‘I am CHARLES FOSTER KANE’. Orson Welles stands at the top of the stairs of a modest boarding house and bellows. His wife who has been given the address of the lover of Kane shakes her head and leaves. The wife is not the equal of Kane but he has weaknesses and they allow her to have justified contempt. The defiant words signal the end of the political ambition of a charismatic man.
Today, politicians have paramours and careers and both may prosper. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had an affair with Petronella Wyatt which involved the two of them supposedly taking ‘passionate’ cab rides around London, whatever that means. The two of them would insist on the cabbies playing cassettes of girlfriend ‘Petsy’ singing arias from Puccini. The world has changed. Gone is the tradition of the discrete Cockney cabbie that called you ‘Guv’nor’. Absurd as it is, listening to the cassettes may even be defensible. It cannot be fun having someone whisper Pfeffel in your ear, especially if they have had a few gulps of Bollinger champagne. My own moments have been limited but occasionally I have heard the odd whispered pleasantry. I remember that I quite enjoyed it. One has to be curious about how it would be with an aspiring opera singer.
The scene in the ‘Citizen Kane’ movie surprises us today. Similarly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that there was once an era when Tory politicians were capable. Michael Howard and Michael Hesletine may have had their flaws but compared to the present cabinet they were political giants. Politicians no longer have careers in which they acquire the ability that enables them to perform their jobs properly. Now we identify stars and desperately we launch them before they become too old and before their teeth lose their white sheen. David Cameron was launched into a leadership contest well before he acquired competence. The same has happened in the Labour Party. Milliband and Blair are also examples of the obsession with white teeth and unblemished complexions. Politics has gone pop.
The next political star that has back benchers excited because they believe he has the X factor is the Olympic God, Boris Johnson. He is popular and he was an easy choice. Not only is he prone to listening to charming ladies carouse him with Puccini as he crosses the Thames in a cab, he likes to use them for official business, taxis not opera singers. Between 2008 and 2009 his Mayoral expenditure on taxi fares rose by 540%. So, if Boris ever does become leader of the Tory party, we can at least console ourselves with the notion that they really did find him in the back of a taxi.
Meanwhile, the British are snobby about thick American Republican politicians. British TV programme producers often show clips of Sarah Palin and Herman Cain revealing their ignorance. The interviewer mentions a name of a country outside the States, the faces of the politicians go blank and the British laugh. But maybe we should pause. Admittedly, Caine and Palin are small minded horrors. It is also a pity Cain did not spell his name the same as the movie which might have offered some belated consolation to Charles Foster. There is, though, a naive almost impressive belief at the heart of the American populists that vote for these phonies. They believe in the potential of the ordinary man and woman and assume that Government can be run by people like themselves and who have common sense. They think that men who can chop trees and women who can shoot wild animals must have a practical touch that will benefit their Government. Public administration may look easy to outsiders but those who have had experience know it requires experience and a grasp of detail. It is dominated by macro-economics and, as Keynes proved, much is counter intuitive. Common sense is not valuable. It is actually dangerous. The populist belief is wrong but it should not be condemned. It is rooted in self-belief and ambition. It requires a population that has a strong sense of purpose. But it also reveals contempt for professionalism.
When the British feel confident to ignore practical skills we pick a different kind of leader. We are too cowed to have faith in the ordinary man and woman. Instead, we return to the romance of the Renaissance man, the gifted dilettante who has charm and appeal. The Americans want men with broad shoulders and middle aged women who have kept their figures. The British plump for a rotund person called Pfeffel whose ‘Petsy’ has a brother called Percicles. We want aristocrats. Perhaps because we all believe Britain has an aristocratic place in the world. Other people work, we offer disdain and irony.
And Boris can be funny. His honesty and self-effacement are often appealing and always disarming. Some time ago he said, ‘my chances of being PM are about as good as finding Elvis on Mars or being reincarnated as an olive.’ Today, Tory columnists are predicting he will be the next Tory leader so maybe Elvis is alive after all. Mars is difficult to credit but we have had American rock and roll stars turn up in council houses in the oddest places. On my last visit to London, Boris passed me on his bike. He looked wary rather than comfortable. I did not respond with instant dislike. The man has a gift for connecting with people. He was presumably joking when he said that, ‘voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chance of driving a BMW 3’. We know Boris is no empiricist. He failed as a management consultant. ‘Try as I might, I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth chart and stay conscious.’ Those who struggle through the wild unfounded generalisations of the Spectator, the magazine he used to edit, know the feeling.
We cannot be superior because Boris is right. Britain is full of people who want wives with bigger breasts and who want to increase their chance of driving a BMW 3. Most of them probably vote Tory and there is nothing more dispiriting than a failed attempt to convince these characters that they would improve their lives if they could only find alternative urges. Perhaps this will
be the Tory winning ticket, Johnson as leader and Clarkson as his deputy. Nobody will have any idea of what to do but their fans will like the jokes. Those who fear Johnson, and that clause alone makes his presence in British politics sinister, assume that the national stage will expose his weaknesses. Being Mayor of London means you have a modest budget and little choice as to how it will be spent. The British economy with its workforce of aspiring aristocrats and artists, what a group of Tories has recently called the ‘worst idlers in the world’, will expose the limited concentration of Boris, the man who falls asleep when exposed to a growth chart. After the last two years, the next stop after Cameron is not likely to be anywhere near Mars. Johnson, the man who compares himself to Elvis, sounds a likely destination on the ‘Way Down’.
If you want to read about Elvis, rock and roll and much more click here.
