The absolute (Secretary of) State of this

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

At certain eras in history, for certain sections of humanity, there were places to which you really didn’t want to go – places whose very name filled you with dread.

 

For members of the British underworld in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was Sydney Cove, Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, Van Diemen’s Land and the other brutal penal colonies that’d been established in Australia, to which you could be transported if you were convicted of anything worse than pinching five shillings-worth of goods.  For criminals in the Second French Empire between 1852 and 1953, the place that was synonymous with hell was another penal colony, the pitiless one at Cayenne, or Devil’s Island as it was better known.  And for German soldiers in the Wehrmacht during World War II, there were surely frequent nightmares about the prospect of being sent to the freezing and carnage-filled Russian Front.

 

Meanwhile, for members of the British government over the past half-century, the equivalent of the worst penal colony devised by the British or French Empires, or of the Russian Front, is surely Northern Ireland.

 

Political satirists have long been aware of this.  A 1984 episode of the BBC political comedy Yes, Minister had the British Prime Minister resigning and two ruthless politicians competing to take over as PM.  Both men threatened hapless minister Jim Hacker that they’d make him Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if they ended up winning and he hadn’t publicly backed their campaigns.  A generation later, a 2012 episode of a more abrasive TV satire, The Thick of It, showed slow-witted politician Ben Swain responding warily when he was offered the job of Foreign Secretary: “And you mean Foreign Secretary?  That isn’t code for Northern Ireland?  I’m not f**king going there.”

 

The position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland came into being in 1972, when the old Northern Irish government at Stormont was suspended following the start of the long period of bloodshed and mayhem that became known as the Troubles, and when direct rule was imposed from London.  The first holder of the post was Conservative MP Willie Whitelaw, who set the template for many secretaries of state to come.  He was stiff and crusty, looked like he’d be more at home wearing tweeds and trudging around a grouse moor, and seemed perplexed that the half-dozen local Catholic and Protestant terrorist organisations and the mob of unruly local politicians wouldn’t play by Queensberry Rules.

 

Whitelaw wouldn’t be the first Secretary of State to look ill-at-ease in a province where though the two native communities were at each other’s throats, they had one thing in common, which was that they both hated his guts.  Nationalist Catholics saw him and his successors as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to oppress them and keep them imprisoned in the United Kingdom.  Unionist Protestants saw them as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to betray them and abandon them to a united Ireland.

 

From Polldaddy.com

 

Actually, I recall seeing, when I was a wee boy in Northern Ireland and just after Whitelaw’s appointment, satirical posters pasted everywhere depicting him as a grim-faced Wild West sheriff stalking nervously into an unsavoury-looking establishment called The Dead-End Saloon.  However, unlike many of his successors, Whitelaw’s political career didn’t come to a dead-end after Northern Ireland.  He served as British Home Secretary from 1979 to 1983 and became a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, who once said of him gruesomely, “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie.”

 

I also remember from my boyhood some political satire involving another 1970s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – the Labour Party MP Roy Mason, who served there during James Callaghan’s three-year tenure as Prime Minister.  The Belfast Telegraph featured a cartoon caricaturing him as Henry II while the Reverend Ian Paisley loomed behind him caricatured as Thomas Beckett.  Mason lamented, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  However, unlike Thomas Beckett, who was murdered by knights soon after Henry II made this plea, Paisley lived until 2014 and made life a misery for a further 14 secretaries of state.

 

After the Conservatives had returned to power under Margaret Thatcher, Northern Ireland had as its Secretary of State the luckless Jim Prior.  Prior was a leading member of the ‘wets’ – the moderates – in the Conservative Party and when he dared to question his boss’s economic policies, his fate was sealed.  Empress Thatcher had him banished to Devil’s Island.

 

I also remember – for the wrong reasons – Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the early 1990s.  One day in 1992, an IRA bomb slaughtered seven construction workers.  That evening, Brooke appeared on Raidió Teilifis Éireann’s chat show The Late Late Show and unwisely allowed its host, the twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer Gay Byrne, to talk him into singing Oh My Darling Clementine live on air.  And with that, Brooke’s political credibility was gone.  To quote the song: ‘lost and gone forever / Dreadful sorry, Clementine.’

 

When Tony Blair entered Number 10 Downing Street and 1998’s Good Friday Agreement was on the cards, Northern Ireland finally got a Secretary of State of some substance: Mo Mowlam, also the first woman in the role.  The down-to-earth and bluntly-spoken Mowlam helped to knock heads together in the run-up to the agreement, although she earned herself the displeasure of the Protestant politicians and was eventually side-lined by Blair.  When Bill Clinton flew in to grab a piece of the glory, she grumbled to him that her role had become that of ‘tea lady’.

