Pee Rages

I’m finding the whole ‘cash for honours‘ scandal rather surreal. And not just because there’s something odd about the idea of a sequence of Tony Blair’s close advisers being arrested and government tootling along regardless.

As long as I can remember, it has been an accepted fact of the British political system that people who donate a lot of money to political parties are more likely to be given peerages. It’s always been seen as slightly distasteful, and a cause for satire and criticism, but still: more or less normal. The only difference with the current situation is that they are accused of making the quid pro quo explicit. Now clearly the goverment shouldn’t be selling seats in the legislature, and now we’ve got rid of the hereditaries, the dodginess of that has been thrown into relief somewhat; but I just don’t believe that the current government has done anything very different to those who went before.

And the answer, really, is reform of the way the membership of House Of Lords is selected. I don’t generally worry about the fact that the UK’s constitutional arrangements are so messy and chaotic, because looking around the world for comparisons, our political culture seems pretty healthy. But having the Prime Minister able to appoint people to the upper chamber is a conflict of interest too far. Either Lords should be elected (which is what it looks like will happen) or appointed by an independent committee.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, you deserve some comic relief in the form of a letter to today’s Times. This is the first paragraph:

Sir, Ideas to transform the House of Lords into either an elected chamber or a combination of elected and appointed members are both dangerous to the British political system. In such a fraught debate, the cry of democracy rises up, but with little thought about how such a principle works in practice. The British tradition has never been one of democracy on the model of Ancient Greece. Indeed, many societies that have taken that model to its logical conclusion have themselves come unstuck — witness the French revolutionary experiment.

Yes, you read correctly: someone is comparing an elected second chamber to… The Terror. Personally I thought it only got funnier from then on.

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The Queen

I went to see The Queen last night, which is about the Queen and Tony Blair in the week after Diana’s death. I enjoyed it more than I was expecting.

I couldn’t help thinking that a film about one of the biggest and most relentlessly commented on news stories of the past ten years was unlikely to offer much of a surprise. And it didn’t, really. The details have obviously just been made up, and who knows how close they are to what happened, but the presentation isn’t a particularly radical one. But it was well written, looked great (not least because so much of the action took place either in the Scottish Highlands or royal palaces) and had some amusing moments, mainly to do with the bubble of anachronistic weirdness that surrounds the Queen.

And most of all, I thought Helen Mirren as her Maj and Michael Sheen as Blair both did a good job of presenting them as human and likeable while treading the fine line between acting and doing an impression. There are lots of films that require actors to play famous people, of course, but it must be unusual to play someone quite so familiar who is still alive and still in the news all the time. Sheen was the more like of the two, and captured the newly elected Blair (rather different to the current model), but as a result occasionally strayed close to caricature. I never quite felt with Mirren that I was watching the Queen; there’s not much of a physical resemblance and she avoided doing that strangulatingly posh voice the Queen has. But it worked as a performance anyway. Of course most of the supporting parts are pretty famous too — Philip, Charles, the Queen Mother, Cherie, Alastair Campbell — and so the likeness or, more often, unlikeness of their performances was often a touch distracting. Diana only appeared in archive film and the young princes barely appeared and didn’t have speaking parts. That’s probably a good decision: keep the focus on the Queen and Blair.

At one point in the film, the Queen is watching that awful, coy, manipulative Diana interview with Martin Bashir. Every time I see it it makes my skin crawl, despite the fact that I can’t stand Prince Charles and I think Diana was completely shafted by the system. Who knows what the situation would be like today if she hadn’t died; what she’d be up to, and how well the Royal family would be coping. Even without Diana as a constant presence offstage, I think Charles will find his mother a hard act to follow. There’s so little support for abolishing the monarchy that it feels inevitable that they’ll be around for ever. But perhaps all it would take would be one disastrous incumbent to change the mood; Charles just might have the potential to be that person.

David Cameron (and Davis)

I ended up watching most of the Tory leadership candidate TV debate. The tag of David Cameron as ‘heir to Blair’ is almost spookily accurate. Not only does he have the same dewy eyes and the same tendency to talk in vacuous abstractions, he has the same slightly stiff body language. David Davis seemed more natural, talked far more in facts and policies and less in generalities, and seemed like a competent, intelligent bloke.

But Cameron also shares with Blair the slightly mysterious magnetism which attracts the camera, draws the attention of the audience, and almost makes you lose track of what he’s actually saying in favour of the way he’s saying it. It is the voice, or the body language, or the face? I’d be interested to know whether it works in person or if it’s just a telegenic thing. Either way, he has a bit of the star quality which the Tories have been badly lacking for some time. He’s not quite in the Clinton/Mandela/Beckham league of charisma, but he could be what the Conservatives need.

None of which says anything about his competence to run the country, of course.

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