Welcome to Portcullis House

 

 

 

Yes, that’s the title: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company. Yes, it’s a musical, albeit a very unusual one. Drawn largely from the edited transcript of the October 15th 2015 oral evidence session at Portcullis House, with additional material drawn from other evidence sessions in the committee’s inquiry into Whitehall’s relationship with the failed charity Kids Company, this is probably as unusual a new musical as you’ll encounter this year. It might be the most unusual new musical you’ll encounter this decade. How unusual is it? In maybe thirty-five years of regular theatregoing, this is the first new musical I’ve ever seen whose programme includes what amounts to a bibliography:

dcb

The result, perhaps surprisingly, is an enthralling piece of theatre, though it would possibly – despite a careful introduction in which a parliamentary clerk explains the difference between these proceedings and a trial – make rather less sense if you weren’t British or hadn’t been following this particular story (or politics in general) in the news over the last several years. This is a story that cuts right to the heart of the political schisms in contemporary Britain, the people involved are flawed, colourful (very colourful), and fascinating, and the collapse of Kids Company ended up being about far more than the mismanagement of a charity. As the government’s austerity programme forced deep cuts to social services, charities and volunteers were left to pick up the slack; Kids Company, under the direction of its charismatic founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, expanded very quickly, and was undeniably extremely effective in the way it was able to provide immediate assistance, via drop-in centres, to vulnerable/at-risk children. The charity’s chaotic management structure and record-keeping, hand-to-mouth financial management, and unorthodox distribution practices put Kids Company on a collision course with the government, particularly after Kids Company began to receive significant funding from government grants; Batmanghelidjh, as the charity’s public face and most visible figurehead, became an increasingly contentious public figure as negative stories related to the charity began to appear with some regularity in the less scrupulous tabloids. In August 2015, the charity abruptly folded; in the aftermath, there was a lot of talk about financial mismanagement, misuse or misappropriation of government grants and all the rest of it, but there was (depressingly) far less discussion of how or whether the essential services Kids Company provided – support for which had been hugely cut back and in some cases even withdrawn by local authorities as a result of the coalition government’s austerity-based funding cuts – might continue.

The October 15th transcript runs to 69 pages, and a lot of it boils down to a discussion of the charity’s processes – essential, probably, in the context of the way the charity collapsed, but it makes rather dry reading. The show runs around 80 minutes; writers Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke have, thank God, edited significantly, and brought in third-party testimony from other hearings, and they’ve essentially boiled the hearing down into a confrontation between two opposing philosophies. On the one hand, there’s the government, as represented by the panel of MPs who are (justifiably) determined to establish that public funds have not been used carelessly or indiscriminately. On the other, there’s the charity’s chief of trustees, Alan Yentob, and Ms. Batmanghelidjh, the founder and chief executive, and Ms. Batmanghelidjh’s primary concern is simply to do what she can to help suffering/vulnerable/at-risk children. This is not, though, precisely a simple contest between good and bad/practicality vs. idealism/efficiency vs. compassion, and that’s largely due to the complexities of the characters involved, and particularly to the way Mr. Yentob and Ms. Batmanghelidjh presented themselves during the hearing. From what we hear of their testimonies – and while what we hear during the performance is edited, the impression is backed up by reading the full transcript – neither has much grasp on the processes necessary to keep a charity the size of Kids Company afloat financially, even though we hear Ms. Batmanghelidjh was a tireless fundraiser. Mr. Yentob – and again, this impression is backed up by the full transcript – sometimes appears more concerned with maintaining the access to cabinet ministers conferred by his position as one of the charity’s figureheads than with the charity’s actual mission. Both come across as egocentric, both evade questions, and both are occasionally petulant in the face of the panel’s more persistent questions.

And this – finally – is where Tom Deering‘s music comes in. This is not exactly Hello, Dolly!; there are no big memorable take-home tunes. The show moves seamlessly from speech to singing and back again, and the score exists in a twilight zone between Adam Cork’s music for London Road and contemporary chamber opera. The music’s function here is largely to provide subtext; when the panel intone ‘We want to learn…” in the manner of a church choir singing a psalm, you sense a certain sanctimoniousness. Mr. Yentob, on the other hand, is made to sing with operatic pomposity; there’s a clear subtext of disdain for the proceedings running through his testimony (in the full transcript as well), and the carefully formal music and use of an operatic voice (the other roles are all cast with performers who work primarily in musical theatre, where the prevailing sound is more relaxed) suggest what he never explicitly says: that his inquisitors, and the hearing itself, are far below his pay grade. As for Ms. Batmanghelidjh, she’s given, in her closing statement to the hearing (which is not quite where her testimony ended in the actual transcript, but Fraser and Rourke are allowed some theatrical licence), the closest thing to a full-out aria, an impassioned indictment of society for letting vulnerable children fall through the cracks, and the media and government for paying more attention to procedural problems at Kids Company than to the plight of the children it served. Her music captures her deep commitment to her cause, but also – via underlying dissonance in the accompaniment, and via abrupt shifts between relatively lyrical melodic lines and something rather more jagged – her essential slipperiness. Deering’s score is a compelling musical achievement; a committee hearing is essentially static, and Deering’s music provides a great deal of the piece’s dramatic tension.

