The most cynical thing that a politician can do, other than carry out their normal daily business, is to accuse the electorate of cynicism. It's like dogshit calling the shoe smelly. Which is why it is always fun to watch politicians make such pronouncements. We enjoy the MPs' barefaced cheek for trying it on - and that they have to be a bit Jamie Oliver to think they can get away with it in the first place. So when Clare Short called people "cynical" when they reacted badly to her master's trip to Africa, she couldn't have expected people to take her seriously. Did she expect the nation to bow their heads, like in a school nativity play, and chant in unison: "Oh, Clare, your truth has exposed our callous foolishness . . . we are shamed by your sincerity and compassion"?
Maybe Short did expect praise for being outspoken - after all, she does have the remarkable ability to be incredibly patronising and incredibly stupid at the same time. These two qualities might ordinarily cancel each other out and render her inoffensive, but for her being so patronising and so stupid. It is a lethal combination that you don't usually see, except among the severely inbred members of the aristocracy*. Oddly enough, new Labour seems happy to have its own Duke of Edinburgh in the cabinet, as this creates the impression of open debate taking place.
People have a democratic duty to be cynical towards MPs, especially MPs like Tony Blair, and especially when they go on a preaching tour of Africa. The government talks of debt relief for African states, then helps prolong the cycle of debt by flogging £28m worth of military-compatible air traffic control system to Tanzania. Blair talked of peace in India, and then tried to flog the Indians Hawk jet fighters.
Now he roams Africa, talking of how we must fight the Aids epidemic on that continent. No doubt, the fight against Aids will involve the purchase of products that go bang and are manufactured by our very own BAe Systems. To be fair, though, I am sure Clare Short would throw in a free condom for every weapon purchased.
Not surprisingly, Britain has grabbed a slice of the £4bn worth of orders coming out of South Africa for military equipment. The Export Credits Guarantee Department has provided £1.68bn worth of insurance cover just for the BAe Systems part of the deal.
It seems incredible that British ministers and officials will have spent so much of their time, used so much of our money and exerted so much pressure on the South African government to buy these arms. Yet there is little or no evidence that they have sought to influence President Thabo Mbeki's pathological denial of Aids.
For all of Blair and Short's words of sympathy, they have left the struggle for access to anti-retroviral drugs, crucial in the treatment of the disease, to NGOs - the likes of Medecins sans Frontieres - and South African Aids activists such as Zackie Achmat. Achmat has the disease but refuses to take the drugs that could prolong his life until they are available to all South Africans. Currently, President Mbeki refuses to countenance local production of generic versions of the drugs. In a deliberately provocative move, MSF and Achmat recently openly imported cheap, generic anti-retroviral drugs from Brazil for use at an MSF Aids clinic in a township outside Cape Town.
The Brazilian government introduced free access to anti-retroviral drugs in 1996, which has resulted in Aids-related deaths falling by 50 per cent. In so doing, Brazil saves itself about $680m each year in hospital costs for the care of Aids sufferers. We can only guess how much money it would save if South Africa took this action, but it would easily cover a British arms deal . . . oh yes, and improve the lives of millions of people.
Blair and Short are not just ignoring the problem, they are part of it. The UN Global Fund was set up to raise $8bn a year to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria around the world. Britain has honoured its commitments here - unlike the Unilateral States of America, which is about as willing to donate to the fund as Mullah Omar is to the Friends of Israel appeal. Yeah yeah, we all know Bush can only relate to Africa in terms of Somalia . . . blah blah Black Hawk Down . . . Yadda yadda, we feel their pain . . . war on terror, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
This doesn't justify the pittance that the world's richest nation has donated: $200m is all it could manage. This is small change for the US; it could find that much money down the back of the Oval Office sofa, especially if Kenneth Lay had been sitting on it. That the money comes from existing US aid budgets makes the contribution contemptible and greedy. Nor is the world's poorest continent thrilled by rumours that the pittance from the United States might shrink next year.
However, raising the money is only half the problem; deciding how to use it is the other half. Among health professionals working with Aids in Africa, the UK is well known for being reluctant to commit money for treatment. Clare Short, it would appear, would prefer to spend money on "cost-effective" condoms rather than drugs, thus condemning 40 million Aids sufferers to die without hope.
Obviously, she can't have been in the room when Blair talked of the condition of Africa being "a scar on the conscience of the world". She had probably just nipped outside to point and shout "Cynic!" at a random member of the public.
* Yes, I know, it's a tautology.