Friday, 8 May 2009

A woman's touch: what British democracy needs

England seems to be exploring a new approach to democracy. Instead of the old principle of ‘one man, one vote’, we seem to be moving to ‘one woman, one vote’.

The woman in question is Joanna Lumley.

She was born 63 years ago in Srinagar, Kashmir, the daughter of a major in the Gurkha rifles. The Gurkhas are a Nepalese people who have a tradition of supplying soldiers to foreign armed forces, including the British army, one of whose most effective units is the single Gurkha regiment that lives on in these straitened post-imperial days.

There’s been much noise about the Gurkhas in Britain recently, since to our shame the government has been trying to deny them the right to settle in this country, even though many of them have put their lives on the line for it. This contrasts with France which guarantees those who complete their service in the Foreign Legion not simply residence rights but full French citizenship.

Enter Joanna Lumley. Have you seen the series Absolutely Fabulous? If not, you need to find some episodes: it lives up to its name. Joanna Lumley plays the chain-smoking, substance-abusing Patsy, who speaks English with the most wonderful upper-class accent. Lumley actually sounds like Patsy herself, rather like Woody Allen who speaks just like the characters he plays. Fortunately, Lumley is a great deal brighter than Patsy.

Her latest role is as champion of the Gurkhas. She has led a major campaign to win them justice, one that has won widespread support and turned her into what a good friend of mine described recently as ‘a national treasure’.

The best aspect of this is that she has won complete moral ascendancy over the government.

Poor old Gordon Brown, who is not far away from becoming our ex-Prime Minister, does a pretty good job of actual government – his handling of the economic crisis has been masterly – but he suffers from a terrible tendency to score own goals as a politician. Everyone loves the Gurkhas, everyone loves Joanna Lumley. All he had to do was say ‘hey, yes, what a good idea: let’s treat these guys generously’ and he would have won countless brownie points with the electorate. Instead he’s fought a long, grim, hopeless battle to defend a mean and petty position, which he’s going to lose anyway.

He even managed to be defeated in a vote in the House of Commons on the subject. Since until the next election he has a massive majority there, that’s some achievement.

The final act was yesterday. The immigration minister, Phil Woolas, was trying to explain to the BBC how the government, by lurching from contradiction to retreat, was finally going to do the right thing about the Gurkhas, when Lumley simply commandeered him. Like a sweeping assault force of the Gurkhas themselves, she overcame all resistance and marched him off to an impromptu press conference where she told the press what was going to happen. Every time she came up with a new pronouncement, she would turn to Woolas and say ‘isn’t that right?’ He would nod with a smile that became thinner and more strained each time.

Joanna Lumley was dictating government policy to the responsible minister.

And since what she was getting was exactly what the government should have decided by itself, all I can say is good luck to her.

One woman, one vote: if it’s as good as this, it works for me.



Lumley keeps Immigration Minister Phil Woolas under close scrutiny to make sure he sticks to the script she's writing for him

1 comment:

Mark Reynolds said...

Who says celebrities should stay out of politics? They can hardly do worse than the current lot, after all.