A day in the life of George Osborne

1.

O&V

“Ah, hello. I gather you’re are an internationally renowned, much published and highly qualified Doctor of Economics, and that you’ve been a Fellow at Cambridge University, a Lecturer in Economics at the University of Texas, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Sydney, and Professor of Economic Theory at the University of Athens. Pleased to meet you. Me, I got a 2:1 in Modern History, unsuccessfully applied to be a trainee journalist with The Times, and then got a job at Conservative Central Office. I urge you to act responsibly and reconsider your naïve and ill-informed ideas about economics.”

“Um – ”

“Splendid. Now do run along, there’s a good chap. We have an election coming up and I’ve been told to go and get myself photographed shaking hands with some proletarian scum.”

_________________

2.

1

“Righty-ho, all kitted out. Now, which way to the plebs?”

_________________

3.

2

“What-ho, you fine fellows. I dare say you’re looking forward to a well-earned drink of beer. How do you fancy Arsenal United’s chances in the Soccer Cup?”

_________________

4.

4

“Really? Good gracious. I had absolutely no idea. And what’s yeast again?”

_________________

5.

5

“I haven’t a clue what you’re pointing at, or why.”

_________________

6.

6

“Whatever this is, I literally don’t care.”

_________________

7.

7

“God, I’m bored. Wonder what’s for dinner tonight. Hope it’s venison again.”

_________________

8.

8

“Don’t talk to me. Don’t even look at me. Here’s how this works. I do a clever splayed hand gesture to make it look like I’m fascinated by you and your crummy building site, and then I leave. Understood?”

_________________

9.

10

“Jesus, why are they all smiling? How I despise them.”

_________________

10.

11

“Oh Christ, these ones are women. Stay calm. Don’t panic. Keep smiling and nodding, and eventually they’ll piss off back to their ghastly little council houses.”

_________________

11.

12

“How I wish this frightful peasant would shut his face. I wonder which button blows up the BBC. The big red one, probably.”

_________________

12.

13

“And so the handsome prince and the beautiful princess were married and lived happily ever after, while the woodcutter and his family scrounged off the state until their benefits were scrapped, the parasitic bastard immigrant scum.”

_________________

13.

George Osborne in hard hat

“Don’t you dare try to upstage my splayed hand gesture, you impertinent sod.”

_________________

14.

15

“If you only knew where I’d like to shove this.”

_________________

15.

16

“You really cannot imagine the extent to which I don’t give a shit about these sodding cotton reels.”

_________________

16.

Chancellor George Osborne And Prime Minster David Cameron Visit Manchester

“What are we doing here, Gideon?”

“Absolutely no idea, Dave.”

“Never mind. I’ll pretend I’m pointing at a fish, and you do that splayed hand gesture of yours.”

_________________

17.

18

“I say, Boris. When you’re PM, can we put an end to these ridiculous high-vis-jacket-and-hard-hat photo opportunities?”

“Crikey no, my old wiff-waff. Goes down awfully well with the piccaninnies.”

_________________

18.

19

“When I was in the Bullingdon Club we used to set fire to tramps with these. Ah, happy days.”

_________________

19.

20

“Ooh, talk of the devil. Funnily enough, this is the only time in my life that I’ve ever been on the far left. Far left! Geddit? Tee hee!”

_________________

20.

Bottom

“Phew. I thought that all went rather well.”

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Pig ignorant

MissPiggy

Amid the flatulent gusts of racism, homophobia and sciolistic Little-Englander wretchedness predictably stinking out the vox-pop interviews in The Guardian’s latest piece about the forthcoming Newark by-election, I was interested to note a particularly gaseous eructation issuing from the gastro-oesophageal junction of one David Donegan, proprietor of the Saracen’s Head Hotel in Nottinghamshire’s pretty minster town of Southwell. Having first favoured us with his sophisticated hypothesis that “Ukip are leading a peasants’ revolt” which will “shake up the Westminster establishment”, Mr Donegan, who entertained Ukip leader Nigel Farage at his pub on Saturday lunchtime, goes on to say:

“Civil partnership is absolutely fine, but gay marriage is appalling nonsense. The next thing they will be saying is we should be marrying pigs.”

