What really matters in British politics

You have to love British politics. We just had an election in which the prime minister, Theresa May—at least as I type this she’s still the prime minister, although I wouldn’t put any large amount of money on that lasting—was opposed in her bid to continue as a member of parliament by Lord Buckethead, Elmo, and Howling “Laud” Hope.

But before we go into detail, a bit of background for anyone who isn’t used to British elections: In spite of being the prime minister, May had to run for her seat in parliament, just like any other member of parliament. All prime ministers do. If she couldn’t keep her seat, she wouldn’t be prime minister anymore.

It must be humbling to go from wheeling a dealing and giving orders to begging for votes on equal terms with the rest of your party.

Especially when people don’t take it seriously.

Irrelevant and not particularly good photo: Buttercups. Sorry–I’ll try to do better next time.

Let’s start with the most dramatic of her opponents, Lord Buckethead, who wears a black cape and has a black bucket–or something black and vaguely bucketish–on his head. As far as I can figure out, he ran without the backing of any party. Political parties can be short sighted like that. Think of the publicity they could’ve gotten.

He describes himself as an “intergalactic space lord.” The article I learned this from says his real name is unknown, although for all we know he asked Google to translate his name from intergalactic space lordish into English and it comes out as Lord Buckethead.

Note to all reporters: Check your assumptions before you pass them off as facts. This stuff matters.

Anyway, Theresa May’s campaign, both in her own constituency and around the country on behalf of her party, consisted of droning the slogan “strong, stable leadership” at every possible opportunity. Buckethead promised strong but “not entirely stable leadership.”

That won him 249 votes.

He (or someone else with the same name and a bucket on his head) also ran against Margaret Thatcher in 1987 and John Major in 1992, when they were the prime ministers. In Britain, you don’t have to live in the constituency you’re running for office in—or even pretend to live in it—so running against a prime minister? It’s something you can do on a whim, as long as you have the filing fee, which is £500, and meet a list of fairly boring qualifications, such as not being a member of the police or armed forces, a civil servant, or a judge.

Buckethead apparently qualifies, and he even has policies. One is providing safe, effective opposition to Theresa May. Another is turning a safe seat (that means a parliamentary seat that a party’s almost guaranteed to win) into an ejector seat. A third is investing in schools, the National Health Service, social care, local infrastructure, and “other things humans vote for.”

He also promised to nationalize the singer Adele and abolish all lords except himself. And just to prove he’s serious about this, he has a campaign song.

Okay, I’ve heard better singers. Hell, I’m a better singer, because he doesn’t set the bar very high. But then the better singers I’m talking about weren’t singing from inside a bucket, so we should probably cut the guy a little slack.

Elmo also ran against Theresa May, but he only got 3 votes, probably because he appeared under the name Bobby Smith instead of Elmo. I mean, Bobby Smith? Who’s going to vote for him? On the other hand, he got to appear on the platform, dressed as Elmo, alongside May and Lord Buckethead when the votes were counted.

Lord Buckethead stole the show, though.

Still sticking with May’s constituency, the Monster Raving Loony Party (“vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party—The only sane thing to do in a world gone mad”) backed Howling “Laud” Hope, who won 119 votes and got to take the quotation marks home with him, since they appeared on the ballot. I don’t know if he had to change his name legally to appear on the ballot that way. It’s something Elmo should ask him about.

“Laud” Hope was also on stage, although looking at the BBC’s photo—which is wonderful—I’m not sure which one he is since he wasn’t in costume. The party could learn a thing or three from the independents.

But enough of Theresa May’s constituency. Let’s move on. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, had to run against Mr. Fish Finger (sometimes spelled Fishfinger), who according to the Guardian (see the first link) upstaged Farron’s victory speech.

Fish Finger took the name legally after a Twitter poll of 1,000 people showed that 90% of them would rather be led by a fish finger than by Farron.

What’s a Twitter poll? I don’t really know, but I suspect it’s one of those things where you ask 1,000 of your closest friends to agree with you.

Mr Finger (or maybe that’s Mr. Fishfinger) crowdfunded his campaign, raising £2,301. His page says he trusts “to Cod that you will keep giving.”

I was having a good time with all this until I read his twitter page, which (to the extent that I can figure out what he’s saying) is full of anti-immigrant crap and bad puns. Okay, full disclosure: the puns were on the crowdfunding page and I was willing to overlook them until I decided I hated the guy.

