DECLINE AND FALL

Coppers indulging in cringe-inducing ‘dad dancing’ at Gay Pride parades or the Notting Hill Carnival; does anybody really want to see that? A dad’s authority extends no further than his family, whereas the police have it over thousands of people. To see them shedding their remaining shreds of dignity on so public a platform could be perceived as an ill-advised attempt to make them approachable; but it has the same effect as seeing Tony Blair saying ‘Am I bovvered?’ on a Comic Relief sketch. A few years prior to starring alongside Catherine Tate, the most media-savvy PM of all time had coined a phrase that has been endlessly exhumed of late.

Having avoided the glut of Diana ‘tributes’ on TV, I’m not sure if there’s been any programme that has examined those events bereft of the fawning ‘People’s Princess’ script; probably not. I doubt any have taken the long view of how our society has significantly altered since – and as a consequence of – August 31 1997. At the time, the coverage of Diana’s death complemented the coverage of Diana’s life; it followed the same narrative and also felt like a media construct. The theory goes that the mass hysteria came not from the media, but from the people; yet the media had created the Diana monster for the people in 1980 and the people had bought it. Therefore, when the public received its lifestyle manual from the media during that week between Paris and Westminster Abbey, it was taught how to react to her death in the same way the media had taught it to be interested in Diana to begin with.

The transformation was remarkably rapid. The way in which Brenda was perceived as being cold and inhuman simply because she wasn’t bursting into tears whenever a camera was pointed in her direction was a good pointer to how a society could change in the space of just a few days. Two decades on, when teenage girls greet their exam results by wafting their tearful faces with a hand acting as a fan to visually articulate their emotional response – just as TV talent contestants do – it chimes with the long-term impact of these changes. That they willingly do so free from any embarrassment, despite knowing they will be transmitted into the nation’s living rooms, isn’t an issue for them when they’ll probably upload videos of themselves doing likewise on social media, anyway. The private is now public – and that extends to every private function, taken even way beyond Diana’s appetite for publicity via ‘I’m A Celebrity Big Brother Island’.

The pernicious trend for television news reporters to persistently ask witnesses to tragedies how what they witnessed has made them feel also reflects this; the triumph of heart over head and the need to seek an emotional rather than intellectual response to upsetting events can be traced back to that first week of September 1997. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes letting one’s heart dictate a response, of course; we are all human, after all. But the heart is not always a reliable organ in a tight spot; handing it life’s steering wheel can often result in reckless actions that provoke regret and a retrospective wish that the head had taken control at the crucial moment.

The cavernous black hole Diana left in our mainstream media was swiftly filled by a series of nominees nominated by Fleet Street in the way Holy Roman Emperors were once selected by the elite Prince-Electors of Vienna. Posh and Becks were the first to be elevated to the obsessive level Diana had occupied for a good seventeen years, eventually followed by the likes of Jordan/Peter Andre and a swift succession of even greater cretins, each more insubstantial than their predecessors and each possessing a shorter lifespan. Not that the excess of coverage has reflected these diminishing returns; advances in technology have intensified it, despite every nominee being akin to a photocopy of the Diana blueprint with the ink cartridge gradually running out as someone from ‘Geordie Shore’ fills the final sheet of paper in the machine.

In her search for something to do with a little substance, Diana may have gradually embraced laudable causes and broken taboos that needed breaking, but her initial appearance in the public spotlight required little more than simply having the right look for the moment. She was the role model for the modern media darlings who are famous for being famous, appearing just as that role was poised to acquire considerable cache. Her successors have regularly viewed the ‘good causes’ clause as surplus to requirements, yet we are still supposed to be interested in them for reasons that appear utterly mystifying other than they prevent the masses contemplating anything with any depth, lest that prompt them into asking awkward questions.

The ground for 1997 had already been laid by the same media that manufactured Diana. Rupert Murdoch’s mission to remake his first adopted country in his own image, to dumb down its population by stealth and reduce it to his own coarse, crude, anti-intellectual level, had been a calculated campaign of creeping corrosion from the moment he installed Kelvin McKenzie as editor of the Sun in the year of the Royal Wedding. By his own admission, McKenzie was a fairly inept journalist, but he was a man with a gift for an eye-catching headline, however ludicrous – a bullish Barnum of bullshit. As editor of Murdoch’s tabloid flagship, McKenzie expanded Murdoch’s philosophy and took it to unprecedented extremes of outrageously gross bad taste and celebratory idiocy. If the chosen paper of the average working man is devoted to telling him what an idiot he is every weekday, chances are he’ll eventually come to believe it and will never know he has the potential to aim a little higher.

Under the stewardship of Kelvin McKenzie, the Sun became ever more reckless in its promotion of stupidity as a virtue; the huge sales figures gave the paper carte-blanche to venture into territory that even the Digger would have initially avoided, and its malignant influence has been immense across the media as well as, it has to be said, the media’s ravenous consumers. The extent to which one of the nation’s windows onto itself – television – has reflected the dumbing down process was highlighted to me when I stumbled upon an edition of ‘Parkinson’ from 1973 on YouTube a couple of nights ago.