I’m no longer a local, but as it happens, I grew up not far from Southwell. We used to go swimming at the public baths there. The Saracen’s Head, with its period features, its brace of reputed ghosts, and its proud claim to have played host to Charles I on his last night of freedom in 1646, was, I suppose, one of the very first pubs that I ever visited. Sadly, it is now the very last pub that I would ever dream of visiting – at least until Mr Donegan either disowns his interesting opinion about homosexuals and pigs, or else chooses to go and affront some other hostelry with it.

In fairness to Mr Donegan, it would be misleading of me to suggest that, before I came across his porcine pontification this morning, I was in any great hurry to return to his pub. The last time I popped into the Saracen’s Head, while revisiting old haunts with a friend a few years ago, I’m sorry to say that we had a thoroughly unpleasant lunch. The carpets were dirty, the service indifferent, and the menu harked back to the early 1970s, which was also when most of the vegetables had been brought to the boil. The aroma of yesterday’s cabbage hung heavy in the air. As if to add to the noxious whiff, a nearby table was playing host to a gaggle of diners rocking an array of blazers, waistcoats and cravats colourful enough to make the eyes bleed, and braying forth at maximum volume their familiar views on the litany of topics which traditionally preoccupy tipsy Telegraph readers over a pub lunch: immigrants, single mothers, fox-hunting, immigrants, the welfare system, modern art, and immigrants. So plentiful and so illuminating were the aphorisms and aperçus which foghorned their way across the dining room that day, that my companion and I began to jot them down. Here are some of our favourites – and I solemnly swear that everything you’re about to read is genuine:

“Living on benefits is a lifestyle choice. It’s as simple as that.”

“The trouble with the Eastern European is that he doesn’t really understand how we do things over here.”

“It’s a well-known fact that Labour invited all these immigrants over, because immigrants vote Labour.”

“She was living on benefits and she had three children. I mean, hello? The rest of us have children too, you know.”

“When did you last go to Yeovil? It’s full of Germans.”

“You can get a degree in anything these days. They’ll even give you a degree in the history of art, whatever that is.”

Food for thought, I’m sure you’ll agree. So, between the carpets, the cabbage and the clientele, I can’t pretend that I was planning on troubling the Saracen’s Head with a return visit any time soon. Nonetheless, today feels like a melancholy moment of transition. It gives me no pleasure at all to reflect that a pub which I happened to consider a bit naff has now become a pub which I am compelled to boycott, because it is owned by a man who considers it acceptable to suggest, out loud and in public, that gay people should be no more entitled to the rights he enjoys than should the pigs whose flesh, for all I know, might occasionally be found in his sausages.

Farewell, then, Saracen’s Head. Can’t say I’ll miss you. I’ve yet to meet a pig whose inarticulate grunts are a fraction as unpleasant as those of your proprietor. Mind you, if we’re talking about pigs and equality, then it’s verging on the ironic that the obvious quotation which springs to mind comes from a man who is idolised, and resoundingly misunderstood, by every Ukip supporter in the land – a man who would have held Ukip, and everything that it stands for, in the utmost contempt:

“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

                                                                                                                     – Winston Churchill

 

Churchill

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Hey Michael, leave them kids alone

4 T

Tempting though it is to describe the Secretary of State for Education in the sort of intemperate terms which would require a fusillade of asterisks, let’s be polite. Let’s settle instead for describing him as a pusillanimous, birdbrained, morally warped, dangerously stupid little man. Michael Gove made the headlines again on Sunday following his decision to remove several classics of twentieth-century American literature, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, from the GCSE syllabus, for reasons which appear to have been dictated entirely by his personal distaste for those particular works, and by his predilection for cartoon patriotism. In these difficult times, perhaps we should be grateful to Mr Gove for reminding us that the most pressing threat to common decency in Britain does not actually come from UKIP – at least, not just yet – but from the wreckers already in power who, with their stealth privatisations, punitive taxes, iniquitous welfare reforms and ideologically driven education policies, are well on the way to dismantling the safety-nets of society.