As for the production, it’s more or less flawless. Josie Rourke’s direction finds more variety and more movement in the essentially motionless situation than you’d imagine possible; clever use of moving desks in Robert Jones’s carefully-accurate committee-room set allows the actors playing the MPs and clerks to step “outside” their roles in the hearing to become individuals giving third-party testimony, some of which is very moving (for example, an ex-headteacher and former Kids Company employee testifying to the remarkable speed with which the Kids Company machine could move to provide protection to a child whose home situation placed him in significant danger). It’s a joy these days to see a musical where the music is all provided by proper instruments, in this case a grand piano (on a platform above the stage) and a string quartet. The pacing is spot-on, and that’s not an easy thing to achieve in a piece whose setup basically has all the actors sitting at desks for most of the show’s running time.

donmar committee set

The performances, too, are impossible to fault. Alexander Hanson sings superbly and captures Bernard Jenkin‘s slight smugness without caricaturing it. As chair of the session, Jenkin is perhaps most responsible for the panel’s inability/reluctance/failure to engage with the extent of the social issues Kids Company had to deal with, and with the question – tellingly, acknowledged in the transcript by Ms. Batmanghelidjh, but not by any of the MPs, Tory or Labour, on the panel – of why a charity, rather than government, became responsible for helping some of society’s most vulnerable children. Omar Ebrahim is a perfectly slippery Alan Yentob, Rosemary Ashe skirts just this side of caricature as the appalling Kate Hoey – but then, so does Ms. Hoey (one of the details we learn about Ms. Hoey from the introductions at the top of the show is that her constituency website hilariously refers to her office phone number as the “Hoey Hotline”). And Sandra Marvin’s Camila Batmanghelidjh is a minor miracle, from her turban right down to her pink Crocs: beautifully sung, of course, and she doesn’t sidestep Ms. Batmanghelidjh’s infuriating evasiveness and tendency towards almost-childlike self-justification, but Marvin presents a woman of great complexity – refreshing, since a good number of the news reports into the collapse of Kids Company simply offered Ms. Batmanghelidjh up as a kind of sacrificial buffoon.

It’s not exactly a fun evening (or afternoon, in my case) at the theatre, of course, but it’s also probably not quite like any other musical you’ve ever seen. It’s unusual for a new musical to dive into a ripped-from-the-headlines ongoing story, and doubly so for it to do so via official transcripts of recorded events. The question of government’s responsibility towards society’s most vulnerable has become even more resonant since the horror experienced by the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower in June; this show doesn’t necessarily provide any answers, although it’s a telling authorial choice that the final significant statement in the show, unlike in the transcript of the hearing, is given to Ms. Batmanghelidjh. It does, though, raise all kinds of questions about government and accountability. Given the show’s premise, the fact that it manages to take those questions and turn them into 80 minutes of thoroughly absorbing theatre is little short of astonishing.

hoey hotline

 

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She was only a grocer’s daughter, but she taught Sir Geoffrey Howe

I never voted for her.

No, not Meryl Streep. Margaret Thatcher. I wasn’t old enough to vote until the last two weeks she was in office, but I was certainly old enough to be aware of politics. I read newspapers, I had opinions, I wouldn’t have voted for her had the opportunity arisen. I didn’t vote for her successor, I’ve never voted for her party, I can’t imagine any circumstances in which I might be inclined to vote for her party, and my impression of her in what I suppose we must call her prime (an impression that was strongly reinforced when I worked at one of the book-signings for her memoirs and saw the haughty, dismissive way she treated her staff) was of a single-minded, imperious, ambitious, arrogant, generally rather unpleasant person whose wrong-headed social and economic reforms caused a great deal of damage.

I say this upfront because I’ve just seen The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd‘s new film about Thatcher, and my response to it was not at all what I was expecting: I was moved.

