Inarticulate idiots in kipper ties

Simon Hoggart
Saturday April 7, 2001
The Guardian,9236,469887,00.html

Watching Nick Brown talk about foot and mouth the other day, I thought once again how curious it is that Tony Blair, who is obsessed by competence, and whose points of reference are managerial skills and never ideology, should have kept Mr Brown in charge, for several weeks, of the worst farming crisis since the war. And he has left John Prescott running the trains, which have gone from dismal to appalling.

It wouldn't work in any other business. If you were trying to persuade someone to sell through your estate agency, or invest with your finance company, you would not usher them in to meet the dimmest, most incompetent member of staff, some inarticulate idiot in a kipper tie who proceeded to bluster and fulminate at you while showing no sign at all of having a clue about the job.

I suppose it's the way politics works. After all, when Argentina invaded the Falklands, the defence secretary was John Nott, of whom it was said: "If he runs the war like he runs his farm, the task force will soon be off the coast of Alaska." Ten years later, when sterling faced its own foot and mouth crisis, Norman Lamont was chancellor.

Speaking of famously dotty politicians, there's a new biography of Keith Joseph, written by Mark Garnett and Andrew Denham. It recalls many of the great stories associated with the man they called The Mad Monk - and that included his friends; others just knew him as Mrs Thatcher's John the Baptist.

A painfully honest and courteous man, he was in a sense too good for the world, at least for the world of politics. As industry secretary, he was asked to enthuse about the new Mini Metro, which was supposed to save Longbridge, yet again. He couldn't. "I'm afraid I don't have a car. Mine was stolen, and I never replaced it," was all he would say. On another occasion he toured a TV studio. "Tell me," he inquired, "do you think television is here to stay?" In a Scottish bird sanctuary he famously, and perhaps ironically, asked, "how do the birds know it is a sanctuary?"

I followed him for a day during the 1979 election, at a time when he was notorious as the man who seemed to have suggested selective breeding for the population and who thought unemployment not such a bad idea if it brought economic stability. He found campaigning impossible because he could not bear to interrupt anyone. "We can't go into this shop," he would say, "people are buying things."

He would be taken to fancy restaurants by journalists, and when asked what he'd like, replied "Cake, please. British Rail cake," by which he meant a slice of Dundee.

I had an unnerving experience last week. I had been invited for tea by Caroline Flint, a backbench Labour MP about whom my stern duty has obliged me to be rude once or twice in print. MPs quite often want to show journalists they are much nicer than we think, and I feel bound to accept these offers, even though on this occasion I was halfway through a vital sketch abusing Michael Portillo.

Ms Flint did seem perfectly agreeable, though she worried me by insisting we sat in the window of the Pugin Room, overlooking the river, and one table away from George Howarth, a Northern Ireland minister. Mr Howarth is the only MP who has ever sued me, and he won. We scowled at each other for 20 minutes before he left, to be replaced by Michael Portillo, who bade us a cheery good afternoon. After another quarter hour he pushed off and I prepared to leave myself. "No," said Ms Flint, "I haven't asked you yet why you write all those awful things about me."

"It's nothing personal," I stammered foolishly, wishing the ground would open up. I stared wildly around the room, looking for support or distraction. At that moment, in walked Michael Fabricant.

Suddenly I pictured myself with them all, standing outside the Pearly Gates.

"Well, Mr Hoggart," says St Peter, "we really can't make up our minds whether to let you in. So we've arranged to have four character witnesses give evidence ..."

Politicians love meeting celebrities. I heard a touching story about the late Donald Dewar, who as first minister in Scotland was to encounter all kinds of famous people at the launch party for the last Edinburgh Festival before he died. Aides with photographs had helped him identify all the faces he was likely to meet, so it was with great confidence that he strode up to Dannii Minogue and introduced himself. After a while he turned to the chap beside her and inquired what he did. "Ah am a driver," the man replied.

"Wonderful!" said Mr Dewar. "I have a driver, too!"

"I doan' zink you understan'" said the fellow. "Ah am a racing driver. Mah name is Jacques Villeneuve."

Last December I mentioned on this page that most charity Christmas cards were awful - dreary, predictable designs that nobody would want to send to their friends or their family. My animadversions were read by the Leonard Cheshire foundation, a charity which helps disabled young people, and we've sent off letters to artists and illustrators, asking them if they'll contribute their own works for a line of cards people might be really pleased to send.

We've had a lot of replies including, gratifyingly, Steve Bell, Posy Simmonds, and Raymond Briggs. Any other artists who'd like to get involved are very welcome to write to me; we'd be extremely grateful.

I suppose you might argue that, if we sell more cards, that will mean less income for other charities. Perhaps, but I doubt it. I suspect some people really can't face the idea of sending most of the charity cards they see, and the only losers will be Clinton Cards and WH Smith, whose misfortunes I think I can cope with.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001