When one bears in mind that Michael Parkinson’s long-running chat-show aired on BBC1 and was produced by the light entertainment department, the edition in question seems even more remarkable; it centres around a discussion between Kenneth Williams and union leader Jimmy Reid on the state of the nation. In a pre-‘Question Time’ innovation, it also draws members of the studio audience into the debate and is utterly compelling television that runs for an hour and twelve minutes. The jarring contrast between the level of intelligence from all concerned on the programme and 2017’s equivalent – the inane Hollywood PR charade that is ‘The Graham Norton Show’ – is so stark that it makes ‘Question Time’ resemble ‘Loose Women’. As a barometer of measuring how low we’ve sunk in the space of four decades, it even surpasses disco-dancing constables.

© The Editor

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FROM AVARICE TO AUSTERITY

This wet and windy month of August 2017 is, if nothing else, awash in anniversaries – fifty years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act; forty since Elvis Presley died; twenty since Diana died…and so on. Perhaps the focus on these anniversaries helps distract us from the imminent apocalypse courtesy of Mr Trump and Mr Jong-Un, though one anniversary was highlighted today that is hardly cause for celebration, even if it has not only dictated the global political landscape for the last ten years, but has also impacted upon all our lives in one way or another.

If we cast our minds back a mere decade (easily done when you’re over 21), we find Gordon Brown, the so-called Iron Chancellor as was, finally ascending to the position he always felt his predecessor had promised him during their legendary dinner at an Islington restaurant thirteen years previously. However, it was ironic that a man who supposedly had his fiscal finger on the financial pulse could be so short-sighted when it came to the inevitable bust of the boom he had been happy to take credit for. Perhaps the prospect of finally getting his hands on the key to No.10 was too great a distraction for Gordon Brown in the summer of 2007 and he took his eye off the ball; after all, the US housing market bubble had already burst by the time he succeeded Blair; surely, just as what goes up must come down, a boom must be followed by a bust?

Although he was obviously keen to put his own stamp on the role of Prime Minister, Gordon Brown didn’t initially show that his predecessor’s fondness for dishing out knighthoods and Peerages to prominent financiers was about to be discontinued. The bankers were still the bosom buddies of New Labour; the partnership they had entered into on the eve of the 1997 General Election retained its cosy nature and the likes of Peter Mandelson, poised to return to Government as Brown sought to shore up his fresh-faceless Cabinet with a few experienced old hands, was the embodiment of New Labour’s love affair with the wealthy, forever sighted on the yachts of Russian oligarchs or quaffing champers in the City. Should the Government be accused of giving the bankers too much leeway and allowing them to exercise too much influence over the economy, Labour could simply point to the population and their plentiful status symbols as evidence that affluence was now available for all.

However, the crisis arising from the inevitable collapse of the US subprime mortgage market – with America already borrowing heavily from China (which had saved its pennies as the west was recklessly throwing its own about like bloody confetti) and banks no longer lending to each other – began to seriously affect international finance in the summer of 2007 and the first British casualty was the high-street bank, Northern Rock.

Northern Rock had centred its financial practises on securitisation – borrowing both home and abroad to fund the mortgages it sold before re-selling mortgages in the capital markets internationally; but when investors’ demand for securitised mortgages plummeted, Northern Rock could no longer repay the loans it had acquired around the world when business was booming. Moreover, ever since being caught napping by the dot-com crash, the financial markets had tended to second-guess potential crises, and the ensuing publicity afforded Northern Rock’s shaky foundations only served to bring about the disaster that was being predicted. Northern Rock approached the Bank of England for a liquidity support facility to compensate for the sudden loss of the funds it had previously raised in the markets; this move, reported with sensationalist relish by the British press, triggered the first run on a British bank in over a century.

Further scaremongering reporting from the media as customers queued around the block to empty their accounts before (so they feared) their savings evaporated evoked the panic at George Bailey’s Building and Loan bank in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’; it seemed as though the collapse of Northern Rock was becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy as the public believed the hype and sought to withdraw every penny they had stored in the bank’s coffers.

This remarkable event should have been anticipated by Gordon Brown; after all, he’d only ceased to be Chancellor for three months before Northern Rock’s dramatic downfall leapt from the financial section of the papers to the front page. But Alistair Darling was now in charge of the nation’s purse-strings and accusations of responsibility for a financial crisis that may have had its genesis on Gordon Brown’s watch were met with an effective ‘It weren’t me, Guv’. The Government observed from the sidelines as two unsuccessful attempts to rescue Northern Rock came to nothing and then belatedly intervened by taking the bank into state ownership. It was ironic that a party that had spent the best part of fifteen years dispensing with the nationalisation programme that had been integral to its constitution since its inception should have to end its days in Government nationalising the one industry that had always prided itself on its independence from the state; but once Northern Rock was pulled back from the precipice by nationalisation, the legacy of living beyond one’s means began to spread.

If Gordon Brown imagined slipping into Tony Blair’s shoes would be achieved without the need for a shoe-horn merely because he’d had his beady eye on those shoes for ten years, then the honeymoon period that had raised his popularity high enough for him to have won the autumn Election he’d baulked at calling was short-lived indeed. The Northern Rock debacle would act as the harbinger of an economic meltdown that would dog Brown throughout what would turn out to be the brief tenure of his premiership. Northern Rock was no one-off drama that could be glossed over as an aberration from the prosperous state of affairs Brown had overseen during his residence at No.11.

