One of the oldest customs in the world, celebrated in various forms in many countries, is the Festival of Unreason when for a day order is upturned and chaos rules. In this country it takes the form of the charity auction.
The simple laws of market economics are suspended and normally rational people known for their business acumen, or at any rate their success and wealth, pay silly prices for things they don’t want while others cheer and clap, hoot and holler, and generally urge them on. Large quantities of drink are taken, which helps the bidding move along at a brisk and extravagant pace. Many must be the foolish souls who, carried away by an excess of booze and a heady desire to be noticed, awaken thick-headed to the sick knowledge that they paid £40,000 for a pair of Kylie Minogue’s disused hotpants. The small consolation that may be found is that the money went to a good cause.
It’s not just charities that have taken to raising funds in this way. For years the Conservative Party has held such events, with lots such as one of Mrs Thatcher’s handbags, the chosen auctioneer being Lord Archer, the very embodiment of fantastical excess.
Now, rather late in the day, the Labour Party is following suit. It has announced that it will soon be holding a fundraising evening at Wembley Stadium. It has chosen sports as the theme and is targeting wealthy business and City types.
There are those who will see in this scheme many elements of a festival of fools. If the opinion polls are any judge, Labour is not at present anyone’s cup of tea and is arguably particularly out of favour with the business world. The taxation of non-doms, plans to tax certain foreign earnings, changes in capital gains tax, and the unease generated by the prospect of recession finds an easy scapegoat in the Government.
But politicians have skins like armadillos and Labour is desperately short of funds, hence the plan to invite the City’s top players to pay £15,000 for a table at the event and to bid for a variety of prizes.
A glance at the items on offer dispels any vestigial notion that the project contains an atom of sense. First prize is the chance to play tennis with Tony Blair. Moving quickly on to the second prize, which has to be more attractive than the first, there is the opportunity to have lunch with Sir Alex Ferguson. Speaking for myself, I would rather have my teeth pulled without benefit of anaesthetic than win that item; in any case I should need an interpreter to sit at the meal table since Sir Alex speaks in what sounds to me like a Glaswegian form of Swahili.
Surely Labour could have found more enticing lots than those. Lunch with John Prescott, for instance. Who wouldn’t pay £30,000 to watch him drink two cans of Carnation milk as an aperitif and then consume all 350 items on the menu of his chosen Chinese restaurant? The opportunity to witness a celebrity bulimic in action does not occur often.
What else might appeal to the drunken City bidder? Mud wrestling with Hazel Blears could spark some interest. A game of Truth Or Consequences with Peter Mandelson might be instructive. A candle-lit supper with Patricia Hewitt. A game of croquet with John Prescott, once he had wiped himself down. A gurning competition with David Miliband. A night out in a lap-dancing club with Harriet Harman. A knees-up with that son-of-fun Gordon Brown – oh, the hokey-cokey! And how about a wine and cheese party with Dawn Primarilo? How thrilling to have her sidle up and whisper in one’s ear, “Mr Murray, that’s your third unit!”
In one respect, Labour might be on to a winner. The auctioneer at the event is to be the former spin-doctor and all-round nasty piece of work Alastair Campbell. Things have changed in the City since the days when it was almost exclusively the domain of former public school boys, men trained from early childhood in the art of hurling bread rolls at meal times. Even so, there must still be practitioners working for hedge funds and merchant banks, and in any case the Essex lads and ladies who now occupy many senior positions in the Square Mile are brought up to throw things. Who, I ask you, given the opportunity and the ammunition, would not give a month’s salary for the pleasure of shying a wholemeal bun at such an irresistible target?