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Exposing the absurdity of Chris Grayling

Posted on 26 August 2009 | 1:08pm

Much to my family’s annoyance, I am not a ‘box set’ kind of guy. I know it is the thing, all to sit down and get hooked together on some American TV show. Maybe it is a way of avoiding temptation to my addictive gene, but I have never seen a single episode of The West Wing; I liked The Sopranos well enough, but not so much I wanted to sit down and watch them all in one go on holiday; as for The WIre, I gave up after one episode because I quickly grew tired of hearing the word  ‘mothafucka.’ Nor has my feminine side ever been tempted to join partner and daughter to watch hour upon hour of Sex and the City, OC, Gossip Girl or any of the rest of them.

Though not being a box set kind of guy, I like to think I can still be a finger on the pulse kind of guy, so even if I am not an expert on The Wire, I know what the Tories are up to when they seek to persuade people that modern day real life Manchester is like the dramatised version of Wired-up Baltimore.

Looking at Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling, I suspect he is not really a box set kind of guy either. He is one of the busier members of the unbelievably lazy and unproductive Shadow Cabinet, and does far too many visits, churns out way too many speeches and statements to have time to sit down and watch all that mothafuckin’.

But he, or more likely Tory comms director Andy Coulson, can spot a good headline/talking point, and Manchester equals The Wire falls into that category. It doesn’t matter that it is absolute balls, offensive to Manchester, and with the potential for a backlash when they go there for their party conference in a few weeks time, it gets him and the issues talked about, and by the time the next popular culture resonance is called for, people will probably have moved on.

The problem for the Tories is that the popular culture resonances appear not to be a supplement to policy, but a replacement of them. Party HQ lets it be known ‘Holby City woman’ is their key target. What does that mean? Nurses? Or the women who watch? On the structure of government, they say their way of avoiding TB-GB style tensions between Dave Cameron and Georgie Osborne will be to make Number 10 and Number 11 ‘like the West Wing.’ How?

Now I should here plead guilty to some pretty ghastly cultural blah myself. Adding Tony Blair’s voice to the ‘free Deirdre’ campaign running as a storyline in Coronation Street was probably not my finest hour. But it was kind of funny, and what’s more, nobody can ever say TB was short on policy ideas, either in Opposition or, as when Deirdre was in peril, in Government.

This is the difference, I think. We were perfectly happy to feed out the odd popular cultural line as a way of filling media space and showing we had a foot somewhere in the real world. But meanwhile there was a policy agenda being pursued that actually mattered. I still fail to see what policy agenda the Tories are trying to promote to the country.

Instead, just as TV stations sometimes announce a theme for a week, apparently this is ‘broken Britain week’ for the Tories and in her speech tomorrow Theresa May will doubtless try to paint a picture of Britain as one gigantic set of Shameless, and it will be as inaccurate as Grayling’s grotesque portrayal of Manchester.

There is a good piece by Misha Glenny in The Guardian today who unlike Grayling has researched life on the streets of West Baltimore as well as the streets of Moss Side in Manchester. ‘I can happily reassure Grayling:’ he writes ‘west Baltimore has not come to Moss Side, nor is it likely to in the foreseeable future so he may want to tone down his alarmist rhetoric which doesn’t help the police or the communities involved.’

He details a few facts on homicide and gun crime – facts are clearly of little interest to Grayling – which expose the absurdity of his comparison. Baltimore has just over one per cent of the population of the UK, but over a third as many people are murdered there as in the whole of our country. ‘Even sleepy Vancouver,’ he says ‘has a much more serious problem with drug gang shoot-outs than Manchester does.’

Glenny admits to being no fan of some of Labour’s policies on criminal justice, but he points out more facts showing crime falling, and Britain slipping down the murder league table, below Finland, Iceland and Portugal, let alone the US. He also points out, as Labour politicians need to, the role previous Tory governments played in fostering what deprivation and violence exists in our inner cities.

It is touching to imagine Glenny thinks Grayling’s real concern is helping police and communities, rather than exploiting any problems they may face for political gain.