The global markets were sliding towards recession in 2007, and Britain, saddled with debts accumulated during the Blair boom years – a boom that had benefitted everyone from the million-pound bonus banker at the top to the designer-clad Chav at the bottom – was poised to pay the price for its reckless dependency on credit. A decade later, with the average British salary the same as the average British consumer debt per person (£28,000), the country is still paying the price.

© The Editor

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B-DAY

It’s been quite another eventful week for the B word – the one that has no doubt already earned its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary because of its ubiquitous presence on so many tongues; I wasn’t even going to write about it again today, but how can one ignore it when that retired Messiah Mr Blair has intervened yet again? His long exile from the political arena apparently over now, Blair’s intervention in the ongoing debate has kept it at the forefront of popular discourse. Discredited by adventures in Iraq he may be, but Tony knows when he speaks, people pay attention; whether or not what he has to say is what people want to hear is debatable.

Blair’s own concept of a ‘Soft Brexit’ was aired today as he put forth the notion of the UK remaining in the single market with an EU compromise on the contentious issue of free movement. His idea of an ‘outer circle’, a one foot in/one foot out proposal he believes would suit the Remain crowd whilst simultaneously satisfying moderate Brexiteers is not one that most would regard as remotely feasible.

Tony’s latest light-bulb looks on the surface like an unrealistic and unrealisable fantasy that is essentially rejecting the will of the British people (or at least the majority that voted Leave) and hinges its hopes on Emmanuel Macron’s promises of far-reaching EU reforms that many on this side of the Channel would take with a pinch of Great British salt. It has no more credibility than the EU assurances given to David Cameron during his desperate attempts to secure a new deal for the UK in Brussels before the Referendum.

This new crumb of comfort for Remoaners comes at the end of a week in which the so-called Repeal Bill has been unveiled in a cauldron of controversy. Opposition from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales has been complemented by Labour demands for no opting out of the European Convention of Human Rights – something the Government denies is part of the process, anyway. For Labour, of course, the autumn debate on the issue presents it with an opportunity to trigger another General Election should its promise to vote against the proposed bill as it stands receive enough support to defeat it in the Commons. That would effectively be a vote of no confidence in the Government, and the outcome could be catastrophic for the Tories.

So much emphasis has been placed on the much-publicised (and criticised) mock-coalition with the DUP, some might think the bribery involved can carry any legislation through Parliament; but the ‘repatriation’ of certain EU laws to the British statue book being the first crucial stage of the post-Article 50 Brexit process means a good deal of future aspects of the process hinge on its success – and that success is in no way guaranteed at the moment, DUP support or no. A week that began with a minor aristocrat being reprimanded in the courts for essentially offering to finance a hit-and-run of Gina Miller, whether or not it was a tasteless tongue-in-cheek quip on social media, demonstrates that this issue continues to enflame passions on both sides.

Labour’s own take on Brexit has never really been as clearly defined as the Conservative one; Jeremy Corbyn’s invisibility during the Referendum campaign last year was much commented on at the time and arguably played its part in the doomed challenge to his leadership from Owen Smith that followed. Perhaps reflecting Jezza’s new strength as Labour leader, he met with the EU’s chief negotiator Michael Barnier in Brussels a couple of days ago; the meeting would suggest Corbyn reckons he’ll soon be in a position to orchestrate the direction of the UK’s Brexit strategy. Theresa May’s own position is so precarious, even after the cry for help to Ulster, that it would be a surprise if Corbyn hadn’t made approaches to Brussels to set his own party’s stall out on Brexit.

Yes, there are undoubtedly more Remainers within the Labour Party than on the Tory backbenches, but their eternal opposition to Jezza’s leadership had little bearing on the party’s performance in June’s General Election; if another Election is called before the year is out, their voices will be largely irrelevant in the overall picture when it comes to Labour’s Brexit stance, relegated to the same unloved echo chamber as the Lib Dems. Unless the most vocal Remainers of all parties unite their grievances under a new party banner soon, their constant interference in the democratic process will serve to further alienate the electorate from Parliament and further erode trust in the ability of Westminster to do its duty.

Boris Johnson, displaying his usual bullish theatricality in the Commons, declared the EU could ‘go whistle’ if it expected an ‘extortionate’ payment from the UK as part of the divorce bill; yet David Davis appeared to contradict the Foreign Secretary’s comedy Churchillian turn yesterday by admitting the cost of the divorce would probably be rather extortionate after all. Conflicting statements such as these emanating from the same Cabinet don’t really help clarify matters, though perhaps they reflect the absence of certainties that continue to bedevil the whole issue.

© The Editor

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A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

In a way, I felt I shouldn’t laugh; but everyone on the TV was and I couldn’t help it. Just finding out that Michael Portillo’s other two names were Denzil and Xavier seemed ridiculously hilarious in the context of what was happening. He even smiled himself as the revelation was greeted with rapturous laughter, which was perhaps the first public indication the man had a sense of humour, something that would manifest itself a decade later when he took up residency on Andrew Neil’s late-night sofa and became more known for his garish fashion sense whilst building a new career as a TV train-spotter. Exactly twenty years ago today, however, he was the incumbent Defence Secretary, defending the safe Tory seat of Enfield Southgate.

