Alistair Burt and Me
This article was published in the Sunday Island on June 25, 2011
I have been reading a lot about Alistair Burt. He does not seem to be a very popular chap with Sri Lankan journalists. The Nation shouts: “Come, come, Mr Burt, wake up. We are in 2011 and not in 1911, you know… after meddling with our country for over a hundred years, mind your own business now will you?”
I bet none of those fellows excoriating him have had a drink with Alistair. I have – red wine, I think, was his tipple.
I didn’t recognise him at first in current photos. That billiard ball look had me fooled. When I met him he had a full head of hair, although the head only came up to my navel. The first thing one notices about Alistair is that he is extremely small – a mannikin, a homunculus.
I got to meet him because he was, sort of, my boss. I was in the HR section of the Department of Social Security: he was the junior minister responsible.
One often heard the phrase about the ministers we served: “He’s not a bad fellow. Can’t understand why he’s a Tory”. Alistair Burt was extremely affable and self-deprecating. One wondered how he could be a politician at all.
On 2 May 1997, I wandered down to the Imperial War Museum elated that the Tories had been kicked out. It was an emotional experience to see the remembrance of so many lost lives. I remember the new hope that many of us living in the UK felt when Blair became prime minister. Who could have guessed what a war Blair was to unleash?
The leftward turn we expected did not take place. Our Tory masters had resolutely opposed anti-libertarian measures such as identity cards. The Blair government supported them and wasted lots of money on them. Under New Labour, Britain became an Orwellian dystopia of constant surveillance.
Burt lost his parliamentary seat of Bury North, which he had first won in 1983, in the Labour landslide of 1997. He lost by 7,866 votes to David Chaytor who is now in jail for expenses fraud. He returned in 2001, taking over the safe Tory seat of Bedfordshire North East from Sir Nicholas Lyell (one of the good Tories I worked for who resisted populist calls for identity cards and firm action against welfare scroungers).
Burt is one of those characters who rises without trace. From 1985, he was Parliamentary Private Secretary at various ministries to the oleaginous Kenneth Baker (always portrayed on Spitting Image as a Brylcreamed slug).
Under Major, Burt was promoted to Parliamentary Under Secretary – this was when he entered my orbit- at the Department of Social Security. In 1995, he reached the dizzy heights of Minister of State at that department. Following the May 2010 General Election, he became Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Afghanistan/South Asia, counter terrorism/proliferation, North America, Middle East and North Africa) at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. On his website he proudly announces that he is responsible for the UK’s links with 30 countries. Big job, for a little man.
He is a former officer of the Conservative Friends of Israel. In all fairness, he used a visit to Israel to condemn new settlement building in East Jerusalem. Burt made a parliamentary statement about export licences to Bahrain now that the government there have started shooting civilians. “We will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression.” Strange considering they are happy to export weapons and military equipment to Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Tories follow Labour in selling arms to unlovely regimes.
Burt is an active Christian. He married Eve Twite (sounds like a name invented for the Goon Show) in 1983 and they have a son, daughter and granddaughter. On his website he says: “Many of you know I employ my wife Eve as office manager and have done so for many years. She knows the work and the constituency, is fully qualified, and is the best person for the job. Her salary is £39,000. Within the pay scales for qualifications and experience”.
Burt over-claimed payments for his London flat by £200 per month for five months in 2006. He apologised for what he described as an “oversight”. However, he said that because he had not claimed for food during the period, he should not need to repay the money. He was let off and allowed to keep the GBP 1,000. The taxpayer-funded rent at his latest flat comes to £1,890 per month.
Although he looks rather plump, Alistair claims to have run nine London Marathons. He is a member of Biggleswade Athletics Club: “a friendly, lively and supportive club that caters for juniors and seniors living in Biggleswade, Sandy, Potton and surrounding villages”. He seems to be rather fond of little bites. Between 2004 and 2005, Mr Burt claimed more than £13,000 in hotel expenses. He regularly claimed for alcohol and snacks from mini bars of hotels such as the Savoy. In March 2004, he claimed £2 for a packet of Pringles, £3 for a bag of mixed nuts. The following month he claimed £3.55 for a “night beverage” and £6 for another two bags of mixed nuts. There is a lot more of this, but you get the drift. Mr Burt agreed to repay a total of £229.24 for hotel sundries. “I do accept that the climate has changed, and although I thought these were perfectly fair subsistence charges I will repay them immediately,” he said. “I am genuinely sorry for any error made, in relation to any claim which is considered excessive.”
How can a man looking after 30 countries have time to fill in a form to claim a refund for peanuts?
The website http://www.theyworkforyou.com analyses Burt’s voting record in the Commons. He voted moderately against ID cards. He voted very strongly for the invasion of Iraq but also voted strongly for an investigation into the war. He voted moderately against Labour’s anti-terrorism laws. He voted very strongly for continuing Trident. He voted strongly against equal gay rights (a Christian conscience thing).
It was announced on June 13 that Burt has been nominated for the Minister of the Year award by Parliament’s official magazine. “I’m very tickled by this. It’s rather nice to be nominated by colleagues, and says a lot for the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who have worked so hard to help me keep MPs and the public briefed on the remarkable events of this year. I am in exalted company of excellent colleagues, and while, being honest, it would be nice to win, being nominated is fun in itself.”
In the category rating national politicians on their sexual attractiveness, Mr Burt is currently rated number 599 out of 648 MPs.
His Diary and articles for the Biggleswade Chronicle (“after a day of mixed emotions”) remind one of Adrian Mole. Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail wrote: ” If he has ever uttered the word ‘boo!’ to a goose – and one doubts it – it is most unlikely that the goose took much notice”.
Is Sri Lanka a goose?!