Ed Balls asked Jim to Fix It for him to be a drummer
My colleague Jane Merrick had a fine interview with Ed Balls in yesterday’s Independent on Sunday. Our front-page news story was on his expression of “huge sympathy” for public-sector workers going on strike on Wednesday. The newspaper shared that sympathy in a leading article, but disagreed with the implication that the strike should be supported, or that a Labour government would not have cut public-sector pensions by about the same amount.
Anyway, it was a full-length interview, and we did not have space for all of it in the newspaper, so here is a fuller transcript. One part that I found interesting, naturally, was that Balls has met Tony Blair more recently than Gordon Brown.
Q: Your first Budget-related clash with Osborne [over tomorrow's Autumn Statement]. What are you expecting?
The number of times when George Osborne and I have had a chance to debate the economy is quite limited. The Chancellor has had a low profile. There are limited times in the House of Commons. I am looking forward to it, to putting to him important questions. I don’t have any expectation that we will get any answers.I think that we are likely to get more excuses from the Chancellor next Tuesday. He will have to explain why growth is downgraded again, why borrowing is higher. To be honest with you, we are getting tired of excuses. We don’t want to see George Osborne the politician trying to defend the failing plan, we want to see George Osborne the Chancellor chart a different course. Conservative MPs like David Ruffley are now joining the same chorus.The economy has flatlined, borrowing is going higher than planned. At a certain point, the government just can’t keep on trying to make excuses. They’ve got to admit they’ve got it wrong.
Q: What is your strategy?
Fundamentally this goes back to the Prime Minister. George Osborne made a decision last year after the election to stake his reputation and the government’s reputation and credibility on sticking to this very rapid, I think reckless, deficit reduction plan. He said it would work, he said any change of course would be disastrous for his credibility, but he said it would lead to stronger growth, to get the deficit down. George Osborne knows however bad it gets for him it is a political disaster if he got it wrong. He knows that; the Conservative Party knows that; Boris Johnson knows that. George Osborne’s career is in tatters if he admits he got this wrong. I don’t think we can really look to the Chancellor to chart a more sensible way forward. David Cameron, though, is the PM. David Cameron could say to the Chancellor, “It’s not working and look at the evidence.” So far there is no sign of doing that. He is getting more and more flustered and frustrated and angry and tense and terse, but I fear with David Cameron he’s neither got the intellectual curiosity to ask the question why is this not working, to look at the history, to look at other countries, and I am not sure he’s got the political strength to say to George Osborne, let alone the Conservative backbenchers more widely, “We need to change the plan.”
That’s why I’m afraid we are stuck in this sort of political trap the country is in: slower growth, rising unemployment. It is absolutely not necessary, it doesn’t have to be this way. The test for the Government was would they make things better or worse — they’ve made things worse. But the PM has not got the strength or the understanding to say to George Osborne, “You got it wrong.”
It’s the Liberal Democrats who are keeping the government in power. I’ve talked a lot about the historical parallel, 1929 to 1931 after the Wall Street crash, the danger of depression, the mistake of excessive austerity. Back then, the National government with Ramsay Macdonald, Labour Prime Minister, went into coalition with Conservatives in face of Labour and Liberal MPs led by Lloyd George and Keynes saying, “Don’t do this, it’s a mistake.” And the great tragedy of the last year, it’s been the Liberal Democrats not saying “You got it wrong” but propping the Government up. My sense is, and I think you’ve got to make an exception for Nick Clegg, but more widely Liberal Democrat MPs, members and voters: they didn’t vote for this. It’s out of touch with the values of their historical role. They voted against the VAT rise. Many Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons I have a lot of respect for and at a certain point they are going to have to say to David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, this has not worked and this is not what we’re for.
I hope we get to that point sooner rather than later. Until that pressure is applied, Conservatives and Lib Dems outside the leadership will think the country is going to be stuck on this rather fateful path.
Q: Will George Osborne have to push the deficit envelope?
We’ll have to wait to see what the numbers are. I’ve had no advance sight. We have consistently said the three important ingredients to getting the deficit down are: tax rises, spending cuts and economic growth. The most important is economic growth. Without that you don’t get the deficit down. It’s that missing ingredient that’s causing the problem. It’s a mess.