That’s partly because the film presents us with a rather selective account of Mrs. Thatcher’s reign of terror. Screenwriter Abi Morgan shows us Mrs. Thatcher in present-day old age, struggling with memory lapses and the onset of dementia, never quite sure of the distinction between reality and recollection. The film offers a fractured chronology from which we piece together the influences that drove the young Margaret Roberts towards public service, the drive that propelled her into Downing Street, the defining moments of her terms in office, and, yes, the vicious arrogance that brought about her downfall.

Framing her political rise and fall in the context of the recollections of an elderly lady in less than complete control of her faculties has the interesting effect of ensuring that this is determinedly not simply a standard-issue one-woman’s-triumph-over-adversity biopic. Indeed, the film is written and directed by women, and takes great pains to position Mrs. Thatcher’s ascent as something other than a purely feminist narrative. Mrs. Thatcher famously disdained feminism, and during her years in office she surrounded herself almost entirely with male colleagues, promoting only one woman to the Cabinet; whatever your opinion of her, it’s impossible not to admire her achievement in breaking through the male hierarchy as she worked her way up through the party ranks, but she was not a feminist pioneer. She paved the way for herself, and only for herself, and women who have risen to the Cabinet after her have tended to find very different, less visibly combative ways of interacting with their male colleagues.

The use of this framing device also allows Lloyd and Morgan to give us what is probably the closest thing possible to an apolitical film about a woman who is now remembered as the single most divisive British political figure of the second half of the Twentieth Century. There is, for the most part, little sense of what Mrs. Thatcher’s platform was while she was in office, beyond election-stump soundbites about giving people the resources to help themselves/pull themselves up by the bootstraps/administer medicine to a sick economy and all the rest of it. We see rioting miners banging on the windows of her ministerial car, we get a brief explanation of the policy fiasco that was the Poll Tax, but we see little of, for example, the origins of the devastating 1984-5 miners’ strike, or of Mrs. Thatcher’s instigation of the wholesale privatisation of most of our nationalised industries, or the impact of the 1986 deregulation of the London stock market (a central strand in her programme of policy reform). We do see her decision to go to war with Argentina over the Falklands, and her giving the controversial order to sink the ARA General Belgrano, but there’s only the barest hint, here, of the massive fissures opened up in British society by legislation enacted by her government. Perhaps that’s as it should be in this particular narrative: Mrs. Thatcher once famously commented that “there’s no such thing as society”; in a film presented entirely from her point of view, it would be difficult to show the impact of her policies on something she was barely willing to perceive. And while the film certainly does not shrink from showing her almost messianic haughtiness, we are not shown the full extent of the irritable, demeaning way in which she treated her cabinet colleagues until very late in the film, in the bloodbath of a Cabinet meeting that prompted Sir Geoffrey Howe‘s notorious resignation speech.

What we do see, very strongly, is the root of Mrs. Thatcher’s steamroller-like ambition in her lower-middle-class upbringing, the single-mindedness with which she pursued her career, and the devastating, almost King Lear-like sense of loss that sinks in as she moves from a position of great power to a condition of great frailty. Meryl Streep‘s central performance is everything you’ve heard and more; she captures that distinctive voice eerily well, but her work here moves far beyond mere impersonation, and is considerably more than a simple above-the-title star turn, although it’s certainly a charismatic star performance. Through (or perhaps despite) the film’s fractured chronology, Streep offers an unflinching, astonishingly multifaceted portrayal of both the private and the public Mrs. Thatcher, and her performance, while appropriately cold where it needs to be, is surprisingly moving. She doesn’t act Mrs. Thatcher so much as inhabit her, there’s no sense at all of either caricature or satire (difficult to avoid when playing a controversial political figure whose vocal and physical mannerisms are as, let’s say, defined as Mrs. Thatcher’s), and the overall effect is quite breathtaking. Alexandra Roach as the younger Mrs. Thatcher matches Streep gesture for gesture; the best compliment I can give is that they are giving, essentially, the same performance, and that between them their performance has a depth that Morgan’s screenplay, strong as it generally is, sometimes slightly lacks.

But then, the rest of the performances are equally faultless. Aside from Streep and Roach, the acting honours go to Anthony Head‘s quiet, subtle evocation of Sir Geoffrey Howe,  and to Olivia Colman‘s shrewd, surprisingly sympathetic, slightly resentful take on Thatcher’s daughter Carol. Jim Broadbent, appearing entirely in flashbacks and as hallucinations as Mrs. Thatcher’s husband Denis, is absolutely charming and possibly slightly misused; he’s the closest thing the film has to comic relief (aside from one big laugh that comes in a scene in which Mrs. Thatcher rips US Secretary of State Alexander Haig a new asshole over his reluctance to support her Falklands campaign, then smilingly offers to pour him a cup of tea with the words “Shall I be mother?”), but the flashback structure means that there are limits to how far the film can explore the dynamic of their marriage, which I suspect had to have been considerably more complex than the picture we’re given here.

