2000s >> 2000 >> no-1151-july-2000

Greasy Pole: Two brains?

When a prime minister takes over after winning an election victory, what are the jobs awaiting attention? There is the triumphant waving to the crowd, there is the speech saying how humbly proud they are to be given this sacred trust which they will keep by running a government of all the people. There are the ministerial jobs to be dished out, to award faithful acolytes on the one hand and to pay off old scores on the other. Then, very soon, there is the business of planning the next election. Because that must never be far from their mind. Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor supremo of this government, recently told the magazine Vanity Fair that every morning he and Tony Blair get up thinking “Right, how can we lose the election”. That may not be exactly true but it does illustrate the fact that any government must be persistently pre-occupied with pulling off at the next election the same kind of confidence trick which succeeded before.

As the election gets nearer the matter takes on a greater urgency. We are subjected to a kind of electoral auction, in which Tories and Labour make bids to buy off votes with extravagant promises to solve economic and social problems, as if it was all suddenly blindingly obvious and simple.

Criminals and Immigrants
An ever-popular subject of the electoral auction is crime, with each party bidding to outdo the other with schemes which are presented as the final, all-consuming remedy. No more drug addicts mugging old ladies for their pension. No more burglaries while we sleep in our beds at the dead of night. No more stolen cars. The inhabitants of inner city slums, of high rise housing estates, will learn to live with their misery without taking it all out in offending. The last Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was a past master at thinking up such schemes and his Labour successor has carried on where he left off and beyond.

Since the Fifties immigration has been another item at the auction. From the first Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 both parties have rolled out laws to cut immigration which have had the effect of pandering to, or stimulating, some of the ugliest of racist prejudice. In the Nineties the immigrants have become asylum seekers, who are often characterised as “bogus” or “economic”. Ace auctioneer Jack Straw has been most active here, restricting the income of the asylum seekers and forcibly dispersing them around the country, often to places where they have no family or friends. Straw’s Tory rival, Ann Widdecombe, has tried to outbid him with her call to slap all asylum seekers into detention centres—a sort of “lock up first and ask questions afterwards” policy.

At one time it seemed that this government had written pensioners off as a significant source of votes so it didn’t really matter if they upset them, for example by upping the basic pension by the staggering sum of 75p a week. There had to be a re-assessment when it became clear that this miserly rise had provoked a lot of anger and then when the Tories saw that there were votes in the issue. Pensions, like most state benefits, are not simple. A pension starts at a basic sum which can be increased or reduced according to the pensioner’s circumstances. In addition there is an extra £10 a week at Christmas, which would not even buy a bottle of whisky and each winter £150 to pay for extra fuel. Anyone over 75 gets their TV free of a licence fee. Taking everything into account, it needs a mathematically alert brain and a calculator to work out exactly how much a pensioner should get.

The Tories put the matter into the auction with William Hague’s bid to raise the basic pension by between £5 and £10 a week—at once, if the Tories win the next election, which could mean next April. This may have sounded pretty tempting to anyone eking out a spartan existence on their pension but when Labour ministers had got their breath back they were able to show that Hague was not really offering a rise because his offer was intended to replace the £10 Christmas pay-out, the fuel payment, the free TV licence and a few other things. The Tory scheme was based on the argument that pensioners don’t like being forced to accept a bonus for Christmas, for winter fuel and so on and would prefer a straightforward increase to spend how they like. Anyone who thinks that people who struggle to get by on a state pension are able to spend their money how they like—blow it all on a luxury cruise instead of on food, perhaps—is seriously out of touch with reality.

How Many Brains Have You Got?
The person responsible for the Tory bid was not William Hague but his social security spokesman David Willetts, who is known as “Two Brains” Willetts because he is so much cleverer than normal people.

He went to Oxford, where they know when they are in the presence of a great mind so they gave him a first class degree. After Oxford he became one of John Major’s earliest gurus, which would mean a lot more were it not that Major was famous for making disastrous choices in the people he promoted. In the 1992 election Willetts was elected as MP for the safe Tory seat of Havant. His progress in penetrating into the world of the brash and brilliant was illustrated when he became a regular at Peregrine Worsthorne’s lunches at the Sunday Telegraph, where they may well have discussed clever ideas like raising pensions with one hand and lowering them with the other. Willetts was welcome at these exercises in pretentious futility until his overbearing conceit got on everyone’s nerves—which, since none of those present were short of self-esteem, is saying quite a lot. The crunch came when he put his feet on the lunch table and began lecturing Michael Howard on how to run his ministry—something which Howard, who was hated by his civil servants and a few million other people, did not need. “No further invitations,” recorded Worsthorne, “were forthcoming for Mr. Willetts.”

It took Willetts rather longer to reach serious fame when, as a junior Tory whip, he earned the severe displeasure of the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee. This committee, as its name implies, is supposed to watch over the standards of conduct of those people quaintly called Honourable Members, which means that anyone who deals with them is supposed to tell the truth. In October 1994 the committee were expecting to get a complaint about the conduct of Neil “Cash for Questions” Hamilton. It was an embarrassing episode for the government. It is at such times that whips, especially if they got a first at Oxford, come into their own. Putting both his brains to work at the same time, Willetts came up with a brilliant idea designed to obstruct the work of the committee and so get the government off the hook.

In a note to the Tory Chief Whip, he suggested that the committee should either set aside the complaint against Hamilton until the MP’s libel action against the Guardian had been settled—by which time much of the embarrassment should have subsided—or investigate the complaint as quickly as possible “…exploiting the good Tory majority at present”. Referring to the Tory chairman of the committee, Willetts wrote “He wants our advice”—in other words the chairman wanted to be told the best way of stopping the committee doing the job it had been set up to do.

Unluckily for Willetts the note was leaked and he was hauled up before the committee to explain himself, when he was stupid enough, instead of making a clean breast of the matter, to try to get away with the feeble excuse that his phrase “he wants our advice” really meant “he is in want of advice”. With the media hot on the trail, this attempt to wriggle out of the problem had no chance of succeeding. The chairman sensibly wanted none of it; he described Willett’s version of the affair as “astonishing”. Left hanging in the wind, Willetts had to absorb the committee’s censure: “. . . very concerned . . . dissemble on his account . . . substantially aggravate the original offence”.

For anyone with fewer brains—or with less arrogance—that might have been a crushing blow. But not so for Willetts, who came bouncing back and is now shadow spokesman for social security—which cannot be reassuring for anyone who depends on state benefits for their survival. But that is the reality of life under capitalism, for the millions of people who do all the useful work in society and whose lot is to be exploited in the interests of sustaining the system responsible for it all—and to be patronised by arrogant, conceited cynics into what might be called the bargain.


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