As soon as the declaration at Enfield Southgate was announced and the baby-faced Labour candidate Stephen Twigg realised he had usurped a household name from his seat, it was the latest in a remarkable sequence of events that night. Anyone who stayed up to watch the results come in on the General Election of 1 May 1997 will recall the domino effect on John Major’s Government as one-by-one prominent Tories and numerous Members of the Cabinet were toppled from their lofty positions. The hardly universally-beloved likes of Edwina Currie, Neil Hamilton and Norman Lamont saw their careers in the Commons go up in smoke; and David Mellor memorably gave his losing speech whilst being heckled by Sir James Goldsmith.

The roll-call of Ministerial casualties included not only Portillo, but Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, whose loss of his Edinburgh Pentlands seat characterised the electoral annihilation the Tories suffered north of the border; they were also obliterated in Wales. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, it was a remarkable election evening to witness, unlike any other I’d seen up until that point; and what happened next doesn’t necessarily diminish the memory of that amazing viewing experience.

When Margaret Thatcher won in 1979, I was eleven; when Tony Blair won in 1997, I was twenty-nine. If one looks back eighteen years from today’s perspective, we arrive in 1999, which in some respects doesn’t feel that long ago; but eighteen years from 11 to 29 is a vast expanse of living and learning as the transition from child to adult is undergone. The majority of my life up until 1997 had been lived with the Conservative Party running the country, and it almost felt that anyone other than them governing the rest of us was some distant childhood memory on a par with my first day at school or Jon Pertwee regenerating into Tom Baker, something that could never be recaptured.

I’d watched every General Election night on the telly with growing interest in events from 1983 onwards, and every time the result was the same; the Tories seemed to be the political equivalent of the German national football team; they never lost a penalty shoot-out. Despite poll predictions of a Hung Parliament in 1992, the Tories were returned to power with the greatest share of the vote in British history; after that, it really felt as if Britain was destined to be a one-party state for eternity, which is why 1997 was such a shock to the system.

John Major’s administration was fortunate that the swift plummet of its fortunes occurred within months of the Conservative’s historic victory in 1992 and they were able to cling onto power for a full five-year Parliament, hoping that would give them enough time to recover. But events, and Major’s Ministers, ensured that wouldn’t happen. The ERM debacle on Black Wednesday took place in September 1992, and from that point on his government were dead men walking; from Michael Howard squirming under the Paxman spotlight to Archer, Aitken, Hamilton and Mellor, the mid-90s seemed incapable of going seven days without another Tory being caught with his trousers down or his hand in the till. By 1997, sweeping change was as much-needed and inevitable as it had been in 1906, 1945, 1964 and 1979 – and would be in 2010. And, for good or ill, change came.

Re-watching news reports from May 1997 prior to writing this piece, it was interesting to contrast John Major’s departure from Downing Street with Blair’s arrival. Major’s farewell speech was made with him standing before a couple of microphones and no additional embellishments for dramatic effect; his successor, on the other hand, announced the beginning of his reign before the media with his hands resting on a lectern, an item of political furniture that no announcement from the same location can now be made without. Seeing the clip anew, it seemed evident to me that this was Blair the preacher-man with his makeshift pulpit, spreading the Gospel to the masses who were prepared to buy into it; and it appeared the majority were prepared.

This isn’t an attempt to summarise ‘the Blair effect’ over the decade following 1 May 1997; for one thing, there isn’t enough space to do so, and categorising the changes that came about courtesy of the electorate’s choice twenty years ago (not to mention 2001 and 05) would require more than one post, for sure. What’s indisputable is that, in its own way, the result of the 1997 General Election was as significant from a Labour perspective as 1964 had been.

Comparisons with 1945 don’t quite hold up in that Attlee’s administration came to power in unique circumstances and the transformation of the country they brought about was largely benign because nothing could be worse than six years of a world war. As for Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the hand of history on his shoulder is just as likely to pat him on the back as it is to stab him in the same spot.

© The Editor

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THE RESURRECTION SHUFFLE

blairThere are some things the world could really do without – war, poverty, slavery, famine, fascism, religious fundamentalism, Gary Barlow’s Saturday night talent show, ‘Let it Shine’, and, to be blunt, the chubby, tax-evading Tory balladeer himself. Add to that list the return of Tony Blair. Like a stubborn genital wart that no amount of medicated ointment will ever truly extinguish, Blair is back. Just when you thought everything that could ever be said about Tony Blair had been said, here is is again. We’ve all been waiting for the Messiah to deliver us from evil, haven’t we? Just look at how the world has degenerated in the decade since he waved goodbye to Downing Street; yes, as long as we conveniently forget how awful the first seven years of the twenty-first century were, something Tony had a considerable hand in. How have we coped without him?

Tony’s been keeping himself busy since 2007, of course. He was a highly successful Middle East Peace Envoy, which was a bit like putting Harold Shipman in charge of a retirement home; he set up his Faith Foundation, which has served to bring the world’s religions together under one harmonious multi-faith umbrella; he has enjoyed the regular hospitality of numerous tin-pot despots presiding over some of the globe’s worst human rights abuses; he has raked in millions by giving glorified after-dinner speeches at exclusive corporate events; and he has remained utterly in denial that he ever did anything wrong throughout his lengthy career in the public eye. What a guy!