Overall? It’s an impressive film, but not a perfect one. Phyllida Lloyd, in only her second film, gets superlative performances from her large supporting cast as well as from her star. The camera moves far more confidently than it did in Mamma Mia, and she handles the transitions between the present, the flashbacks and the elderly Mrs. Thatcher’s confused hallucinations quite stylishly. If there’s the occasional directorial flourish too far – the carpet of rose petals and operatic soundtrack as Mrs. Thatcher leaves Number 10 for the last time as Prime Minister are a little much – this is still, overall, a very strong piece of direction, far stronger than I expected given her rather rudimentary work on her first outing behind the camera. The screenplay is occasionally a step or two behind what a British audience already knows about the events it portrays – when we see Airey Neave drive his car up the ramp of the Palace of Westminster’s underground car-park, we know exactly what is going to happen next – but that’s probably inevitable in any film about such a well-known political figure, and it does a far better job than, say, the BBC’s perfectly fine TV film Margaret managed in showing the astonishing inner force that enabled Margaret Roberts, chemistry graduate from Grantham, to turn herself into an iconic world leader. And while there are certainly significant omissions in terms of how much the film  chooses to show of the effect Mrs. Thatcher had on her country, that’s probably inevitable: there’s far more material here than could ever be packed into two hours or so of screen time, however talented the people involved. Lloyd, Morgan and Streep never sugar-coat their subject; they didn’t exactly make me like their Mrs. Thatcher, but their sensitive, compassionate portrayal of her plight in old age is certainly moving, and Streep’s amazing, possibly career-best performance must be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in screen acting.

Still wouldn’t vote for her, though. I mean Thatcher, not Streep. After this – I’m not always a fan – I’m prepared to believe Meryl Streep can do very nearly anything. If only she’d been in power during the miners’ strike.

Genius in action

I voted yesterday. It was very exciting. Borough council, Parish council, referendum on the alternative vote. Democracy in action – at least, for the 41% of the electorate who could be arsed to show up. Perhaps a lot of people had to wash their hair yesterday, or spend a lot more time than usual sitting on the toilet reading Heat magazine. Sorry, people, if you can’t be bothered to get off your backsides to complete the incredibly arduous task of ticking a box on a piece of paper, you don’t get to gripe about the results, whatever they might be. For all of the interminable talk all over the news channels today about the electorate delivering a clear message to the coalition/Nick Clegg/Kerry Katona David Cameron, the biggest story, I think, is how few people took the trouble to show up, given the level of cuts that our current Coalition of the Damned is trying to push through parliament at the moment.

The vote itself, however, was more or less eclipsed for me by the comedy genius in charge of the grounds at my local polling station. My local polling station is a school – actually, the junior school I went to myself, once upon a time. And yes, the thought of Mrs. S*********** still gives me the creeps to the point where attempting to type her name makes me shudder… and, regarding Mrs. S***********, digressing for a moment and apropos of nothing, I can’t imagine how on earth you can do an effective job of teaching a class of 9-year-olds while wearing elaborate makeup, high-heeled boots and inch-long false nails. She presumably can’t either, because she didn’t. Do an effective job of teaching a class of 9-year-olds, I mean*. She did wear the makeup, the boots and the false nails. She still does, I think. I saw her at the supermarket a few weeks ago, which was a reminder that it’s not safe to go out around here without a wooden stake and a couple of heads of garlic in your pocket. Brrrrr.

ANYway.

The part of the building used as a polling station has an outside door that can be reached via two paths. One path – the shorter one –  has flat, step-free access from the street, and the other one has three steps down from the entrance (the building is on a slight slope). There is now  a fairly heavy-duty metal fence around the property (there wasn’t 30-odd years ago when I went there), with big, lockable gates at the pedestrian entrances. The gate to the path with the steps was open. The gate to the flat, step-free path to the polling station door was padlocked, with a disabled access sign hung on it with a notice underneath saying ‘FOR DISABLED ACCESS, ASK INSIDE’.

You know, after having manoeuvred your wheelchair/invalid carriage/zimmer frame down three big concrete steps first. If you had any kind of mobility impairment, and you turned up to vote alone, you were basically screwed until someone else either entered or exited the building.