Since the story broke, supporters of Gove have mounted a concerted and largely successful effort to exculpate their man by insisting peevishly that nothing has been banned. Well, of course it hasn’t. I should jolly well think not. You can say what you like about this government – I certainly do – but thankfully we’re still a good many goose-steps away from the banning of literature. However, since that was never really the issue, the Gove camp’s attempt to suggest otherwise is a classic strawman manoeuvre. Of course nothing has been banned. Of course it would be impossible to teach every good book at GCSE. Of course, theoretically, Steinbeck and the rest could still be taught in schools on top of the materials which are compulsory on the new syllabus (although, in practice, that’s highly unlikely to happen because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day). All of this is entirely obvious. The objectionable part, very simply, is the decision of a man in power to bring his weight to bear on influencing the content of the syllabus on the grounds of his personal taste and ideology. That, Mr Gove, is what stinks.

Deep down – or at least, as deep down as they are capable of going – the Goves of this world fear the arts. They fear learning in general, but in particular they fear the unquantifiable, uncontrollable, nebulous nature of painting, of music, of performance, and, perhaps especially, of literature. Literature is complex. It’s opaque, it’s resonant, it’s subversive, it’s suggestive, it’s intricate, it’s untidy, it’s frayed at the edges and open to a multiplicity of intellectual, moral and political interpretations – and, for all of these reasons, it poses a threat to closed and stunted minds. As Bertrand Russell once wrote, “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.” It’s not particularly surprising that ideologues like Gove should seek to impose upon literature a set of definitions and parameters with which they feel more comfortable – and, when that doesn’t work, that they should try to suppress whichever bits they consider most threatening to their borders.

There has always been a belief among dull-witted people that art and literature are commodities which exist for no other reason than to be decorative, to give us something charming and pretty to hang on our walls, to read with a nice cup of tea on our Sunday afternoons, or to applaud politely on our trips to the theatre. There are plenty of folk out there, and it’s hard to persuade oneself that Gove isn’t one of them, who believe that being educated in literature means little more than being able to stand up in front of the class and recite a nice poem by Keats off by heart.

Of course, there’s plenty in Keats which isn’t actually all that nice, but try telling that to the sort of Tory who, like Gove, cleaves to the reassuring fantasy that there are essentially two types of literature. On the one hand there’s all that nasty, rude, scabrous, difficult-to-understand stuff which is clearly up to no good, staying up late and trashing the joint with its bad language and its political ideas and its subversive influences. And on the other hand there’s the familiar, comfortable canon of Keats, Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen, rubber-stamped, gift-wrapped and safely gathered in, anthologised in wholesome and unthreatening morsels of chocolate-box heritage. Of course, anybody who has actually read Bleak House or Mansfield Park, or has seen a decent production of Coriolanus or King Lear – and, moreover, has actually understood what it is that they’ve read and seen – knows that nothing could be further from the truth. Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen are as angry, satirical and subversive as they come.

Subscribers to the chocolate-box view of literature risk embarrassment if they share their kindergarten ideas in public. Gordon Brown raised eyebrows in a 2008 interview when he identified himself with the character of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. Perhaps relying on vague recollections of the Laurence Olivier movie or the Kate Bush song – both unassailable masterpieces in their own right, but neither of them a particularly watertight alternative to reading Emily Brontë’s novel – the former Prime Minister appeared to perceive one of the most tormented, vengeful and violent characters in nineteenth-century fiction as an attractively flinty and windswept romantic hero. In the same year, a soi-disant classical scholar and sometime Shadow Minister for Higher Education by the name of Boris Johnson enlivened a London mayoral debate when he managed to get Shakespeare’s Pericles mixed up with an unrelated Athenian statesman of the same name. Pricked into action by the indignity of having this howler pointed out on air by none other than Ken Livingstone, Mr Johnson hastily claimed that the mix-up had been deliberate – for reasons which remain unclear.

