Would Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats be sharing power with the Conservatives if the Social Democratic Party had not come into existence in March 1981?
That's an open question, I don't have a ready-made smart answer. Thirty-three years ago the Liberal Party that David Steel inherited from Jeremy - "bunnies can and will go to France" - Thorpe was a bit of a joke. From being a potential power-broker, first with Edward Heath and then with James Callaghan, it became an outlet for disillusioned Labour or Conservative voters at by-elections. But in the autumn of 1981, six or seven months after The Limehouse Declaration and the manifestation of the SDP, Mr Steel felt sufficiently emboldened by events to tell delegates at end of the Liberal Party conference: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for govenment!"
Remember that? It took 29 years, but after the 2010 General Election they got there. The question is: would the Lib-Dems have succeeded without the side-swiping arrival of SDP? Answers on the back of a photo of Johnny Rotten aka John Lydon, please.
The analogy between the SDP and the Sex Pistols is not as incongruous as may first appear. The Pistols were a phenomenon for only about two years, from 1976 to 1978. Although popular music reverted to type after the band's shock wave subsided, the after-effect still ripples to this day. Similarly, although the SDP is no longer a Parliamentary party, arguably its influence lingers on, giving hope to the supporters of Ukip.
Disillusioned ex-Ukippers, who criticize Farage's party for not having a sign-posted road map out of the Euroland, should not be denounced as spoilsports. They serve a purpose, much as the chap who rode on the chariot of triumphant Roman emperors whispering 'memento mori'. Premature ejaculations encouraged by triumphal by-election victories are apt to lead to anti-climax and may screw things up for chaps with a cunning plan who come after.
In 1973 pro-EEC Dick Taverne, left the anti-EEC Labour Party (how times change). He sensationally won a by-election at Lincoln and formed the Campaign for Social Democracy. His blazing success was short-lived, as were the SDP comets of former Labour Party panjandrums Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins in the skies of Crosby and Glasgow Hillhead. I've forgotten most of the great by-election shock nights that I used to stay up for, watching the late Vincent Hannah enjoying himself in obscure parts of the country.
After the Rochester by-election Nigel Farage may well be able to say on behalf of Ukip: 'Now we are two: Carswell and Reckless.' Sounds like a road accident waiting to happen. But Mr Farage should also bear in mind that the SDP's Gang of Four - Bill Rodgers, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins - had 28 erstwhile Labour MPs as well as former Conservative Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler ranked behind them. They did not get into the magic circle of power. They were too pro-Brussels whereas Ukip is not.
Political life in 1981 Britannia was different. Debate was real, heated and meant something - look at the vilification aimed at Tony Benn for trying to make the internal procedures of the Labour Party more accountable. I didn't think he was right at the time, but at least people argued with real feeling. Voting meant something. Parliament meant something. Sovereignty meant something. Since then the people of this country have found themselves chained to treaties they neither voted for nor had a say in formulating. And in that time they have felt increasingly disenfranchised as evidenced by the falling turn-outs at all kinds of elections. Add to that the public's low opinion of MPs and you can see why Nigel Farage believes his party's in with a chance of making a difference at the General Election in May next year.
The two main parties tend to judge the present by the past - 'come the next election voters will revert to type, don't worry old chap'. I hope they get a bloody shock. Both of them are responsible for selling this country out to greedy corporations, the egregious European Union and the United States. If there ever is a referendum on whether we should knock off the EU shackles - which I doubt, for that will take some kind of terrible upheaval - infuriatingly, I probably won't be around to see it.
"Why have I kept silent, held back so long,
on something openly practised in
war games, at the end of which those of us
who survive will at best be footnotes?
It's the alleged right to a first strike
that could destroy an Iranian people
subjugated by a loudmouth
and gathered in organized rallies,
because an atom bomb may be being
developed within his arc of power.
Yet why do I hesitate to name
that other land in which
for years – although kept secret –
a growing nuclear power has existed
beyond supervision or verification,
subject to no inspection of any kind?
This general silence on the facts,
before which my own silence has bowed,
seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,
leading to a likely punishment
the moment it's broken:
the verdict "Anti-semitism" falls easily.
But now that my own country,
brought in time after time
for questioning about its own crimes,
profound and beyond compare,
has delivered yet another submarine to Israel,
(in what is purely a business transaction,
though glibly declared an act of reparation)
whose speciality consists in its ability
to direct nuclear warheads toward
an area in which not a single atom bomb
has yet been proved to exist, its feared
existence proof enough, I'll say what must be said.
But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.
Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel's atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because – burdened enough as Germans –
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
will not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.
And granted: I've broken my silence
because I'm sick of the West's hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger
we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.
No other course offers help
to Israelis and Palestinians alike,
to all those living side by side in enmity
in this region occupied by illusions,
and ultimately, to all of us."
Translated by Breon Mitchell. You can read the poem in the original German here.
• This poem was amended on 10 and 11 April 2012 after it was revised by the translator. This was further amended on 13 April 2012 to include a link to the original poem in German.
Before anyone tells me that the author of this poem joined the Waffen SS when he was 18, I know. Hence the line "Because I thought my own origins/ tarnished by a stain that can never be removed..."
I copied Grass's poem on to my blog because yesterday the television news showed a picture of a block of flats in Gaza imploding, having been struck by a projectile or bomb fired by Israel.
I didn't think of 9/ll and the World Trade Center. I thought of all the years I have taken Israel's side, its right to exist, its right to live behind the defensive shield not of Iron Dome, but the Holocaust - the conversation stopper, the dialogue killer. The Holocaust does not give Israel the right to do to Gaza and its people what the Nazis did to Warsaw and its people, not in my book. As Grass says in the poem, "the verdict Anti-semitism falls easily."
I'm not surprised that Grass's poem resulted in Israel declaring the old boy persona non grata, though the poem, calling for an independent inspection of both Iran and Israel's nuclear capabilities, seems fair enough to me. It's better balanced than Respect MP George Galloway's recent pronouncement, for example, that Bradford was an "Israel free zone". While that's not an anti-Jewish statement it doesn't acknowledge the Israelis critical of the Likud Government's military policies and its borderland strategy.
George Orwell wrote - what did he write, exactly? Something about true freedom meaning listening to something, an opinion, an idea, you don't want to hear. Have I become so accustomed to the censorship that now abounds in this age of scheissdrek - even fictional dramas on television have an obligatory warning about scenes of violence (imagine that, a drama about World War 1or the Holocaust warning of scenes of violence) that I can no longer instantly bring to mind Orwell's words?
Establishment Israel choosing to be offended by a poem as sane as Grass's, with its reasonable questioning propositions, but offending the world's sight by unreasonably blowing up a civilian apartment block in Gaza doesn't surprise me either.