Charles Moore and David Hare sit in the editor’s office at The Spectator, Hare on a brown leather chesterfield, Moore opposite him on the striped sofa once favoured by the former editor Boris Johnson for naps. Hare and Moore disagree on everything from God to Thatcher; capitalism to the Iraq war. But as Moore has recently noted in his column, both men grew up in the same place, near Bexhill on the East Sussex coast. They’re here for tea and to see if there’s anything on which they can agree.…
Act I, Scene I
CHARLES MOORE: In your book [The Blue Touch Paper] you describe the Bexhill I knew, but my feeling about it was completely different. I thought Bexhill was romantic. I liked the sort of thing that people criticise, like privet hedges and net curtains.
DAVID HARE: Yes, well, you were not brought up among them in that case! I can’t tell you the emotional damage of that style of life, of always being made to feel, if you were a child, that you were in the wrong.
MOORE: It’s better than being brought up as if you were a child that was in the right.
HARE: Well that is now the fashion isn’t it?
MOORE: But the old one is better isn’t it? The old one is better because it’s more true.
HARE: I do find the worship of children now excessive, whereby children are told that they are completely wonderful all the time. But on the other hand, that life was so repressed. No one talked about anything.
MOORE: No, that’s right. It’s hard to remember, isn’t it, the things that you didn’t speak about? Some are obvious, people didn’t speak about sexual things. But some are perhaps less obvious. There was a great sense, which I quite respect actually, of privacy about everything. So for example my family would never, ever talk about money. Did you have that?
HARE: We had a friend who was a bank manager and he once said of somebody that they were doing very well, and my mother afterwards said, ‘Well, I’ll never bank with him’, because that was the most appalling breach of confidence!
MOORE: And now people hardly have that concept because of social media. So a bank manager, after you’ve gone out of the room, he might start tweeting: ‘Saw very rich client today #success’!
HARE: In a town like Bexhill there were subtle class gradations. Barclays was posher than the Midland and the Midland was posher than the National Westminster. You banked according to your station in life.
MOORE: Did you absolutely dislike all that?
HARE: Well it was very boring, Charles. I was curious, as in, always interested. I am very, very excited to be here in the offices of The Spectator or to have a play on in the West End, it never loses its thrill for me because basically I am a provincial boy who can’t believe he got out. You can’t explain to people how the Fifties and Sixties were in Britain, because it’s vanished so completely.
MOORE: We had my uncle’s funeral last week and we sang ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and one of the lines in the full text is ‘A breast full of milk and a manger full of hay’ and I remember as children you were not allowed to sing that verse in church . . . it was considered rude. ‘A breast full of milk’, it was sort of explicit. Now people wouldn’t even…
HARE: …they wouldn’t even notice it! That injunction ‘be yourself’ that in the Seventies became so popular, in the Fifties, in Bexhill, nobody would have even known what that meant. When you hear people say ‘my purpose in life is to discover who I truly am’…nobody spoke like that when I was young.
MOORE: Do you think that’s a good thing? Which side are you on in that argument?
HARE: Well, needless to say I am ambiguous about the whole thing, Charles. What I mean is now I find Eastbourne ravishingly beautiful. When I go and stay in Eastbourne and I walk on those cliffs and see that evening light and see the beach, it just seems one of the most beautiful places on earth, but of course when I was young Eastbourne was everything I loathed and despised.
Act I, Scene II
Hare: Let’s talk about the Seventies. Let’s talk about your book [Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography], propagating this myth that Britain was absolute chaos in the 1970s, three-day week, lights going out, all this kind of thing. Then along came Margaret Thatcher and transformed the fortunes of the country. Books about the Seventies are always stressing breakdown and dissent but in my book I try to say that although it was very painful to live through a disputatious time, there was energy in the disputes and they were important disputes.
MOORE: They were, yes, but nevertheless what you just said about what happened in the Seventies, what the orthodoxy is, is in fact correct. It is true, it was chaotic.
HARE:I know you think that, Charles.
MOORE: But it is true.
