The Tory conference made me feel like Simon Callow in Four Weddings and a Funeral
HUGO RIFKIND Aere we sure that party confernces are good things? Are we convinced that they do the job? Certainly, they are great fun. hat, I would never dispute. The booze. The talk. And the rooms. Any connoisseur of weird, shabby, out-of-town hotels with ominously crumbly ceilings and carpets that suck would have been thrilled by my temporary berth in Blackpool last week. Five damp beds in my room for one, and two cold taps that only ran hot. An actual karaoke bar, through which I had to pass to get in and out. The ever-present smell of cigarettes and that other familiar tang which, after two days and with some surprise, I finally recognised as the smell of the London Zoo elephant pen. Oh, it was all very special.
I would have written about it at the time, but I heard an apocryphal tale of another journalist who did so in years past. He staggered back in the early hours to find his bags neatly stacked on the pavement outside. Then again, I may have enjoyed a certain immunity from this, what with the receptionist knowing me only as Mr. A. Rufino.
So, please realise that I am not having a moan. For me, the party conference season was a joy. I am simply worried. What started me worrying, I think, was those photographs of James Purnell, the Culture Secretary, last week. You will have seen them. He didn't turn up in time for the group photograph on a visit to Tameside General Hospital, so the hospital authorities took one of him by himself, and faked it, sticking him in with everybody else. Cue enjoyable uproar. The newspapers illustrated the fake by faking the fake photo to show what it was like before it was faked. Everybody had a great time.
Still, I was worried. Not by the fakery itself, you'll understand, but by the motivation. I was worried that anybody felt the need to bother. Somebody, somewhere had thought to themselves, 'Oh no! James Purnell hasn't turned up! This is awful!' and had meant it, with passion. Then they had gone to all the trouble of faking a photograph. I remind you; this is James Purnell we are talking about. Is it a large proportion of the public, do you think, that would actually recognise a photograph of James Purnell? Could they not have just taken a photograph of somebody else, and written 'James Purnell' underneath? It could have been me. It could have been you. Hell, it could have been David Lammy. Hardly anybody would have known.
There are some people who would have known, and these are the people you find at party conferences. And look, I'm worried. I'm just not sure they are helping. There have been rumblings lately, across the opinion pages, that government and politics seem to have less and less to do with each other. Frequently at a party conference, you can catch a glimpse of that horrifying unspoken truth — that politics is this thing that we have built, from nothing, because government itself is just too dull to talk about.
The only genuine discussion of government I heard in this party conference season came from John Hutton, in a fringe meeting at Bournemouth that I attended by mistake. (It was raining, there were biscuits — it happens.) I think he was talking about the North–South divide. Ooof. That was a long 15 minutes. I even started writing his words down, in the hope that they'd look boring enough on the page to warrant a whimsical diary item. Too dull, it turned out, even for that. By minute seven, I wanted to throw my head back, like Simon Callow does during those readings in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Aaaah!' I would have roared. 'Oh, just rule the bloody country, if you must! If it's that dull, thank God you are dull enough to want to.'
Politics, by contrast, is a thrilling spectator sport. It is something to watch, and to listen to, and to twist about in. Yet there are times, particularly at party conferences, that the sheer pointlessness of so much discourse rears up and belts you in the chest. When, for a few seconds, actual commitments do punch through the chatter (Osborne on inheritance tax, for example), it only serves to leave one wondering what the hell has been going on for the rest of the previous three weeks. What is it for? A great, clunking fist, and for what? Cicero until it hurts, and hardly any Caesar.
Is there a way to make government come alive without it turning, too much, into politics? What if we scrapped the tub-thumping party conference system, and instead had one annual political conference, two weeks long, where the combined masses of all parties mixed and met? Would that be better? Bigger, certainly. Too big to hold in places like the boss-eyed basket case of Blackpool. We would all have to go somewhere else. Oh no.
Burma. Not a lot of grist there for the satirist's mill. You turn it around in your head, wondering if there is an absurdity to be prised open, to help the situation make more sense. My colleague Jeremy Austin almost managed it over lunch last week, wondering darkly whether, once the regime had shot all the monks, they would then have to shoot one more big, stomping, super-monk, like the end-of-level boss on a computer game.
Burma is weird. Otherworldly weird. I have been desperate to go there for years. When the regime falls, expect a tourism flood, and not such a savoury one. An open Burma is the great Asian backpacker dream — an overland route between Calcutta and Bangkok. Ten thousand string bags and twenty thousand flip-flops are itching to be there, and wondering if they ought to take Rizlas.
When democracy eventually comes — as it will, because it always does — what will Burma become? Will the many oppressed ethnicities rise up and throw a Bosnia? Or will travel companies and logging companies move in and do their worst? Thirty years from now, I suppose we have to hope for another flourishing, bonkers Thailand, rather than a battered, dusty, brittle Cambodia.
True enough, you can visit Burma already. Of those who do, I have views. At present, Burmese tourism — what there is of it — is entirely government controlled. Every kyat goes straight into the pockets of the junta. More bullets for more monks.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.