However, his post-2007 life has taken him away from the Great British Public, an evident emotional wrench that was destined to take its toll on his conscience; Tony knew we’d struggle without the wisdom of his guiding hand, and how we’ve struggled! Just look at last summer. The subconscious call went out to the wilderness that we needed rescuing from the folly of our actions on June 23 2016, and lo and behold, witness the Resurrection. Tony has come back to lecture us on where we went wrong, why we went wrong, and how we can fix it so that we’re reunited with his own worldview. Oh, praise the Lord!

From his natural home in the City of London, Mr Blair has taken the opportunity to stage his great comeback by making a speech to pro-Europe group Open Britain, a speech that he himself announced as being part of a ‘mission’ – yes, an important word, that. Had Blair been born a century earlier, I’ve no doubt he would have been a Christian Missionary, dispatched to the African colonies to educate the natives and show the savages the error of their ways. Make no bones about it – that’s exactly what he’s doing now; and we are the Fuzzy-Wuzzies.

We must rise up and change our minds on Brexit! Tony says that ‘this is the beginning of the debate’, though I thought that was the actual day we voted. Pro-Europeans need to build a movement, says Tony, one that cuts across party lines; as if to emphasise this crossbench unity, ex-Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg proclaimed he agreed with every word Tony spoke. Tony’s old party colours were revived when he had a go at the Government, stressing that Brexit would blind the Tories to all the other issues concerning the country, such as the NHS and education; that these vital elements of society are up shit creek largely due to the way Blair’s administration changed them for the worst has obviously eluded Tony. But accepting responsibility for the God-awful mess he left our once-cherished institutions in is not something anybody would ever expect from Tony Blair.

It is our right to change our minds and it is Tony’s mission to persuade us to do so. The decision to vote Leave was based on ‘imperfect knowledge’ – whether ours or that of those who planned the referendum wasn’t stated; but if we don’t succeed in overturning the decision, Tony warns we will suffer ‘a rancorous verdict from future generations’ – possibly along the same lines as the rancorous verdict Tony himself can look forward to when his own record in office is scrutinised by those same future generations. When taking a break from his globe-trotting jaunts of the past decade, Tony’s time back in Blighty has been spent in the company of rich, detached-from-reality men like himself, so he should know all about the factors that prompted the ignorant masses to vote Leave, shouldn’t he?

The speech has prompted predictably scathing responses from the current crop of politicos, many of whom, to be frank, provoke similar nausea in me as Tony himself does – Boris, Nigel and IDS being especially vocal. But that was to be expected. After Thatcher, Tony Blair is the most divisive Prime Minister this country has produced since the Second World War; and as with Maggie, the majority that decries him and the damage he did are accompanied by a minority who still believe he was up there with the greats; the parallels with Mrs T are relevant in their case too, for the Blair believers are the ones who did alright out of his reign – i.e., not me and thee.

In some respects, one cannot help but marvel at an individual whose brass-neck and unswerving faith in his own righteousness renders him completely deaf to any valid criticism of him personally and of the policies he embarked upon both at home and abroad during his tenure at No.10; that he can still take to the stage and deliver a lecture that tells us why we wrong and why he is right, after everything that has been done in his name, takes some bloody nerve.

But watching an ageing deluded sociopath in action has an undeniable car-crash appeal that is quite shameful if ultimately irresistible. It’s the same reason why millions tuned into live TV programmes on which Oliver Reed was a guest in the 80s and 90s – so let Tony keep doing it, oblivious to the real reasons why anybody might be listening. That’s entertainment.

© The Editor

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LESS HOMAGE, ALBION

avengersBack in 2011, David Cameron’s desperation to be Barack Obama’s Bezzy Mate was a predictable move from an unpopular Prime Minister in relation to a popular President, serving burgers in the back garden of No.10 in the hope that some of Obama’s movie star sheen would rub off on him. By contrast, Theresa May’s quick-off-the-mark dash to get to Donald Trump before any other world leader made sense in the context of an uncertain post-Brexit future, though both actions tell a familiar story where the Special Relationship is concerned. With the odd rare exception, the wartime scenario of the gum-chewing GIs that swept a generation of British girls off their feet seems to have been the blueprint for summit meetings between UK PMs and US Presidents ever since. Culturally, the same pattern has been replicated in recent years, though it hasn’t always been the case.

Take Gerry Anderson. ‘Stingray’, ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons’ may well be the notable Supermarionation series that spring to mind whenever the name of Gerry Anderson is evoked, but how many of you remember ‘The Secret Service’?

‘The Secret Service’ was commonly regarded as Gerry Anderson’s first flop. It was the last series he made with puppets in the 1960s and was only seen on Southern and ATV back in the days when ITV was a collection of competing regional broadcasters that often went their own obstinate ways when it came to scheduling. If you don’t know much, or anything, about this near-forgotten series, ‘The Secret Service’ was a bizarre mix of puppetry and live action; the close-ups are puppets whereas the long shots, including a character stepping out of a car and walking up to a door, are all live action. The master of gobbledygook, Professor Stanley Unwin, plays himself as a country vicar who also happens to be a secret agent – yes, that’s right! It was the 60s, after all.

