The next Fame Academy

. . . on a celebrity parliament, cold-calling Labour and the Mongoose

I suppose, when you think about it, government by celebrity is sooner or later inevitable. All parties seek celebrity endorsements at elections, and the other day Gordon Brown attached his name to a letter signed by the likes of Ross Kemp, Eddie Izzard and Phil Neville, imploring people not to vote BNP. It has also become impossible for anybody to consider action on world poverty and disease without assistance from Bob Geldof, Bono, Geri Halliwell, Angelina Jolie or someone similar.

So why not cut out the middleman and just let celebrities get on with it? It is frequently objected that we wouldn’t know what we were voting for because celebrities don’t put forward a programme. But nobody knows what the main parties stand for these days either, and the only reason for supporting David Cameron or Nick Clegg is that they look vaguely like the man next door (if you live on a Barratt estate, that is).

As well as Esther Rantzen and Joanna Lumley, the names mentioned include Terry Waite, Richard Branson, the thriller writer Robert Harris and, as an electrician in Bromsgrove rather rudely put it to the Guardian, “even Mark Thomas”, once an NS columnist. None is in the first flush of youth, though my old friend Harris may think he still has a couple more thrillers in him. But retired or disgraced politicians frequently embark on new careers as celebrities, as Neil Hamilton did after his defeat in 1997. I don’t see why celebrities, with their best days behind them, shouldn’t make the reverse journey.

Brrng! Brrng! It is Harriet Harman, not, as I thought for a self-aggrandising nanosecond, ringing to seek the advice of an NS columnist, but in the form of a recorded message. For another nanosecond, I wonder if she will congratulate me, as recorded messages usually do, on winning a prize, perhaps a second home for which an MP has no further use and which I can claim by ringing a premium-rate telephone number.

But she wishes to thank me for my “continuing support for Labour”, assure me “tough action” is being taken on expenses, and command me to get out canvassing. I feel guilty about it – because, on the whole, I approve of her politics – but Harriet has always reminded me of a Stepford wife and her disembodied voice only reinforces this shameful prejudice.

If she does it too often, I fear, she will remind people who had forgotten they were Labour members to cancel their standing orders. Apart from attending the odd constituency meeting, where I keep quiet, I haven’t bothered the Labour Party for years. It would be wise for it to leave me alone, while gratefully banking my £6 monthly subscription.

I have always found the names of building societies – West Bromwich, Stroud, Bradford, Bingley, Skipton, Cheltenham, Halifax, and so on – oddly comforting. Like the names of football teams read out on Saturday afternoon radio, they suggested stable landmarks, historical continuity and regular habits. I envisaged men in Burton suits and solid spectacles carefully entering cash transactions into big black ledgers before travelling home, brown briefcases in hand, to semi-detached houses where they ate fresh meat and veg bought at the town’s weekly market.

My first savings account, as well as my first mortgage, was with the Leicester Temperance building society, which my friends thought hilariously inappropriate. Now, half a dozen or so mergers later, it has been subsumed, without trace of the Leicester name, into Santander, along with Abbey and Bradford & Bingley. It is small consolation that Santander – unlike Aviva, which has axed the Norwich Union name – takes its name from a real Spanish port. Thanks to my ancient association with the Leicester Temperance, I now own Santander shares and a small savings account there, but I don’t like to think of my money being an overnight ferry-ride away. I also suspect, being a multinational, they’ll be doing something funny with it.

At least Leicester City Football Club still exists, even though it is owned by a Serb and might as well be called Red Star Belgrade, for all the connection it has with its locality.

Here is my proposal for saving the car industry while also helping the planet. First, abolish tax on all car sales and insurance. Second, subsidise sales of new cars, provided they meet with green requirements, which should be increased annually. Third, reduce the annual road fund licence fee to £5. Fourth, recoup lost revenue and the cost of subsidies from increased fuel duty and congestion charging.

The cost of owning a car would then be far lower, but the cost of using it would be much steeper. In considering a journey, motorists would first ask themselves if it was really necessary and, second, see public transport more often as a rational alternative. Whereas, at present, if you have gone to the expense of buying, licensing and insuring a car, it is economic madness not to use it as often as possible, rather as it would be for an MP to own a second home but put in no expenses claims for it. The more I think of my proposal, the more elegant it seems. But, then, I am a lifelong non-motorist.

A new cricket bat called the Mongoose offers 20 per cent more power, according to the manufacturers. It has already been used in a county Twenty20 match and will no doubt be seen again in the Twenty20 World Cup, which has just started.

I hope it can be confined to the shortest form of the game, where crowds live in the hope of seeing the ball hit out of the ground. In Test matches, it would make the struggle between bat and ball even more unequal than it already is. The game’s authorities have long favoured the batsmen, mainly because they don’t like matches to finish early, requiring them to refund ticket sales and leaving their TV paymasters with unfilled schedules. But I am convinced that it is also because, historically, most bowlers came from working-class backgrounds.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.