Whatever the numbers turn out to be in detail, what they’re going to show is they’ve borrowed tens of billions of pounds more than expected because the economy has not grown. David Cameron at PMQs reads out a line he’s been given that you can’t borrow your way out of a debt crisis, but that’s what George Osborne has been forced to do. Debt crisis leads to a growth crisis and gets into difficulty and that’s the mistake they’ve made.
Q What’s the worst case scenario?
Of course you need deficit reduction plan, we understand that. Not too Draconian. Huhne, Cable, people who understand the economy: that reality is staring us in the face. Cuts in National Insurance, reducing VAT, bringing forward capital investment. The worst case at next election – the worst case scenario is a sustained period of slow growth, unemployment continuing to rise, long-term unemployment entrenched and the Government failing to meet its borrowing and debt targets.
George Osborne in the spring, I challenged him to change course, he said he wouldn’t change course because of the markets. [For them] to see him not achieving his objectives for the deficit, this would bet a disaster for the credibility of Britain. But that is what he’s done. He is not going to meet his targets for borrowing because of his policies.
Q: But the worst case scenario – what will it mean to real people day to day?
Consumer spending has been down, worry about rising fuel bills, incomes falling. The problem is more than that – it’s about fear of the future. Look at what’s happening in the rest of the world but [in] Britain too, worried that things could get worse. Kids won’t get jobs, out of jobs themselves, can’t pay the bills. Until the Government deals with that fear, with that uncertainty we are going to carry on with consumers not spending, businesses not investing and not creating jobs – we get into vicious circle of people not being confident. The economy gets weaker, the deficit gets worse, that knocks confidence again.
We need some leadership. I don’t think it’s possible now for George Osborne to provide the leadership. I am very doubtful that David Cameron and Nick Clegg can either.
Q: What about the Youth Contract – surely you support that?
I have not seen the detail yet. If it’s a sensible plan we will support it. It’s a complete tragedy that we have had to have a 70 per cent rise in youth unemployment this year for the government to realise abolishing the Future Jobs Fund was a mistake. Programmes take a while to establish, are quick to abolish and hard to reinstate. This is about a third of a billion a year.
We would promise a billion in the next year from bankers’ bonus tax. But anything is better than nothing. Listen to David Cameron in the House of Commons over the last six months, just dumping on Job Centre Plus, the Future Jobs Fund. I’m afraid the ideological lines don’t work in the real world. The lesson of history in unemployment, the long-term price, we saw that in 1980s. I fear this is too little too late.
Q: But youth unemployment began to rise sharply under the Labour government, from 2004?
Complete nonsense. It’s just another in the long line of excuses. When you go on Question Time or TV and hear a Tory politician, the audience groans if he or she blames the Labour government.
We can have a debate about whether Labour got things right or wrong six years ago, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that you’ve had youth unemployment under the Tories go over one million. The proper answer is that before the financial crash in ’07, youth unemployment was lower than the level we inherited from the Conservatives … while it is true the numbers of young people grew, the percentage of young people out of work was lower.
With employment policy, you need relentless focus. If you ever let your focus drop you pay a price for that. It’s true to say we were completely focused on young people from ‘97 through to the early part of the [last] decade. Youth unemployment was falling under the New Deal. I think the focus of attention of minsters and Job Centre Plus shifted towards expanding employment opportunities for single parents and for people coming off Incapacity Benefit, and I think one of the things which happened was, as we focused on the next challenge, there is a sense in which we lost some of the intensity of effort on young people. It didn’t reverse the progress we made; it certainly slowed it down in the early part of the decade. When I came into the job in ’07, first thing we announced was the new focus on NEETs [Not in Education, Employment or Training].
However, once the financial crisis hit there was a relentless view that you’ve got to target youth unemployment. In any recession young people are most likely to lose their jobs. Unemployment was falling at a much earlier stage than previous recessions. The govt has made in spades that mistake – completely dropping the intensity of focus.
