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How to say the wrong thing

Hope for civilisation, dress advice to Mr Brown and why an ashtray came between me and Scotland's De

I was born six months or so before the moonwalk. The subsequent years of my life were filled full of frenzied philosophies, newfangled notions and preposterous predictions of our future. However it was characterised, our future was to be full of shocks and surprises. We would colonise Mars; we would be wearing BacoFoil jumpsuits; we would travel via back-mounted jet-packs; we would have dispensed with food altogether, having replaced it with food-flavoured tablets; we would all be able to teleport ourselves around the globe (the final nail in the coffin of the airlines: they thought that soaring fuel costs and international acts of terrorism were a challenge).

As a child of the Seventies, I very much felt I was one of tomorrow's people. But in among the cornucopia of concepts surrounding our Blade Runner-esque future, the one innovation I never expected to see was that of the supermarket self-checkout. Surely this has to be the most impressive of all future shocks? Imagine, if you will, a society so self-confident, so mature that it is able to trust its own shoppers to scan and pay for their own goods. We are here; we have arrived. As the banking system collapses around us, as world unemployment threatens to rise by 50 million this year and as governments crumble and tumble, at least we can be trusted to pay for all three satsumas and that Bounty bar that could be so easily masked (unpaid-for) behind a large bag of discounted kale. There is hope for western civilisation.

You have to have more than a little sympathy for Big Gordy Brown. It seems whatever he says, he says the wrong thing. At a time when the country cries out for decisive leadership built on decisive statements derived from decisive policies, the Prime Minister’s clarity is the petard upon which he is being hoisted. There was no doubt what he meant when he said he wanted “British jobs for British workers” or when he reassured us that “Britain is well placed to deal with the global economic downturn”. Whenever the big fella opens his mouth the wrong words seem to tumble out in the wrong order. I know exactly how he feels, as I’m sure many of you do. The truth, while having no enemies, is not always replete with friends.

I speak from bitter personal experience. Occasionally, when dressing for an event or a party, the one-time lady in my life suffered from buttock protrusion. (We all know what this is.) It was particularly noticeable when a particular dress was worn, the cut of which was ill designed to flatter even the most flattering figure. Once, just once, I made the mistake of pointing out the tailor's failure to design a dress that created the correct visual perspective over the posterior of the lady wearer. (I said her arse did, in fact, look big . . .) Once, and never again. The evening was unsalvageable and the week was no better.

Unlike the Prime Minister, I did not have the entire global news media listening, reporting and analysing my every word and hypothesising on the implications. Nonetheless, every word I spoke on that fateful evening was listened to, reported to friends and analysed in almost every one of our subsequent arguments. The next time Big Gordy has to make a statement of economic or political importance he should imagine he has been asked to comment on his wife's dress. I suspect this would make him a great deal more circumspect in his observations.

Talking of blasts from the past, there is nothing quite like bumping into an old university friend to remind one of certain forgettable friends. Last Thursday, 29 January, I was joined on the Question Time panel in Fort William by the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon is an impressive performer by all accounts. Young, vibrant, passionate and articulate, she represents the next generation of Scottish Nationalists. I have to confess that I have always been a wee bit feart of her, as we say in Scotland. And here’s why . . .

It was 1988. Nicola and I both attended the legendary Alan Grant's American politics tutorial at Glasgow University. This was the most exposing of academic arenas: 11 students and the charismatic and hugely erudite yet laconic Professor Grant. The times were very different. The professor was a chain-smoker and the thought of facing a fag-free hour with us snotty students caused him no end of anxiety. As it was a politics class, he suggested that we have a vote on whether smoking should be allowed during the course of the tutorial.

Nicola, rightly so, was almost apoplectic at the thought. Grant explained to her that she should embrace the democratic process. One by one, the students voted. By chance, I was to the immediate right of the professor and the last to vote. I was not a smoker, but as the shape of the vote became clear, I realised that I would have the casting vote, the self-same dilemma that faced the Speaker of the Scottish Parliament on 28 January when it came to passing the budget.

All eyes in the room fell upon me. The vote was tied at five-five. Nicola looked directly at me. At that moment, I realised I had a clear choice between upholding the correct course of action and obsequious self-endearment to Professor Grant. I went to get the professor his ashtray . . .

Hardeep Singh Kohli is a writer and broadcaster

This article appears in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009