Strong opinions on the subject? Nah. I treasure my objectivity.

Still, he upstaged Tim Farron beautifully during the vote count. And got 309 votes. Plus he’s now the proud owner of a ratty-looking fish finger costume, and Halloween is coming.

And that, my friends, is what really goes on in British politics.

Making fun of the House of Lords: an appreciation

One of the joys of living in Britain is that you get to make fun of the House of Lords, and I’ve had at least my share of fun with that and probably used up someone else’s portion as well, but a recent (okay, not so recent; it’s taken me a while to get around to this) article in the Guardian’s weekend magazine made me wonder if the chamber may serve some genuine purpose.

But let’s go for the ridiculous first. I learned from the article that the House of Lords has a blue carpet that you can only walk on silently. If you stop and stand on it, you get told off. I’m not sure how you walk on a carpet noisily—maybe you need spurs—but you can’t do that either. The house’s senior official is called Black Rod, but his full title is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. He comes to work in pantaloons and wears a ruffle where a twenty-first century male would wear a tie. Or—well, he probably wears street clothes until he gets to work and then changes. Absurd as the get-up is in the House of Lords, wearing it on the bus would be worse. (I’d love a photo, though. Rush hour. People hanging on the poles. Frilly tie. Pantaloons. I don’t know what kind of shoes you wear with that.)

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

When the lords vote, they line up in corridors, one for Content (adjective, not verb, with the accent on the last syllable) and one for Not Content. Their names are ruled off a list and they’re then counted off by a peer holding a drumstick (“musical, not chicken,” added the lord who described the procedure). When women first joined the Lords, they weren’t allowed to address the doorkeepers.

Why not?

Because.

In case anyone’s interested, I’m capitalizing Lords when it stands in for House of Lords but not when it applies to members of the house, unless the name’s included, in which case it becomes a title and is capped. Is that baroque or what? Normal usage is probably to capitalize it both times but it just seems too damn worshipful and, good (L)lord, I can’t do it. Besides, a lot of Brits capitalize all sorts of words that I’d leave lower case. I suspect they’re overdoing it not just according to American usage but to British as well, but it’s so widely done that it must mean something. Maybe that they’re closer to the German roots of English than Americans are. Or maybe capital letters are on sale and no one’s told me.

I should rush out and Buy and half Dozen.

But back to the Lords: The speaker sits on a woolsack (the current speaker is, apparently, short enough that her feet dangle) and the clerks are equipped with both white wigs and iPads. Is that a great combination or what?

The lords meet in a room built to seat 240 members and there are now 859. Of those, 92 are hereditary. Under Tony Blair, there was a massive cull of hereditary peers; they’re what’s left. Why them instead of some of the others? Haven’t a clue. Other peers are appointed for life and the theory is that they’re experts in one thing or another—science, history, law, medicine, chutney, building blocks—but they also include party hacks and donors, former civil servants, a cheese maker, a children’s TV presenter, a rock star or two (or seven, but who’s counting?), former MPs, 26 bishops (whose bench is the only one that has arms), and the occasional stray novelist.

Peers are nominated by political parties and can be nominated by the public as well. Good luck with that, public. If anyone wants to nominate Wild Thing, go ahead. It’ll be interesting. The governing party gets to make more appointments than the parties that aren’t governing. Are you surprised? Then the appointees have to be approved by an independent commission (exactly how independent it is I’m couldn’t say, although I could take a reckless guess or two), which can make its own nominations, and the list is then approved by the prime minister. I don’t know if he gets to do any final tinkering or not. After all that, the queen waves her magic feather over it. Of 45 appointments in August 2015, 26 belonged to the party currently in office, the Conservatives. One of them is a former MP (that’s Member of Parliament, in case you don’t speak British) who stepped down in 2010 after the public learned that he’d claimed the £2,200 he spent for cleaning his moat on his expenses.

So yes, the system’s working perfectly. They don’t seem to have appointed the guy who got caught claiming the cost of a floating duck island for his country house.

The average age is 69, but the lone Green peer is quoted as saying “You can’t die in parliament. You’re not allowed.” I’d put that down to comic overstatement, but since we’re dealing with the House of Lords it’s probably not.

When the Lords were considering a bill that many people thought would have a disastrous effect on the National Health Service (it passed, and we were right: it has), several friends and I divided up the list of lords who we thought might be swing votes and wrote to all of them. I learned from this that some of them are elderly or ill and don’t show up anymore. They’re not required to, although they’re paid only for days they show up. Last I heard it was £300 a day.