I’m impressed. Really, really impressed. It takes a special kind of genius to do something that stupid. Presumably whoever locked the gate and wrote the sign imagined that any disabled people who showed up would somehow be able to levitate over a five foot high metal fence. It’s things like this that make you realize Darwin can’t have been entirely correct.

* Favourite Mrs. S*********** memory – she made us do silent reading for half an hour, and had previously issued me with a reading book that was several levels below the kind of stuff I was reading at home. I finished it in about ten minutes and took it back to her desk to ask for another book – and without looking up, she told me I couldn’t have finished it, and to go and read it again. Dreadful, dreadful woman.

Civilisation

The price of bread has shot up recently. Have you heard? It’s all the fault of the Jews.

You just did a double-take, didn’t you? So did I. That was the thrust of a conversation I overheard a couple of days ago. The conversation was not taking place at, say, a rally in Nuremberg in 1936. The two participants were a married couple in a Co-op supermarket in suburban Greater Manchester, and they were not whispering. In the interest of accuracy – and only in the interest of accuracy, since it demonstrates how absolutely repellent and stupid these people must be – the gentleman’s exact choice of phrase was “fucking Jews”. In public, loudly, in a busy supermarket on a Sunday afternoon, within earshot of, well, anybody else who was shopping there, which included a number of families with children.

In the same week, we’ve seen a surprisingly minor furore erupt in the press about the Unholy Trinity – Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – and their witless, racist evaluation of a  Mexican sports car.  The BBC’s apology managed to be both grudging and startlingly insincere, citing a long-standing British tradition of humour based on national stereotyping – because, really, what could be funnier, edgier or more worth defending than three white, overpaid, conservative motoring journalists poking fun at people with a different skin colour who are poorer than they are? Only comedian Steve Coogan, writing in the Observer, has, as of this writing, responded to the incident with the venom it deserves, pointing out at some length and in some detail precisely why the moronic racial stereotypes paraded onscreen by Clarkson, May and Hammond are not remotely funny.

Coogan’s piece is startling in the way it thoroughly, systematically demolishes the three presenters – he doesn’t just cut them off at the knees by pointing out the absolute childish vacuousness of passing off offensive racial stereotypes as ironic humour on an internationally-syndicated television programme, he kicks them when they’re down by pointing out how much the onscreen dynamic between them resembles two wimps (May and Hammond) hiding behind a school bully (Clarkson). It’s a devastating hatchet job, but it misses a trick: Top Gear is shown on the BBC, and is therefore funded by the licence fee.

Yes, that’s right. We’re paying for these idiots and their crass, schoolboy attempts at “humour”, to the tune of £145.50 per household per year.

The thing is, the racist comments on Top Gear and the racist comments in the supermarket are twin symptoms of a common disease. Casual racism, in this country, is widespread, fed by hysterical headlines about immigration, Muslims, asylum seekers and all the rest of it in the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and the like (sorry, I won’t link to them – I’m not wearing latex gloves and I don’t have a paper bag handy). It’s sobering to note that during our last general election, when Gordon Brown referred, in private but with a lapel microphone still live, to a woman he’d met on the campaign trail who had confronted him with a borderline-racist question about Eastern European migrants as “bigoted”, our national media – more or less all of it, including the broadsheets – crucified him and deified her, despite the fact that, given her line of questioning, “bigoted” was a fairly accurate description.  It was also sobering, during the last general election campaign, to note the absolute reluctance of any politician from any party to get up and say, unequivocally, that immigrants who are here legally, work hard and pay their taxes – in other words, the vast majority of them – make a positive contribution to our nation and our society, which of course sends an absolutely poisonous message to immigrants who are here legally, work hard, pay their taxes and all the rest of it. Immigration has become a toxic subject – all the more so, unfortunately, when the immigrants under discussion have any skin colour that’s further up the colour chart than light pink. And that’s without getting into things like BNP campaign leaflets, which are offensive on a level that actually makes me feel physically ill. During the recent by-election campaign here, one dropped through my letterbox bearing the charming headline ‘YOUR DAUGHTERS ARE NOT HALAL MEAT’. These people got something over 2,000 votes.