But let’s get back to Michael Gove. An irony apparently lost on our Education Secretary is that great writers have been laughing at him for centuries. In life, and therefore in art, the figure of the posturing, prescriptive, philistine pedagogue is nothing new. Literature is riddled with Goves. He’s there, of course, in Thomas Gradgrind, the monstrous, fact-obsessed schoolmaster in Dickens’s Hard Times who commends young Bitzer’s definition of a horse (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth”) to the bewildered Sissy Jupe, who has spent all her young life among horses and understands them more profoundly than Bitzer or Gradgrind can ever hope to do.

Younger readers will have found a more recent Gove in Dolores Umbridge, one of the more memorable creations in J K Rowling’s colourful universe of wizards and witches: an oppressive, unimaginative and morally ugly schoolteacher who shuts down any areas of learning she considers inappropriate, and pursues her vindictive agenda against bright and free-thinking children from behind a veil of kittens, chocolate biscuits, fluffy pink cardigans and sugar-coated smiles.

But of all the slithy Goves I’ve ever encountered in the pages of the English novel, the one whose voice echoes through my thoughts today is the Education Secretary’s near-namesake, Sir Charles Grover. There’s a good chance that you won’t be familiar with Sir Charles – he’s not what you’d call an established figure in the literary canon, and he’s certainly never been on the GCSE syllabus – but he happens to be a figure of some significance in my own personal voyage through literature, belonging as he does to a book which made a profound impression on me at the tender age of nine. I’ve just had a rummage along a shelf in the spare room, and to my delight I’ve found the volume in question. For the first time in decades, I’m holding it in my hand right now. It was published in 1976, and it’s called Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

Dinosaur Invasion

Notwithstanding its lurid title and its even more lurid cover illustration, Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion is a work of considerable moral complexity. Based, of course, on the famous BBC series, it was adapted from his own scripts by the late Malcolm Hulke, a veteran of television drama whose unashamedly political contributions helped to define the moral earnestness of the Jon Pertwee period of Doctor Who in the early 1970s. (Hulke’s best-remembered Doctor Who serial is probably The Sea Devils, fondly recalled by a generation of viewers for its unforgettable money-shot of monsters in string vests emerging from the waves of the Solent – but also, as it happens, a trenchant parable about the follies of unthinking patriotism.) Be they ever so modest, Malcolm Hulke’s teatime fantasy thrillers played their part in expanding my horizons and enlarging my sympathies – a small but important step along the way to the subtler and more substantial rewards of To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses and Middlemarch.

Let me tell you a little about The Dinosaur Invasion. The exciting plot concerns a secret cadre of dissident eco-warrior extremists who are appalled by the excesses of modern society. They’re led by a cabinet minister (that’s our Sir Charles Grover) and a brilliant but disenchanted scientist who, very usefully, has invented a time machine. Armed with this expedient gadget, they pluck fearsome prehistoric reptiles from the past and plonk them down in the streets of present-day London, ensuring widespread panic, the declaration of martial law, and a total evacuation of the capital – but this is all part of their plan. Having emptied the immediate area of undesirables, their ultimate aim is to batten down the hatches and reverse the flow of time across the whole of planet Earth, obliterating the human race and effacing its entire history, allowing them to emerge from their capsule as a self-appointed elite who will begin civilisation afresh in a prehistoric paradise unspoiled by millennia of pollution, politics and human wickedness – and this time around, so they fervently believe, they’ll get everything right.

What made this book so compelling to me as a boy, and why I still remember it so vividly today, is that the creepy politician Grover and his pals are not moustache-twirling cartoon baddies – far from it. They’re calm, committed, friendly and plausible. Every step of their dreadful journey has been taken with absolute sincerity, and they believe that their genocidal mission is morally justified. The Doctor’s journalist friend, Sarah Jane Smith, even finds some sympathy with their views, if not with their proposed solution:

Sarah knew that everything the voice said was true. What she didn’t agree with was the way in which these people were trying to run away from the problem, and their schoolmasterly attitude towards anyone who thought differently.

Their schoolmasterly attitude towards anyone who thought differently. Hmm. Hold that thought. A page later, Malcolm Hulke serves up a line which thudded like a crossbow bolt into my nine-year-old brain, and which has, I’m happy to say, remained embedded there ever since:

Sarah thought about this. A veteran journalist once told her, “Beware people who know they are right, like Oliver Cromwell. For the good of humanity, those people sometimes do murder.”

