Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Wednesday 28th December 2016

BETTY Boothroyd was Speaker of the House of Commons at a time when that post still commanded respect.

At 87, now Baroness Boothroyd, she still speaks sense about the state of the world and, in particular, our own political situation.

Betty Boothroyd, who was Labour MP for West Bromwich for almost 20 years prior to serving as Speaker from 1992 to 2000, regrets the fact that statesmanship is “in short supply” here and overseas and politics has become “toxic”.

I spotted an item on the Internet, an article Baroness Boothroyd wrote immediately after the EU referendum, in which, although a committed European regretting the breach with the EU, she accepted the referendum result as the will of the people.

In it she expressed the hope that “we can overcome the challenges that face us if we do our duty as a Parliament and work together as a united country”. However, she added somewhat less optimistically “it pains me to say we are failing on every front”.

When Betty Boothroyd spoke about the lack of statesmanship at home and abroad it was before the election in the United States which brought Donald Trump to the edge of power. There was something very prophetic in her comments.

Here, one can only share with trepidation her belief that the Government has lost the confidence of the people and we have a leaderless and divided Opposition who are the despair of those who expect better of the Labour Party.

Tony Blair hinted at it recently when he expressed his dismay at the state of Western politics, adding that in Britain today there are millions of “effectively politically homeless people”. I confess I sometimes feel exactly like that — politically homeless, with none of the parties really speaking for what I believe in and want to see from them.

The one big problem with that remark, correct as it may be, is Tony Blair himself, the busted flush who, even in his own wildest fantasies, cannot surely believe he will ever return to front-line politics.

In her article, Betty Boothroyd said many decent people feel they are outsiders in their own country, “forgotten also rans” in what they perceive to be a race for obscene wealth by fat cats.

The former Speaker’s views on Theresa May are not known. She penned her wise words before the new Prime Minister had been appointed, but she was clear that there was a considerable leadership void in the Tory Party.

As for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, Boothroyd recalls her time in the 1980s fighting Militant and believes there are those who would turn the clock back to that era.

She once said of Labour that it was “galloping towards the precipice” and risked ending up on the scrapheap of history. I don’t suppose the news that Corbyn is to be “rebranded” as a viable alternative to the present Government in the New Year fills her with hope.

The reality is that the Government, unprepared for the outcome of the Brexit referendum, had no Plan B and Plan A didn’t look so good either. People have built a mistrust of Parliament over a number of years and restoring confidence in it will not be easy.

The world has never seemed a more dangerous, volatile place. Even now expert commentators are saying that nuclear weapons are old hat and the biggest threat to our security comes via cyber hackers who could bring our society to its knees without having to mobilise a single soldier.

In the world of politics nothing is certain any more. If you were a punter, you would be counting your money right now if you had backed the outsiders, the most unlikely outcomes. In its way it is exciting and dramatic and more than a little scary. What will Trump really be like, and what will he realistically be allowed to get away with once he takes up residence in the White House? Will he even last very long once the realisation of what he’s done hits home?

And here, in Britain, how long will Brexit rumble on? Have we actually got a negotiating position other than hoping we can keep the best bits and get rid of the worst and that 27 countries will simply accede compliantly to our wishes?

Uncertainty is the big enemy and the worst thing of all is that we simply have no credible Opposition in Parliament to hold the Government to account. The coming year promises a hard road, paved with pitfalls, for all of us. As Betty Boothroyd says, we need to restore trust and confidence and it’s easier said than done.

THE DUKE AND THE HANGMAN

IT’S not often one has the “pleasure”, as one of my regular readers once did, of dining with a duke and a hangman. “Two very unlikely bedfellows,” as Ray Huddart, former head of CID in Cumbria, later reported.

Ray was reminded of the occasion, a Lancashire CID officers’ dinner, by the recent death of the duke in question, the Duke of Westminster, one of Britain’s richest men.

Ray was invited to the function by his famous detective colleague Joe Mounsey who, during the 1970s and 80s, used to send out gilt edged cards to the annual dinner, “an occasion not to be missed unless the direst of situations proclaimed otherwise”.

“I wonder what odds William Hill would have given me for shaking the hands of a leading duke of the realm and a hangman on the same night,” writes Ray, who vividly recalls the evening spent sitting next to Gerald Grosvenor, whose property and land were said to be worth over £9 billion at the time of his death.

Albert Pierrepoint was Britains’s leading hangman for 25 years and executed more than 400 people including William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw of wartime notoriety), Ruth Ellis, Timothy Evans and John Christie, whose Rillington Place horrors have recently been subject of a chilling TV drama.

Pierrepoint combined “t other job”, as he called it, with running a Lancashire pub. He died in 1992, aged 87, having spent his retirement campaigning against the death penalty. The man who prided himself on calmly despatching his victims in double quick time once stated “it requires natural flair”.

However, he subsequently also commented: “If death were a deterrent I might be expected to know. It did not deter them and in what I have done I have never prevented a single murder.” As convincing an argument against the return of capital punishment as you are ever likely to hear.

Ray Huddart remembers his dinner host Joe Mounsey as a larger than life character. Although proud of his Lancashire roots, he regularly proclaimed his kinship with the Mounseys, Kings of Patterdale, and he says if any man could persuade a duke and a hangman to break bread together then it was he.

HE WAS “THE FULL ENGLISH”, RIGHT ENOUGH

“IMAGINE not sleeping for three days and then taking acid in a Japanese toy shop with Victoria Bottomley …”

Thus wrote legendary TV and food critic AA Gill when solicited for his views on children’s BBC2 program Teletubbies.

Typical of one of the great users of language; witty, insightful, acerbic, meaningful, different. And often causing offence, pricking the bubbles of the pompous and pretentious. Gill, the sworn enemy of TV Tristrams and snotty restaurateurs.

At various times they labelled him racist, sexist, homophobic. He was often called before the Press Complaints Commission, but not one of the complaints was ever upheld. Gill survived in an age where taking offence has become a national pastime, where being offended is a badge of honour among other offendees. That last word I just made up — I imagine he would not mind.

AA Gill was dyslexic and, like myself and other reporters of a past era, phoned copy over to a typist. I spent a lot of time in cold, damp telephone boxes as a teenager, laboriously spelling out words to disinterested copytakers at the other end. But as someone in the business once remarked, if it sounded right spoken it invariably came out right in print.

I struggled to English O-level and Gill did more for my vocabulary than anyone. I used to read his columns with a voluminous dictionary close at hand.

That Teletubbies essay? Gill’s mock script ended thus: “Teletubbies silhouetted against blasted skyline. dancing with a man carrying a scythe to tune of Have You Seen the Muffin Man.”

Sadly a man with a scythe came for Gill, just weeks after he had announced his cancer with typical wit as “the full English” version.