 

© BBC

 

The Good Friday Agreement paved the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being while Peter Mandelson was the province’s Secretary of State.  An operator best described as an oil-slick in a suit, Mandelson had been a key ally and advisor of Tony Blair but he’d fallen from grace thanks to a scandal involving a dodgy home loan.  To rehabilitate himself, he had to do the political equivalent of donning sackcloth and ashes and beating himself with a scourge, which meant taking the Northern Ireland portfolio.  I imagine that Mandelson, a gay man, had his patience stretched to the limit by having to deal with Ian Paisley, who in 1977 had launched the infamous Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.

 

With the Assembly up and running and its members responsible for the province’s governance, Mandelson’s successors as Northern Irish Secretary of State had less to do.  However, the Assembly collapsed early in 2017 because of a spat between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein and since then London has had to administer things again.  The Secretary of State on whose watch this happened was James Brokenshire, who surely had the most appropriate surname of anyone ever to take on the job: broken shire.

 

Brokenshire stood down at the start of this year for health reasons – not, as you might expect, mental health reasons, but because he needed to have an operation on his lung.  And this brings me to his replacement, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley.

 

Last week Bradley hit the headlines when she confessed in an interview that she accepted the Northern Irish brief whilst having a knowledge of Northern Irish politics that was less than encyclopaedic.  “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.  I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought… people who are Nationalists don’t vote for Unionist parties and vice-versa.  So, the parties fight for the election within their own community.  Actually, the Unionist parties fight the elections against each other in Unionist communities and Nationalists in Nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.”

 

Oh, come on.  Bradley was born in 1970, which means she grew up in a Britain where the Northern Irish Troubles raged continually in the background – and sometimes in the foreground, for the IRA also set off bombs in England, including the Brighton one in 1984 that killed five members of Bradley’s Conservative Party and nearly took out Margaret Thatcher.  And she makes a living as a politician.  You’d expect her to be aware of political arrangements in the UK’s four corners and have some inkling who the Alliance Party, DUP, Official Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein and their supporters are.  Especially as her party has been propped up in government by ten MPs from Ian Paisley’s old outfit the DUP (in return for a 1.5 billion-pound bribe) since the 2017 general election.

 

Are we really to believe she flew to Belfast to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ignorant of such facts as most Protestant households don’t have framed, signed photographs of Martin McGuinness sitting on their mantelpieces and Roman Catholic support for Arlene Foster’s DUP is somewhat on the scant side?

 

© The Irish Examiner

 

Then again, Bradley’s ignorance is no worse than that displayed by many members of the Conservative Party these days, especially Brexiters like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.  These are people whose attitudes towards the post-Brexit condition of the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border – all squiggly, wriggly 310 miles of it, crossing towns, farms, fields and loughs and crossed itself by more than 200 public roads – suggest I.Q.s that are at basement-level.  They proclaim that the border isn’t important enough to worry about, or it can be policed the way it was back in the days of the Troubles (and what happy days those were), or – Boris Johnson’s opinion – all the immigration and customs issues on the border arising from Brexit can be solved with technology.  Maybe Johnson is proposing using drones.   Or maybe he’s thinking about using toy airplanes with cameras fixed to them that can be piloted by leprechauns.  He’s probably heard that there are still a few leprechauns on the go in Ireland.  And what jolly little fellows they are too.

 

The selection of Karen Bradley to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must have been because she sings from the same hymnbook as many of her fellow Tories.  And that’s a hymnbook from the Church of Stupid.

 

When writers had Thatcher for dinner

 

From conservativehome.com

 

In a recent post I mentioned a cabinet paper from 1984 that came to light recently and revealed that at the time of the miners’ strike – surprise! – Margaret Thatcher’s government secretly planned to close down 75 British coal mines.  This was about 55 more than the number they publicly declared they wanted closed.  It reminds me of another Thatcher-related story that received no coverage at the time but that was recently given a public airing.

 

Late in 1982, Britain’s right-wing and supposedly iron-plated lady Prime Minister was riding high in the polls thanks to her victory in the Falklands War earlier that year.  She still, however, hadn’t won the support of much of the country’s artistic and academic intelligentsia.  One evening that autumn, a dinner was organised at the house of historian Hugh Thomas in Ladbroke Grove where Mrs Thatcher would meet and dine with a selection of the country’s leading literary lights.  It was hoped that this meeting would help her win over more of Britain’s creative elite.  (Later in her reign, you got the impression that Thatcher simply gave up trying.  Perhaps she believed that the British population had become so uncultured and coarse in their tastes that it didn’t make a blind bit of difference to her re-election chances what those arty types thought of her.)