HARE: But you write from that perspective.
MOORE: But it is true! I mean I enjoyed growing up in the Seventies, I found it fascinating and I loved things like the three-day week, but I wasn’t trying to make a living at that point.
HARE: No, but the arguments we were having in the Seventies were good ones. They were arguments about who should run society and whether the institutions that belonged to the Empire were any longer appropriate to the country; about getting rid of nuclear weapons, getting rid of the monarchy, but most of all about the workers. In your book you don’t actually address how disastrous Thatcher’s policies have been. You don’t address the fact that home ownership may have seemed a wonderful thing in the 1980s but it has left us with absolutely no housing stock. Privatisation of public assets was just theft. In other words, Charles, things that belonged to us were ripped off by private industries. You present all these policies as though they brought liberation, but 30 years on, the judgment about those policies is very doubtful I’d say. I don’t think you can say the reorganisation of society by Margaret Thatcher has been a blazing success.
MOORE: But she was by the standards of any leader incredibly innovative. If you think of the difficulty of privatising, whether you are for it or against it, it is just the most extra-ordinary achievement.
HARE: Would you regard Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq as the most extraordinary achievement?
MOORE: I was in favour of Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq but I wouldn’t say that.
HARE: But you could say that it’s a basic piece of politics to have got away with it.
MOORE: Well it was quite a political achievement, actually, Blair’s.
HARE: That’s what I mean. In the abstract it was an achievement but you have to look at the results.
MOORE: Of course you do but whatever you say about Blair, it wasn’t a creative act. Privatisation was. I got married in 1981 and I needed a telephone, not unnaturally. We were told by British Telecom, unprivatised, that it would take six months to put in and that was that. I went to Bill Deedes, my editor, who said: ‘I’ll write to the chairman’, so he did and I got one in ten days. That’s how it worked under the socialist system, you had to have the connections to get the connection.
HARE: In order not to be sued I will say what I am about to say very carefully. It has been a matter of great joy to me to see TalkTalk in what I hope will be terminal trouble because TalkTalk, without ever speaking to me, cut off my main phone line. I have a 99-year-old mother-in-law who lives in our house who is often seriously ill so we must have a landline. I spent two weeks trying to talk to TalkTalk but it’s all outsourced to people who don’t know what they are talking about. At the end of the two weeks they said: ‘We’ve discontinued your line because you rent your line from BT and the only way we will restore your charges is if you agree to your line being owned by us, right. So it was straight commercial blackmail. In what way is that better than the old BT? I don’t see that’s better.
MOORE: Well actually it is. I am not defending TalkTalk but it is much better because you have many more choices.
HARE: But none of the choices work.
MOORE: No, that’s not true. They may not work as well as they should but . . . are you really saying BT should not have been privatised?
HARE: There are things that government can do better than businesses. Controlling energy would be one thing, and the railways. The East Coast Railway was clearly much better when it was run by the public than it is now…no, hold on, it was, Charles.
MOORE: A formative experience in my political thinking was a railway incident, now it comes back to me, in 1974. They were all striking all the time, and I went up to the man at the barrier at Charing Cross and I said where is the train leaving from, please, for Hastings? He said: ‘I don’t fucking know.’ And I thought: how can we have a system which is supposed to serve the public, and these wretched unionised people? I have been animated my whole life by my hatred of the trade unions because they crushed freedom and they did in workers.
HARE: Why, pray, is that worse than the kleptocratic class who run these big businesses? I heard the woman from TalkTalk this morning saying that people who want to leave TalkTalk are not allowed to leave, there will be a financial penalty for leaving TalkTalk. That is ‘fuck off’ in exactly the same tones as you heard it from the union that time.
MOORE: There is some truth in that, but I don’t defend the complete capitalist order in every respect or by any means. There is a universal post-Thatcher problem of: what’s the relationship between a national government and a global system? I don’t really know; nobody seems to know. But what puzzles me about your position is not your brilliant critiques about a whole load of appalling abuses, but your belief that it was better before.