A person could live on that.

I also learned that the peers aren’t provided with a clerical staff. They answer their own mail or they don’t. Mostly they don’t, but one member, Baroness (that’s what the women are called; the men are called Lord) Someone or Other, emailed back. And I emailed her back and she wrote back again and we argued the bill endlessly and purposelessly, since it quickly became clear that neither of us was going to change the other one’s position. It was all I could do to keep from asking, “Why are you writing me? Don’t you have a country to run or something?”

Anyway, she assured me that the bill would work to the benefit of the entire universe and that the sun would shine twenty-five hours a day and Britain would bask in eternal summer. I later saw her name on a list of peers who had investments that should have barred them from voting on the bill (but didn’t), since they were conflicts of interest.

I comfort myself with the thought that when she was writing to me she wasn’t accomplishing anything else.

But. Some of the peers interviewed in the Guardian article made a good case for the Lords having a use.

“A lot of bills are not debated at all in the House of Commons,” one said. “They fall to the House of Lords.”

A lot of the MPs barely even read them.

In the Lords, a certain number of members will actually read the damn things, line by line by dreary line, instead of just voting as their party tells them to. For one thing, they have the commitment and time. For another, since they’re appointed for life they can, if they want to, be independent of their party.

Still, the Lords is an unelected body, and that’s a dangerous way to govern.

The Lords has less power than the Commons (don’t ask; it’s as complicated as the rules governing carpets), but it can in some situations slow legislation down and in others amend or kill it. Since the British system gives a hell of a lot of power to the party that holds a majority in the Commons, the Lords is the only brake the system has. The current gridlock in the U.S. has made me understand what’s wrong with the checks and balances system the U.S. Constitution created. All it takes is one party dedicated to stopping the other for everything to grind to a halt—as long as that party is large enough and ruthless enough. But the British system has made me understand what’s wrong with efficiency. The governing party has a huge amount of power, which can be equally destructive if the governing party’s ruthless enough. The Lords is the one place it may (emphasis on may) not entirely control. Unless it’s in office long enough to stuff it with donors and hacks.

I don’t know what the answer is. But as long as the senior official wears a frilly tie and you can’t stand still on a blue rug, at least we get to laugh about it.

Why is Britain called Great Britain?

The question of why Britain’s called Great Britain popped up in a comment thread, and if I were a better person I’d go back and figure out where it was and link to whoever raised it (it was a British reader in case that strikes you as being worth knowing) but I’m crazed lately. I made a note to do sixty seconds of research on the topic, forgot to copy the link into my notes, and here I am, without a clue where we were at the time.

Sorry.

But the question persists. What are we talking about when we say “Great Britain”?

If you wander around London long enough, you’ll eventually stumble into a street called Great Russell Street. It’s not a particularly big street, but I’m assuming it’s bigger than (not great) Russell Street, which you’ll also stumble into if you stumble long enough. (All this stumbling relies on the same principal as those thousand monkey on typewriters who will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare, assuming you can convince monkeys to type. And assuming I can get you to wander long enough. You’re welcome to stop for tea as often as you like if that helps. Or a beer.)

Great, my friends, isn’t a value judgment in either context. It means big. Big honkin’ Russell Street, Big honkin’ Britain.

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie is growing and would now like to be known as Great Eddie.

The first person to use great in the context of Britain seems to have been Ptolemy, who wasn’t writing in English so we’re fudging our facts here, but it’s interesting anyway. He called what we now know as England, Scotland, and Wales (and Cornish nationalist would add Cornwall)—in other words, the bigger landmass hereabouts—Great Britain, and Ireland—the smaller one—Little Britain.

Then everyone forgot about it for centuries. They had other things on their minds. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth called that bigger landmass Greater Britain to distinguish it from Lesser Britain, which wasn’t Ireland but Brittany. And then they forgot about it all for another long stretch of time.

The phrase pops up again in the fifteenth century in a not very interesting context, then gets serious in the seventeenth century, when James united what were still and continued to be two separate countries, England and Scotland, under a single monarchy—and (although it’s not relevant to our discussion) claimed Ireland and France as well. In the next century, England and Scotland were united into a single country. Wales had been conquered some time before all this and the English had gotten into the habit of thinking it was part of England (the Welsh thought differently), so it didn’t get a separate mention right then.

