Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Hello Tim Marshall, Thank You Michael Cockerell, Goodbye Jacob Rees Mogg

Before I get to the meat of today's blog, I should point you in the direction of a new website, TheWhatandTheWhy, which is the site of Tim Marshall's re-emergence into the world. You might have read my original piece about why I thought Marshall was the last good reason to watch Sky News, my vow to start a letter campaign, or the forlorn attempt  that Stan Madeley made to persuade 'Harding the Hack' to hire Marshall over at the BBC. Well, none of that went well but there is a new website and it contains enough words and video to get the heart racing. I don't understand what the hell is happening in the Ukraine but I feel a lot better knowing that Tim Marshall is around to explain the parts that make a little sense.

Speaking of chaos, I drew today's cartoon really late last night after watching Michael Cockerell's documentary about the House of Commons. I couldn't sleep. My mind was restless. I didn't want to draw cartoons that other people like. If I'm honest, I don't really like that type of cartoon I know I should be drawing if Private Eye are ever to buy one. It was late, I was angry, confused, thoughtful, so I resorted to type. I drew something for which there was be an audience of one. I don't know why George Clooney with a peg-leg amuses me but does there always have to be a reason?

I sometimes wonder how many people share my sensibilities. I cannot, for example, understand why there weren't riots when Tim Marshall left Sky News. Nor do I understand why Cockerell's series isn't a cause of national celebration. The series just gets better with each episode and convinces me that I'm utterly addicted to politics.

It's been such a sublime experience. The series has never once felt like it's pushing an agenda. The narrative feels supremely balanced, despite every step in the process of documentary production being in some sense editorial. Yet it's to Cockerell's credit that none of this feels directed to an end. There are no tricks on show. No sly camera movements or clever editorial juxtapositions by which a cut implies a whole new level of meaning. It's a programme that genuinely feels like it's watching but not intruding. Anything else is left to the reader to intuit. Was David Cameron being genuinely kind when he stopped to congratulate a politician who was being interviewed for the cameras or was Cameron being typically calculating knowing the cameras were on? In this household, that's a debate that raged for a week and countless replays. (The consensus is that it was the latter.)

Perhaps it's the way age gathers memories into ripe bundles but the BBC always seemed to make TV this good back when it wasn't racing with 200 other channels to find the lowest common denominator. Next week is, sadly, the last episode. It will be missed. It will, however, have a legacy and I can sense what that legacy will be after only three episodes. I already have a renewed faith in some politicians and, especially, the people behind the scenes. The series has been best when it followed the clerks as they laughed at the incongruities of the system. Conversely, the series had done nothing to lessen my hatred of party politics and, in fact, has in many respects confirmed it. The greatest threat to the parliamentary system are the big party machines which erode the significance of the individuals working to benefit their constituents. The greatest hope to the parliamentary system are the individuals who refuse to submit to the party machine and continue to work for their electorate.

In that sense, my suspicion of party politics is balanced by a new admiration I've found for the people who work in the system. The real stars of the series are people whose names you might not remember for long after the series ends. It's people like Kate Emms, Clerk in charge of Private Members' Bills at House of Commons, and Sir Robert Rodgers, the Clerk of the House, who announced his retirement in the first episode. If there is a message from the series, it seems to be one that affirms the believe that the system is safe in these people's hands.

Beyond the unexpected stars, the biggest winners are individual politicians. Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, suffered an inauspicious introduction in episode one ('I need a wee' she said, ushering the camera crew out of her bathroom) but revealed herself to be the kind of MP I'd want fighting on my side. I never expected that. I was expecting to dislike her but found myself very quickly warming to her. It perhaps says something about our distrust of politicians but, over the first three episodes, I never expected to see so many MPs spending so much time working on the behalf of others. That was an almost spiritual revelation.

At the same time, the series has also show me how much a few MPs seem to work on behalf of nobody but themselves. I've spoken to a couple of people about this and they've both backed up an observation I made which sounds party political but it really isn't. I don't particularly dislike Tories any more than I dislike Labour supporters or Lib Dems. My mind doesn't run down such well worn ideological grooves.  Yet saying that, Tories have not come out well from the series. With the single exception of Peter Bone who was featured in last night's episode, many of the Tories came across as either self-promoters or wide-eyed ideologues. And as much as I find myself reassured that we have a system that's outdated and retains many anachronisms, there is one anachronism I don't feel in any way reassured by. It is the anachronism who calls himself Jacob Rees Mogg.