Tory HQ’s real concern today though will be the announcement that next year’s Big Brother will be the last on Channel 4. This is welcome news to anyone who laments what so much of modern day TV has become. But a big blow to Dave and Co. I mean when it comes to cultural references showing you can get down with the yoof, Big Brother has been the Daddy.

Ps … anyone out there know what Dave’s policies on law and order are?

  • Rob

    Spot on as ever Alastair — but utterly shocked by your never having seen one single episode of The West Wing. Do yourself a favour and correct this urgently!

  • Craig, Oxfordshire

    Shame on you Alastair. This question:
    “anyone out there know what Dave’s policies on law and order are?”

    Should have been:
    “anyone out there know what Dave’s policies on anything are?”

    What’s worse is Labour’s message at the minute has evaporated. There’s no riposte to anything out of Dave and Georgie’s mouths. Gordon seems to have just given up. The lies and nonsense that the Tories spout needs to be counter-attacked. The public are falling for Dave’s act – and the Government seem powerless to stop it.

  • @jlocke13

    I can’t believe you are accusing Andy Coulson of spotting a good headline as if it is a crime…after all you were the master of the art… and as for cultural blah your present leader Gordon is always quick to jump on a passing cultural wagon…susan boyle, ashes win, to name just two recent examples.

    ps anyone know what Gordon’s policies for reducing UK debt are??

  • Brian Cleary


    Firstly – you’re missing the greatest TV show of all time by not looking at The West Wing. I only watched the first episode last month and am now at the end of Series 3. My wife and I never agree on TV shows and she loves it too. Aside from the politics, it’s brilliantly written.

    Also, if Chris Grayling has a fondness for likening hardworking cities to shit holes in TV shows, shouldn’t he be likened to Harry Enfield’s Tim Awfully Nice But Dim?


  • Simon Leonard

    Ps …anyone out there know what Dave’s policies on law and order are?

    I believe he’s in favour. Not sure beyond that though 😉

  • Dean Perry

    Liked the blog Alastair, have no idea what Dave’s policies are on law and order. It’s like everything with Dave’s Tories when you raise the subject on policy and commitment they steer onto Labour failures without answering the question. Their all a load of media pleases and lack substance in any policy area. The NHS row was a perfect example of Dave’s emphasis on media relation and attention to image not saving him from talking about policy which clearly isn’t his comfort zone. I strongly believe that a televised debate between GB and DC would truly unmask the Tories and wipe them out for another five years.

  • Martin Fox

    Couldn’t agree more AC, classic Tory guff. Ready for the cameras but not ready for government!

  • Harry

    I’d quite like to hear your views on the Lockerbie bomber, or the filesharing cutoff plan. Those are the far more interesting stories of the day, far more so than a poncy Tory comment about The Wire made a couple of days ago.

    For people like me who read your blog and already dislike the Tories, you’re preaching to the choir when you tell us they’re disconnected from reality and sometimes offensive.

    You can only write what you feel about writing, but it’s irritating to see a blog centred on such an insignificant story, ruthlessly exploited by you to show up the Conservatives yet again, where I’m sure people would rather hear your opinion on more serious stories.

    I guess you’re following the “offense is the best defense” doctrine, but it devaluates your blog to see the crosshairs on Tory foolishness in the midst of more serious Labour foolishness.

  • John Willman

    I completely agree with this blog, BUT…

    I suspect many ordinary voters will have responded to it positively – two of the three vox pops on the Beeb last night said they agreed.

  • Andy G

    Agree with your Comments Alistair. But I have to agree with the other posters who say the Labour Party are letting the Conservatives get away with it. I don’t know what Cameron’s policies are on anything apart from fox hunting and inheritance tax.

  • Richard

    Policy #1: Convicted terrorists who have contracted cancer shall die a lonely death in prison

  • Colin Morley

    Not much of a TV watcher myself – but re Dave’s policies on law and order, probably best acquaint ourselves with “The Bill” which is apparently popular.