‘The Secret Service’ taps into that strange, brief period in the 60s when a very English eccentricity was given a kitsch Technicolor makeover and was actually chic for a while. It’s also there in ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ as well as hit records of the era, from Syd Barrett’s Psychedelic nursery rhymes on the first Pink Floyd LP to the story of Grocer Jack in Keith West’s ‘Excerpt from a Teenage Opera’ – quirky, whimsical, nostalgic and childlike. It was even reflected in British comics produced during this period, with surreal characters of the calibre of Robot Archie, Adam Eterno, and The Spyder, all of whom illuminated drizzly childhood Saturday afternoons as they appeared in the pages of ‘Lion’ and ‘Valiant’. A decade ago, when some of these characters were revived in the comic miniseries and graphic novel, ‘Albion’, penned by Alan Moore’s daughter Leah, she made a valid point justifying their resurrection.

‘The British sensibility from those times has been imprisoned’, she said when ‘Albion’ was published in 2006. ‘The anarchic silliness and weirdness of the comics was just part of the way we saw the world back then. Sadly, we’ve lost that, along with some of our civil liberties.’

Speaking at a moment when Tony Blair was still extending his insidious reach into so many facets of British society, on one hand Leah Moore’s statement expresses a subliminal longing for an irretrievable Golden Age – a common thread in English art and literature stretching all the way back to ‘Paradise Lost’ and even evident in the soothingly melancholic Oliver Postgate series such as ‘Noggin the Nog’ and ‘Bagpuss’; but in reviving comic characters she was probably too young to recall from her own childhood, she demonstrated a refreshing awareness of a once singularly English identity within home-grown pop culture that has been gradually eroded by an unstoppable tidal wave of American cultural colonialism. It has to be said, however, that we have been complicit in this.

In the immediate post-war era, the juvenile crime-wave that saw young men who had been raised in the absence of fathers imitating stars of US gangster flicks like Cagney, Bogart, Raft and Robinson was portrayed on-screen in ‘The Blue Lamp’, the movie that introduced Sgt Dixon to popular culture; it also set the scene for one of the great miscarriages of justice in British legal history, the hanging of Derek Bentley after his pal Christopher Craig shot dead a policeman in an early example of ‘Gun Crime’. After the gangsters came Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll as well as every iconic American television series from ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Star Trek’ to ‘Batman’ and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ – all entertaining, all worthwhile in their own right. They competed for our attention along with The Beatles, Monty Python, James Bond and Doctor Who; we were still capable of holding our own.

Over the past twenty-five to thirty years, though, we seem to have conceded defeat. Yes, there have been small-scale and determined revivals, whether the self-conscious Englishness of Britpop or even the short-lived vogue for cock-er-nee gangster movies shot by Guy Richie; but the subtle and stealthy immersion of purely American cultural traditions into the British way of life, especially for anyone born after around 1980, has been steady and consistent.

Okay, so McDonald’s is an obvious conquering invader; but what of high-school proms or sleep-overs or baby showers? None of these have any connection to this country other than their persistent appearance in the US movies that constituted video rental shop viewing in the 80s and 90s and the US TV shows that have filled-up the schedules of 24-hour television since the same period. So pervasive have they become in the lives of anyone under 35 that many cannot imagine Britain without them. This is equally applicable to the dolt whose call to the emergency services resulted in him dialling 911 as it is to the sudden pronunciation of the letter ‘a’ in ‘patriotism’ switching from lower case to upper case.

All Hallows Eve is a classic example; as a festival, it predates any American element and yet one could imagine it was invented by the US sometime in the 80s, almost in the same way Christmas has been refashioned by Disney and Coca-Cola, whereby rosy-cheeked Santa Claus has usurped the druid-like spectre of Pagan Father Christmas. I was exposed to ‘trick or treat’ as a kid in a memorable ‘Charlie Brown’ cartoon, where poor Linus sits out all night in the pumpkin patch, awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin; but nothing of that kind happened here on Halloween then. Lo and behold, by the time I’d progressed from ‘Peanuts’ to subtitled French movies on BBC2 in the hope (usually realised) of seeing some naked mademoiselle, the younger residents of the street had suddenly taken up trick or treat as an annual tradition.

I’m not necessarily advocating a Morris Dancing tournament to replace the OTT Americanisation of Halloween as it’s been here for the last quarter-of-a-century, but there are enough weird and wonderful native traditions without importing another cynical retail shindig to these shores. Mind you, Brits seem so permanently in awe of anything American (as long as it’s not Donald Trump) that this has even extended to a UK TV series such as ‘Peaky Blinders’, which owes so much to HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ that it borders on embarrassing.

With some of the best non-Scandinavian TV shows I’ve seen in recent years emanating from the States, I’m not opposed to US culture at all; but I do resent the way in which it has served to obliterate so much of what once made us so distinctive from our old colony. As far as the Special Relationship stands, Britain seems to have become the nation equivalent of a 1970s TOTP covers LP. Do we still possess the ability to stem the tide or have we surrendered as shamefully as Theresa May?