James, by the way, was either the first or the sixth, depending on whether you’re standing in England or in Scotland when you count. I told you not to trust me with numbers—they go all shifty when I’m in the room. It should also be noted that James couldn’t spell for shit. He called himself the king of “Great Brittaine,”

Well, he was king. He got to spell it any way he wanted. Who was going to tell him he had it wrong? Besides, pretty much everyone did that back then, with pretty much any word they set their feathery pens to.

Fast forward to the days when Britain had an empire. The Great in Great Britain must’ve been handy and did take on the tone of a value judgment. But the origin? Big. Nothing but big.

These days, Great Britain means England, Wales, and Scotland. (The link here is basically a footnote in case you’re seriously interested. I could also link to some kid’s school paper, which for reasons I won’t stop to think about came up at the top of Google’s list, but I won’t.) And Cornwall, as the Cornish nationalists would remind us. Along with some of the surrounding small islands but not others, which are self-governing dependent territories.

Don’t ask.

It doesn’t include Northern Ireland. But in everyday speech, people often use British to cover the entire United Kingdom, which does include Northern Ireland. A website called Know Britain says that from a legal point of view this is inaccurate—and just afterward it notes that the phrase is often used to mean exactly that in legislation, especially in reference to nationality.

So there you go. Are you confused yet? Then my work is done. But because I don’t like to leave a topic until I’ve overdone it, I should add that Know Britain says the British Islands is a political term meaning the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. But the British Isles is a geographical term meaning Great Britain, all of Ireland, and all the smaller islands around them. Don’t you just love this language?

Someday when I’m feeling particularly brave I’ll tackle the question of which categories of people would say, “I’m British,” and which ones would say, for example, “I’m English,” or “I’m Cornish” and so forth, and what all that means. Or may mean.

But for now we’ll end there . It may not all be good, but it’s great, isn’t it?

Terror at the seaside: we all get hysterical about gulls

Let’s talk about wild beasts. Specifically, let’s talk about gulls, since they’ve been in the news here lately. They’re vicious creatures who dive bomb innocent civilians and steal their ice cream cones. Visit to the coast and you’re gambling with your life and your sanity. I’m exaggerating, but at least I admit it.

Yes, friends, the British press is getting hysterical again, so let’s settle for just one link. Enough is plenty.

A rare relevant photo, although it's from Belgium, not Cornwall. From Wikimedia, by Loki11.

A rare relevant photo, although it’s from Belgium, not Cornwall. From Wikimedia, by Loki11.

Before I tell you the terrible tales, I should let you know what I’ve learned about gulls:

They’re not really called seagulls. They’re gulls, and since we’ve already irresponsibly established that they’re vicious we don’t want to make ‘em mad, so we’ll call them what they want to be called. If you don’t believe me that they don’t like being called seagulls, just ask one.

If you dare.

According to Wikipedia, they’re “of the family Laridae in the sub-order Lari. . . . An older name for gulls is mew . . . This term can still be found in certain regional dialects.”  That, irrelevantly, explains a song that mentions seamews. I always wondered what they were. Play nice or I’ll sing it to you.

But back to gulls. (Nice birdy. I’m leaving part of my sandwich right here for you. Leave the finger. I need that.) There have been some incidents, and as usual if they happened to me I wouldn’t be happy about them, but I don’t know how new, or newsworthy, any of this is.

In the most serious incidents, a small dog—a yorkie, a breed that can get so small they’re not really big enough to be dogs—was killed by gulls and a tortoise was ditto. With those two things at the top of the page to draw our eye, column inches have been devoted to cafes and take-away joints trying to protect their customers (and their food) from birds and to children and adults being frightened, and occasionally hurt, by the birds.

Ever since I moved here, I’ve been reading about problems with gulls, or seeing segments on the local news. Or protecting my scones from them. Cornwall’s full of seaside towns and villages, and seaside towns and villages are full of summer visitors, and with the visitors come picnics and ice creams and chips (those are french fries if you’re on the left-hand side of the Atlantic) and so on. And gulls are nothing if not scavengers. If food’s around, they want to know about it. As a result, in some places they now nest on roofs instead of (or more likely, in addition to) the rocky offshore islands they used to like. I seem to remember hearing about a street where the letter carrier refused to deliver mail after getting swooped on once too often. That was a few years ago, then the story disappeared and we never found out what, if anything, got done.

