This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Friday, August 13, 2004

A letter to Michael Howard

Earlier this week Mark Thomas was abducted by a group of extremist English teachers, the Syntax Liberation Front. In place of his column, the editor has decided to publish a letter, intended for Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party. This was misdirected to the New Statesman office.

Dear Mr Howard,

I write to you from a nursing home in Kent where I am recovering from a stroke, brought on by years of apoplexy. The state of permanent rage in which I find myself dates back, almost to the very day, to the invention of the Pill and the introduction of affordable colour television.

I am a lifelong member of the Conservative Party and so, naturally, voted for Ukip at the last elections. I speak as I find and judge on merit. I do not regard myself as prejudiced in any way - indeed, many of the staff at the nursing home are black, but pleasant.

So let me get straight to the point. If we are to revive the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party, we need a man who can lead the party with discipline, unflinching vision, charisma and an iron grip on law and order. That man, Mr Howard, is not you. You have the charisma of a bollard, the vision of a bat and all the dignity and discipline of a brandy-quaffing flamingo.

As a patriot, a Daily Mail reader and a driver with no points on my licence, I must therefore demand that you step aside and make way for the only man fit to lead the Conservative Party into the future, the Right Honourable David Blunkett. Obviously there is a slight problem here, in that he is a member of the Labour Party, a party he is probably loath to leave. I therefore propose that every Tory MP cross the floor, defect to Labour, create a rump of David Blunkett supporters, oust Tony Blair and bring in our man.

Let me give you just one example of why Mr Blunkett is the logical choice.

For some time, the British legal system has been imprisoning people only to release them some years later, on the mere technicality that they are innocent. The Birmingham Six, the Tottenham Three, the Bridgewater Four and all manner of people who appear to have postcodes rather than names are being set free.

This is an outrage.* It makes a mockery of all the work and diligence the police put into these cases. It is difficult enough to convict guilty criminals; imagine how much harder the police have to work to convict the innocent.

Having been freed, these men and women add insult to injury by claiming compensation. So the taxpayer has to stump up once again. Well, the worm has turned, and it is Blunkett who has turned it.

On 29 July, the Home Office won an important case at the appeal court. This gave the government the right to charge these innocent men and women for the "bed and board" they received while in prison.

That's the spirit, Blunkett, say I. That will teach them to be innocent while looking guilty, to sponge off the state, getting free clothes, food, shelter and not even having to think about paying the dreaded Stalinist TV licence fee.

Mike O'Brien (not the Labour minister, unfortunately) was imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit and served 11 years and 43 days in prison. Blunkett is charging him a mere £37,158 for having received bed and board throughout this period. I should note that O'Brien intends to take his case to the House of Lords. However, I am sure that centuries of appropriate inbreeding will deliver the right verdict and he will be slung out on his ear.

Once more our nation can hold its head up high as, I am proud to say, Britain is the only country in Europe to do this. I have now had the nursing staff erect bunting to celebrate this fact.

However, why stop at charging the innocent? If students can get loans to pay their way through so-called university, why not introduce prisoners' loans? Then they could pay for their own imprisonment. The better prisons would be able to charge higher fees and operate a "selective prison service", thus introducing an element of prisoner choice in their destination. Naturally, they would leave prison with thousands of pounds' worth of debt, but what better incentive to go and find a proper job?

I would be surprised if Mr Blunkett has not already thought of this.

Yours in vein-popping anger, Mr Reginald Arsemelt

* I apologise for the omission of the necessary exclamation mark at the end of this sentence. I am afraid that I broke this key on my typewriter while writing my previous letter to you regarding the euro.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Declining to stock up on baked beans

Government warnings about possible terrorist attacks are becoming increasingly difficult to take seriously. They are delivered with the gravitas and certainty of an ancient oracle in an old Monty Python sketch, booming: "An attack could be imminent!" "Where?" replies the cowering populace. "Nobody knows," booms the oracle. "When?" ask the people, cowering slightly less. "Soon... soonish... It's not an exact science, you know." "OK then, who?" "Couldn't rightly say." "How do you know?" inquire the quizzical folk."The intelligence services told us." "What, the same intelligence services that helped do the dodgy dossier and the 45-minute claim of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction?" "Er... Look, this is serious, you know... Oh, is that the time?"

When it comes to predictions, Mystic Meg is more accurate and, frankly, more credible.

Even when the warnings are specific, they don't manage to be as credible as the government might hope. "Terrorists could topple Big Ben on to parliament!" screamed recent headlines. This is true: terrorists "could" topple Big Ben. In theory, they "could" also steal the Millennium Dome and use it as a giant Frisbee to decapitate Canary Wharf. They "could" organise a mass urination into the Thames and flood London.

Not content with that, an MI5 report for the House of Commons concluded that the anti-tank concrete blocks ringing the Palace of Westminster "could" be used as projectiles against parliament. Which, again, is true - but surely the police would spot the terrorists charging down Whitehall with their enormous siege catapult, before they got to use it?

There is no denying the threat from al-Qaeda and the like, but we've had our chains pulled once too often. From boats seized by police and which apparently contained ricin but actually contained sugar, through dodgy dossiers and on to Lord Hutton's obsequious verdict, it is hard to believe that we have not been deceived, or at least, in the words of Hutton, "subconsciously influenced" by the Prime Minister.

So the new government leaflet advising us on what to do in the event of a terrorist attack is hardly likely to be received with enthusiasm. To be fair, any form of advice offering handy hints on coping with mass carnage looks odd. Tony Blair's latest effort could never be as bad as Protect and Survive, issued by the Thatcher government in 1980, on how to survive a nuclear holocaust. In it was a list of dos and don'ts, should we survive a nuclear attack, such as: "Do not smoke." Me, if I survived a nuclear assault, I'd probably think: "Fuck it, I'll chance a cigarette." There were lots of other tips, such as: "If you have a home fire extinguisher, keep it handy." There were even drawings of a man putting out the small fire in his curtain with an extinguisher. Presumably, the huge radioactive fireball had missed him and he'd just been careless with his cigarette.

The advice that I most remember from Protect and Survive was that everyone should build a shelter out of household doors by leaning them against the house walls and covering them with cushions. We should also paint our windows white to reflect the blast and we should put dead relatives into plastic bags and tag them.

So, according to the government of the day, we should all spend our last four minutes on the planet doing DIY and pondering how to fit each other into bin liners.

How does new Labour's latest leaflet compare with Protect and Survive? Well, it makes up for what it lacks in alarmism by stating the obvious. We should have food in the cupboard, some money, and a torch in the house. (We really didn't need to read a leaflet to realise that, did we?) It further says that, if we find ourselves in a building that has been bombed, we should "find a safe way out". As if we might think: "Right, the building's been bombed. Who fancies a rollerblade race to the photocopier?"

The government claims we should, once again, stay in our homes and wait to be told what to do. Why, though? Surely, in a chemical weapon attack, you don't want people going to or staying in their homes in the attacked area. If Sellafield were attacked, for example, what earthly reason would there be for people in Cumbria to remain in their homes? As an emergency planner explained to me: "In extreme situations, you don't want people to behave normally. You want them to react abnormally."

Anyone who spends their time in the middle of a terrorist attack wandering round their home with a government checklist, turning off the electricity, checking their supply of tinned beans and making sure they have their credit cards handy, doesn't deserve to survive. This isn't bigotry or prejudice: it is Darwinian fact. We should have evolved to a stage where we trust ourselves more than our government, and if we are not prepared to make that leap, then we are heading the way of the dodo.

See you at the taxidermist's!