The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s notes

11 December 2014

3:00 PM

11 December 2014

3:00 PM

Pope Francis is favourably compared to Pope Benedict in the media. I hope it is not being slavishly papist to admire both of them. For Francis, the chalice is half-full. For Benedict, it was half-empty. But one attitude is not superior to the other. The Church needs both, like Christmas after Advent, Easter after Lent. Things are, in the Christian view, very bad, yet all shall be well. Put the two men together, and you have most of what you need.

In paragraph 135 of his judgment in the Andrew Mitchell ‘Plebgate’ case, Mr Justice Mitting says that P.C. Rowland, the police officer whom Mr Mitchell was suing for libel, is ‘not the sort of man who would have the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in a temper’. In paragraph 174, however, the judge says that Mr Rowland did give a false account of how members of the public reacted to the incident. He goes on: ‘Embellishment of a true account by a police officer on the defensive is, of course, not acceptable, but it is understandable if done for that purpose.’ So he doesn’t make things up on the spur of the moment, but does later, and that is sort of all right: a striking doctrine, especially from a judge, of what is permissible in police evidence. I think what Mr Justice Mitting is really saying, if you strip out judicial phraseology, is that P.C. Rowland is a pleb, therefore to be judged by low standards. Because the judge believes that Mr Mitchell used that wicked word, he (Mr Mitchell) is now £2-£3 million poorer. Mr Justice Mitting is just as offensive to Mr Rowland as Mr Mitchell is alleged to have been. His career, however, is unimpeded.

P.C. Rowland, says the judge, ‘was determined to do his duty as he saw it, whoever he might inconvenience’. It was ‘to maintain the security of Downing Street, by upholding the policy which he believed applied’. This may be so, but the policy itself is stupid. The best way to uphold security is to get ‘buy-in’ from the people you are protecting. You will not do this if you take pride in inconveniencing them. Good security, such as prevails in Israel, concentrates on real threats, not on petty-foggery. Downing Street protection is ill-prepared for an actual attack, but accomplished at snarling up daily business. If you doubt me, walk past the gates and see how often the fat, unshaven policemen are talking to one another, and how often they are actually watching.

The death of Jeremy Thorpe reminded me of a different era. My father worked for him in the early 1970s, so I used, as a schoolboy, to visit his office in Parliament. Often I walked into the Commons unimpeded, without a pass. If I was stopped by the smart, polite policemen on the gate, they used their own judgment to assess the risk I posed, rather than bureaucratic rules. Thorpe himself I liked very much. He had that famed quality of charm — apparently total interest in the person spoken to. Party leaders did not seem very busy in those days, and once or twice he took me to lunch or tea and made me laugh. He was good at teasing. The Speaker at that time, Horace King, said he knew when Jeremy intended to launch an attack on a Tory minister, because he would arrive in the Chamber wearing an Old Etonian tie. Thorpe was thrilled when he contrived to get Megan Lloyd-George and Violet Bonham Carter, the daughters of Lloyd-George and Asquith, who had feuded since 1916, into his car at the same time. He said, ‘I think you know one another.’ Lady Violet looked at Lady Megan, and said: ‘Slightly.’ Now that I know more about politicians, I can recognise in Thorpe their quite common trait of addiction to risk. I wonder if homosexual affairs became boring for him once they became legal.

In recent BBC weather forecasts, there has been even more talk than usual about ‘temperatures struggling’. They are always struggling upwards. This example of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ is anti-Green. If, as we are assured, global warming is the greatest threat to the survival of the planet, we want to try to persuade temperatures to struggle downwards. The Met Office is a leader of the catastrophist school of climate commentators. Why does it not instruct its broadcasters in the correct, gloom-laden lingo?

Early this month, the temperatures finally gave up the upward struggle. I went hunting on the marsh in crisp, clear cold. We stood about in a muddy field as hounds tried to puzzle out the trail. Perhaps it was the unwonted sun after a month of murk, but suddenly a horse went down and started to roll, narrowly avoiding its rider. Then a second, threatening its 73-year-old owner, who could be heard shouting ‘You bastard!’ from underneath it. And then a third, this time throwing a teenage girl. There was something Christmassy about this collective equine madness and the general mirth at serious misfortune narrowly avoided.

It has been a sad year for our family, because three of its much-loved members have died. One, my dear, funny and truly sainted aunt, Meriel Oliver, was the victim of myeloma. Her reaction to the diagnosis was: ‘People sometimes say “Why me?” but really, “Why not me?”.’ Then she said, ‘Well, it’s not the end of the world.’ Pause. ‘Though I suppose for me, it is.’ I was glad Hereford Cathedral was full for her memorial service, and heard this story. Most of us learn too late that one has the right attitude to one’s own death only if one has the right attitude to one’s own life, so we badly need the best examples.

Some kind readers who did not notice my original Note have been asking where I have gone. I am trying to finish volume two of my life of Lady Thatcher. I have promised the editor that this column will return weekly in the spring.

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