 

Last month the Observer Magazine published a short but amusing account of this dinner, written by Nigel Farndale, who’d interviewed the evening’s survivors – ‘survivors’ seems an apt word somehow.  Among the attendees were novelists Anthony Powell, V.S. Naipaul and Dan Jacobson, poets Philip Larkin, Stephen Spender and Al Alvarez, playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, critic Sir V.S. Pritchett, philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin, historian Sir J.H. Plumb and Anthony Quinton, who was president of Oxford University’s Trinity College.  An unexpected addition to the guest list was Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s great novelist and its future presidential candidate – how Peruvians must have wished later they’d voted for him and not for the ultra-corrupt Alberto Fujimori – who I suppose just happened to be in town at the time.  His fame had evidently not preceded him, since Farndale reports that one guest referred to him as ‘some Panamanian novelist.’

 

Somebody who might have been expected to be invited, but wasn’t, was celebrated novelist Sir Kingsley Amis.  Amis had now entered his dotage and had already professed his admiration for Mrs Thatcher (for the sake of Amis’s reputation I would like to think those two things were causally connected) so it was thought his presence that night was unnecessary – Mrs T had no need to preach to the converted.  However, Farndale quotes some correspondence that passed between Amis and Philip Larkin afterwards.  Larkin had filled Amis in on the details of the evening.  Writing back, Amis referred to ‘H-F D’ being “down at the Jewish end of the table”.  H-F D stood for ‘Horse-Faced Dwarf’, which was Amis and Larkin’s unedifying nickname for Anthony Powell.  Amis also bitched about Al Alvarez, saying that he “(m)ight have known that Al, lately as lefty as they come, would get his foot in there.  It’ll be Lord Alvarez before we know it.”

 

In a different set of correspondence, with later-Poet-Laureate Andrew Motion, Larkin described the Thatcher dinner as being “pretty grisly.  Even now I shudder and moan involuntarily.”  Elsewhere in Farndale’s piece, though, there are suggestions that Larkin didn’t find his encounter with Mrs Thatcher as grisly as he made out to Motion.  Indeed, he may have been shuddering and moaning with pleasure rather than dismay.  Talking about the Prime Minister in a letter to Julian Barnes, Larkin supposedly havered about kissing “the ground she treads”, whilst in another letter to the historian Robert Conquest he raved: “What a superb creature she is – right and beautiful – few prime ministers are either.”  One only hopes that Larkin kept his opinions about Mrs Thatcher’s rightness, beauty and overall superb-ness to himself when he returned home, which was ‘up north’ in Hull.

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

One person who found himself in unexpected agreement with Larkin regarding the glamour of Mrs T – I use the word ‘glamour’ in its conventional sense, meaning ‘allure’ or ‘glitz’, although its original Scottish meaning, which is ‘a spell or enchantment cast by a witch’, might be more appropriate – was left-leaning Al Alvarez.  He told Farndale: “I hate to say it, but she had good skin and a good figure and I found her rather attractive.  She also had this dazzling aura of power around her.”  Just before you question Alvarez’s sanity, I should say that he added this qualification: “But that may be because being a writer is a bit like being a lighthouse-keeper: you don’t get out much.”

 

Something that the dinner’s attendees seemed to be in agreement about was Thatcher’s lack of humour.  Larkin observed to Amis that, “I noticed she didn’t laugh much, or make jokes.”  Alvarez actually tried to make a joke to her.  He quipped before the Iron Lady that because of his Spanish-sounding name he’d had to keep his head down since the Falklands.  In reaction, “(h)er face froze and she turned away.”

 

Actually, this brings to mind some comments made recently by the playwright Alan Bennett, who famously loathed the sight and sound of Thatcher and was never going to be in contention for the guest list that night.  “What also galls,” wrote Bennett in his 2013 diary, “is the notion that Tory MPs throw in almost as an afterthought, namely that her lack of a sense of humour was just a minor failing, of no more significance than being colour-blind, say, or mildly short-sighted.  In fact to have no sense of humour is to be a seriously flawed human being.  It’s not a minor shortcoming; it shuts you off from humanity.  Mrs Thatcher was a mirthless bully…”

 

What other nuggets of information are contained in Farndale’s piece?  Well, Anthony Powell, who was so cruelly derided behind his back by Larkin and Amis, thought that the red wine served that night was ‘filth’.  Tom Stoppard’s main memory of the evening was not of meeting Thatcher but of meeting Larkin, about whom he was apparently star-struck.  Al Alvarez got seated next to V.S. Naipaul, who spent the meal grilling him about how much he got paid by the New Yorker and if he could get some pieces published in it.  And Alvarez suspected that, really, Thatcher didn’t know who most of her fellow diners were.  “Dick Francis was more her speed.”

