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SONGS OF CHRISTMAS
- Gordon Brown looks set fair to go lurching from crisis to crisis

My habitual desire to escape Christmas is rising to the fore with an impossible yen to retire either to bed or to somewhere hot and unchristian. Regretfully my family’s members are still young enough not to have additional families of their own but old enough to be working in far-flung parts of the world with Christmas a long enough holiday and good enough excuse to come home. Don’t misunderstand me, I love my children and I love seeing them, but like every other year I find myself detesting the Christmas palaver, horrible glittery decorations and forced bonhomie to those acquaintances whose company is diligently avoided for most of the year.

We stave off the bilious effects of too much food and drink and the gloom of the shortest days of the year with an intense hope for the new year a few days later that is highly unlikely to live up to festive fuelled expectations. We were discussing at lunch today the possibility of cheerful news from Westminster but in spite of the odd glimmer around the world for next year, anticipation of a radically changed US presidency and of political climate in Washington by the end of 2008, the occasional glimmers of opportunities for future peace in hotspots round the world, Westminster really does seem to be a very gloomy place with Gordon Brown the gloomiest person in it.

Presumably the prime minister must be looking forward to a New Year change of fortune with greater hope than expectation as he continues to dig a deeper hole to stand in as every day goes by. His lack of tact, timing and, it appears, thought, continue to be the most noteworthy characteristic of his premiership so far and perhaps we should all look forward to a real upheaval, not to say revolution, in the Labour Party next year but I doubt it’s happening. With few strong or experienced contenders for the leadership role and an ingrained desire amongst government members to hold on to office at all costs, Gordon Brown looks set fair to continue lurching from crisis to crisis unless he can find an extraordinary success to cloud collective memories of a disastrous start in office. He has to hang on and keep hoping until forced into a general election by time alone, which could mean not until 2010.

Polls in the last few days show the Conservatives overtaking Labour in popularity, but I continue to feel that Labour has greater political clout in the country overall and the Conservative leadership will have to have grown considerably in stature if it is to present a serious challenge in the polls that really matter, whatever further failures dog Gordon Brown.

The Liberal Democrats have repulsed David Cameron’s reported efforts to promote a new ‘progressive alliance’ with their party, and their newly elected leader, Nick Clegg, in his first leadership speech, promised a ‘new ambition’ for his party and a ‘people’s politics’, which sound far too familiar to be anything new at all. He won with the narrowest of margins over his equally faceless, slightly older, rival Chris Huhne, who has promised his support to the new leader and will no doubt be rewarded with the dubious honour of a third party front-row spokesmanship.

It may be interesting to see what Clegg, another young leader at 40 and with only two years in parliament under his belt, does achieve for his party in the country. No one doubts his academic intelligence; he speaks five languages, a rarity still amongst British politicians, and has benefited from a brilliant education at Westminster School and Cambridge that took him into journalism followed by an important job in Brussels as chief of staff for the former European commissioner, Leon Brittan, and a stint as a member of the European Parliament.

With his glamorous Spanish lawyer wife at his side and coming from the right of the Liberal Democrat persuasion, he looks remarkably interchangeable with the Conservative leader. Both have yet to be tried in circumstances more demanding than those where the government shoots itself in its own foot on an almost daily basis.

The LibDem acting leader, the entertaining, quick-witted and delightfully unpretentious Vince Cable, meanwhile sails off into the sunset trailing clouds of amused glory and will no doubt be called on to return to his role as Treasury spokesman under the new regime. During his brief tenure, he put the LibDems centrestage, asked the prime minister and his ministers the questions that the country most wanted answered and carried off his role with style, panache and humour. He has been a breath of air from another age when politicians appeared less self-regarding, more in touch with reality in the country and did not consider that their parliamentary role precluded them from behaving like normal human beings.

I would doubt that Mr Clegg will have the confidence to allow himself to continue in the same vein, even supposing he has the ability to be the man of the people he purports to desire to be. He has expressed one surprising view in these days where religious convictions have become a sine qua non of leading politicians round the world, a lack of belief in god. This statement in a radio interview has now been qualified somewhat to fit a climate where determined beliefs of any sort are almost always toned to suit several points of view. He has pointed out his ‘enormous respect’ for religion that involves his wife’s Roman Catholic faith and the fact that his children are being brought up in that faith and that he is only not an ‘active believer’. It sounds as if all doors have been left open for instant conversion should political expediency at some stage require it, but perhaps that really is too cynical a view.

On the topic of belief, The Spectator magazine’s Christmas edition publishes a survey of answers to the question: “Do you believe in a Virgin Birth?” A variety of the great and not necessarily so good have tied themselves into knots trying not to express a clear view. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury qualifies his perfectly straightforward ‘Yes’ with a tortuous explanation that largely obscures what exactly he really thinks. It is rather a relief to see that the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster at least is unequivocal about the beliefs he is meant to stand for whatever one may or may not believe oneself. Another three Church of England bishops made themselves unavailable for comment along with several leading politicians, which seems rather more reasonable since the bandying about of wishy-washy and entirely changeable religious views in the Western political world is something we could do with a lot less of altogether.

Great numbers of the theoretically Christian population of this country rush off to churches for the Midnight Mass that leads into Christmas Day. For many of us, it is tradition more than any sort of belief that takes us into churches at this time of year, but there is not much wrong with a tradition that once a year brings families together for a jolly good sing of some splendid Christmas songs, in many cases in beautiful and historic buildings. These services are for many of us a soothing moment in the commercial Christmas whirl and, thank god, vicars usually play to their unaccustomed crowded congregations with mercifully short prayers and sermons and, in our village, readings in the poetic language of the 17th century Bible rather than the hideous phraseology of more modern and apparently more ‘accessible’ versions, which are enough to destroy the last shreds of any belief in anything the Church of England stands for.

Happy New Year everyone and let us try and keep the hopes up for a few weeks at least.

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