The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator's Notes: When all three parties agree, something must be wrong

Plus: Shirley Temple vs Graham Greene, and the poetry of le Metro

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

Those of us who want a referendum on the European Union need to be cautious in our approach to the Scottish one. What is sauce for Alex Salmond’s goose may prove sauce for the European gander. We should not assume, for example, that José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, is telling the truth. Or take the argument that business is opposed to Scottish independence. The CBI and suchlike always favour the current arrangements and fear uncertainty. They will oppose British independence even more surely than Scottish. They are not always wrong, but their view should not be credulously accepted. Mr Salmond is right that the threats made by the powers that be in a campaign are very different from what they say after a clear result. I have a nasty feeling he may be accurate when he predicts that ‘rUK’ would end up offering a Yes-voting Scotland currency union: it will not want a new beggar for its neighbour. When the main parties get together and agree about something — as they did, for example, about the ERM or the Climate Change Act — is when they most risk going wrong. As it happens, I think they are right about the danger of letting an independent Scotland ‘keep the pound’, but beware a mighty establishment moving one way.

Is there a fundamental difference, then, between voting to get out of the United Kingdom and voting to get out of the EU? If the EU had a 300-year history as a working entity, probably not. It would seem perverse to leave. But it has no such history. The difference is best expressed, oddly enough, by Nicola Sturgeon, Mr Salmond’s deputy. Speaking of the currency, she says what Scotland wants is ‘a continuity of effect’. She does not realise that such continuity is best secured by the simple device of voting No. Staying in the EU, on the other hand, has little continuity of effect: it signs us up for yet more constitutional and monetary ventures into the unknown.

In Paris last week for my Thatcher researches, I found little resentment of François Hollande for his marital — or rather, non-marital — arrangements, but a widespread feeling that he falls below the level of his job. For the French, unlike the British, the 1960s were a golden age. The early years of the Fifth Republic brought economic growth, and recovery from the humiliation of the 1940s. Now, perplexingly, the glory has ebbed away. A distinguished retired civil servant put it thus. ‘I assumed,’ he told me, ‘that because my children’s generation all met their British and German counterparts so much more easily than we did, they would understand the world much better. It seems to be almost the opposite.’ He saw the current crop of European leaders — with the exception of Mrs Merkel — as being interchangeably superficial. He had hit upon a point which he had not, as a good European, intended. De Gaulle, Adenauer, Macmillan; Kohl, Mitterrand, Thatcher: they were all made strong by adversity and national difference. Their heirs are made weak by the lack of either.

After visiting him, I travelled on line 8, Balard-Creteil. If nothing were left of France but that line’s list of Metro stations, historians could deduce plenty. It includes Commerce, École Militaire, Invalides, Concorde, Opéra, Grands Boulevards, République, Filles de Calvaire, Chemin Vert, Bastille, and Liberté. Our own dear Chigwell and Cockfosters, Penge West and Tooting Bec have a less grandiose story to tell.

It was a dark and stormy night, during these floods, and we gathered in our parish church to listen to the ghost stories of M.R. James, brilliantly performed solo by the actor Robert Lloyd Parry. He recited a couple of stories by candlelight. His gestures, as when his fingers imitated the frantic movements of the branches in ‘The Ash Tree’, were pleasingly horrid. I reflected that the last time we had big floods — 2000 — this occasion would have been impossible. Our church had been full of water. So had the village shop and several houses. This time, our improved flood defences all worked. Without wishing to deflect criticism of the Environment Agency for its neglect of the Somerset Levels, I think this should be quietly mentioned. In one of his stories, ‘My Son’s Wife’, Kipling describes our normally modest river, the Dudwell, in flood. His character Midmore, a member of the ‘Immoderate Left’, who reluctantly comes from town after inheriting a house in the country, stares at the torrent and exclaims: ‘This is too absurd. There ought to be some decently thought-out system for — for — dealing with this sort of thing.’ I feel almost sorry to say that now there is.

As Shirley Temple’s obituaries mentioned, it was a film based on a Kipling story ‘Wee Willie Winkie’, in 1937, which provoked Graham Greene to his famous denunciation. This is what Greene wrote: ‘Infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult… In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in a tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy… hear the gasp of excited expectation from the antique audience when the sergeant’s arm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity… Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond…to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.’ The $12,000 libel damages against Greene’s piece closed down Night and Day, the excellent magazine which published it. But they confirmed the popular (though legally incorrect) version of the libel law, ‘The greater the truth, the greater the libel.’ Hard to decide whether it was good or bad that the innocence of the 1930s allowed millions to flock to films which, if released today, would be banned as paedophile.

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  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    Where’s the disqus button to vote for this contribution?

  • DaHitman

    “When all three parties agree, something must be wrong”

    Intelligent people have been saying this for years. It’s known as the Lib-Lab-Con and caused because the Left infiltrated the Conservatives

  • rjbh

    For sure…the voters will make sure this con trick gets the contempt it deserves.