Oddly enough, although gulls sit around on our roof and our neighbors, they don’t do anything more right here than yell and get into the garbage if a fox has already torn the bag open. As far as I know, they don’t even tear the bags themselves, although I can’t swear to that.

In response to this latest flap, the prime minister, David Cameron, has pontificated—sorry, announced that we need to have a big discussion on the subject. He’s counting on the subject disappearing with the summer leaves before he has to figure out needs to be said in the discussion, never mind what has to be done–or worse, have to spend money on it. Should we kill all the gulls? Shut down the seaside? Issue visitors with plastic bubbles?

Saint Ives used to cull gulls and use birds of prey to keep them from nesting. They also had a van driving around town playing loud noises to scare them off. What the van did to the tourists, I don’t know. I wouldn’t think they’d be crazy about loud noises themselves. It probably kept them from nesting on the roofs too.

The thing is, all of that is expensive. A cull costs £10,000. We’re in an age of austerity. That it’s artificially induced (in my not particularly popular opinion) is beside the point. Local governments are having to choose between libraries and leisure centers and then realizing  that they can’t afford either. So St. Ives is trying flapping colored flags. I don’t know how well that’ll work on gulls, but I tried flapping computer disks to keep the birds (blackbirds, I think) off my raspberries. After the first day or two, they were onto my tricks. They not only ate the berries, they set up their laptops on the outside table.

Truro is trying paint that reflects the sun’s UV rays. My guess is that we’ll be seeing gulls with sunglasses in the center of town.

When this first came out, I heard a scientist interviewed on the BBC’s Radio 4. He’d designed a study of urban gulls with an eye toward finding a solution to the problems they present. Embarrassingly enough–not for him but the the government–it was first funded but then defunded before it ever got going. It’s an age of austerity. We can’t afford that sort of frippery until everyone gets hysterical and starts yelling that someone had better do something. Even if it’s random and ineffective.

A government decides to promote British values

The British government worries that Britain may not be British enough. It worries so much that the Department for Education has instructed schools to promote British values.

Part of this is meant to counter the lure ISIS has on a (let’s be realistic, limited but highly publicized) number of young people, but I seem to remember that they started talking about British values back when Scotland was voting on whether to leave the U.K. So I’m guessing that some more general unease lies behind the decision.

Let me be clear: I take ISIS seriously. Hell, I take Scotland seriously. What I don’t take seriously are people who think “promoting British values” is a response to either of those very distinct entities. Especially since the British values campaign forces everyone to confront the awkward question of what those values are. I mean, they’re not , say, the flag or apple pie. They’re hard to define.

Irrelevant photo: an old shed at Trebarwith Strand.

Irrelevant photo: an old shed at Trebarwith Strand. The pink flowers are red campion. I don’t make this stuff up. Really I don’t.

As prime minister, David Cameron defined them as freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility, and respect for British institutions. Nick Clegg, when he was deputy prime minister, added gender equality and equality before the law. Then his party tanked in the elections and no one’s consulted him since. Michael Gove, when he was secretary of education, defined them as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Awkwardly enough, in 2007 he said trying to define Britishness was “rather un-British.”

Oops.

Since Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, which should really be OSECSS) will have the joy of assessing the schools’ efforts, it’s published the official set of British values. They’re democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

Can we tolerate people with different, non-British values? Sorry, the question’s too complicated. Ofsted lives in a true/false culture.

Do other countries hold to these same values and if they do are the values still specifically British? Sorry, that’s not on the test and we can’t discuss it now.

Can we tolerate politicians offering three sets of non-identical British values plus one opinion trashing the whole idea of codifying them? Of course we can, because by now everyone’s swung their weight behind the official version and has forgotten that they didn’t always agree. Except possibly Nick Clegg and, see above, no one consults him anymore.

In joyful response to this attempt at unifying the nation’s beliefs, a whole lot of people cut loose on Twitter under the hashtag #BritishValues. According to The Independent, some of the early tweets summarizing the aforesaid values included:

  • Being wary of foreigners while having a Belgian beer with an Indian curry in your Spanish villa wearing Indonesian clothes.
  • Queuing; dressing inappropriately when the sun comes out; warm beer; winning World Wars; immigration & Pot Noodles.
  • Wearing socks with sandals
  • complaining about immigration

The Independent article online was open for comments, and they included a few more suggestions:

  • Seeing a rogue traffic cone and immediately working out the nearest sculpture in need of a hat.
  • Denouncing immigrants, while we have a royal family made up of immigrants.
  • Loving fish and chips even though the potato migrated here from abroad.