© The Editor

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CALL ME DEAD

CameronWhen Gordon Brown forgot his microphone was still switched on during the 2010 General Election campaign, it arguably cost him his job; when David Cameron forgot his was still switched on while making his way back to the front door of No.10 after naming his successor yesterday he didn’t have to worry about that. Heard humming some unidentified upbeat tune rather than referring to Theresa May as ‘a bigoted woman’ under his breath, Cameron’s chirpy disposition was indicative of a man relieved to be getting out earlier than he’d hoped. The damage, after all, is done; and an absence of notable war-crimes on his Prime Ministerial CV means he won’t have to worry about future impeachment proceedings.

When David Cameron became Tory Party leader in 2005, Tony Blair had just begun his third term as PM; and after the abysmal performances of William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, a moderately improved performance at the polls under the stewardship of Michael Howard was still not good enough for a party that had taken power for granted for so long that opposition was proving problematic. The Conservatives hadn’t even been able to capitalise on an unpopular war at the expense of the Labour Government, so a rethink was required. This rethink comprised reproducing the example set by their opponents across the dispatch box.

Theresa May’s belated 2002 acknowledgement of the Tories as the ‘Nasty Party’ has been replayed for understandable reasons over the past couple of days; but the solution to the public perception at the time was to manufacture their own Blair, and David Cameron was only too happy to step into Tony’s shoes. To use a pop music analogy, one could say Cameron was the Boyzone to Blair’s Take That, photocopying the hit formula and retaining the anodyne elements that had proven popular without adding any additional grit. That seems a more apt comparison than saying Cameron was the Monkees to Blair’s Beatles – an insult to both acts. Besides, bland 90s boy-bands, with their emphasis on style over substance and an utter absence of dirt under their manicured fingernails, is closer to the truth.

Cameron’s blatant modelling of himself on his hero was excruciating; like Tony, he wanted to appeal to everybody by embracing every fashionable fad of the moment. Early efforts at being ‘green’ were illustrated by a windswept Dave being pulled along an Arctic landscape by huskies; early efforts at reaching out to the plebs were illustrated by the ‘hug-a-hoodie’ policy, with Dave doing just that on one especially toe-curling photo-op. What Cameron failed to grasp was that, by the middle of the 2000s, the public had already become cynical of such tactics; and Dave just looked like exactly what he was – a pale imitation of something that had been done years before, something that the public were tired of. Cameron’s pursuit of a populist agenda at the expense of what had worked for his party in the distant past was viewed as a radical development in staid Tory circles, however, and some voiced their dissatisfaction from the off, most prominently Peter Hitchens. That Cameron was trying so hard to obscure his posh-boy roots was merely confirmed when that infamous Bullingdon Club team photo featuring him and Boris Johnson emerged, much to his eternal annoyance.

The biggest break Cameron received as Leader of the Opposition came in 2007, when Tony Blair resigned and handed over the reins of power to long-time rival Gordon Brown, getting out just before the western world experienced its greatest economic meltdown since 1929. Brown’s dithering in the autumn of that year, failing to call an Election when his ratings were higher than they’d ever subsequently be, condemned the ex-Iron Chancellor and his party to eventual electoral Armageddon, something that David Cameron still couldn’t exploit when his big chance finally came five years after his election as Tory leader.

Of course, Dave was saved by the intervention of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who accepted the invite to enter into Britain’s first post-war Coalition Government. In retrospect, there was no real alternative for either party, with the Tories not receiving the mandate they needed and the Liberal Democrats still boasting enough MPs to make up the numbers Labour couldn’t match. We were in uncharted waters, but the imposition of a fixed five-year term for the post-2010 Parliament secured the stability an often uneasy alliance required; just how uneasy that alliance actually was became apparent when the next local elections saw the Lib Dems decimated at the polls while their Coalition partners improved their standing. This was played out on an even more devastating scale come the 2015 General Election, when Clegg’s party suffered one of the most humiliating wipe-outs ever seen in modern politics, plummeting from 57 to 8 seats.

The old Nasty Party tag had been all-too evident in the way the Coalition Government had reserved their severest cuts not for the industry that had provoked the 2008 crash, but for those on the bottom rung of society’s ladder, who weren’t in a position to fight back. The Tories then cannily aimed their inherent ruthlessness at their junior partners when on the 2015 hustings; and the public bought the hype, holding the Lib Dems wholly responsible for unpopular policies, even though Clegg and Co certainly curbed their senior partners’ nastiest instincts, ones that were released from the need to compromise when Dave finally received a mandate from the electorate when up against yet another inept Labour leader.

A lucky Prime Minister who even survived the potential disaster of Hack-Gate and all the embarrassing social connections it exposed, David Cameron’s undoing was to promise a referendum on Britain’s EU membership that the Conservative Election Manifesto of 2015 bound him to. His last concession to the backbenchers who had never trusted him, Cameron’s referendum didn’t go to plan when the deep divisions within the country he had failed to unite were exposed in a manner that left him with no option but to fall on his sword barely a year after leading his party to their first outright Election victory since 1992. The bitchy Cabinet resignation letter of one of his predecessors in the Tory hot-seat, IDS, claimed that Cameron and his circle didn’t give a toss about the great swathes of the electorate who don’t vote Conservative, and the EU Referendum gave those silent voices (as well as plenty within his own party) the opportunity to deliver their verdict on his premiership. That verdict was unanimous in its condemnation, and I suspect history will deliver a similar one once the dust has settled from the current chaos Cameron is entirely to blame for.