HARE: It was better before because we were arguing properly about things and now people are not arguing about things.
MOORE: Ah, that is the intellectual’s point of view. In 1979, 29.9 million working days were lost to strikes and in 1990 when Mrs Thatcher left it was just 1.5 million working days. She came to power because people were utterly fed up with the disharmony of industrial relations and the horror that was caused by the ghastly, ghastly stupid trade unions and she beat them. As a result we are a much happier country and our working life is much more harmonious.
HARE: I so don’t agree with you. Do you think people are happier at work because they don’t have any rights?
MOORE: They jolly well do . . . you try to sack someone now and see how much it costs.
HARE: Do you think the inequality of income pleases people? Do you think they are happy with what their bosses are earning in relationship to what they’re earning?
MOORE: No, certainly not.
HARE: Of course they’re not.
MOORE: But I do think the ordinary life of an office or factory or workplace is a much, much better one.
HARE: Look, it’s true we are much more socially mobile than now, there are many more working-class people at university and culturally things have improved out of all recognition, but I don’t think that’s down to Margaret Thatcher. One of the things I most dislike about this government, and God knows there are many, is that all the advantages that they have socially — their wives can have abortions, their gay friends can live together, the theatre, the opera, feminist rights — all these were achieved by progressives. It was only 20 years ago that Tories were, like Stalinists, trying to stop people talking about homosexuality in schools. Every single important social and cultural advance has come from the left.
MOORE: No, that’s not the case. First of all a very obvious point, we had the first woman prime minister on the Conservative side. Labour would never have chosen a woman at that time and still haven’t. The Liberal party opposed votes for women when the Tories supported them, for example. One mustn’t get all partisan about this because it’s quite funny what happens and it’s quite surprising.
HARE: So one mustn’t be partisan about the gains of the left but one must be partisan about the gains of the right, that is what you’re saying.
MOORE: No, I do think people have been emancipated by economic freedom. I think one of the great problems of the left is that it doesn’t believe in economic freedom and therefore it likes to keep people poorer because it sort of thinks it’s better for them. I think the opportunity for economic freedom is much greater in our time because people have finally rejected that collectivist idea. It doesn’t mean they are happy with everything that’s supplanted it, because there are lots of terrible things, some of which you’ve illustrated, but I do think that’s really important.
Act I, Scene III
HARE: I find the most repellent bit in your book is when Mrs Thatcher says how worried she is for the wives of the working miners. The very phrase is offensive because the striking miners were deeply principled. They were people who did believe in their cause and their families were suffering in the most terrible way and at no point does she extend any sympathy to people on the other side of the argument, and that makes her second-rate because she can’t imagine people who think differently from her.
MOORE: No, I don’t agree with that. I don’t think you realise it, but I think you’re making a posh class attack on her.
HARE: I don’t think so.
MOORE: Because she was the only woman and because she was from the lower middle class, Mrs Thatcher equated the admission of defeat with defeat. And she was right to do that from her point of view, because the men would jump on her if that happened.
HARE: But I’m not asking for her to apologise. You are a wonderful writer, Charles, but even the most gilded pen can’t convince me of that bit where you say: ‘Well, she may appear to lack compassion but in fact she only admired compassion in action and not in words.’ The two in most people’s lives are intimately related.
MOORE: No, I don’t agree.
HARE: Her actions were not compassionate.
MOORE: They were to some and not to others. But one thing you miss, which is really important, is her global importance. Many countries, the United States, the Far East, Eastern Europe, are wildly in favour of her because they associate her with opportunity, both for women and freedom in general. Again the left was very, very bad in the Seventies about Soviet communism. Here was this absolutely rotten system which was still impoverishing and repressing millions and millions of people and a lot of the left equivocated about it. Mrs Thatcher and Reagan beat it. They said no, this is a profoundly wrong society for the people that live there and its wrongness will emanate outwards to the detriment of the rest of the world, so it’s got to change.
HARE: And would you wish George Osborne to have the same view of China?