The comment thread quickly degenerated into arguments, name calling, and “This comment has been deleted,” so I stopped reading. Instead, I went to Twitter to check out the more recent comments. Not all of them are funny. Some are bitter-edged comments about homelessness and not rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.  Others are about trash in the hedges and dog-poo bags left by the side of the road. But, hey, we try to keep laughing here, even when the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.  The lighter tweets included:

  • The bloke in front of me just put his entire body weight on my foot & I said sorry.
  • Forming an orderly queue.
  • Pie and chips done properly!
  • Get an exclusive 15% off any order from @TwiningsTea

None of these answers the question (and I do understand that it wasn’t posed as a question) of what British values are, but it does point us in the right direction: Whatever they are, they include an ad for tea and a sense of humor. So brew yourself a nice cup and tell me something silly about British values, would you?

Or American values. Or any other nation’s values. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Defending the honor of a British politician

A politician made a valiant attempt to defend the honor of a colleague last week and accidentally brought the whole British Parliament into disrepute. Or further disrepute. Or just possibly none of the above. Take your pick once I tell you the tale.

Sir Malcolm Bruce, a former deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, tried to defend Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael by saying that if every MP was kicked out of office for lying “we would clear out the House of Commons very fast.”

(Note: You can follow that link safely. Unlike the one in last Tuesday’s post, you won’t find any mankinis on the other end.)

Did Bruce mean that lying was widespread in public life? a BBC interviewer asked.

“No,” he said. “Well, yes.”

cute kitten photo

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie, fast asleep.

Or, just possibly, both of the above. I’m a great fan of all of the above and none of the above, especially when they’re not logical possibilities. They give us an illusion of choice and expansiveness and—well, I don’t think freedom is too high-flown a word for this. Sure, the world may be falling apart and the weather’s getting stranger by the year, but the range of what’s possible just expanded beyond what’s possible and if that ain’t freedom, my friend, what is?

So once again, take your pick. And if you want it to be both all of the above and none of the above at the same time, be my guest: Pick both. There’s no charge.

But back to our story. Carmichael got into trouble by authorizing a leak before the recent election and then denying that he knew anything about it, and it was the denial that caused the problem, not the leak or even that the information he leaked was apparently inaccurate. Or made up, which is a polite way of saying a lie. You can take your choice there too. We’re just rolling in choices today.

For the sake of both British and non-British readers, I won’t go into the details. Brits have already heard about it and for everyone else I’m already teetering on the edge of incomprehensibility with all this talk of Lib Dems and MPs and disrepute. A politician’s in disrepute? American readers are asking themselves. And this makes the news why? (Am I being unfair here? Are readers in other countries asking the same question?) Besides, the content is almost never what matters in these scandals, it’s cover-up that gets politicians in trouble. How come? Because that’s what we, the ordinary newspaper readers and evening news watchers, can wrap our heads around.

Oh, sure, if someone someone slept with someone they weren’t supposed to sleep with, we can follow that without waiting for the cover-up. But the real scandals? The ones involving billions of dollars, or pounds, or whatevers? The ones, say, involving the banks and the Great Recession of 2008? They’re so deeply incomprehensible that our eyes go glazy the minute we hear about them and I’d better end this paragraph fast or you’’ll all click onto something else.

I’m almost inclined to admire ol’ Malcolm. (Sorry, I just can’t call anyone “Sir.” Like ironing, it’s against my religion.) The impulse to defend a colleague, and for all I know a friend, led him to tell the truth as he knows it, which is that in politics almost everyone lies. Or maybe that should be everyone. Yet another chance to take your pick.

I don’t know which you chose just then, and I don’t suppose it changed anything, but didn’t it give you a wonderful feeling, as if your life had just grown larger?

A very British form of protest

Someone was recently convicted of disrupting prime minister’s question time—called PMQ by those in the know—by throwing marbles in the general direction of the MPs. (“Marble-throwing PMQs protestor gets suspended prison sentence”)

No, that’s not the part that strikes me as particularly British. We’ll get to that.  But before we do, I should explain that it takes an expert to tell when someone disrupts PMQ, because the MPs bray at and heckle and bully each other like a classroomful of twelve-year-old boys whose teacher stepped out for a smoke a month ago and still hasn’t come back. (My writers group, whose members are an invaluable and giddy guide to all things British, advises me that the MPs sound like public school boys, which if you’re American means private school boys, because public schools here are private, but that’s too much confusion for one post. Let’s thank them politely and not get into it here.) All that braying and harassing are politics as usual. The reason this guy stood out was because he was in the visitors’ area.

