Checks,balances and the Hissing Cockroach of Madagascar

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), November 10, 1996 | Go to article overview

Checks,balances and the Hissing Cockroach of Madagascar


Byline: STEWART STEVEN

WHEN Errol Flynn was making The Sante Fe Trail, he felt that the young virtually unknown Ronald Reagan was getting too much of the foreground and demanded certain scenes be re-shot.

The director, Michael Curtis of Casablanca fame, agreed.

But Flynn did not win. What no one saw was Reagan secretly building mounds of dirt wherever he was required to stand, in order to make himself seem taller.

That day Ronald Reagan the politician was born. For is that not the perfect paradigm of the politicians' art - building mounds of dirt until you get yourself noticed?

Oddly, the Republicans chose another course during this presidential election. Their candidate Bob Dole, with much help from the appalling Newt Gingrich, instead of building mounds, dug holes. Thus, perhaps, the worst President in the history of the Unites States, Bill Clinton, was re-elected.

Unfortunately, perhaps, the ability and character of the President does not carry quite the weight it once did. Maybe the American people realise this, which is why they seem to be so willing to elect to the highest office a man whom nature surely intended to be a ladies hairdresser.

But there is something about America and the American system which allows the country to escape the worst consequences of its own folly.

Not so long ago, John Major was boasting to me about the wonders of the British parliamentary system. At the time, he had recently been in negotiation over some issue with Chancellor Kohl. Before Kohl would take a view, he had to go away to consult his Coalition partner.

`I was able to make a decision there on behalf of the British Government,' John Major said. `Kohl couldn't. That is the advantage of a strong government which our first-past-the-post parliamentary system provides us.'

Yes and no. If our `strong' form of government is so absolutely wonderful and Germany's `weak' system of government is so horrendous, why is it, I wonder, that Germany is, in almost every respect, a more successful country than Britain?

Do we not, when we talk about our politics in this country, rather resemble the Hissing Cockroach of Madagascar, something I have long regarded as the most disgusting creature on earth?

Now the Hissing Cockroach of Madagascar does not think of itself in these terms at all. Indeed there would not be so many of the little bleeders if Master Hissing Cockroach of Madagascar did not entertain feelings about Miss Hissing Cockroach of Madagascar roughly analogous to the feelings that I (if I were not the most virtuous of men) might entertain if on a dark night I found myself bumping into Ms Kim Basinger. On the other hand, I doubt if the presence of Ms Basinger in Madagascar would merit even the suspicion of a hiss from the randiest cockroach on the island.

Our own high regard for our system of government is treated by the rest of the world with the same puzzlement with which I and others regard the sexual tastes of the Hissing Cockroach.

That's not to say there is not much that is precious about our unwritten constitution. We must preserve and protect it, but we won't be able to do so if we don't have the honesty to confront and challenge all that has become obsolescent and therefore dangerous.

I WAS at a party late last week celebrating the American election along with a large number of MPs. When they were not talking about the single most important issue of the week, namely Tony Blair's new hairstyle, they were being, in a way only the British can, wonderfully patronising about the American system of government. I found myself in total disagreement with them all.

The Americans in their millions voted for a Democratic President and a Republican Congress. I think that rather splendid. They were given an opportunity of electing a President but at the same time putting in place the necessary checks and balances to keep him in order. …

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