The happy consequences of Jeremy Paxman’s focus on Charles Kennedy’s drinking habits last week is that the backlash is underway, and defences of drunk politicians are appearing in the mainstream media. New Labour’s puritanism is always ridiculous, never more so than a few years ago when (it was reported that) MPs had been ordered not to let themselves be photographed with drinks in their hands, and while it is, in general, a good thing that train drivers, emergency workers and certain others are sober during their working days, to extend this logic to throughout the public sector and across the political classes is absurd.
So we have had Tom Utley’s defence of the drunk politician in the Telegraph, which joins Alan Watkins’ column in last week’s Independent on Sunday (before this controversy broke) on the prodigious drinking feats of the older generation in general, and Tony Crosland in particular. And a browse of the archives brings the words of this song to light, reported by Matthew Engel in the Guardian in its 1999 coverage of the Lib Dem party conference:
Speed bonnie boat
Like a hack on the make
Back to his seat on Skye.
Carry the lad that was born to be king
Back to his seat on Skye
Where is the man?
Down in the bar,
Loudly the whips pro-clai-aim
Out on the town
Out of his head
Charlie is pissed again
And Radio 4’s Sunday morning Broadcasting House played the happy-making clip of Alan Clark’s remarks to the House of Commons in July 1983, which led to one of the immortal passages in his Diaries:
Fool, Clark. Fool, fool, fool… The fucking text! I’d barely looked at it… It seemed frightfully long. So long, indeed, that I would have to excise certain passages. But which? And yet this didn’t really seem very important as we ‘tasted’ first a bottle of ’61 Palmer, then ‘for comparison’ a bottle of ’75 Palmer then, switching back to ’61, a really delicious Pichon Longueville… A huge Havana was produced, and I puffed it deeply while struggling with my speech… The Chamber was unusually full for an after-ten event. … As I started, the odiousness of the text sank in. The purpose of the Order, to make it more likely (I would put it no stronger than that) that women should be paid the same rate for the same task, as men, was unchallengeable. In my view, in most instances, women deserve not less but more than the loutish, leering, cigaretting males who control most organisations at most levels But give a civil servant a good case and he’ll wreck it with clichï¿½s, bad punctuation, double negatives and convoluted apology. Stir into this a directive from the EC, some contrived legal precedent and a few caveats from the ECJ and you have a text which is impossible to read – never mind read out.
I found myself dwelling on, implicitly, it could be said, sneering at, the more cumbrous and unintelligible passages. Elaine Kellett-Bowman, who has a very squeaky voice, squeaked, kept squeaking, at me, “Speed up”. Some of the House got the point, enjoyed what I was doing, but I sensed also a certain restlessness starting to run round the Chamber. I did speed up. I gabbled. Helter-skelter I galloped through the text. Sometimes I turned over two pages, sometimes three. What did it matter? There was no shape to it. No linkage from one proposition to another. They very antithesis of an Aristotelian pattern…
Then the inevitable. The one sure-fire way of breaking through a speaker who won’t give way. “Point of Order, Mr Deputy Speaker”. I sat down. A new Labour member, whom I had never seen before, called Clare Short, dark-haired and serious with a lovely Brummie accent, said something about she’d read that you couldn’t accuse a fellow member of being drunk, but she really believed I was incapable. “It is disrespectful to the House and to the office that he holds that he should come here in this condition”. Screams, yells, shouts of “Withdraw”, counter-shouts. General uproar…
One more brief kerfuffle, and the Division was called. Nobody spole to me much in the Aye lobby, although little garden gnome Peter Rost sidled up and said, “After a performance like that I almost considered voting against”. Poxy little runt, what’s he ever done?
Any rational human being would, in any case, require a great deal of booze to survive at Westminster in the company of the dreary idiots who populate the parliamentary benches today.
Nick wrote [22.7.2002]: FWIW, Alan Clark’s bits come roughly 38 minutes into the broadcast, for those who want to jump to the meat of the matter.