Gerald Kaufman

Diary - 22 March 2003

Notes from the newly augmented backbenches

Text settings

One day last August, with the dust-motes swirling in the summer heat, I ran into Robin Cook in a corridor of the House of Commons. The place was almost deserted during the long recess, whose length Cook later truncated as part of the sweeping reforms he brought in when Leader of the House. The Spectator had just published an article by me expressing my misgivings at the prospect of a war on Iraq, and Robin told me he agreed with many of the points I had made. It therefore came as no surprise to me that his own doubts should have surfaced steadily to the point where he resigned from the government. Just as Robin agreed with me, so I agreed with him in many of the arguments he put forward in his masterly Commons resignation speech - his 'personal statement' is one of the few specimens of quaint Commons phraseology that Robin unaccountably failed to abolish. I especially empathised with his excoriation of the ghastly President George W. Bush. However, I did not agree with his conclusion that he would vote against the government, since to me Security Council resolution 1441 provides sufficient legal justification for military action. I do not think Robin would have chosen to end his career in front-bench politics to the accompaniment of a standing ovation from the Liberal Democrats, loathing for whose cynical opportunism was widespread on both Labour and Conservative benches on Monday night. I wish that Robin's reforms had included changes in the rules governing television coverage of the Commons to allow panoramic reaction shots, since it would have been educational for the wider electorate to have seen the giggling and smirking that so often permeated the Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist benches during that tense and sombre evening.

Stephen Daldry has made it known that, if he wins the Oscar for best director on Sunday, he will use his acceptance speech to attack war on Iraq. I hope he does not get the chance - not because I want to suppress his political views, but because I loathed the widely praised film for which he has been nominated. The Hours is exactly the kind of dull, drab, pseudo-literary movie - with contributions from posh Brits such as Daldry and Sir David Hare - for which vulgarian Hollywood nabobs are such suckers. That is why they gave the Best Picture award to the almost equally stilted, stuffy Shakespeare in Love when the vigorous, brilliantly edited Saving Private Ryan was in contention. The Hours has every ingredient that can be relied on to intimidate Hollywood and to make any self-respecting movie-lover cringe: high-flown sentiments, convoluted construction posing as skill, and self-consciously 'great' performances, especially that of look-at-me-I'm-acting Meryl Streep, who is almost as irritating in the almost equally phoney Adaptation. With grisly credentials like these, I fear that The Hours is bound to win a slew of awards and Daldry may even get to make that speech.

In this week's Sunday Telegraph Matthew d'Ancona cruelly listed the categories of rebel, rather along the lines of Polonius's categories of actor, cited in Hamlet: 'historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral'. D'Ancona's rogues' gallery consisted of 'deadbeats, crypto-Trots, bearded headbangers, ale-soaked has-beens, failed poly-lecturers and professional whingers'. I do not necessarily endorse the whole of this catalogue. However, d'Ancona did miss out, unaccountably, the categories of sacked ex-ministers, sacked front-benchers in opposition, and disappointed office-seekers. You don't have to be a rebel if you are sacked, as loyalist ex-ministers like George Howarth and Angela Eagle have pointed out to me, with justified indignation; but having been sacked does help. I admire all my colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour party, but I have an especial reverence for those of my right honourable and honourable friends whose rediscovery of their socialist ideals coincided precisely with the moment when the Prime Minister told them he had decided to dispense with their services. I would not go as far as one of the government Whips, who moaned to me that some of his flock were running about like headless chickens; but, having gone through the hell of being a Labour MP between 1979 (when the internal blood-letting began) and 1987 (when Neil Kinnock began to get a grip on the party and return it to the real world), I found it fascinating to observe what agonies some of my Labour colleagues, who arrived at Westminster from 1997 onwards, were going through. Because I have been around for longer than most, some of the younger MPs asked for my take on the situation. My response was easy: the problems of government are infinitely preferable to the comforts of opposition.

All politicians love voting but, though an Oxford graduate, I gave the election of chancellor of Oxford University a miss, as I did on the last occasion, in 1987, when I was too lazy to make the trip to Oxford to vote against Roy Jenkins. Having always voted against him in internal Parliamentary Labour party elections, I had no intention whatever of voting for him. The only time I have summoned up the energy to vote in the chancellorship election was in 1960, when Harold Macmillan was a candidate. Having stood against him unsuccessfully as Labour candidate in his Bromley constituency and, of course, lost decisively, I hoped that on this occasion I might have the satisfaction of participating in his defeat, and so donned my cap and gown and stood in line to cast my ballot against him. Once again, however, the old entertainer had the laugh on me.

At Prime Minister's Questions last week, I happened to glance up at the Peers' Gallery and, to my amazement, saw one Anthony Wedgwood Benn sitting in the front row. I registered a complaint with the Serjeant at Arms, who later wrote telling me that, as part of the Speaker's granting of the 'freedom of the House' to Wedgwood Benn, 'one of those privileges is the right to sit in the gallery seats reserved for peers, if no peer requires that seat'. Well! It is one thing for the Speaker, with misguided generosity, to grant Wedgwood Benn this privilege. It is quite another for this self-proclaimed egalitarian, disclaimer of his own hereditary peerage, and advocate of the abolition of the House of Lords, to avail himself of it. What's wrong with queuing up for the Strangers' Gallery, along with the Joe Public whom Wedgwood Benn purports to revere?