Q: Your first clash with Osborne – you seem at PMQs to enjoy a dialogue of talking to each other – last week you were calling him a “trust fund boy” –
I was pointing out to him if you’ve got a trust fund you are all right. If you haven’t, you’re not. I think George Osborne is the best politician in the Conservative Party at the moment. I’ve always got on him with well. We don’t agree, but I think I would say from my side [there is] a respect for him. But I think he’s made a fatal mistake politically, which is to bind himself in so hard into one plan and as a historian he should’ve realised the risks, and the Treasury should’ve told him economically the risks.
He’s made that political commitment and it’s too much for him to break away from this. I do feel as though for him he ends up trying to fit what is the best thing economically for the country to what he needs for him politically.
There is an element too of the coalition being part of the problem. Once the Lib Dems said we have to dump our manifesto and back the Conservative Party on this deficit reduction plan it’s also very difficult for Nick Clegg to admit that was a mistake. That’s why Nick Clegg still talks about this deficit reduction plan as the cornerstone of the coalition. Let’s be honest: think about who the Lib Dems are, who their voters are, what their values are, the mandate they sought at the general election, the role they played in the ’20s and ’30s as well as in the later periods.
The Lib Dems know that cutting too fast is a mistake. They want action on infrastructure – Vince Cable is clearly pushing on that – they worry about what’s happening to youth unemployment. The party which opposed the VAT rise and opposed the rise in tuition fees, they did that because they are Lib Dems.
Therefore the only coalition which actually could sort out our economic problems at the moment is a coalition between the Labour Party and the Lib Dems, because we are the only ones who understand together what needs to be done. The problem is, that’s not where we are. Nick Clegg can’t accept that at the moment but I do think over the coming months, Lib Dem voters, members and MPs will increasingly say, “Is this really what we came into politics to do? Is this what we’re for?”
Q: So Clegg can’t do this but are you saying other Lib Dems in the Cabinet will?
I’ve known in different ways Vince Cable and Chris Huhne for many years – Chris Huhne when I was leader writer at the FT and he was economics editor [business editor] on Independent on Sunday back in ‘90, ‘91, talking about how we learned the lessons from the Thatcher failure on unemployment in the recession of that period. I know they know their economics and they know their history, and I know privately how worried they must be about what is happening.
Across the Labour Party the scale of what Nick Clegg is willing to do and the things he’s willing to say is breathtaking for people in the Labour Party, but Nick Clegg aside, I think there are a lot of Lib Dems who we respect and understand how worried they must be.
Q: You’re appealing to them to look at alternative?
In 1931 a Labour PM tragically went into a coalition to drive austerity which led to higher unemployment and didn’t work to get the deficit down, it was a very bleak period. At that time the Labour Party in Parliament and the Liberals in Parliament argued for a fairer, a saner, better alternative. The most famous expression of which was a pamphlet written in 1929 by Lloyd George, the Liberal leader, called “How We Can Conquer Unemployment” which was substantially authored by JM Keynes. So there is a very strong Liberal tradition of standing out against these kind of economic mistakes. That’s why I think there must be so many Liberals who see history being repeated and find themselves on the wrong side of the argument and deeply worried.
First of all for George Osborne to change course, however much the evidence is compelling, David Cameron I don’t think has got the strength to do it, but there are Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Parliament who understand how difficult this is.
Q: What is the practical manifestation of this? Can you see it happening – pamphlets and so on?
I am not going to predict the future, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I very much hope that Liberal Democrats will start to speak out as the Labour Party is for a better and fairer and saner alternative. Business organisations are adopting some of the components of our five-point jobs plan. David Ruffley, MPs on both Liberal and Conservative sides who know enough about economics and history who see that David Cameron and George Osborne and Nick Clegg are taking us down a very dangerous route.
Q: In the Commons at PMQs, when you say “trust fund boy” what does George say back?
In House of Commons it’s so noisy it’s not always easy to hear what is being said. I will sometimes say to George he needs to make sure the PM is better briefed. When he doesn’t seem to know an issue, the reason why he [David Cameron] becomes so aggressive and personal is because he hasn’t got a grip on the detail and the strategy. I tend to encourage George to help the PM out because obviously in the national interest I want the PM to be well briefed.
Q: You both seem to enjoy it? There is a mutual respect?