What’s alarming about the fictional cabinet minister Sir Charles Grover is precisely the same thing that’s alarming about the real-life cabinet minister Michael Gove: they’re both people who know they are right. I’m not remotely suggesting, of course, that Mr Gove has any plans to do murder; I’m merely pointing out that he is busy masterminding a dinosaur invasion of another, rather subtler sort. He has already demonstrated his commitment to rolling back time and attempting to rewrite history along lines that better suit his own view of the world, and with every fresh initiative, like this latest Steinbeck-suppressing idiocy, he administers a vicious, oafish kicking to the education of Britain’s children – doubtless, in his own mind, for the good of humanity.

Towards the climax of The Dinosaur Invasion, Malcolm Hulke allows Sir Charles Grover a brief moment of self-awareness:

“Twenty years in politics has taught me that people only believe what they want to believe.” He paused to think. “I suppose that goes for us all in a way.”

I don’t know whether Michael Gove is blessed with sufficient self-knowledge to concede that point – but I suspect he isn’t, and this is profoundly worrying. All of us, even government ministers – no, scrub that, especially government ministers – have an ongoing obligation to enquire within. We need to question ourselves, to interrogate our motives and our means. We need to consult that most reliable of self-regulators and that greatest of intellectual galvanisers: doubt. If we only believe what we want to believe, and if we become so convinced our ideological stance is for the common good that we stop listening to other people altogether – well, that’s when our hands start straying towards the controls of that time machine.

Above all else, an Education Secretary should surely be encouraging children to read books. Good books, bad books, important books, trivial books, British books, American books, Asian books, African books. What children don’t need is agenda-driven interference from a pontificating fool about which books they ought not to be reading, any more than they need autographed bibles, calumnious attacks on Blackadder, or any of the rest of Mr Gove’s silly, vain, hubristic pet projects.

Michael Gove is a man convinced that he is right, and his reaction to every fresh wave of criticism is to pout a little more and stiffen his resolve. The danger he poses to the education of children cannot easily be overestimated. He’s not a disaster waiting to happen; he’s a disaster already happening.

Still, it’s not all bad news. As I post this, I note that To Kill a Mockingbird has today rocketed to number 7 in Amazon’s Top 100 list. Nice work, Mr Gove.

Michael Gove

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Laughing at Nigel

Farage

I’m not a politician. I’m nobody in particular. I’m just an actor and a writer, and I’m under no illusion that my opinions carry any more weight than anybody else’s. I do, however, cling to the naïve belief that my opinions carry no less weight than those of any other citizen and voter. Not that you’d always think so, mind you; not on the evidence of my Twitter feed. I’m sure you’d be amused, as I am, by quite how many people out there appear to believe that variants on “Shut the fuck up and get back in your Dalek” constitute a slam-dunk victory of political discourse, as if my occasional trips into the space-time vortex were enough to render me uniquely disqualified from having any intelligence or opinion at all. But that’s okay. I’m more than happy to be laughed at. Laughter is healthy. Laughter is good. Which brings us to Nigel Farage.

It’s easy to laugh at Mr Farage. He is, after all, laughable. We’ve all done quite a lot of laughing at him this year. I certainly have. A few months ago I offered up my own modest contribution to the gaiety of nations when I posted online a whimsical little thing called The UKIP Shipping Forecast, which seemed to strike a certain chord with those whose outlook, like mine, was beginning to be buffeted by the waves of misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, mendacity and all-round stupidity issuing forth from what Mr Farage would like us to perceive as the lunatic fringe of his party, but which, increasingly, appears to be anything but. Like most of us, I’ve long since lost count of how many UKIP members have got themselves into trouble over the last year for spouting various species of unpleasant twaddle – and, more to the point, how many of them haven’t.

