Last week, strapped for cash and with too much time on my hands, I took part in some market research. The deal was that Lord Ashcroft’s minions asked you questions about Britain and the EU for a few hours and you got paid £120 for your opinion.
I know, right? Suckers.
Lord Ashcroft, if you’re not familiar with him, is the tax-evading Tory lovechild of Charles Hawtrey and Emperor Zurg. He runs a website called Lord Ashcroft Polls where he throws money at disgruntled bartenders like me to help him formulate opinions on things and advise the Tories on what do about the EU, the shortage of women in UK politics, and what on earth to have for lunch since the chef has run out of gravlax.
Don’t judge me. I make £80 a week.
Anyway. So here we were, about a hundred of us from all walks of life, representing the average Joe and the common man and everyone else. It got off to a great start – the ten people on my table were interested and had varying views on the issues of staying in and leaving the EU, and we all got on really well and had a good discussion. We had guest speakers come and highlight the good and bad points of each side (Charles Grant, Ruth Lea and some nervous intern whose name I forget), the free all-you-can-eat lunch was incredible, and the coffee was alright too. So far, so good.
Of course, after my third plate of ragu everything went terribly, terribly wrong.
“We’re going to do a fun exercise now!” beamed the moderator, and I wilted inside. Fun. The F word. There is nothing fun about someone else’s idea of fun. Especially when the fun you’re about to have is in a conference room at the Park Plaza Hotel, debating the future of Britain’s involvement with the EU.
Our moderator wrote a list of words on the whiteboard. Biscuit. Car. Job. Outfit. Animal. Random nouns, essentially. She turned to us.
“Now then. If Britain was a biscuit, what biscuit would it be, do you think?”
I wish I was joking. I wish I could say that we all sat there, incredulous, sharing glances of what-in-the-hell-just-happened with each other. But no.
“Ooh, I think a Hobnob.”
“Ooh yes. Sturdy, reliable, but sweet!”
“No, definitely a rich tea.”
I sat there reminding myself over and over that I was getting paid for this.
“What about a job? I think Britain would be a policeman.”
“No, an accountant.”
It was at this point, desperate and frustrated and quickly getting indigestion from my cramming at the buffet, that I decided to humour them. So I said, “it’s interesting that we can’t decide between a policeman and an accountant isn’t it? Because Britain is divided, and you think of a policeman as the working class profession, probably didn’t go to university, it’s a practical, important job… whereas an accountant will have spent loads of time and money training to sit in an office and gain a nice decent salary because it’s a specialist career… so our indecision stems from the fact that Britain’s national identity is based on class division and we don’t really have the ‘all in it together’ thing that we think we do… isn’t that kind of interesting? A bit?”
“So… a policeman then?” said the moderator.
I shut up.
Then each table had to present to the room on what biscuit, or job, or animal they thought Britain and the EU would be. This was a pretty awful process (especially the guy who compared the EU to a ‘horse and cart… probably pulled by a dirty old Romanian’) and then it got to our table. Surprise surprise, nobody wanted to stand up and recite what they thought about Britain in terms of baked goods or jobs etc. So guess who did it.
I really tried. I did. I repeated my nonsense argument to the room, maybe throwing in some poorly-thought-out phrases such as ‘Britain has no imagination’, ‘Britain lacks ambition’, ‘what’s the point of this exercise anyway.’ I took a dump with my trousers on, essentially.
I sat down to a deathly silence and prayed for the next coffee break to come quickly.
Then, in the coffee queue, I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around to see an immensely tall woman and her companion, who looked like a teapot with tits, both scowling furiously at me.
“I didn’t like what you were saying about accountants. What do you have against accountants?” the tall woman demanded. I wondered if there was any point me explaining that I wasn’t having a go at accountants – that they’re probably the people I feel most ambivalent about in the world – and that she seemed to have missed the point of my admittedly awful tangent. However, she was furious and I was small.
“Sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m an accountant”, she snapped. Then her little teapot friend leaned forward, right into my face.
“And I’m Spanish”, she hissed.
I was very confused.
So I collected my £120, pocketed some free cheesecake, and ran home.