And, of course, when this stuff is splashed all over the front pages of “newspapers” like the Mail and the Express, which enjoy very wide circulation (largely because they pander shamelessly to the most bigoted fears and prejudices of their base demographic), when our politicians routinely characterise immigrants (and by ‘immigrants’ they mostly seem to mean people with darker skin than theirs) as scroungers, and when racial stereotypes are apparently considered fair game as a source of humour by the presenters of one of our more popular television programmes, it’s not at all surprising when you hear someone spout the sort of foul, offensive racist crap I heard at the supermarket on Sunday, and do so quite matter-of-factly and in a public place. I’m not saying, of course, that Top Gear caused the moron I met in the supermarket to spout racist bullshit in public – actually, thinking about it, ‘moron’ is too kind, he had the sort of intellect that makes an amoeba look like Stephen Hawking – but the casual acceptance, espousal and even endorsement of racist attitudes as a source of headlines (the gutter press) or humour (Top Gear) at least gives the impression that it’s somehow once again acceptable to say outrageously racist things in public. And, certainly, in this part of the country, in a town in which seething tensions between different ethnic groups lie very, very close to the surface, you don’t have to look very far to find the kind of attitude I encountered on Sunday. The letters page in the local newspaper is usually a good place to start.

Well, sorry, we’re all to blame. One of our national characteristics, true, is that we are, as a group, somewhat reticent. We’re often reluctant to stick our heads above the parapet – with good reason, since confronting the kind of brain-dead thug who would seriously attribute the rise in the cost of a loaf of sliced wholemeal to any specific ethnic or religious group is likely to result in, at the very least, a stream of obscenities and insults – so we say nothing, ignore it, and hope it goes away. It isn’t going to go away because by saying nothing, by not standing up and saying loudly and clearly that such attitudes are vile, hateful, offensive and thoroughly unacceptable, we’re effectively giving permission for public hate speech.

I told the oaf in the Co-op to shut up. I’m apparently a fucking cunt who’s going to get his fucking head kicked in. The Co-op staff, of course, just stood there and gawped, as did my fellow citizens, most of whom had looked shocked and appalled as they heard this semi-evolved chimpanzee spout the kind of putrid filth that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Third Reich campaign meeting. I suppose this ape could have hit me, although from his point of view, in a busy supermarket where there were both witnesses and security cameras, that could have ended up being some kind of own goal – and in any case, he probably didn’t have quite enough coordination to breathe and scratch himself at the same time, so the likelihood of his a) finding his fist and b) getting it to connect at any kind of velocity with any part of my person was probably relatively remote. Nevertheless, I imagine it might have been more prudent to keep myself to myself. I heard one person – shamefully, a member of the supermarket’s staff – say loudly that I was making too much of a fuss.

Sorry, no. The profoundly sad thing about what happened when I went shopping on Sunday is precisely that versions of that experience, in today’s Britain, are not at all unusual. They’re not at all unusual because most of the time we don’t make enough of a fuss. We’re de-evolving rapidly into something quite unpleasant – a society in which casual racism is not shocking, common courtesy no longer exists, and the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ have apparently replaced the comma and the semi-colon. Those of us, myself included, who stand on the sidelines tut-tutting at the offensive behaviour we see in the streets every day are complicit, because we allow it to happen. Unless we learn to stand up and say no, we are effectively giving permission, but by standing up and saying no, we put ourselves in the firing-line.

That’s not a world I want to accept. It’s 2011. We’re supposed to be civilised. We’re supposed to be better than this. We pretend that we’re better than this.

We aren’t.

Election II: The Misguided Revenge of Elwyn Watkins

This time it’s personal.

Oh, wait. It was personal the first time too, and that’s the problem.

It’s been all over the news all day. My MP, Phil Woolas, is apparently no longer my MP. I have no MP. Oldham East and Saddleworth is rudderless. My sakes, how on earth will we cope?

A specially-convened election court has found Mr. Woolas guilty of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983. He’s been suspended from the Labour Party; there will apparently be a statement on Monday about his status as MP, but in the meantime his election has been declared void. He’s seeking a judicial review of the ruling, but the likelihood is that we’ll have to suffer another election. Apparently, one wasn’t enough. In the meantime, he’s barred from standing for parliament for three years. The odds are that his political career is effectively over.

He’s been found guilty of making false statements about the character and conduct of his Lib-Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins. The charges were brought by Mr. Watkins, who was beaten in May by a margin of just 103. And, for all sorts of reasons, it’s troubling.