And, yeah, the marbles. I admit that.

Plus his language. The MPs are allowed (even expected) to be horrible to each other, but their language has to be pristine.

Blackthorn in bloom on the North Cornish coast

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn in bloom.

What kind of language did the protester use? That’s in dispute. The prosecutor claimed he stood up and said, “I’m sorry about this, ladies and gentlemen. You fucking wankers, you’re just liars.” But the protester, who as far as I can figure out had already pled guilty, interrupted, shouting, “Can I just say, for the record, I didn’t call anyone fucking wankers. I called them dishonourable bastards.”

That “dishonourable”? That’s British. The next person who interrupts the American House or Senate will not, I guarantee, use the word dishonorable, even though I switched to the American spelling to make it a fraction of a percent of a probability more plausible.

The “I’m sorry about this, ladies and gentlemen”? That’s also British.

I’m still not sure what our protester was protesting. According to the article, he has (as the current phrase puts it) mental health problems and felt his life was wasting away. In response, I’m sure the government will make more speeches about putting mental health on a par with physical health and keep on underfunding both.

They’d outlaw marbles but Parliament’s dissolved until the election.

Beer and British politics: The Pub Landlord runs for office

British politics just got a bit less depressing: A new candidate just entered the race for a parliamentary seat, a comic named Al Murray running under the name of his comedy character, the Pub Landlord. His party’s logo looks a lot like the one the U.K. Independence Party (Ukip) uses, and although I hate to give Ukip any space in my earth-shatteringly influential blog, the joke doesn’t work unless you know a bit about who the Pub Landlord’s making fun of.

Ukip wants to take the U.K. out of the European Union and get rid of all of us pesky foreigners. Or maybe they don’t want to get rid of quite all of us, because Ukip’s leader is married to a woman from Spain, so presumably they’ll make exceptions, but basically they don’t like furriners coming over here, taking British jobs and speaking funny languages on their streets. Last I heard, the party leader’s wife had a paid job in his office, but I guess that wasn’t a British job, it was some other kind of job, so it must be okay.

Irrelevant Photo: Mulfra Quoit, an ancient monument in West Cornwall

Irrelevant Photo: Mulfra Quoit, in West Cornwall

What else does Ukip stand for? Well, it sort of depends when you ask and who you ask and what sort of mood they’re in. And whether they’re still in the party, because periodically one of their candidates goes too far and gets thrown out. One proposed banning Islam and tearing down mosques. Another posted anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements on his Facebook page. A third was convicted of assault. Let me quote the Mail Online here: “The Ukip official charged with vetting the party’s election candidates has revealed he spends half his time ‘weeding out the lunatics’. . . .

“The remarks come after one Ukip candidate was recorded making homophobic, racist and obscene comments—while another was exposed as a fantasist after becoming embroiled in a public sex scandal.”

Ukip does stand for a good pint of beer, though—that’s been pretty consistent and to date no one’s been thrown out for it. And they’re polling well considering that they’re a minor and basically bonkers party. Well enough to scare the bejeezus out of the major parties and drag them all into a discussion of what to do about immigration, as if everyone agreed that immigration is what’s wrong with—and probably the only thing wrong with—the country.

But back to the new party: Its name is Free United Kingdom Party, or FUKP. (Yeah, go ahead and pronounce it.) And what’s its platform? The Pub Landlord promises to burn down the Houses of Parliament for the insurance and brick up the Channel Tunnel to keep immigrants out. His most inspired proposal is revaluing the pound so it’s worth £1.10. About cutting immigration, he says, “This is the greatest country in the world and people want to move here. We need an MP to make things worse. Look no further.” On corporations and globalization, he says, “Blah blah blah paradigm blah blah blah, blah blah dialectic blah blah blah blah blah blah game-changer.” Which is pretty much what all the politicians are saying.

Finally, he pledges that the U.K. will leave Europe by 2025 and the solar system by 2050.

Politics hasn’t made this much sense since Screaming Lord Sutch ran on the Official Monster Raving Loony Party ticket.