Yeah – we shouldn’t overstate it, because sometimes I’m saying to George, “It’s not working and you’ve got to do something about this.” George will be saying to me – well, having a go back.
Q: I heard you had staring out competition at a party, were squaring up?
Total news to me. If I walked into party and saw George I would go and have a word with him, have a nice conversation. “What’s going on?” Ask him how the Treasury is, and say, “You must be ignoring all their advice, George.” He will say, “Absolutely not.” Professionally, different secretaries of state are different. Theresa May didn’t want to speak at all. George is very happy in the normal run of things to have a normal conversation the same way I had with Gove when he was opposite me at Education.
Q: You said recently you wanted to cook George a 14-hour pulled pork barbecue?
I was asked what would I cook for George Osborne. I would want to cook him something he would really like. If he thought it was good, then that would be something I would like. So I thought to myself what is the most, given he’s a bit of an Americanophile, what is the most American thing I could cook him? That’s why I picked it.
Q: Something about that that captures the imagination – it’s not antagonistic – there is a mutual respect, almost a bromance?
No. The difference between George Osborne and David Cameron is that regularly over the last six or seven years when George and I bump into each other we would have a conversation in a friendly way. George Osborne has an intellectual and political self-confidence which means he can get on with people who are Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem and I would like to think I am the same.
Q: So you’ll be sending him a Christmas card?
Designed by Lewis [a boy in his constituency who won a competition]. Definitely. I will be Father Christmas for the seventh year running at the House of Commons annual Christmas party for children. George’s partner is also co-host. So it’s all in the family.
Q: If you were Chancellor now, what would you be doing about the eurozone crisis?
The first thing is that all of the big countries, America, the eurozone, Britain, would all find it easier to move to a more sensible and balanced approach to deficit reduction, to prioritise action now for jobs and growth together rather than try to do it separately. I think that is clearly what the IMF is agitating for. When you see the IMF saying countries with room for manoeuvre like America, Germany and Britain should move to a more balanced approach to the deficit which allows them to prioritise jobs and growth in the face of underperformance in their economies, it would be much better if we could go back to the sort of solidarity shown by the G20 in ‘09, ‘10. It’s very hard in the European debate to roll in at the last minute, as David Cameron and George Osborne believed that the eurozone crisis would not be an economic crisis for Britain and therefore they could stand aside politically. That’s a catastrophic mistake.
I do think what Germany is doing by refusing to support the proper role of the ECB, by refusing to allow action to tackle contagion to spread in Italy, is playing Russian Roulette with the European and the world economies. It’s the most dangerous thing I’ve seen happen and the British leadership and American leadership should be saying in terms in private to Chancellor Merkel that you can’t carry on doing this and you need to move to a more sensible place for the future of the eurozone.
If you say those things too late and you do it in public through the FT rather than in private in bilateral meetings all you do is you put people’s backs up. George Osborne and David Cameron should’ve been getting a government plane and travelling round these capitals six months ago urging sanity, they didn’t do that and megaphone diplomacy through the newspapers is exactly the wrong thing to do. It’s clearly caused a lot of offence and it’s shown they haven’t got a huge amount of influence.
The idea of a British prime minister labelling himself as a sceptic at the Mansion House dinner showed a catastrophic lack of judgement on behalf of the Prime Minister. Because, one, we’re members of the EU, two, it’s in our national interest to be members of the EU, three, the EU now needs to move to a better place and we should be infuencing that rather than alienating our partners by describing ourselves as sceptics, and, fourth, because undermining our influence for the next few years we will pay a price in jobs and growth as a result of that, to pander to your own party at the expense of the national interest in your role as prime minister is not something that I can remember John Major or Margaret Thatcher ever doing.
Margaret Thatcher talked tough about the budget but agreed the Single European Act and QMV [qualified majority voting] but she never stood up and played the sceptic card in quite that crude a way. I do find it very worrying, the direction he seems to be leading his party in on Europe; I think our country will pay a very heavy price.
Q: The strikes next week – do you have sympathy with the strikers?