On the one hand, yes, the election campaign in this constituency was brutally negative. This was a Lib-Dem target seat and Mr. Watkins and his team pulled out all the stops to claw it from Mr. Woolas. Indeed, the Lib-Dem pamphlets and mailings were the first to get personal in their attacks on their opponents (God help me, I read all this stuff when it came through the letterbox). The Lib-Dem campaign, in fact, went negative less than 24 hours after the election was called. Among other things, they more than implied that Mr. Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims were fraudulent, and that he was, therefore, a criminal; there were certainly a couple of claims made in error, but they were more or less certainly genuine mistakes. As the campaign went on, the accusations from both sides became wilder and wilder (since the Tory candidate was never going to win this seat – he finished trailing a fairly distant third – he managed to remain mostly above the fray.)  Mr. Woolas – and this is inexcusable – cynically played the race card in a constituency in which there is a very real racial divide, and tried to play on white fear of Muslim extremism by presenting Mr. Watkins as a candidate who had allegedly tried to woo the extremist vote, whatever that is. Disgusting and distasteful, yes – and I didn’t vote for Mr. Woolas – but also no less vicious than the crap printed by Mr. Watkins’ own team.

Beyond that, I have a bigger issue with the way all of this has played out. We had an election campaign, and it got very nasty indeed. Both sides sailed too close to the wind. We cast our votes, the votes were counted and then recounted twice, and there was a result. And then the loser – who had, himself, behaved appallingly badly during the campaign – lodged £5000 with the court himself to trigger the challenge. If anybody else had put up the money, I’d have less of a problem with it. As it is, whatever the rights and wrongs of who said what about whom, more than anything else this smacks of a bad loser throwing a fit because he didn’t win the prize.

And, in the end, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for Phil Woolas. He fought a dirty campaign – but he did so against an opponent who also played fast and loose with the rules. He sometimes seemed to be out of his depth as a minister – Joanna Lumley wiped the floor with him over the Ghurka issue (justifiably, the government’s position was wrong, and insupportable – if we’re prepared to send people into battle on our behalf, we should be prepared to let them live here afterwards) – but he’s been a good, committed and genuinely caring constituency MP, and it shouldn’t give anyone any pleasure to see his career end in humiliation. It’s been particularly nauseating to watch the Labour Party drop him like a hot potato, and it’s been just as nauseating to watch Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Lib-Dems, effectively gloating on national television, as if his party’s candidate’s behaviour during the campaign was above reproach.

The big question now, of course, is what’s going to happen next. Mr. Woolas is seeking a judicial review, yes, but it’s more or less certain that we’re going to have another election, a prospect which I’m sure absolutely nobody, apart from Mr. Watkins, views with anything even slightly resembling joy. The Tories will have to pay for another campaign they’ve no hope of winning. Labour will have to find another candidate, who will have to run in a seat where the last Labour MP’s personal reputation has been shot down in flames in the national press. The Lib-Dems will have to run a by-election campaign when they’re rating far, far lower in opinion polls than they were in April, and try and sell their platform to an electorate that, in the centre and on the left, is increasingly mistrustful of the coalition that they themselves engineered. Mr. Watkins lost in May, and it’s by no means certain that he’ll win the rematch, whenever it’s called. He certainly won’t be getting my vote – and, yes, this time it *is* personal. There’s a certain delicious irony in Mr. Watkins using his own money to lodge a complaint that will lead to a by-election in which it’s very likely that he’ll be far more roundly defeated than he was the first time. Whoever Labour puts in to stand in Mr. Woolas’s place is quite likely to be returned to Parliament with a substantially increased majority. Sometimes, in politics, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Honestly Sincere

After the horse-trading comes the honeymoon. But first, the press conference. Obviously. What’s the use of having cameras if you can’t play to them?

We got a new government the other night. Conveniently, we got it in Prime Time, which is so much more user-friendly than calling the result of an election at 4am when nobody’s watching, unless you happen to be trying to watch EastEnders. Our long (or rather, long-weekend) national nightmare is over, at least for this week.

Certainly, the air is full of talk of optimism, cooperation and compromise. We have a coalition government for the first time in, ooh, yonks. The Tories and Lib-Dems have hammered out a coalition agreement that, essentially, smooths out the most controversial sections of each manifesto into a frothy milkshake of moderate policy goodness. Except it might be laced with arsenic. It’s a brave new world, apparently.

And yet… let’s flashback for a moment, to May 2nd 1997. Depending on whether your sympathies lay with Labour or the Tories, that morning marked either the beginning of an era or the end of one. It was the end of more or less exactly 17 years of Tory government. First-time voters had no memory of any other political party ever having been in power, That morning, whichever side of the fence you were on, it really was a brave new world. Change was in the air, and all over the newspapers, and on every TV channel (granted, for most of us, in 1997 there were only four or five of those, rather than the forty gazillion we have today). When I went out, I could feel it. We could all feel it. However much our perspective might have changed, however much history might now view Blair and his government as having been horribly flawed, that morning there was something new in the air.

