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FUNNY OLD GAME POLITICS (Part Six)

12-05-2007

In the latest “hot off the press, first draft” extract of his forthcoming memoirs, Labour veteran Hugh McCallion remembers Birmingham’s original Super Prix - the road race which, if rumours are to be believed, could soon be heading back to the city.

News that moves are afoot to bring back a Super Prix type event to the centre of Birmingham, brings back many memories, some good but some less so.

At City Council level the event came under the auspices of the General Purposes Committee of which John Charlton was chair and I was vice chair. I was also chair of the Health Sub Committee.

The event was obviously some time in the planning stages and, as usual in the Labour group, we had a sizeable number of members who were strongly opposed to the idea.

Those of us who were quite heavily involved had to suffer the slings and arrows in many forums.

Although we were very keen to attract sponsorship, neither John Charlton nor I had any qualms about turning down an offer of £100,000 from the tobacco firm Gallaghers.

There were detractors in all of the parties but our dissenters, God bless ‘em, were by far the most vocal. John Charlton was probably the most enthusiastic on our side but he was not the kind of person who was easily bullied, in fact he seemed to thrive on it.

On the Tory side their group secretary, Peter Barwell, had been a former rally driver and he was literally brimming with enthusiasm, as was the restauranteur and night club owner, Martin Hone, who was a former racing driver.

In addition to the opposition within the Labour group, we also had to endure caustic comments from some of our Members of Parliament, most notably the old Hodge Hill MP Terry Davis and Clare Short. This boiled over when the Terry launched a bitter and inaccurate attack in the House of Commons. Clare Short and to a lesser extent Jeff Rooker, weighed into the argument.

The gist of the attack was that officers and Councillors had gone back on promises made and that ratepayers’ money was being wasted without full authority and without regard for the fact that there were many areas of social deprivation where the money could be better spent. It was also thrown in for good measure that it was an excuse for members and their friends to wine and dine at the ratepayers expense.

I was so incensed that these Birmingham Members of Parliament were prepared to launch such a vitriolic and inaccurate attack on their hard-working local colleagues that I wrote a blistering letter to all the Birmingham Labour MP’s. Jeff Rooker and Clare Short responded immediately and accepted that their concerns should have been expressed in a different forum initially and that the language used should have been less emotive.

Terry Davis replied to the effect that he stood by everything he’d said and actually was more robust in his condemnation of Councillors.

By the time Terry and I had exchanged a few letters and I had pointed out the arrogance and hypocrisy of the attack, Terry suddenly lost interest in the pen pal business.

Even a small amount of research turned up some interesting facts about the number of MP’s who were being paid as consultants and lobbyists, not to mention the “fact-finding” trips that many MP’s seemed to be engaged in, many of them paid for by big business. A measly buffet lunch for those members who attended the Super Prix was small beer by comparison.

The first Super Prix was a hugely exciting event. Even a non-racing fan like myself got completely caught up in the atmosphere. It was great to see families out together and enjoying themselves.

John Charlton was on site both days and available to sort out any matters that needed a political input. On one occasion I was called upon to deal with a situation which had the potential to turn into a very embarrassing scene.

Bearing in mind that Birmingham is a large city with 120 Councillors, all three main Parties had members who were capable of getting into mischief, especially if they had been bending the elbow. That said, however, and bearing in mind the nature of the event, I would hasten to add that there were no problems of any great consequence involving members.

The incident that I have just referred to, happened in the late afternoon in the Hospitality Tent. A couple from our side and a couple of Tories had obviously been knocking a few back and were engaged in rather noisy political banter in the centre of the tent. One nice lady had expressed concern to one of the Stewards and he pointed her in my direction.

The two who were creating the most noise were the late Councillor Stan Austin from our side and Councillor John Lines from the Tories (currently Birmingham’s cabinet member for Housing).

Stan was a big man with a loud voice and a raucous laugh and he and John Lines were obviously enjoying their bout of political sparring. To the unitiated, this probably looked like the kind of thing that could end in a punch up.

The lady explained to me that the noisy quartet were unsettling a number of people and she wondered if I could have a word with them. I told her I would do what I could, she thanked me and returned to her friends.

As I surveyed the noisy gang, trying to figure out the best method of approach, I caught Stan Austin’s eye and beckoned him to join me. Stan was well capable of giving anyone an argument and he would wrestle the devil if need be, but dealing with him was eminently more sensible than accosting all four.

I explained the situation to Stan and to my surprise and relief, he accepted the point and went back to join the others. I could see that he had set about passing on my request for them to tone it down. For one horrible moment as John Lines glared in my direction, I thought we were going to have a scene. Not so. All four straightened their shoulders and walked calmly towards the exit.

I decided to spend a little time mingling with the guests before returning to the stand for the next race. I was just on the point of leaving when a shirtless John Lines appeared in the entrance and strode towards the bar. I looked around for the others but they were nowhere in sight, although I’m sure I caught a glance of a grinning Stan Austin peering round the side entrance

I never did find out if this was John Lines way of saying, “up yours McCallion,” or if the plan had been hatched by all four.

As I left the tent, my last view of Lines was of him standing by the bar, manly chest exposed and a drink in his hand, talking to Councillor Frank McLaughlin and Mrs McLaughlin. You wont be surprised to hear that he was the only civic dignitary in the tent without a shirt - and there was no betting on the races so he couldn’t have lost it.

More from Hugh ... click here

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