There are three-quarters of a million people, predominantly women, earning less than £15,000, who face a big hike in their contribution, a big loss in income right now to pay for what are by average standards very modest pensions, three or four thousand pounds a year, who have been told to work longer. This isn’t about trade union leaders, this is about dinner ladies and teaching assistants and people in local government who feel as though they’ve worked hard for 30 years and suddenly are being stung at a late stage in their careers – predominantly low-paid women. I have huge sympathy with them.
There has to be reform. There always has to be reform, and our cap and share agreement, details of which had to be implemented, meant change for trade unions and the unions still need to give some ground, but what the Government is trying to impose is both unfair and very risky. John Hutton himself who did a good report has said the 3 per cent rise in pension contribution risks undermining pension schemes for lower-paid workers. It’s a bigger burden for taxpayer. I do think it’s unfair.
The problem is, in a rational world, this strike would not be happening. I don’t think anybody wants a strike next Wednesday, or very few people want a strike next Wednesday, and low-paid public-sector workers who actually do these jobs because of the public service element will find it very difficult. But despite the best efforts of government civil servants and negotiators and maybe some ministers it’s pretty clear that at the most senior level the Government’s been determined to have a confrontation and not to have an agreement.
It is on the record that David Cameron was telling the Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago that he was privately delighted that the unions had walked into his trap – what does that tell you about the discussions? At no point did Labour ever sit round a table in government planning how to act in a way which might provoke strikes. The idea that the Prime Minister is privately delighted because the unions have walked into his trap – I’ve always feared that George Osborne and David Cameron felt that public-sector confrontation was a good way to divert attention away from what was going on in the economy and I don’t think that’s right and fair and I don’t think that’s what you expect from a government and I don’t think it’s what you expect from a prime minister.
Q: Are you affected; are you taking your children to work?
We have a very strict rule about not talking about our children but as parents we’ll be as disadvantaged as everybody. We’ll have to make arrangements and as is always the case it’s hard now to work out how things are going to be affected but you get some contingency arrangements in place and we will rely on family and muddle through as everybody else will and we will be frustrated about it and annoyed; it will be a bad day. It’s ridiculous we are having this strike, it absolutely could be avoided and it’s a tragedy it hasn’t been.
Q: What do you think of David Cameron’s approach to women?
The problem with our Prime Minister is that he thinks you can solve a problem with a photograph. He always thinks that because problems are about perception, what you need to do is change the perception. He thinks that if you say things more than once it must be true. This can’t be solved by friendly pictures in a Sunday newspaper. The fact is there are women who are really worried about kids losing their EMAs [educational maintenance allowance], losing their child benefit, whether they can keep their pension payments, and we know that women are disproportionally hit by Budgets and spending reviews – look at the rise in women’s unemployment over the past year.
Women are at the sharp end of paying the price for what’s happened to the economy and they don’t think it’s fair and they don’t think it’s right and I don’t think it’s to do with photocalls.
Q: The Tories will fight the next election like it’s ‘92: however bad it is, it would be worse with Labour. How do you present a positive offer?
Labour lost the leection in ‘92 partly because we were absolutely tied into the government’s policy of membership of the ERM [exchange rate mechanism], which is why we could never argue for an alternative. We couldn’t have an alternative five-point plan for jobs and growth. And we spent the election campaign talking about tax rises to pay for tax cuts, or more spending, without ever making the case properly that growth and jobs were the key.
Of course the Conservative Party in the year before the general election raised NHS spending by 11 per cent in real terms, and John Major promised no increase in taxes. A lot of people’s complete collapse in trust about promises on taxes goes back to the promises made in ‘92 and what followed. I don’t think we will make that mistake again and you aren’t going to have Labour supporting a failing plan. Labour will set out an alternative plan on the economy, and faced with possibly the most dangerous moment for the NHS since its formation in 1948 there will be a very clear choice on the NHS as well. We have learnt the lessons of 1992 I don’t think anybody thinks of that as being a particularly splendid result for the Conservative Party but Labour didn’t win an election we should’ve won.
Q: So how do you present a positive agenda for voters?