I didn’t quite get that today. Now, possibly that’s because I was living in Canada for most of the Blair years, so I only viewed them from a distance, whereas I experienced the full horror of Thatcher and Major (I vividly remember the day Thatcher was forced out of office – I was home sick from school, and I watched the whole thing on TV). But still – same party in power for 13 years, first-time voters once again probably can’t remember anyone else ever having been in power, we have a coalition government for the first time in decades, and it’s supposedly a decisive shift away from the adversarial two-parties-and-a-runner-up system we’ve known and barely tolerated for as many elections as any of us can recall… if Britain on May 2nd 1997 felt like a newly-minted country that had undergone a decisive paradigm shift, surely that should also have been the case on May 12th 2010. But it wasn’t.

There was no theme tune by D:Ream this time around, for which relief much thanks, but there was no great sense of triumph anywhere either, as far as I can see. The brutal truth is that nobody won, so instead of a parade we got a carefully stage-managed spectacle designed to show us all that we’re all winners, even though we probably aren’t, in a press conference in the garden behind Number 10 that contained more fake bonhomie than every television programme Bruce Forsyth ever made rolled into a single nightmarish whole.

There’s something deeply peculiar about watching two people who a week ago had a death-grip on each other’s throats acting like they’re BFF in front of a garden full of journalists. Clegg and Cameron are both smooth TV performers, and we all know that relations between politicians from opposite sides of the house are rarely as frosty as they may seem during, say, micromanaged TV debates or Prime Minister’s Question Time; even so, the smiles seemed to be superglued in place. The overall effect was something like watching Siamese twins who don’t like each other much mugging their way through a rendition of Conrad Birdie’s biggest hit, only without the quiff and the fainting teenage girls. They even managed to laugh off a question about something evil Cameron said about Clegg during the campaign (Q: What’s your favourite joke? A: Nick Clegg. An oldie, not a goodie). They were each doing their best impression of being Honestly Sincere, and they very nearly got away with it. Neither of them pulled a knife, and the Modroc grins held firm.

Except, of course, what we were watching wasn’t quite what it seemed. The extended Cameron-Clegg PDA wasn’t simply about solidifying a coalition agreement in front of the cameras. Here were two men fighting for their political futures, in the full knowledge that those futures may be startlingly brief. Compromise politics are something we’re going to have to get used to, and that’s a good thing if we can get it right, but long-term  inter-party cooperation has not been a major recurring theme in Britain’s political history. When there’s an overall majority on one side of the house or the other, the first-past-the-post system means that our politicians rarely have to make nice to their opponents. The best-case scenario, in this instance, is probably the best possible outcome of this unwinnable election: a stable government, with the worst excesses of a Tory administration sanded down and counterbalanced by at least some parts of the Lib Dem reform package, a combination that, if it works, should be more palatable to the progressive majority than one-party Tory rule.

But it may not work, and if it fails there will be consequences for both Cameron and Clegg. Cameron should have been able to secure an outright majority, but he didn’t. Clegg has taken his party to bed with an opponent that his grassroots members do not trust. Labour, sidelined in the coalition negotiations, are regrouping and shopping for a new leader, and hopefully have the basic common sense to make it not be Ed Balls, although Prime Minister Balls would undoubtedly be a priceless comedy gift for the ages. Nobody wants another election, but Cameron will have to go to the country if the coalition fails. In that event, the likeliest outcome is that both the Tories and the Lib Dems will be punished at the polls; the likely result of that is that Cameron and Clegg would spend the duration of the next parliament in Siberia, or at least on the back benches. These are relatively young men, and their careers would recover from that kind of five-year blip; William Hague has managed to bounce back from his spectacular electoral crash-and-burn in 2001. But that can’t be the trajectory either man has mapped out for himself.

And, away from the grotesquely bucolic scene in the Downing Street garden, the cracks were already beginning to show. Clearly the acting coaches hadn’t quite managed to fit everybody in since the coalition negotiations were concluded the night before. When the BBC asked Vince Cable about his new job as a minister in the coalition cabinet, the pause before he answered was almost Pinteresque. The pause, indeed, was more eloquent than the stammered answer that followed, and there lies the problem. Cameron and Clegg are media-savvy political operators. They know how to tap-dance for the camera. Cable, for all his considerable skill, really is honestly sincere, and honest sincerity may not be the best quality when it comes to negotiating the delicately choreographed dance of mutual compromise that lies ahead.