If her Guardian column on Monday 14th May is an indication, Polly Toynbee is becoming the Joe Louis of the left. There is something inspiring about a tough two fisted heroine. And since the Coalition Government, Polly Toynbee has been slinging punches faster than we thought possible. Meanwhile, Ed Milliband is a different kind of fighter, the kind who prefers the monotonous jab. We have to be hesitant about being convinced by Milliband but if he does eventually triumph and claim a place in history he will not be the first defensive jabber to be underestimated. The rest of us scream from the other side of the ropes and demand a punch that will knockout Cameron. But we are impatient spectators. The trainers at the side of the ring understand the rigours of a championship fight. Jab and keep your guard high and do not let the opponent get close.
‘What about hitting him with some policies, coach, you know, show him we have ideas?’
‘Just keep jabbing, son. You’ll be all right. His nose is bleeding and his eye is opening.’
There was a time when Polly was a jabber. She always had compassion which she proved by taking routine and unpleasant jobs but she believed pragmatism rather than idealism had to prevail. Thatcher had that effect on many of us. When a leader preaches hatred and contempt for half the population and the other half respond by cheering then your ideals suffer. In an odd way, Thatcher did shift the political opinions of almost everyone to the right. Much has been made of the massive majority Labour had in 1997 but many people voted Labour back then without any real expectation of reform. There is an irony. Blair and New Labour deserve all the condemnation that they have received because they continued with Thatcherism. But if their initiatives did nothing about the gap between rich and poor, the progress made in the NHS and the impact of tax credits was more significant than most thought possible in 1997. The problem for New Labour was that Thatcherism did not work. Industries vanished and Brown felt that he had no choice but to support an economic system based on finance and debt. He was clever enough to know it was flimsy but lacked the one virtue he admired, courage. His remark about abolishing boom and bust was misunderstood. He had abolished it, his policies were designed to maintain spending and growth at a steady rate and they were feasible providing that there was no wholesale financial collapse. Unfortunately, greed was not quite as good or as beneficial as some had promised.
The plates stopped spinning but long before the crash Toynbee had re-invented herself as a malcontent. She wanted to do more than jab. Note that the word radical has been avoided. Her social democracy values demanded efficient management from left wing governments and when Labour returns to power she will no doubt repeat her pleas for responsibility and efficiency. Somewhere and at some point, though, Toynbee became disgusted by what she saw in the elite of Britain. She acquired a quality that is hard to resist when it spills out on to the keyboard. Toynbee discovered the joy of loathing. This has been missed by her left wing critics. The lady who back in the eighties deserted Labour for the SDP has never been forgiven. Yet the world and people change. Toynbee who campaigns in The Guardian today on behalf of the poor and who exposes the callous greed of the rich is unrecognisable when compared to her predecessor, except the previous incarnation was also a battler.
She must be doing something well because the right wing hates her so much. This is how motor mouth Boris Johnson describes her; she “incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and ‘elf ‘n’ safety fascism.’ In other words, she is concerned about social justice. Boris who managed to be re-elected as Mayor of London without promising any reforms that might improve the lives of ordinary Londoners presumably thought that thinking about the human hardships within his city constituted ‘elf ‘n safety fascism’.
Polly Toynbee angers the rich and powerful because her background means that she knows and understands them. In the British class system that pretends to be a society the word background is sometimes changed for pedigree. Because she knows them she can spot stupidity with the precise eye of an expert rifleman. And on Tuesday in The Guardian the repeater rifle was loaded and she took aim. I know she will not be flattered by the comparison but it reminded me of Elvis in Vegas when he used to do impressions of his rivals and then sing the song in his own voice. ‘And this is the real thing,’ he would say. He was right if arrogant. Like Elvis, Toynbee understands that the grinning upstarts who think they can brush aside others and avoid scrutiny and accountability will always justify contempt.
This Tuesday, she described the Government as ‘unwise’ which she soon demonstrated was sarcastic understatement. If that sounds oxymoronic read the article. Admittedly it has been a week when her opponents have stood like imbeciles next to the shooting targets but nothing defines present day economic absurdity better than her sentence, ‘iron laws set by bankers whose grotesque pay flows from bailouts by states they impoverished’. While the rest of us were still gobsmacked by cabinet ministers, William Hague, Phillip Hammond and Eric Pickles, arguing that economic growth would only be achieved if everybody worked harder she quickly held them all to account. She soon found opinion within the Chambers of Commerce and the CBI to remind the three not so wise men that economic growth requires a strategy from government. Swatting three ministers would be enough for anyone and any article, but Toynbee also battered Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Gove and Duncan Smith. This is impressive even though she is correct, ‘the bungling and dogmatism are unrivalled in post war Britain.’ 1500 words and seven victims later she sneers at the end of the column. ‘You Gov yesterday reported Ed Milliband polling higher than David Cameron who with every passing day looks increasingly like the prime minister of a one term government.’ The reader can almost hear Cameron splutter his breakfast over the kitchen table. We cheer, hope and wait. Loathing and contempt have to be managed but when Duncan Smith talks about disabled people ‘festering’ he actually means eating and surviving. He deserves every blow that two fisted Polly lands. So does Michael Gove whose empty head supposedly yearns for a working class for whom ‘deprivation need not be destiny.’ Presumably the deprivation is fine; it is just the destiny that is embarrassing. Gove does not last long and is soon felled by blows from Toynbee to the head and the body. Clegg is the easiest target; he is knocked out with a direct upper cut.
Not everybody approves of the detours that this blog takes into politics. But rock and roll and Elvis grabbed me at an early age and insisted that I was entitled to heroes and fighters, especially those like Elvis who know a life that values consistency over growth is mistaken. The two fists make a difference.
If you want to read about Elvis, rock and roll and much more click here.