Just Above Sunset
September 4, 2005 - Notes from Westminster

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill.

Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

Late August, early September: a time of year imprinted in all British minds from a very early age as time to return to the daily grind. These are the last weeks of summer holiday, the moments when parents hurry from shop to shop equipping their young with new rulers, notebooks and uniform for the start of the new school term.


Anyone who's ever observed that esteemed seat of British government, the House of Commons, in action will surely not have failed to notice its occasional resemblance to a school playground. Raucous shouting, in-fighting, childish taunts, one solitary figure of authority (in this instance, the Speaker) desperately trying to assert some kind of control - and somewhere in there, significant political decisions happen to get made. Heaven alone knows how.


Still, as Commons returns later this month, new rulers and notebooks in hand, I thought it a good time to round up some of the issues with which the British political scene has been preoccupied over the past few months. Obviously, this has been an unusual summer for most of our MPs, with the terrorist threat requiring the Government to take extraordinary action and actually do some form of work in the middle of July. (Consider it the UK equivalent of a summer camp.)


But the old cliché "a week is a long time in politics" once again proved truthful. Here, then, are some of the major stories from the last few weeks:


Tony Blair went on holiday. (Full details here.)


The "Barbados controversy" appears to be no more than the usual silly season nonsense - political editors with not much else to write about stirring up some trivia in a desperate bid to fill newspaper columns. Essentially, the story boils down to this: with parts of London still on full terrorist alert, Our Leader went on his annual jolly abroad. Cue outrage in certain quarters. What if the capital was blown up, and the Prime Minister should return with nothing but after-sun lotion and some duty-free alcohol with which to heal the nation's wounds?


In previous years, Mr. Blair and family have sojourned in the home of controversial Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, and the chateau of cigarette tycoon Alain Perrin. This year, Mr. Blair stayed on the island of Barbados with aging Christian pop star Cliff Richard. The real political lesson to be gleaned from all this is, clearly, that the Prime Minister needs to find himself a better travel agent.


Two elder statespersons of British politics passed away.


Robin Cook (full obituary here) was a fiery Scot so opposed to the War on Iraq he resigned from the Labour cabinet. Cook was frequently a figure of fun, not least when he appeared on the weekly TV debate Question Time, and senior journalist David Dimbleby accidentally referred to him as "Robin Cock". Mo Mowlam (obit here) was one of the UK's most popular politicians, not least because she seemed, in her frequent public appearances, to be one of those rare MPs with a full and varied life outside of Westminster. Opinionated and outspoken, it was Mowlam who negotiated Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement in 1998.


The Conservative leadership race has begun in earnest. (Full details here, which bears the subtitle "Worried about missing the latest twists and turns in the Conservative leadership race while on holiday?" The answer to that is, in the majority of cases, going to be: "erm, no, not really.")


This is, I think, rather like what happens in the middle of school holidays, when your gang, out of the classroom and suddenly with all the time in the world, starts inevitably to self-destruct. Boredom follows. You begin looking for new leaders, for someone exciting and different to mooch around with - to climb new trees, swim new rivers, ring new doorbells and then run away. Unfortunately, by the time this new gun in town is elected leader of the gang, the school bell rings, and everybody's got to get back into uniform. Any difference felt in the long run is negligible indeed.


This week has seen jazz-loving, cigar-smoking Kenneth Clarke toss his wide-brimmed, white-feathered hat into the ring as the latest candidate for the thankless task of leading the opposition to the seemingly unconquerable New Labour. General consensus is that the charismatic Clarke wouldn't be the worst thing to have happened to the Conservatives in recent years - at the very least, Clarke's spirited attacks on the Government over Iraq should make for an even livelier Commons - but that the appointment, should it follow, will come too little, too late, to rescue his ailing party's fortunes.


New term begins on September 26. Late passes will not be accepted.



A footnote: this column is being written with current events in New Orleans very much in mind. I know there's not much one lone Englishman sitting in front of a laptop several thousand miles away can do except keep good thoughts for all those caught up in the chaos, but those thoughts are being kept nonetheless. Consider this the friendly offer of a virtual umbrella, or a pair of cyber-galoshes - and, believe me, we know all about rain over here…



Mike McCahill

September 3, 2005.



Copyright © 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm






Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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