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

For the full account of that night when Philip Larkin drooled over his political heroine, Al Alvarez felt disturbingly attracted to her, V.S. Naipaul talked New Yorker fees, Mario Vargas Llosa was mistaken for a Panamanian and Margaret Thatcher probably wasn’t sure what was going on, here’s a link to Nigel Farndale’s feature: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2013/dec/07/dinner-with-margaret-thatcher-literary.

 

Tramping the last dirt down

 

It’s fair to say that the demise of Margaret Thatcher in early April drew a mixed reaction from her former subjects in the United Kingdom.  The more adulatory responses included those of the Daily Mail, which emblazoned its front page the day after her death with the words, “The woman who saved Britain”; and of ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, who boldly tweeted about her being “…our first lady of girl power… a grocer’s daughter who taught me anything is possible”.  (Less boldly, Geri then deleted the tweet when she discovered that many of her followers on Twitter didn’t share her enthusiasm for the late leader.)

 

Uncomplimentary, however, were the comments of Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, which included the jest, “Looking forward to hearing who found all the horcruxes”; and of Liverpool football supporters, who at a football match in Reading the following Saturday were heard singing, “Let’s all do the conga, Maggie is no longer.”

 

Being closer to the Frankie Boyle / Liverpool fans pole of opinion regarding the late Baroness Thatcher, I was relieved to be living in Tunisia and not in the United Kingdom when she expired.  This meant I was largely able to avoid the rivers of sycophantic vomit that flowed from the right-wing British media.  Such was Maggie’s wondrousness, according to the commentators in the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, etc, that it surprises me that she didn’t ascend to heaven amid a flotilla of angels whilst making a sign of benediction with her right hand.

 

Nonetheless, I did recently force myself to look through the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the event.  Here are a few – a tiny few – of the headlines that the Tory-graph treated its readers to during the past three weeks whilst paying tribute to the blessed Maggie.  And here are a few of my thoughts regarding the assertions made in those headlines.

 

MARGARET THATCHER TOOK A RUINED, DISHONOURED AND BANKRUPT BRITAIN AND LEFT IT PROSPEROUS, CONFIDENT AND FREE (Daily Telegraph, April 8th)

 

It’s often said that history is written by the victors.  This is proven by the acres of print in right-wing newspapers this past month telling us how horrible 1970s Britain was – until Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election and single-handedly saved the place from damnation.

 

Well, economically, the 1970s weren’t great for the United Kingdom– were they great anywhere? – but it’s worth recalling that in 1978 Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was ahead of Thatcher’s Conservatives in the opinion polls: the country could hardly have been in ruins if the governing party was in with a shout of winning the next election.  Callaghan, of course, made what was in hindsight the catastrophic mistake of not holding that election in 1978.  He opted to wait until 1979.  The 1978-79 winter then went down in the history books as the ‘Winter of Discontent’ – a few months when there were strikes galore, uncollected rubbish piling up in the streets, dead people not being buried and so on – and subsequently a pissed-off British electorate voted Thatcher into power when the election was held.  But as Kieran Moodley has pointed out in the New Statesman, it’s wrong to equate a whole decade with a few months of industrial strife near the end of it, as propagandists of the right have been doing tirelessly:

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/04/thatcher%E2%80%99s-greatest-legacy-rewriting-seventies

 

The quality that made all the difference for Margaret Thatcher was luck.  She got to power through Callaghan’s dire timing and through trade-union stupidity.  She stayed in power by being fortunate in the enemies who rose against her, notably Argentina’s General Galtieri and hapless miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.  The formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 effectively split the political opposition to her for most of a decade.  And she had the windfall provided by North Sea Oil to keep Britain afloat, just about, while she brutally restructured the country’s economy.