Not that any of this will be apparent come his last appearance as Prime Minister in the Commons on Wednesday – cue fawning tributes and praise that he will nevertheless gratefully accept; as slick and smooth and devoid of authenticity as he always has been, the Bob Monkhouse of British politics will exit the frontbench with insincere cheers ringing in his ears, ones that will perfectly complement the utter ideological landfill that has constituted the last six years.

© The Editor

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YO, BLAIR!

BlairLord North and America, Chamberlain and Munich, Eden and Suez, Blair and Iraq – some Prime Ministers will be forever remembered for their failures, and any achievements will languish in the shadows of the disasters that define their place in history. There is a rather pathetic irony to Tony Blair’s inclusion in this pantheon of doomed and discredited reputations, in that he more than any of his immediate predecessors was desperate to leave a legacy. However, this legacy won’t be the Good Friday Agreement or the minimum wage or civil partnerships or the Freedom of Information Act, but an unnecessary military adventure that claimed over a hundred British soldiers’ lives and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, leaving a toxic aftermath that continues to spill blood on a virtual daily basis at the scene of the crime. Barbaric events in Baghdad this past week are directly descended from events that began thirteen years ago on Blair’s watch.

For a man so apparently obsessed with legacy, I can only assume Blair is either ignorant of history or simply stupid. There are so many examples of what becomes of a society when a totalitarian regime is removed and the people are left to their own devices that for Blair to pay no heed to them at all seems to highlight both ignorance and stupidity; and one doesn’t even need to go back that far to find them.

Blair only had to reverse barely a decade to recall the chaos in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall; irreparable tears in the Iron Curtain unleashed all the sectarian and nationalist forces that had been suppressed during the decades when Balkan countries had been Soviet satellite states; suddenly realising their newly independent nations were up for grabs led to the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the Second World War. It was still going on when Blair was elected Prime Minister in 1997, and the British Army’s own role in Kosovo was something he was happy to take credit for. How could he witness what had gone on there and not make the connection with Iraq should a dictator who had been in power for twenty-five years be abruptly toppled? Probably because his unquestioning compliance and infatuation with a US President blinded him to everything that was all-so sadly inevitable.

As Blair came to power, Bill Clinton was a year and-a-half into his second term; having emulated Clinton’s ‘third way’ policy, and to a large degree modelled his hip, swinging persona on Bill’s charismatic public image (opting for strumming a guitar where Clinton had blown a saxophone), Tony had an evident fixation with the tenant of the White House. And it wasn’t merely Clinton, but the office of the President itself. Blair’s idea of government was, as has been often pointed out, ‘presidential’ – minimising the role of the Cabinet and surrounding himself with aides and advisors rather than fellow MPs, with the odious Alistair Campbell particularly prominent.

When Clinton was superseded by George W Bush, any superficial political ‘differences’ anticipated between a Labour Prime Minister and a Republican President were rendered null and void. Blair was so in love with the concept of the Presidency that it didn’t matter which side of the American political divide the President came from. For Tony, it was as though the class nerd had been taken under the wing of the school bully, and he eagerly followed the Commander-in-Chief round with an excitable grin on his face, hardly able to believe the Leader of the Free World was his bezzy mate. Of course, this was all in Tony’s head. The rest of us cringed with embarrassment to see the humbling dynamic of The Special Relationship laid so bare.

The personal price paid by Blair for his love affair with the American Presidency is a permanent blot on his copybook that no amount of airbrushing will ever entirely remove. What’s perversely ironic is how Blair’s part in Iraq as recounted in the Chilcot edition of ‘War and Peace’ seems to have painted a portrait of a British Prime Minister at the head of the world leaders’ table for the first time since 1945. Had things turned out differently, what a legacy that would have been; talk about punching above your weight. But perhaps it was this obsession with legacy and determination to make a mark on the international stage that made Blair such a gift for an American administration more than happy for a gullible idiot to act as their patsy, as he continues to do.

Anthony Eden’s effort to arrest Britain’s slide into imperial oblivion with Suez was a desperate act by a man who had to step into the shoes of Churchill, a man who had waited years for his illustrious predecessor to retire and was determined to make his own mark by seeing Hitler reborn as Nasser; he needed a Hitler to prove himself. The humiliating withdrawal imposed by a furious Eisenhower highlighted the change in the world order that Eden was in denial of. With the exception of the Falklands, there would be no more military interventions by British Prime Ministers inspired by old colonial commitments.

Harold Wilson was forced to take the flak for not condemning US involvement in Vietnam, but that was the price he paid for spurning Lyndon Johnson’s entreaties for Britain to commit troops there; he could easily have gone along with LBJ because the war was America’s and America would ultimately carry the can for the disaster – quite a contrast with Blair’s approach, making Iraq as much of a British concern as it was an American one. And Blair’s ambition to be remembered as the great restorer of Britain’s international prestige, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a nation that has spent the majority of its independent existence at war with someone, overrode every other consideration – for the people of Iraq, for British servicemen and women (and their families), and for the country. I would add for himself, but going by his press conference yesterday, he still doesn’t think he did anything wrong.

© The Editor

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