Whenever he is confronted on any remotely controversial matter concerning himself or his party, Nigel Farage’s first and only resort has always been the most blitheringly obvious playground deflection tactic: “Well, what about the Conservatives? What about Labour? What about Brussels?” Those of us who would dearly love to hear Mr Farage, just for once, answer an interviewer’s question instead of batting it away with a hearty chortle and answering one of his own questions instead, have long become accustomed to this infantile gambit – not least during the inordinate number of appearances he has made in recent months on BBC One’s Question Time. What was so strikingly different about Farage’s car-crash of an interview last Friday with LBC’s James O’Brien was that finally – at long, long last – a journalist took the decision to stand up to Farage’s familiar “What about X, Y and Z?” technique and to counter it, doggedly, repeatedly, and with more than enough homework to back himself up, by asking: “No, Mr Farage. What about you?”

The result, as anyone who has seen or heard the interview will know (including, of course, those UKIP supporters who are still in denial about it), was meltdown. Panic. Desperate squirming. A clodhopping fandango of evasiveness, obfuscation, reverse-ferreting and meretricious flapdoodle. It must surely rank as one of the most disastrous political interviews ever aired. By rights it should have instantly torpedoed Farage’s credibility and career. It didn’t, of course. The UKIP faithful took to the internet and to the airwaves, accusing James O’Brien of talking too much and of not allowing Farage to get a word in edgeways. This is baloney. What O’Brien did – refreshingly, and it’s to be hoped that others will now follow his example – was simply refuse to allow Farage to perform his customary trick of dodging the question and steering the conversation elsewhere. O’Brien repeatedly gave Farage the opportunity to answer his questions. Farage repeatedly declined, and ducked, and slithered away – and when that didn’t work, he tried that other old trick of his, the matey guffaw. Unluckily for him, O’Brien’s terse response – “I’m delighted you’re so happy” – rather knocked the wind out of that one. But no, that’s not what happened, not according to the UKIP contingent: no, they insist, Mr Farage was barracked, and railroaded, and bullied.

Of course, the oldest trick in the bully’s handbook is to turn it all around and play the victim. There’s nothing UKIP likes more than to characterise itself as the plucky underdog, hounded and misrepresented by a media conspiracy and by some phantasmagorical “political class”, whatever that might mean. If I had a pound for every time a UKIP supporter labelled me a bully on Twitter in the wake of my avowedly silly Shipping Forecast skit, I’d be able to take you all out for a drink. But excuse me: the last time I checked, I wasn’t the one casting aspersions on Romanians, or expressing discomfort about people not speaking English on trains, or labelling other nations “uncivilised” – nor yet, as others within UKIP have done, blaming bad weather on marriage equality, or calling for pro-Europe politicians to be hanged, or musing in public about the efficacy or otherwise of shooting homosexuals. If we raise our voices in protest against these appalling remarks – or even if we just make fun of them – we are accused of misrepresentation, of taking things out of context, of being bullies. If it weren’t so patently daft, it’d be downright sinister – and sometimes, that’s precisely what it is. Have the temerity to post a spoof UKIP leaflet online, and you might even get a knock on the door from the police.

Unlike most of his online apologists, Farage himself has at least conceded that he performed badly in the LBC interview. In the wake of unprecedented criticism from other politicians, he admitted on Sunday that he regrets making his comments about Romanians, a confession rendered problematic by the fact that it was a little late in coming (Farage defended his remarks for 48 hours, until the chorus of disapproval prompted his volte-face), and by a baffling excuse which seems to pose more questions than it answers: apparently Farage made the contentious utterances because he was “completely tired out”. Crikey. How does that work? I don’t know about you, but when I’m completely tired out, I don’t involuntarily start spouting xenophobic drivel. I just look tired and yawn a lot, exactly like Farage didn’t in the LBC interview.

Yes, it’s easy to laugh at Nigel Farage. I certainly intend to carry on doing so, and I hope that you do too. But as we enjoy his stumblebum antics, let’s not lose sight of the fact that behind the affable buffoonery lies an ideology that is as cruel as it is ridiculous, as morally ugly and intellectually inadequate as it is preposterous, and as divisive and insidious as it is clownish and absurd. Nigel Farage is a laughable man – and that might just be his most dangerous weapon of all.

Farage 2

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