MOORE: Well I think China probably has been getting better. I don’t like the Osborne/Cameron sucking up to China, I’m very pessimistic about China, but it clearly has got a lot better since the Mao era, so you could say it is coming towards something you like more.
HARE: I agree with you that Thatcher is an attractive figure in that respect, when she is talking to Reagan and going to Russia and opening up discussions with Gorbachev and all of that. This inevitably makes David Cameron look approximately six inches high though, doesn’t it? Because he is a national leader who appears to have absolutely no friends abroad. The Conservative party seems to be dwindling to an economic management party. It’s becoming just about the management of the economy in the interests of the class who are already rich.
MOORE: I don’t by any means completely disagree but I think it is a problem all over the West, isn’t it? Which is why people look to Syriza, and Corbyn and Podemos — and then get pretty disappointed with that as well. It is hard to remember that for about six weeks people thought Hollande was going to change everything. I’m really surprised, actually, that since the credit crunch there hasn’t been the emergence of a really serious leader of the right or the left in the West who has some big new approach. That’s what people keep looking for isn’t it? Obama was very disappointing in that way.
HARE: You can’t say that! There are 30 million people in America who are getting healthcare who didn’t have it before.
MOORE: Well let’s see how it works.
HARE: Excuse me, I know people who are now getting healthcare who didn’t have it before and they worship Obama. They think he is a completely transformative figure in American society. Like you say, let’s see how it works out. Privatisation didn’t work out.
MOORE: Two things about Obama are disappointing. One is that he hasn’t got anything to say about the fundamental crisis of capitalism; all he has done is play along with what was going on anyway with a rescue package. The other is that he has no idea what to do about America in the world, because he is essentially saying: ‘I’m not George Bush.’ Which is fine; people didn’t want him to be George Bush, but then what? It’s disappointing, but they all are disappointing.
HARE: Mrs Merkel is a fascinating politician. What I love about Mrs Merkel is her deal with her husband. He’s agrees to do 50 weeks standing like Prince Philip, five steps behind her, but in return, for two weeks they have to go to the Salzburg Opera. For two weeks a year she has to sit watching opera, which I don’t think she is particularly interested in, but that’s the deal. I think that’s so wonderful and it makes me like her immensely.
MOORE: One of the things I find very interesting about the way that you see things is that, which I think is not so uncommon in brilliant writers, is that you are theoretically a leftie but you have a conservative imagination. The things that attract you are not new left-wing things but old conservative things and that’s very clear in your book. What you are always trying to extract from the grim aspects of Bexhill is some deep value that you do actually like. Correct?
HARE: Like most people, or most people who write about things, you’re torn, I’m torn. Well, it’s true that I am drawn to . . . well, for goodness sake, I worked for The Spectator at the age of 22!
MOORE: And also you’re — I hate the word — but you’re elitist because what you actually like is people who are very special and clever and you are quite bored by people being ordinary, aren’t you? That’s one of the things you don’t like and that’s why I like Bexhill and you don’t.
HARE: Oh Charles, that’s not true!
MOORE: Isn’t that true?
HARE: No! I believe in expertise. Expertise absolutely delights me, but it’s not ordinariness I dislike, it’s sloth; it’s people who can’t be bothered. We’re here such a short time! How could you not be interested in your surroundings? It’s partly I suppose to do with the terror of death. There are those of us for whom death is the thing we think about most.
MOORE: Is that true of you?
HARE: Yes, yes. I think that is, anyone who is obsessed with thoughts of death is going to want to use their time. By the way, if you want to use your time sitting in a pub I’m absolutely fine with that, but at least know you’re using your time.
MOORE: Well, there you are very much with Mrs Thatcher because she had the ultimate Protestant belief that your time is given to you by God and must be accounted for.
HARE: I do believe that. The thing I most liked in Margaret Thatcher by the way, in your book, is her non-judgmental attitude to people’s private lives. Her puritanism was about herself but not about judging others.
MOORE: It is perhaps surprising but it’s true, yes.
HARE: And that is one good thing about her!
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