Anorak News | Waltergate


by | 3rd, October 2005

‘THE elderly are usually invisible to all but grandchildren and vote hungry politicians at election time – their grey hairs acting as a kind of cloaking device that renders the wearer undetectable to the world at large.

But last week a couple of the older generation were spotted. And both had fallen foul of Tony Blair.

But who would have guessed the week would be marked by controversy when on Monday we heard Gordon Brown issue an almost apologetic challenge to Blair’s leadership.

If Tony would like to step down as leader and anoint someone called Gordon as his successor, then that would be just great, said Gordon. And Tony must not worry because, when in charge, Gordon would carry on Tony’s good works. Gordon would bring about the “renewal of New Labour” before the next General Election.

Vote Gordon. Farewell New Labour and hello New New Labour – Brown aimed to go one better than Blair.

But on Tuesday, Brown’s tilt at the top was already old news. A far more vigorous challenge to Blair’s supremacy was being waged by 73-year-old Sylvia Hardy.

As the Mail said on its front page, Sylvia had been jailed for seven days for refusing to pay Exeter City Council £53.71 in arrears on her council tax plus £10 costs.

Sylvia might even have been the silver-haired tip of an iceberg as the Express talked about a “nation of martyrs” and said how thousands more pensioners had stated that they too would fight the power and refuse to pay their council tax.

But before our prisons turned into rest homes for the elderly and rebellious – seduced into jail by the regular hot food, as much hot water as you can shower in, a handy toilet in your room and the added benefit of a warden who makes sure you’re tucked up safe in your bed of a night – the Mail heard from the woman at the centre of the story. “I am not afraid,” said she, deftly adopting a slogan of recent times to her own ends.

And while Sylvia checked into Eastwood Park Prison in Gloucestershire for a bargain week-long break – with Maeve Binchy’s latest book, another tome about poverty in the 19th century and relishing the chance to meet new people and see new places – Tony and his machine ploughed on.

Tony was a punk. He had no time for a pensioner with nothing better to do than grumble. Pah! Sylvia should probably thank him for opening up her horizons and showing that life need not begin at the bingo hall and end in Cleethorpes.

Tony was unrepentant. What’s more, he was going nowhere (well, it makes a nice change from Barbados). As the Times led: “Four more bold years, vows Blair.” Gordon could wait.

But Sylvia could not. And on Thursday we heard that just 36 hours into her week-long stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure, the protestor walked free.

Her arrears had been covered. But she hadn’t settled her account. So who was the mystery donor the Mail said paid Sylvia’s bill?

We may only ever know the identity of Sylvia’s shadowy benefactor if she uses the Freedom of Information Act – as she did last year when at the 11th hour, and with the prison gates beckoning, another mystery donor paid her arrears. She wonders if this year’s good Samaritan person had “malicious” motives.

Over at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, things were pressing on regardless. The papers spotted Cherie Blair taking a break for her brand of supermarket diplomacy to sit in the conference hall.

She was wearing an “I LOVE TB” badge and delivering dewy-eyed reminiscences about her first true love, a certain Stephen Smerdon.

But while we were looking at him, the Times had spotted 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang, a Labour member since 1948. The octogenarian escaped Nazi Germany in 1937, had been vice-chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and is a member of the Stop the War Coalition.

Walter was also on the cover of the Telegraph, being thrown out of the Labour Party conference for heckling Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, on the subject of Iraq.

As Straw was telling the assembled crowd that British troops were only in Iraq to help the elected Iraqi government, Wolfgang shouted: “That’s a lie and you know it.”

What’s this? A dissenting voice! A word that goes against the message! That will never do. And with the words still moist on his lips, Walter was surrounded by security staff, or “toughies”, as he calls them.

Walter was then physically ejected from the conference hall. When he tried to re-enter the secure zone around the hall, he was stopped by a police officer “citing the Terrorism Act”.

This doesn’t look all that good on Labour. But it must be said that it diminishes claims that the anti-terrorism policy in any way singles out bearded Muslims – Mr Wolfgang is a clean-shaven Jew.

F****** Tony Blair – well, he started it when he started talking about the “f****g Welsh”.

What was going on? How could he have done such a thing? And just as we were about to stand up and challenge Tony, over ambled burly Joe Ifill (You In) to tell us to pipe down or else.

The Sun said Ifill had been the Labour steward paid to chuck out hecklers and people off-message, like 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang.

Unluckily for Labour, the doltish henchman and his aides didn’t drive Walter to a secluded spot well out of Brighton and dump him there, but instead went and placed him directly under the media spotlight. In an instant, Walter was changed from being just another pensioner with an axe to grind into a man to be reckoned with.

So much so that the Labour grandees lined up to say “sorry”. “We’re really, really sorry,” said Tony Blair, proving that even he can apologise when faced with compelling evidence of wrongdoing. “We didn’t want it,” said Defence Secretary John Reid. “It shouldn’t have happened. It’s not the way we do things in here.”

But whatever the whys and wherefores, the Government’s handling of the episode, and of Walter, had backfired – in attempting to silence the heckler, Labour had pushed Iraq back to the forefront of the debate.

Or “f****** Iraq”, as Tony may well be wont to call it…’

Posted: 3rd, October 2005 | In: Broadsheets Comment | TrackBack | Permalink