A Spectator's Notebook
The National Enterprise Board, we are assured, is intended to be a lifeline for our wretched economy. When it was first mooted, we were warned that the NEB would be given enormous Powers, but were told it would only use these powers to promote industrial efficiency and to provide employment for the likes of you and me. So I read with horror what was written in the Guardian last week under the headline, 'NEB claws resharpen ed.'
This was a report of a document by the Labour Party's Research Department proposing that if any company was "seen as vital for the development of the NEB, the Government must be able to compulsorily purchase the company." Note the words: 'vital for the developrnent of the NEB.' The criterion, therefore, for further extensions of public ownership will not be whether such action is useful for you or for me or for the community as a whole, but whether or not it serves 'the development of the NEB.' And what is the NEB? So far, it is little more than a set of initials and a man, Lord Ryder, who wants to spend £1,500 million of our money on a deeply suspect plan for reviving British. Leyland — a plan which not only an all-party committee of MPs, but also apparently the Government think-tank, believe to be unworkable.
If the 'silly season' means that people are being silly, then this is one of the silliest silly seasons we have had for many years. An excellent example is given in a letter to the Times this week by Professor Denman of Pembroke College, Cambridge, who draws attention to the fact that a non-existence institution, the Land Authority for Wales, is already inviting applications for £12,000 a year jobs. The fact that the Community Land Bill, under which the Authority would be set up, has yet to be approved by Parliament does not seem to have deterred the Secretary of State for Wales from advertising for staff in the national press.
Finding the lady
As far as silliness is concerned, nobody seems to be immune. Take Scotland Yard, for example. They announced with many fanfares last week that they had identified "probably the most dangerous and active woman terrorist" operating in Britain, and published a photograph of a rather pretty girl, Margaret McKearney, so that we could all help them find her. Scotland Yard admitted that she "could be anywhere" and launched what was described as a massive liaison operation to spread her description to even the most remote police stations in the kingdom. But as it turned out, she wasn't hard to find at all. She was in Dublin and a lot of people seemed to know it. Michael Nicholson, ITN's star war reporter, found her almost at once. First of all, the girl's parents were very keen to help. They gave him an address in Elmsfort Road, Dublin, from which their daughter had been writing to them. In fact, this street didn't exist, so Nicholson went instead to a street with a similar name — Ennafort Road — where a local Special Branch officer was good enough to direct him to No. 75, where the girl in question duly appeared.
Mr Nicholson is, admittedly, one of the best and indeed luckiest of television reporters (it was he who, because his car ran out of petrol, managed to take exclusive film last year of the first Turkish paratroops landing in Cyprus), so the police need not feel too ashamed at being beaten by him. But one or two curious facts have emerged from this saga. One is that, although there is close co-operation between the Irish and British armies, there is apparently still no direct contact between Scotland Yard and the Irish police headquarters in Dublin. They still deal with each other through Interpol. Another interesting thing, so my colleague Patrick Cosgrave tells me, is that while every Dublin journalist interested in such matters has a running list of IRA personalities, often unknown on this side of the water, none had ever heard of Miss McKearney.
sympathise with the police, however, over the huge number of hoax bomb calls they have been receiving. I myself have been guilty of wasting their time. Immediately after the bomb in Church Street, Kensington, I went to put the rubbish out at my home in Fulham and found the dustbin empty but for a beautifully wrapped, large brown-paper parcel, carefully tied up with nylon cord. I couldn't somehow bring myself to pick it up, so, after much soul-searching, I telephoned the police who arrived promptly. A policeman braver than I carefully undid the parcel. Inside, there were layer after layer of paper which, when removed, finally revealed one broken eggshell. I presume it was put there by some mad old lady with an aversion to rubbish, but — as I kept saying to the policemen, hoping, unsuccessfully, to get him to agree — one can never be too careful.
Another classic silly-season story has been that of Oxfam and its unsuccessful attempt to reduce the Common Market mountain of skimmed milk by buying ten tons of it to feed the hungry in Angola. I have completely failed to find out the truth about this. Oxfam's director, Mr Brian Walker, tells me that they attempted last March to register with the EEC authorities as a "bona fide charity," which would entitle them to get the milk powder at about a quarter of its normal price. In August, he says, Oxfam applied urgently for the powder because of the Angola emergency, but were told they were not properly registered and that, even if they were, the request would take two months to process. But Mr Walker said they now expected to get the stuff quickly, because of the publicity the case has received. A quite different tale is told by the EEC Intervention Board, a department of the British Government set up to administer this aspect of the Common Agricultural Policy. According to them, Oxfam never mentioned the Angola emergency, but asked hypothetically how quickly they could get ten tons of skimmed milk if they should turn out to want it. Furthermore, said the Intervention Board, Oxfam has already obtained the milk powder it needs from sources in Paris. Whatever the truth, there seems to be scope somewhere for administrative reforms.
In case you think I've exhausted the subject of silliness, the prize must definitely go to our great trade union movement. They excelled themselves in Blackpool last week, particularly on the subject of the Common Market, The TUC, without blinking an eyelid, passed a resolution stating firstly that Britain should not be party to a supranational Europe "without the wholehearted consent of the British people" and, secondly, calling for greater control over the' Council of Ministers and the Brussels Commission by a more democratic European Parliament. To vote for two things so obviously contradictory is astonishing even by TUC standards. Normally, of course, such resolutions are not taken seriously, and it is right that they should not be. But if, as some believe, the trade unions will soon take over the government of the country, we must hope they will produce slightly more coherent policies. In a way, I feel sorrY for the trade unions, particularly after reading Mr Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph. He is terrified that the unions' apparent new sense of responsibility — their readiness to accept wage restraint in the public interest — means they are about to co-operate with the Government to ensure the triumph of socialism in Britain. According to Mr Worsthorne, "there is only one thing more ruinous than a bloody-minded and irresponsible trade union movement, and that is a co-operative and well-disposed one." It is hard to see what the unions can ever do right. Still, it is unlikely that Mr Worsthorne's nightmare will come true. With Mr Healey's refusal to reflate the economy too soon, and with rapidly rising unemployment, this latest honeymoon between the TUC and the Labour Government is unlikely to last for long.