leaders.
When Stanley Baldwin was prime minister he went off to Aix-les-Bains for much of August and September, and throughout his vacation he never even opened an English newspaper.
As for Winston Churchill, who provides the heroic template for all aspirant British politicians, he showed quite stunning sangfroid. In the summer of 1910, when he had just been made home secretary, he was sufficiently self-confident to go on a Mediterranean cruise. The boat went to Monte Carlo. It went to Greece. It went to Turkey – but the most important fact was that the boat chugged sybaritically around the Med for six weeks.
Consider the issues piling up in his in-tray: prison reform, immigration, gambling, drugs, children in care, the death penalty, the regulation of hours of work and safety in mines, and whether or not to give women the vote; and yet Winston Churchill managed to leave it all behind him for six whole weeks, without so much as a mobile phone to connect him with his office, let alone the tyranny of the BlackBerry.
Was Churchill any the less effective as a home secretary? Was Britain less well governed? Was there any disservice done to the British Empire, which then spanned much of the globe, simply because a senior cabinet minister was not jabbering away over the ether to his officials?
Of course not; and I say this with a certain bitterness because in early May I was fleetingly on a Turkish boat myself. It was half-term, and I had been campaigning solidly for about nine months. Roughly every half-hour I would check to see whether one of my electronic devices had registered some important text, email or phone call; and yet I came back to London to find that I had been attacked by the Daily Mail not just for the unflattering cut and colour of my bathing trunks, which they photographed, but for taking a holiday at all.
It struck me as a bit much, frankly; and when we consider the holiday plans of poor Gordon Brown we can see how this attitude – this indignant finger-wagging at politicians’ foreign holidays – is actually doing the country no good at all.
The Prime Minister is plainly exhausted. He has run out of steam; his government has run out of money. His poll ratings are so bad that some have claimed he may even lose a Glasgow seat to the SNP, in which case he will have run out of road. He badly needs to go away and recharge his batteries, and yet he intends to travel no further than Southwold in Suffolk, and we all know what will happen then.
He will have about four hours’ holiday, gnawing at his nails and staring at the drizzle, and then some “crisis” will compel him to return to Downing Street, just as he returned last year from Dorset to take charge of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. If he wants to recover in the polls, then he must swallow his inhibitions along with his fingernails, and get away somewhere hot.
Look at Tony Blair, one of the most successful prime ministers since the war, and a man whose approach to foreign holidays was utterly shameless. He scrounged, he ligged, he bummed his breaks from all manner of tycoons, and what harm did it do him?
If anything, the electorate seems rather to have approved of his determination to get the best deal for himself and his family in Barbados, the Seychelles and, of course, in the Tuscan palazzo of Count Girolamo Strozzi where he forged one of New Labour’s few hard-edged ideological positions: he was pro-sciutto and anti-pasto.
He was right to love the Mediterranean, because whatever the wonders of the British coast there will not be many UK beaches this summer where you can drink a bottle of wine in the sun and then go for an hour-long swim.
As I prepare for my last-minute booking, I consider it my patriotic duty to find a destination as sunny and foreign as possible, so that I can push some cash towards hard-pressed UK travel agents, and so that we minimise, on compassionate grounds, the number of British citizens exposed to the sight of my swimming trunks.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph, 22 July 2008]