  • @jlocke13

    Alastair, you have watched the huge decline in the UK over the past 12 years and you still cling to the socialist dream…. Education system ruined, NHS no better in spite of billions, unemployment high, one in six households without a wage earner, child poverty worse than when you came to power, biggest debt in the industrialised world …I could go on but you cling to the socialist dream in spite of the evidence…it will not work, your party and government are devalued and have no chance of winning any general election in the next five years…not that the opposition are much better but at least they are not deluded…

  • Joanne Sheppard

    I live in a deprived part of inner city Manchester; I am also obsessed by The Wire. Consequently I feel both confident and well-qualified in saying that Moss Side is about as much like The Wire as working for MI5 is like a James Bond film. Some of the routes into central Manchester from the south pass through Moss Side. My guess is that Grayling has been chauffeur-driven into the city one day, seen the oh-so-shocking-and-terrifying sight of a few young black guys hanging around chatting on a street corner and instantly assumed they must be gun-toting smack dealers. The comparison he made is lazy, offensive and absurd.

    Homicides in Baltimore (population around 636,000) in 2006: 276.

    Homicides in Greater Manchester (population 2.5 million) in the same year: 59.

  • Jane A

    Ominously I received a flyer tonight for a literary festival close to where I live – including Cameron “In Conversation”. The blurb reads “Has the Conservative party persuaded voters that they have the policies and the right team to form the next Government?”

    If I were Dave, I’d be looking for a PR team who could come up with a plug without a question mark in it.

  • Katharine T.

    It’s possible the Cameron line on law and order is similar to our own plastic haired Conservative leader Harper. The answer, if asked the question would perhaps be (albeit with an English accent rather than a goofy Canadian one) “well, I’m going to speak a lot of gobbledygoop that means nothing, but really what I think is: Guns bad. Jail good.” So then all the voters who live in middle class and upper class ville who spend many worrying hours installing burglar alarms and CCTV on their properties can feel safe and snug as bedbugs that they are voting for the party who can keep their 2400 sq foot houses (for the middle class), or 10,000 sq foot mansions (the rich) safe from those raggedy ruffians who roam the streets waving Desert Eagles and Barettas in the faces of decent tax paying citizens. Because you know, that happens to everyone with more than a grand in the bank when they walk down the High Street…

  • Andy G

    A couple of years ago on a commercial talk radio station Cameron was asked whether he prefered the policing style of Gene Hunt or Iain Blair. Instead of saying, Gene Hunt is a fictional character off the TV so it’s a stupid question. He said he couldn’t answer as he hadn’t seen much of Life on Mars.

  • Michael

    Grayling’s comments about the Wire were misguided and have backfired on him. However, it is a magnificent work and scrutinises politics as much as it does drugs, education, policing and journalism. This blog post echoes Mayor Royce defending himself against Councilman Carcetti. One of the themes of the Wire is that we do not confront our social ills honestly – our institutions are too wrapped up in targets, propaganda and personal advancement. I have a number of misgivings about Grayling, but this blog misses the point entirely – and I really do suggest you watch the Wire. It really is as good as everybody says and there are lessons there for all post industrial societies where drugs and unemployment are commonplace.

  • Joanna

    Hi Alastair

    I’ve just read your Burnley FC post, and guess what? We had six new Burnley FC chants entered into our Football Chants Competition in 2008/9.

    Who are we? We’re from Get On. Last season we launched a chant competition to inspire football fans to show off their natural skill and wit with words and then potentially be inspired to go on to take a Skills for Life course.

    Burnley fans came out in their numbers for us! If you want any more information don’t hesitate to contact me. We’ve launched a new competition for 2009-10, asking fans to enter their chants via YouTube, take a look at Perhaps Burnley could take the title this year? Which title? Well, you decide.

  • simon gittins

    ‘anyone out there know what Dave’s policies on law and order are?’

    I’d guess they would be the same as the Tory policy on most issues; Try and clear up the mess they will inherit after 12/13 years of a Labour government, no easy task I’m sure you’ll agree.