Matthew Parris

Bitter and jaundiced - but in a good way

A couple of months ago I re-read Simon Hoggart's Playing To The Gallery. It's a collection of parliamentary sketches from, roughly, the first Blair term of government. I really liked it - always observant but funny, warm and fond. Off-Message covers the same period of time but is meaner and keener to score political points. It's a harder read than Simon Hoggart's book - snippy, bitchy and bitter - but, sadly, probably a lot more representative of British parliamentary politics, both then and now.

Parris's sketches illustrate the ludicrously tribalist nature of British politics. To any even slightly independent or indifferent observer (say, 99% of the population), any minute differences between the Conservative and Labour policies are entirely overwhelmed by their similarities. Yet virtually the entire parliamentary calendar, not to mention vast acres of newsprint and entire epochs of television coverage, is devoted to rows about (essentially) whether the country should be one millimetre further over to the left or the right.

In the first half of the book, Parris illustrates this nicely. He's an ex-Tory MP writing for The Times. You wouldn't seriously expect anything other than whole-hearted support of Conservative policy (unless it appears to be insufficiently supportive of the rights of multi-billionaire media tycoons, obviously). The sketches mock all sides, but while the tone is fond for Tories (he even manages to say something nice about the appalling Anne Widdecombe), it's downright nasty towards Labour, right from the moment of their election. This despite the fact that New Labour policy was broadly the same as Conservative policy anyway.

However, there's a six month gap in the middle of the book, where Parris takes off to South America or somewhere to research another book. He resumes the sketches afterwards but is noticeably more critical of the Conservatives - indeed, of all politicians. The first piece on his return is not even an attempt at satire, just an exasperated diatribe on how politics and politicians are lost in their own little world. I find it interesting and illuminating that this is what strikes even a seasoned insider after a time outside of the environment - and seems truer than anything else in the book.

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