Arizona, arms and Aussie-style boozing
Why Jared Lee Loughner-style shootings would be inconceivable in the UK. Also, David Chaytor’s priso
The main reason why anything resembling the Arizona shootings is inconceivable in Britain is that we don't like guns and seriously restrict their supply. When Britons get mad at politicians, they throw eggs or, at worst, lunge towards them with a knife, as happened to poor Stephen Timms without loss of life. But we shouldn't imagine that our politics is permanently immune from the poison that characterises America's.
Opposition to Barack Obama focuses not on his policies but on his right to govern. Like Bill Clinton before him, he is portrayed as a usurper and traitor. This hysterical rhetoric flourishes because, in 1987, the Federal Communications Commission, then led by a Ronald Reagan crony, lifted restraints on how the broadcast media covered controversial issues. The result is Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, the worst example of how the US media give credence to propaganda. Fox, the home of bar-stool conservatism, almost single-handedly created national anger about plans to build a Muslim community centre (falsely described as a mosque) a few blocks from the site of the twin towers.
If Murdoch had his way, broadcasting regulations in Britain would also be eased and Sky News would become more like Fox. Don't underestimate how that would transform politics. America has the New York Times, the Washington Post and other big-city papers that strive for a colourless respectability. We have the Daily Mail and the Sun. If we lost fairness and balance in broadcasting, the standard of our political debate could sink lower than America's.
I knew David Chaytor only slightly, mainly from his campaigning work for what Alastair Campbell called "bog-standard" comprehensive schools - a good example of how he supported unfashionable causes and possibly damaged his ministerial prospects by declining to mount New Labour bandwagons. Chaytor struck me as a rather upstanding and proper sort of chap and I was astonished when he was exposed as among the worst offenders in overclaiming parliamentary expenses, even invoicing for renting a cottage owned by his aged mother, who was suffering from dementia.
His behaviour was inexcusable, and yet what possible purpose is served by sending him to prison? I know he won't do anything like the full 18-month sentence but, when our jails are overcrowded, is it sensible to clutter them up with minor fraudsters, even for short periods? Chaytor's career and reputation are already ruined and he seems unlikely to have the opportunity or inclination to reoffend. If the purpose is to make an example of him, community service, requiring him wear a luminous yellow jacket and pick up litter alongside surly teenagers (with the media discreetly tipped off in advance), would surely be sufficient.
The intention, I suppose, is to placate public anger against greedy, grasping fat cats. But MPs' expenses are a sideshow. The £22,000 Chaytor fraudulently claimed is small change compared to the £7bn still being handed out in bankers' bonuses. We are told the bonuses are normal and perfectly legal. And that is a real cause for public anger.
Weapons of mass disappearance
Dominic Streatfeild's new book, A History of the World Since 9/11, claims that the US army, after invading Iraq, allowed vast numbers of weapons, including 40,000 tonnes of explosives, to fall into al-Qaeda's hands. How fortunate, then, that George W Bush and Tony Blair were proved wrong about Saddam Hussein's WMDs. If they had existed, al-Qaeda would surely now control them. Or is that exactly what happened, explaining the mystery of their absence?
Proper English beer - cask-conditioned, unfiltered and unpasteurised ale drawn by hand-pumps - should be served in imperial pint or half-pint glasses, as God intended. The government now proposes to change the licensing laws so that beer can be served in schooners, supposedly equivalent to two-thirds of a pint.
Schooners were invented in Australia, though most (the definitions vary between states) are actually about three-quarters of a pint. Australians prefer them because they like their beer to contain enough gas to power an average-sized town and, in a hot climate, a full pint goes flat too quickly. This is inapplicable to the UK and there is no reason to confuse drinkers and give pubs further opportunities to serve short measures. This proposal should prompt protests. Where are our patriotic defenders of all things British when you need them?
The King's Speech, in which Colin Firth plays George VI as he struggles to overcome his stammer, is one of the most moving films I have seen. Suddenly, stammering is all over the media, with journalists and others recalling their battles with the affliction, and the British Stammering Association must be delighted by the publicity. But why was this tale, and the role of the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, so little known until now? The king's difficulties weren't exactly a secret - as his younger brother's epilepsy was - but details were kept out of the public domain even after his death.
His wife, who became the Queen Mother, refused to discuss the subject. Think of how many sufferers and their families might have been comforted and even inspired by George's story and how public attitudes to the affliction might have changed. Given their resources and leisure time, our royalty produce remarkably few people of any distinction (except in riding horses and shooting birds) but they could at least make more of their disabilities.
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005
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