 

(c) The Guardian

 

What I find fascinating is that not so long ago the think-tank the New Economics Foundation, using indicators such as crime levels, pollution levels and public investment to measure Britain’s quality of life, named 1976 as the year when British people were at their happiest.  (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/3519662.stm)  So much for the ideas that 1970s Britain was a hellhole to live in.  Of course, 1976 was before the Thatcher years brought about the fragmentation of society and our transformation into selfish, money-obsessed little piggies.

 

LADY THATCHER SET THE LOWER CLASSES FREE (Daily Telegraph, April 21st)

 

As evidence of the lower classes being set free during the lady’s reign, her apologists point to how she gave council-house tenants the right to buy their properties, gave the general public the chance to buy shares in the great 1980s sell-off of formerly-nationalised industries and services, and gave employees the freedom to work without interference, disruption and intimidation from militant trade unionists.

 

That’s one way of looking at it.  Alternatively, you could interpret it as allowing dodgy mortgage lenders and property speculators to run riot and allowing rapacious privatised utilities companies to charge an arm and a leg for basic services.  As for Thatcher’s emasculation of the unions, it was one step in her pogrom against Britain’s heavy industry and manufacturing, much of which was replaced by a bloated financial-services sector that was centred on the City of London (and let off the leash by the ‘big bang’ deregulation of 1986).

 

Of course, the folly of allowing the deregulated banks and financial houses to grow like a cuckoo in the economic nest, in the process crushing everything else, was highlighted in 2008’s meltdown – when the nest came crashing out of its tree.

 

LADY THATCHER’S DIGNIFIED FUNERAL SHOWED WHY BRITAIN IS STILL A GREAT NATION (Daily Telegraph, April 23rd)

 

Yes, Margaret’s funeral was given special dignity by its mourners.  These included Thatcherite Britain’s notion of the great (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jeremy Clarkson, Joan Collins and former Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson) and the good (Jeffrey Archer, Neil Hamilton, Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger).  If she’d passed away two years earlier, I’m sure her friend the disc jockey, TV presenter and posthumously-revealed serial paedophile Sir Jimmy Saville, who died in late 2011, would’ve dignified the occasion with his presence too.

 

The funeral – which was officially not a state funeral, though with soldiers, bands and gun carriages, with the Queen in attendance and St Paul’s Cathedral as the venue, it certainly felt like one – was of a scale not seen for a Prime Minister since Winston’s Churchill’s funeral in 1965.  Significantly, when the body of Churchill – who’d been head of a coalition government and had led a united country against Hitler in World War II – was ferried up the Thames, the dockyard workers lowered the jibs of their cranes as a sign of respect.  If Maggie had been boated past, I’m sure those dockers would’ve made a different sign, one that involved a vertical middle finger.

 

MARGARET THATCHER THOROUGHLY DESERVES TO BE HONOURED WITH A STATUE IN TRAFALGAR SQUARE (Daily Telegraph, April 9th)

 

Yes – if London wants to enter the Guinness Book of Records for possessing the most vandalised, graffiti-plastered and urinated-upon statue in history.

 

THE GREATEST EVER PEACETIME PRIME MINISTER…  (Daily Telegraph, April 8th)

 

No – that was Clement Attlee, whose lasting memorial, the National Health Service, is still a source of British pride (no matter how much David Cameron and his minions would like to dismantle it).  Maggie’s memorial was the financial crash of 2008, fuelled by the bankers’ greed and recklessness that she’d done so much to encourage, the effects of which we’ll have to live with for a long time indeed.  Attlee, incidentally, received a short and private funeral ceremony in 1967, which was attended by about 150 mourners.

 

Watching those folk in Britain who did well under Baroness Thatcher’s reign, the wealthy, powerful and privileged, reactionary in their politics and largely located in southeast England, heap accolades upon her in the media lately, I’ve felt I’ve been looking through a powerful telescope at the weird and alien inhabitants of another planet.  I’m sure that millions of other British people, who mostly live north of Birmingham and for whom Thatcher brought only disadvantage, misery and joblessness, have felt the same way.

 

This demonstrates how Margaret Thatcher managed to split her country apart, right down to its core.  A great leader would not have done that.

 

Celebration day

 

There I was, ready to start writing a blog entry about last week’s sad announcement that the much-loved Scottish novelist Iain Banks had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was unlikely to live to the end of the year; when this news came through:

 

At www.dangerousminds.net

 

I’m sure at the moment Banks is feeling some grim satisfaction in knowing that, poor though the outlook is for him, he’s at least managed to outlive the auld monster.

 

Here are a few musical tracks that may be appropriate today:

 

 

 

 

However, Tony Blair — whom I understand was grown in a laboratory in 1990 from genetic material harvested from a boil on Margaret Thatcher’s right buttock — is still with us.  So here is an additional song, especially for him.

