By Francis Wheen
Wednesday February 3, 1999
As a regular churchgoer, the Prime Minister must often have heard those lines from the book of Hosea about sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind. Does he leap from his pew as soon as the dread words are spoken, demanding that the vicar be defrocked forthwith and fed to a lion in Skegness amusement park? I think not. Yet when a football coach says something similar, in the course of an interview about England's next game against France, ministers galore rush to the nearest microphone, a-splutter with outrage and invective.
I suppose we should be glad to learn that the sleek members of New Labour's politburo still have some capacity for genuine indignation. If asked about a serious social problem they usually sound as robotically passionless as an I-Speak-Your-Weight machine. ('Well, Jim, as you know, the Social Exclusion Unit is liaising with the Welfare to Work Taskforce with regard to this one, and a Consultative Document is in the pipeline . . . ') Years ago, a friend of mine who joined a tabloid newspaper was given a few words of advice by a grizzled Scottish news editor: 'We've got to have campaigns. But they must be campaigns that nobody could object to.' This is still the rule. It's fine to write furious polemics against Myra Hindley, Saddam Hussein and Glenn Hoddle, whom no one will defend. But woe betide any Sun reporter (or Cabinet minister) who gets equally angry at the scandalous sight of young people sleeping on the pavement - or indeed the monstrous hegemony of Rupert Murdoch.
Those who lead the lynch-mob against Hoddle should examine their own peccadillos before casting the first stone. On the Daily Mail's front page this Monday, the headline 'Should Hoddle Go?' (answered in the affirmative) was printed immediately above a puff for the 'Free Jonathan Cainer Personal Horoscope'. This Cainer is the astrologer who in 1997 regaled Mail readers with a month-long account of his visit to the Far East, where he consulted 'the distant guardian of an ancient prophecy' about the significance of the Hale-Bopp Comet. 'I wanted to find out how closely it ties in with what I know about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and how this in turn links up with the end of the Mayan calendar,' he reported. 'I can now inform you that these three ancient prophecies agree with each other to an amazing extent . . . Hale-Bopp is a truly global herald . . .' The Mail carried all this twaddle with pride. Yet not long before, in its guise as the voice of robust common sense, it had ridiculed the Heaven's Gate disciples who committed mass suicide in San Diego as 'freaks'. Their 'bizarre gospel' - that salvation could be found in Hale-Bopp - was derived from a dangerous 'obsession with the stars which was a throwback to thousands of years ago'. Er, quite.
The doctrine of Original Sin is just as 'offensive' as Glenn Hoddle's babblings about karma. But no one proposes that Christians and other irrationalists should all be hounded from public life and forced to apologise - even if they occupy positions of far greater importance than the English football coach. A few years ago my friend Kitty Kelley revealed that Ronald Reagan never took an important decision without first consulting Joan Quigley, an astrologer from San Francisco. In 1987 he was confined to the White House for four months because of the 'malevolent movements of Uranus and Saturn', which allegedly heightened the danger of impeachment or assassination. Even the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was fixed at a time set by the Californian stargazer. Yet when Kitty's disclosures appeared, they were laughed off as proof of old Ronnie's endearing eccentricity.
The superstitions and peculiarities of our own eminent figures are treated with the same indulgence - unless the weirdo happens to be Glenn Hoddle. Lord Hill-Norton, a former chief of the defence staff, believes that little green aliens from outer space have visited earth in their UFOs. The no-nonsense Margaret Thatcher was a devotee of mystical 'electric baths' and Ayurveda therapy. Cherie Blair has been photographed wearing a 'magic pendant' known as the BioElectric Shield: it is filled with 'a matrix of specially-cut quartz crystals' that surround the wearer with a 'cocoon of energy' and ward off evil forces. (She is said to have been 'put on to the idea by Hillary Clinton'.) It was reported last year - and not denied - that the Blairs had invited a Feng Shui expert to rearrange the furniture in Downing Street.
Harmless moonshine? I wonder. Only this week another Feng Shui consultant, Renuka Wickmaratne, advised the government on how to improve inner-city council estates: 'Red and orange flowers in the flower-beds would reduce crime, and introducing a water feature would reduce poverty. I was brought up with this ancient knowledge.' The suggestion that fountains are a substitute for a living wage seems no less absurd or putrid than Glenn Hoddle's comments on reincarnation.
I do agree, however, that Hoddle's irrational beliefs disqualify him from running the English football team. How could we hope to qualify for the European championship under a manager who still thinks that Alan Shearer is the most prolific goal-scorer in the land?