Bring down the clowns

6th February 2004 at 00:00
It is not often that I feel physically sick, although writing forward plans can be quite an effective emetic, but I was close to throwing up as I sat watching Parliament's latest Oscar-nominated new wave comedy film Carry On Being A Complete Prat.

The debate on top-up fees, and the plotting and dealing that had accompanied it for months beforehand, offered a perfect explanation, for anyone who needed it, of why young people have turned their back on politics. A massive principle was at stake here: whether society should charge students a fortune for their higher education. Yet all that some idiots could do was prattle on in military terms about forays, troops, alliances, ambushing, pincer movements.

In the end it became an elaborate game with its own peculiar rules. For some of the plotters and counter-insurgents the subject matter for debate might as well have been the second reading of the Hopscotch for Pensioners Bill, the posturing would have been exactly the same.

Last year, during a research project about citizenship, we asked secondary pupils: "Do you think children of your age are interested in politics?" One person replied: "Not if they've got a life."

It is sad for democracy that young people now regard politicians as crooks or clowns. They express no interest in voting because they see it as a waste of time. Nonetheless they are concerned about the environment, their own generation's future and the wellbeing of others, hence the massive amount of voluntary work many cheerfully carry out.

I wonder what those children who bothered to watch all the capering on television made of the top-up fees fiasco. They must have despaired, thinking that a group of irresponsible buffoons were playing with their future. Yet individually most MPs are decent people trying to do a job, often in difficult circumstances.

In select committees they are fine, but herd them together in the bizarre atmosphere of the ornate palace whose corridors and chambers they stroll and many turn into idiots, braying and barking, drowning out speakers, setting a terrible example to any watching children. Carry On Being A Complete Prat should be an adults-only rated film.

I was once on a large national committee with three or four MPs. In private conversation they were intelligent and charming. Once the meeting started, however, two of them kept saying "hear hear", making footling points of order and referring to each other as "my honourable friend". It was as if two demented Ofsted inspectors had started using their own argot outside the charmed circle in which they lived and talking about the buffet lunch being "generally sound".

The rest of us shuffled uneasily, casting embarrassed sidelong glances at the door. I was trying to pluck up courage to sneak out to a telephone and summon the unmarked van, so the people in white coats could bring strait-jackets, sedate them and cart them discreetly away to a place of safety.

I also wonder what children make of current political doctrines, in the light of their studies of history, literature and citizenship.

"Which political party wants to charge people thousands of pounds for education that should be their birthright?"

"ErI the Conservatives?"

"Sorry, that's what you used to learn, but the answer is Labour."

"But I thought they believed inI" "Don't even ask."

Perhaps the same arguments will now be used to justify charging for health.

The NHS is short of money, so why shouldn't those who benefit pay for treatment? If you are off work sick and are cured, then you can go back to your job and earn more money, so you will be able to afford the fees.

Write in your diary: "Tuesday January 27, 2004, the day a Labour government became a Conservative government and tossed higher education into the market-place."

Don't be surprised if the fees go up to pound;10,000 or pound;15,000 a year as soon as feasible.

In the US it is possible to make your own proposition when voting. I feel like leaving the ballot paper blank and writing down, "Stuff the lot of you." Give the vote to 16-year-olds and we Stuff-the-lotters would be returned with a massive majority, so the Queen would have to ring one of us up and ask us to form the next government.

We could then elect a teacher as Speaker, who would insist that there is no calling out. You must put your hand up if you want to speak. Also, no walking on the lawn outside talking to television crews when the grass is wet. If the House of Commons were as orderly as most schools, and its members as well-behaved and sensible as most pupils, it might be a more credible place.

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