People are going to be — people are — worried and pessimistic and we’ve got to show there is a better way forward. Short term a plan for jobs and growth to get the deficit down, and we set out the five points. I won’t go into it but we also argue on the economy for the changes which are needed to make the economy work for the long term into the future. People are worried about where the jobs are going to come from. They’re worried about whether the NHS will actually be there as an insurance policy they can believe in. People will increasingly look in this Parliament at the scale of police cuts. The economy, NHS and police will be central.
The deeper issue is about where the country’s going, and nobody wants to defend the status quo in Europe, we need to argue as Douglas [Alexander] did last week for reform in Europe, [but] seeing a Prime Minister allowing his leadership and the leadership of our country to drift towards the extremes of anti-Europeanism [people] will understand there are jobs and investments which are vital for our future which depend importantly on the relationship with the rest of Europe. That’s not a relationship which is set in stone, it will need to change and Europe needs to reform, but I am willing to argue for a tougher approach in reform in Europe. I am hard-headed and pro-British, but I am not a sceptic. I would never describe myself as a Eurosceptic, because I don’t think that’s in the national interest.
Q: When will Labour start to reap the rewards of the coalition’s plight?
You have to be grown up and accept this is hard and will take time and I have been very clear with the parliamentary patry from the very beginning that this was hard, because to turn this round in one parliament, when we lost an election, after the biggest financial crisis for 100 years, and when people felt that for a range of reasons, whether that was about immigration, labour market, employment, jobs, we hadn’t done enough for them – it’s not easy to turn that round. But we will and we are, and for the first year after the election, a coalition in the national interest said there is only one choice and it will work, and I think it’s only really been abundantly clear to everybody other than George Osborne and David Cameron in the last month or two this isn’t working, and that’s the first time when people start to say, “Well, what is the alternative?” And they want to listen and hear. And they want Labour to give hope now and for the future on jobs and growth, but they also want to know that we will run the economy in a disciplined way with tough fiscal rules, that we won’t make promises we can’t keep, that we can’t promise to reverse spending cuts and tax rises, however difficult they are because that wouldn’t be responsible.
It’s very important and I quite unpopular in the Labour Party in the early part of the government for the role I played with Gordon Brown in saying we should stick to Conservative spending totals for the first two years, but it was that discipline that laid the foundation for getting our national debt down. We need that discipline to carry on and to gain that reputation for fiscal discipline and credibility that is a very important part of what Rachel Reeves and I need to do with Ed Miliband in the coming months.
Q: How is Ed Miliband doing?
He spoke for the nation on hacking. He is making an important long-term argument about the future of our country on the economy but also around a more optimistic future for young people and every new leader needs time to establish their identity and who they are and you have to give an answer to the big question people are asking, on phone hacking he answered the big question in a way David Cameron failed to do. I think on the future of the economy we can do that together too.
Q: Has he established his identity yet?
I don’t think with the wider public yet, I think there’s still more to do, that’s true, for Ed and me and Yvette and all of us. I think that he won great respect for what he did on phone hacking. Whether that filters through to Morley voters [in Ed Balls's constituency], that takes longer but I think amongst opinion formers I thought that was a very important time for him.
Q: When was the last time you spoke to Gordon Brown?
I was emailing with him a couple of weeks ago. I arranged to see him next week. We are in touch from time to time. He’s been very busy travelling around the world and so we’ve not met for a few weeks but we’re in touch from time to time. I’ve seen GB and TB recently. These guys have got a lot to teach us.
Q: Tony Blair?
It was just a private meeting.
Q: Can I ask about you crying over Antiques Roadshow?
The thing which is interesting and sometimes bizarre but which also makes it fascinating in politics is how sometimes things strike a chord and sometimes you don’t expect that. It’s been a family joke — I’ve often joked with close friends and family about Antiques Roadshow and The Sound of Music, and there is a fabulous column by somebody who said, “Do we really believe that every time Ed Balls turns on Antiques Roadshow he bursts into tears?” I say no, don’t believe that, of course it’s not true. But the important thing about that story is that it must be true because it would have been impossible to make up. Because it’s so out of left field. I was doing the interview …. every now and then when we’re watching it I say, “Oh this is so emotional.” The world divides interestingly on Antiques Roadshow into those people who when somebody comes in with an heirloom to have it valued, I would say they want to know how much it’s worth out of curiosity but actually the reason why it’s moving is because there’s more to value than just mere money. There’s also worth in the family heirloom, isn’t that moving? There’s other people who say what a load of tosh the only reason they have gone on is so they can see if they can go straight after and flog it on eBay.
