The much-publicised campaign which encouraged members of the public to photograph MPs enjoying their holidays in some unexplained sleazy way has not been going terribly well. The campaign group behind MP Holiday Watch must have hoped that it would produce something at least faintly embarrassing – Eric Pickles in speedos perhaps, or Hazel Blears windsurfing – but so far there have been slim pickings: a couple of shots of Peter Mandelson in shorts, a rather desperate report that Alan Duncan was staying at a “luxury hotel” in Bali, and that’s about it.
Undeterred, the anti-sleaze campaigners have been plotting their assault on the political establishment, taking advantage of a silly-season lull in the news to grab a few all-important column inches. Before the Westminster merry-go-round starts up once more, it is perhaps a good time to consider how seriously we should all be taking the efforts of those who will soon be seeking election as independent MPs in a bold bid to return what Martin Bell calls “honest politics” to Britain.
Last week Bell and Terry Waite announced that a number of potential candidates have been working together “below the radar”. Waite had suggested a couple of months ago that the country needed more independent MPs and had subsequently been contacted by several hopefuls. Bell had been in touch and “a quiet conspiracy between two old chums” had been hatched. It was all a bit hush-hush, Bell announced to the press. “As soon as political parties know you’re running, they train their searchlights on you and blast away,” he said.
It is a revealing and characteristic metaphor, which serves a double purpose, both implying that the independents are the doughty cockleshell heroes of politics while also offering a reminder as to how Bell himself became famous. Words like “insurgency” and “revolution” are regularly deployed by the former war correspondent to describe what he and other independents are doing.
In a similar way, that other well-known campaigner for political virtue Esther Rantzen likes to parlay her background as a former presenter of consumer watchdog programmes on TV into the perfect CV for a prospective independent MP. If Terry Waite stands, it will taken a Herculean effort for him not to deploy, albeit subtly, his own heroic past as a hostage.
These celebrities standing proudly against corruption make good copy and are always good for a heartfelt round of applause when they make some plonkingly obvious statement on Question Time, but nobody should take them as seriously as they take themselves.
There is a case for supporting a few one-issue independent MPs – against the expansion of airports or the industrialisation of the countryside, for example – but we should be wary of celebrity politicians. They are, above all else, crowd-pleasers. Their agenda is set by the headline of the moment; their stance, in support of whatever public huff happens to be in favour at the time, is a lot less brave than they present it to be.
Serious politicians do not play these games. Because they are judged over time, on the basis of what they support as well as what they oppose, they cannot afford to be buffeted by the restless winds of popular opinion. They have to be strong enough to weather unpopularity, mockery and even contempt. “Honest politics” is a handy enough slogan as a starting-point in public life but, in a complex world full of difficult choices, can only get you so far.
It may be amusing to have one or two diversionary court jesters at the Palace of Westminster, but the “insurgency” of Bell and Waite belongs to the world of entertainment, not politics.
Andrew is abusing his position
It is tempting, but wrong, to see the appearance of Prince Andrew in the current Libyan crisis as providing some much-needed light relief. Once “Randy Andy”, more recently “Airmiles Andy”, he is now the Duke of York, British Overseas Trade Ambassador and, bizarrely, embroiled in the world of international politics.
Here is one of those peculiarly English affairs where the silly meets the sinister, with profoundly depressing results. Prince Andrew has eased his way into wealth not through any particular effort or intelligence but by dint of his birth. There is an increasingly blurred line, notably in his dealings with President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, between the business he does on behalf of his country and that which is entirely self-interested. He has ruthlessly exploited his mother’s name and position. In many of his enterprises, there is a distinct sense that all will end in some form of blundering embarrassment.
Now where have we heard this before? Of course – it is the story of Sir Mark Thatcher all over again. I wonder if Andy and Mark have ever thought of setting up business together.
Family fun from the BNP
The summer holidays now seem to be the season for adults to use fun and games for the indoctrination of children.
First there was Richard Dawkins’ summer camp for little atheists, with everyone sitting around the camp-fire singing “Imagine” and telling stories about evolution.
Now the British National Party has put on a big child-friendly event for all the family in Derbyshire. With jolly Union Jack face-paints and special Young BNP toys on offer, the rally has given children the opportunity to throw wet sponges at a man, dressed as a Muslim and wearing a Bin Laden mask, in the stocks.
In a rare spirit of inclusiveness, there were colourful placards on sale, reading “Nationalism is for girls too”.
Ah, those happy, innocent days of summer.