We are now living in a foreign land

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Kenneth Roy

The preliminaries said more about the state of Britain than the debate itself. After the surprising disclosure in ‘Coronation Street’…

Kenneth Roy

The preliminaries said more about the state of Britain than the debate itself. After the surprising disclosure in ‘Coronation Street’ (I have not been watching it for a while) that Kevin Webster, the somewhat miserable sod once married to sweet little Sal, had acquired a father, there was a commercial break, a paid-for one. There were six ads, in the following order, all heavy with symbolism:
     Foxy Bingo
     Just when it seemed safe to assume that the working class had disappeared and could be discounted as an electoral force, the whereabouts of this forgotten section of the population were revealed. They are now reduced to a virtual existence, a sort of half-life, playing bingo online.
     Vanish
     A product which removes all known stains. The Iraq war? The swine flu racket? The expenses’ fiddle? The collapse of trust in public life? Vanish eradicates the lot.
     Lidl
     ‘Where quality is cheaper’. When the poor Glasgow asylum seeker existed on vouchers, this was the supermarket chain where the vouchers were exchanged for food. It must have been – well, I happen to know it was – a humiliating experience.
     The hideous red sofa
     I didn’t catch the name of the shop: some gaudy acronym. But the hideous red sofa could be acquired for ‘£10 a month’ according to the ad. What we weren’t told was how many months, how many £10 instalments, at what rate of interest.
     The Daily Mail
     The most ruthless product of them all. It occurs to me that I have never met anyone who works for the Daily Mail. It is possible that it is not compiled by human beings, but by the most efficient computer ever designed. Unforgiving of human weakness, it is a truly formidable machine.
     The Ghost
     A new film by Roman Polanski, based on a book by Robert Harris about the fall from grace of his former friend, Tony Blair. Two words, ‘The lies’, flickered across the screen.
     If you were forced to summarise ‘this great country of ours’ (as someone actually called it last night without a trace of irony) for the benefit of an unsuspecting visitor from another planet, you could do worse than show him the TV ads for Foxy Bingo, Vanish, Lidl, the hideous red sofa, the Daily Mail, and The Ghost, and let him work out the rest for himself.

Instant opinion polls inform us that Mr Clegg was the most effective of the three men in suits. It seemed to me that he had had the best professional advice about broadcast presentation. His body language was excellent. He loved the camera and the camera, being an incorrigible whore, loved him back. He stood there in his relaxed, plausible way, handing out £17 billion in tax cuts and scrapping Trident, and the graph of his popularity steadily rose. What a guy.
     Mr Cameron smiled hardly at all. There was a tension in his delivery and posture. He looked younger than expected. He looked a bit of a prefect. He ought to lighten up. It will not make him intellectally any more credible, but it will enhance his ratings with the readers of the Daily Mail and the many consumers who swear by Vanish. Like Mr Brown, he dragged in his family and I wish he hadn’t.
     Mr Brown got off to a poor start. He was off-mike, not his fault of course, but contributing to the general feeling that, however hard he tries, things ain’t going quite right for him. His use of statistics was robotic. Could not Lord Mandelson have advised him beforehand that people are quickly bored by figures? He was slower than the others in engaging by name with the questioner. I rather liked him for that. Unlike the others, he dared to indulge in a little humour and earned one or two sympathetic laughs from an audience almost scarily well-behaved.
     The first question, on immigration, was asked by a ‘retired toxicologist’. He looked fairly normal. One of the three described this as ‘a fundamental issue’. Everything in this debate seemed to be fundamental, and an issue. And there was a lot of pride in Britain. Our boys in Afghanistan were ‘brilliant, brilliant, brave and courageous’ said Mr Cameron. Mr Brown quoted, as if it justified anything, the colossal amount of public money being poured into that campaign. Our NHS was ‘special’, our nurses ‘incredible’. Since it was generally a patriotic occasion, organised mainly for the benefit of Daily Mail readers, there was no mention of the grotesque salaries being paid to NHS managers, nor of killer hospital bugs. Earlier in the day, in anticipation of the arrival of our leaders, quite a lot of Vanish had been applied to the work surfaces of all three podiums, removing any trace of volcanic ash or any sense that Britain was other than a – well, frankly a rather incredible country.
     It was during the exchanges on crime and punishment that I realised what I should have realised from the start: that I was now living in a foreign land. On almost every question, the chairman was forced to acknowledge that, in Scotland, this was a devolved matter. With some questions, it mattered little. The Alton Towers approach to schooling is universal; children are not being educated in all parts of the United Kingdom; all politicians, whoever it is they represent, will deplore the lack of discipline in the classroom without having the faintest idea what to do about it.
     On crime, Mr Cameron said he would bang up criminals for longer. I expect we will be hearing a lot more from the Conservatives about prison sentences once they secure their tiny overall majority; I should look out for a prison ship off a shore near you. Mr Brown, again resorting to a meaningless statistic, asserted that Labour had imprisoned a satisfyingly large number of people – 20,000 more, he claimed. But 20,000 more than what – or when? I cannot remember what Mr Clegg said about this. He would have said it in his usual winning style, no doubt. But then I remembered that, up here, we have a more enlightened policy. The Scottish administration is committed, not to sending more people to prison, but to sending fewer. Or ‘less’ as Mr Brown would have said.
     From a Scottish point of view, then, the most significant thing about the debate was how detached we are becoming from the truly incredible country down south.

Read Kenneth Roy in Scottish Review – click here.