I’ve always been on the more, the — I am not sure what the right word is — the less cynical … Do you know what’s been really nice? I was at a dinner last night in Swindon and a gentleman said to me, “You know, I always get a bit teary at Antiques Roadshow as well,” and there’s quite a lot of people who said to me, actually, that’s the nature of the programme. Why do people watch? When we were growing up they used to have a programme about competitive sheep dog trials, One Man and His Dog – a fabulous programme. Why do people watch that? Cynics would never watch One Man and His Dog. Actually you know, the relationship between the farmer and his dog, the skill, the countryside, the music, it’s a fabulous programme. The world divides into those people who like watching One Man and His Dog and those who don’t. And I’ve always liked One Man and His Dog.
Q: What is it about it?
It’s the same with Antiques Roadshow, The Sound of Music, [that's] always really emotional. The really gruff captain has had a go at Maria and told her she’s been sacked, goes into the room, the children sing in harmony, we realise the whole thing has been about dealing with the death of their mother, it’s a coming together again.
Q: But One Man and His Dog?
No, because –
Q: Have you cried?
Q: You’re not denying it?
I’m not going to be drawn into that. I think it’s unlikely if I’m honest with you. The reason people like it, it’s not just the countryside and the music, but it’s also because you see the guy, he’s trained his dog, and he’s so proud of the dog, and … you can just see. That relationship. It’s about far more than – it’s a celebration of relationships, it’s a big deal.
Q: Do you have dogs?
My mum and dad do, we don’t; we travel too much.
Q: Does Yvette cry at Antiques Roadshow?
No. I’m not sure Yvette watches Antiques Roadshow either. We watch X Factor. X Factor is fabulous; we like X Factor. I was a Misha B fan from the begining. She has shown more flexbility and versatility than any other. Little Mix – they have made the biggest progress of any of them. Can I be honest with you? Having talked about Antiques Roadshow as a great programme I have to say in my growing up, Saturday night TV when we were younger used to be awful. Really bad. Remember Saturday Seaside Special – it was dreadul, so awful. What these [new] programmes do is unite all the generations. All kids at school singing X Factor songs. Lots of schools doing X Factor competitions. You can always get – the kind of people who don’t like Antiques Roadshow and One Man and His Dog are probably also inclined to be a bit sniffy about X Factor because they will say, “Is it really producing top stars of the future?” But that’s really not what it’s about. If I never ever saw 1D sing again in my life it would be absolutely fine to be quite honest; however I think JLS are really good. The point is the participation of it, loads of people on Saturday night as families really like watching this programme. For Yvette’s birthday in March I bought her family tickets for X Factor live show at the O2. I’m not sure whether she thought it was the best present she ever had, but it was quite fun. Cher was breilliant and Matt C was quite good. And Rebecca. She’s co-written her album. She was on the Today programme, interviewed on it, it was quite a good interview.
Q: Can you compare One Man and His Dog to political strategy?
When I was young, the ideal Friday night was Pot Black, 9 til 9.25, One Man and His Dog, Pro Celeb golf and then HSB. It was just top TV. Jim’ll Fix It was great in the early evening slot. Final Score; Doctor Who or Jim’ll Fix It, but after 7, 7.30 it really fell apart. Strictly is more in the teatime slot. X Factor: that’s filled a slot which has been pretty awful over the last 20, 30 years. It was good fun. I wrote to Jim [Jimmy Savile] many times. I wanted to conduct an orchestra; never got that. Can I be a drummer? Probably “Can I be the mascot for the England football team?” More or less the same as everybody else. I didn’t think I was ever quite quirky or innovative enough. Never occurred to me to be. I never got it, I never got the call. My sister did get a Blue Peter badge. For a picture. A very exciting moment. I was very, very jealous.
Photograph: GABRIEL SZABO/GUZELIANTagged in: ed balls
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