 

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m away to the pub.

 

Ye cannae change the laws o’ physics (except in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly)

 

We citizens of the United Kingdom are hardly in a position to lecture other countries on the fairness of their political systems.  After all, in 1979, 56.1% of British voters voted against Margaret Thatcher and she still won an outright majority in parliament and the freedom to do whatever she pleased with the country for the next four years.  In 1983, 57.6% of voters rejected her again, and again she got her big parliamentary majority and carte blanche in government for four years more.  And in 1987 the anti-Thatcher vote was 57.8% and…  You guessed it.  She got her majority yet again and embarked on yet another term of having her evil way with poor old Britain.  It seemed that despite most of us voting against her, we really couldn’t get enough of big bad Maggie.

 

Nonetheless, we still enjoy a chuckle at other countries’ voting systems and the unfeasibly large majorities they always seem to deliver to certain unsubtle and not-very-nice leaders.  In Europe’s nastiest regime, Belarus, the super-unsavoury Alexander Lukashenko remained in power by winning 79.67% of the vote in the December 2010 presidential election – a cool 77.11% more than the percentage won by his closest rival, Andrej Sannikau, which was 2.56%.  Nonetheless, Lukashenko was clearly upset about the fifth of the vote that he didn’t win, for he had Sannikau and six other presidential candidates arrested straight after the election.  So they won’t try that again.

 

Over in central Asia, meanwhile, Uzbekistani president Islam Karimov stayed in power by winning 90.77% of the vote in his country’s December 2007 elections. Uzbekistan has the highest voting age in the world, incidentally – you have to be 25 before you can cross a ballot paper there.  So while they have to live with a dodgy electoral system, Uzbekistanis are at least spared the gruesome sight of their president trying to chase the youth vote.  (Unlike in Britain, where Gordon Brown cringingly claimed to be a fan of the Arctic Monkeys and David Cameron has enthused unconvincingly about the Killers.)

 

But even Karimov’s electoral success pales into insignificance compared with the figures recorded, allegedly, in North Korea.  In August 2003, for instance, the late Kim Jong-Il and 686 fellow deputies were returned to the Supreme People’s Assembly with a turnout of 99.9% and with 100% of the votes in that turnout cast for them.  Wow!

 

Still, when it comes to elections, even the world’s craziest dictators tend to stay within the bounds of mathematical possibility.  They keep on the rational side of 100.  As far as I know, for instance, not even Robert Mugabe has claimed a turnout of 106%, in which he won 137% of the vote.

 

That said, last week, I read on a news website about an astounding piece of voting magic that occurred at Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly.  During a session on May 10th, 162 votes were cast regarding the complementary budget.  This was in defiance of all known laws of physics, as there were only 146 members of the assembly present at the time.

 

So where did those extra 16 votes come from?  Were they the result of an anomaly in Einstein’s theory of relativity?  Were they an unforeseen consequence of string theory, or super-gravity, or M-theory?  Or did someone just, you know, cheat?  Alas, it transpired that the latter explanation was the case, for a number of members opposed to the majority Ennahdha Party were seen to vote twice.  They pressed voting buttons belonging to absent colleagues as well as pressing their own.  But according to Samir Betaib, a member of the PDM (Pole Democratique Moderniste) bloc that represents various centrist, socialist and republican parties, doing this was justified:  “Some members leave their seats for some reason and ask their colleagues to vote for them.”  In other words, voting twice when there’s really only one of you is fine and dandy.

 

Here’s the story: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/05/11/constituent-assembly-opposition-members-accused-of-vote-fraud/.

 

I’ve criticised the moderate-Islamist Ennahdha party before, especially for their apparent blindness towards the bullying antics of certain religious extremists.  But Ennahdha’s opponents, who make much of their own, Western-style policies about gender equality, the separation of religion and state and the like, would be advised to remember that Ennahdha didn’t just win votes in the Tunisian election because they stood for an Islamic viewpoint.  They were popular among many Tunisians because they seemed to be the party least tainted by association with the hated old regime of Ben Ali.

 

Whereas bending the rules in the manner demonstrated on May 10th suggests a contempt for fair-play – for democracy itself – that plenty of people would identify with Ben Ali and the bad old days of his autocratic and cynical rule.  And all the secular and Western-style credentials in the world are not to going win Ennahdha’s opponents any friends if they ignore this fact.

 

If you want to vote on something, guys, make an effort to actually show up.