18 MARCH 2006, Page 11

T he Dunblane massacre took place ten years ago. Its effects

on the families of the victims are so terrible that it seems dangerous to speak about them. But there were secondary effects as well. In the aftermath of the horror, the then prime minister, John Major, invited the other party leaders, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, to join him in visiting the town to pay tribute and meet the bereaved. The idea, surely right, was that this should be a grief which united people across politics. Watching the scene on television, I was struck for the first time by Mr Blair’s way of parading feeling, while everyone else, including the bereaved, was showing restraint. He appeared to move about more than other people, contort his face more, upstage those near him. It struck me as something new in our politics, and something unpleasant. At the time people seemed to like it, and similar techniques worked well after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. But it was an early intimation of what it is that, today, people so dislike about Mr Blair. Having agreed, both publicly and privately, that Dunblane was an issue above party, Mr Blair found a way, by the autumn, of ‘moving on’. Vulnerable Dunblane parents were persuaded to come to the Labour party conference to attack the government over gun control laws. In his big, messianic speech there (‘a thousand days to prepare for a thousand years’) Mr Blair devoted part of it to assailing those Tories who opposed a ban on handguns almost as if they were complicit in the killings. Normally there is a certain solidarity between past and present prime ministers based on a shared understanding of how difficult the job is, but that comradeship is notably lacking in the case of John Major and Tony Blair. This story partly explains why.

When you think about it, the suggestion that the cure for corruption over payments to political parties is state funding is the most amazing cheek. The argument essentially is that they, the parties, are so incapable of behaving properly about this that we, the people, should take away their freedom to raise money privately and give them lots of ours instead. It is precisely because party funding is so endemically, habitually corrupt that it should never be taken on to the state payroll. If it were, that corruption would be transferred and institutionalised, not abolished. Turning into a cartel against the public interest, parties would conspire with one another to get more money for themselves and divide the spoils. This process has crept forward for many years now, in the form of ever bigger allowances to MPs, secure and large pensions, more cars for ministers and so on. If our parties were state-funded, they would, in effect, be state-owned. It is a much better system when people, rich and poor, feel some moral obligation to help the party they support to get elected. And when the corruption enters in, as it so often does, the fact that private money is involved makes it much easier to detect. I feel so sorry for Dr Patel, of Priory fame, who has been turned down for a peerage by the sanctimonious Appointments Commission. He naturally thought that lending to the Labour party was a public-spirited thing to do.

If it is true, as confidently reported, that the Blairs have a mortgage of £3,467,000 on their house in Connaught Square and of £472,500 on their flats in Bristol, it is simply not possible for them to pay for these on what their earnings appear to be. We do not know the rate or term of their borrowings, but by any normal calculation the monthly payment would be more than the whole of Mr Blair’s pre-tax income as Prime Minister. Even with Cherie’s speeches it does not make sense. So how is payment being made?

Getting a new passport for our son, I find that the form is now gruelling. First of all, it is badly expressed. For example, the word ‘their’ is used when what is meant is ‘his or hers’: this is confusing because you start wondering who ‘they’ are. Second, there are unnecessary details required, such as asking for the passport number of the person bearing witness when surely normal address and telephone number would suffice. Third, the bureaucratic love of pernicketiness combines with the anxiety over security to produce almost comic levels of precision. Now that small children and even babies have to be photographed, more directions have to be included: ‘If the baby’s head needs to be supported, it is important that your supporting hand cannot be seen’; ‘children aged five and under do not need to look directly at the camera’. Finally, the guidance about what the pictures should look like gives 18 examples of what is good and what is bad. These show a black man with and without a hat (hats forbidden except for religious or medical reasons), a toddler, an elderly white woman and a headscarfed Muslim woman of vaguely Middle Eastern appearance. It is as if no white man ever applies for a passport.

Thinking of headscarves, I saw that Channel 4 News last week treated its viewers to a series of reports from inside Iran. For the occasion, Jon Snow wore one of those tieless buttoned-up white shirts preferred by Iranians, and Lindsey Hilsum wore her head covered. Why? Is this insisted upon by the Iranian government? If so, why do free and independent-minded journalists comply? If not, why do it? You can’t imagine the BBC’s Orla Guerin, during her stints in Israel, shaving her head and wearing a wig in best Hasidic manner, or a reporter at the Republican convention with an ‘I ♥ Dubya’ hat. Why this exceptional deference to an Islamist regime?

Actually, Jon Snow’s presentation of Channel 4 News is amazing. No one likes to attack him for it because he is a man of authority, charm and intelligence and he never dumbs down, but the bias of the programme is virtually unashamed, particularly on everything to do with America and the Middle East. The programme also nurtures a long-standing dislike (which, as it happens, I share) of Silvio Berlusconi, and a rage that a Labour leader should have anything to do with him. In one of his ‘Snowmails’, the emails that he sends out before the programme, Jon complained of Blair’s dealing with the Italian Prime Minister and criticised Berlusconi for being, like Mussolini, very small. Mussolini, Snow added, was 4ft 11ins tall. In fact, Mussolini was 5ft 6ins, which makes him, I would guess, a tiny bit taller than Berlusconi. But it is interesting that Jon linked the two in his mind and saw their smallness as a vice. Snow is a fine figure of a man, 6ft 3ins at least.

‘He is very well at the moment. He is trying to bite and throw everyone off.’ Thus Arnie Sendell, owner of the racehorse Kingscliff. I like his tone of obvious affection.