This morning I was talking to my sister about last night's episode and she made a remark which I thought was telling. She's more interested in the day to day workings of politics than me yet she is nowhere near as cynical or hard-bitten. Yet even she found Mogg too much to bear. 'It's like he's never had to struggle for anything in his life!' she despaired. 'Everything seems to have been handed to him on a bloody plate.'

Last week's episode was a perfect example. Mogg was filmed filibustering a Lib Dem's private member's bill that would have protected the poorest in our society (particularly the disabled) from cuts to their housing benefits if they were deemed to have 'surplus rooms'. He first filibustered on the floor of the House of Commons and then again when the bill reached the Committee Stage. Some might admire or find it slightly amusing that he attempts to derail the bill by wasting time, languorously quoting the hymn, 'Our God, Our Help in Ages Past' by Isaac Watts . 'I want to talk about time,' Mogg begins, 'time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away...' MPs looked on in frustration.

It just made me furious beyond measure that the system rewards a man like that. It astonishes me that a man who has lived his entire life in the lap of the establishment, cosseted at Eton and Oxford, earning a second income (allegedly £500,000  since 2010) should play games with people's lives. In what sense can he even understand the plight of somebody living in council accommodation, on a low wage, perhaps with a serious illness? What gives him the right to judge and to block laws which would improve their lives?

My first novel (the one that was going to be published until the publisher was bought up by Harper Collins) was a thinly veiled lampoon of Mogg. Yet even I was left astonished by the depth of his twisted morality. The more you pick apart the Mogg biography, the  more your fingers bleed. The Honorable Mogg is an ex investment banker, the son of the noted editor of The Times and married into one of the wealthiest families in the country. So, naturally, he believes in zero-hour contracts and, according to, any policy that denudes the few protections that give the rest of us a chance to live a moderately tolerable life. For example, the Member for North East Somerset:
Voted very strongly against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability

Voted very strongly for reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (which Labour describe as the "bedroom tax")

Voted very strongly for university tuition fees

Voted very strongly for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits

Voted very strongly against equal gay rights

Voted very strongly against smoking bans

Voted very strongly against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices

Voted strongly against slowing the rise in rail fares

Voted very strongly against increasing the tax rate applied to income over £150,000

Voted very strongly against greater regulation of gambling

Voted strongly for restricting the scope of legal aid

For a man who clearly cares so much about correct parliamentary process, Mogg is a walking hypocrisy. This entry in his Wikipedia page says so much: "In December 2014 Rees-Mogg was reported to the Parliament's standards watchdog for speaking in debates on tobacco, mining and oil and gas without first declaring he is founding partner and director of Somerset Capital which has £multimillion investments in the sectors."

I could descend to some found language here but I don't want to demean my argument. My opinion of Mogg has never been lower and, for that, I am so glad that Cockerell was there to educate me.

Ralph Steadman once declared that he was stopping drawing politicians. His website describes it like this:
Finally so disgusted by the antics of those who should be running the country, Ralph decided in 1997 to stop drawing caricatures of politicians. He felt it fed their over-weaning egos and they liked the attention too much. It distracted them from the jobs they had been voted in to do by a long suffering public.

I don't think Steadman is wrong but Cockerell has reminded me why it's important to keep drawing the worst of them. Just a few weeks ago I'd have never thought of this reason. We owe it to the rest of them.

1 comment:

  1. […] Yesterday I wrote about my love of the new Michael Cockerell series, ‘Inside the Commons&#8217…, and doing so, I mentioned that the stars of the series are the people who do all the heavy lifting at Parliament. One of those people is Kate Emms, Clerk in charge of Private Members’ Bills. Well! No sooner had I posted her name than the hits started to come in. Across the nation, people were searching for Kate Emms. Nobody was searching for the politicos. Nobody was even searching for George Clooney, despite my cartoon of yesterday. No. The zeitgeist mob were clamoring for news about Kate Emms which now leads me to wonder: who is Kate Emms? Is this the same Kate Emms who is the Clerk in charge of Private Members’ Bills? Or is there a Kate Emms who perhaps sings backing vocals for One Direction? Is there a Kate Emms who is in Towie (I have no idea what that word means, if it’s spelt right, or used correctly and, frankly, I don’t want to know). Anyway, if there’s a different Kate Emms I don’t know about but perhaps invented stretch nostrils or haptic cheese, please put me out of my misery in the comments. I’d really like to know. […]