When George Bush senior said in his inaugural speech that he wanted his Presidency to represent a ‘kinder, gentler America’ he could hardly have foreseen that his vision would be turned into reality so quickly – not just in America but in Britain too. Yeah, right, I hear you say.
But in so many ways it is true and particularly in the case of political rhetoric. It is no doubt a symptom of the depolarisation of British politics now that Labour has moved onto Tory policy territory but boy does it make it boring for those of us who rather enjoy a good political spat. Witness the Henry McLeish case last week. If this had happened 10 years ago the Tory attack stormtroopers would have been baying for blood and using the most lurid language possible, yet they were strangely subdued in calling for his head. Maybe a case of ‘there but for the Grace of god…’. Even in calling for the collective scalps of Jo Moore and Stephen Byers the Tories have been less than vituperative in their language. Maybe they’re being kind to be cruel?
It’s not just politics which has been reduced to a non contact sport. Football has gone the same way. Sitting as I do in West Ham’s East Stand every other Saturday (or Sunday or Monday Mr Murdoch permitting) – call me a sucker for punishment if you like - I see how perfectly good games are ruined by referees who believe that every tackle should be rewarded with a yellow card. At last week’s match against Fulham referee Graham Barber’s whistle seemed stuck to his lips, yet there was hardly a bad tackle in the whole game.
Even the tabloids have gone soft of late. I can hardly remember the last time I saw a really juicy front page on the News of the World. I suppose we should be grateful, but there’s a part of me that longs for the good old 1970s when conviction politics were in vogue, MPs were regularly thrown out of the House for misbehaving, Julian Dicks was making two footed sliding tackles and getting away with it, and transvestite vicars were having it away with their congregation in the News of the World. Happy days.
But think how all this kind and gentle stuff affects those most excellent of men – and yes, they are all men – the parliamentary sketch writers. Last week I hosted the launch of Matthew Parris’s latest collection of sketches “Off Message (Robson Books, £12.99) where he proceeded to pay tribute to all the other sketchwriters present – the prolific Simon Hoggart from The Guardian, the redoubtable Frank Johnson from The Telegraph and the new ‘old boy’ on the block, Simon Carr of the The Indy. During his speech a friend of mine enquired of me in a whisper: “What do you think the collective noun for a group of sketchwriters might be?” I thought for a moment and then decided it would have to be a Snide of Sketchwriters or possible a Smug. A Wry or even a Sideways Glance? The possibilities are endless.
Parris made the point that every generation moans about how parliamentary standards and the quality of our MPs is worse than the last. He might also have mentioned the diminishing quality of parliamentary speeches. I’m sure this has nothing to do with Parris’s imminent departure from the Commons, but it is, nevertheless, deeply worrying for those of us who cherish our daily does of sketches from the Commons. If our parliamentarians are so nice to each other and make such deadly boring speeches thereby depriving the sketchwriters of anything to write about, can it be long before a broadsheet editor starts to question the needs for a sketchwriter at all? Let’s hope not.