The Spectator's Notes

If the Duchy of Lancaster has been so bad, why didn’t Labour notice before?

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

Let us assume — which we shouldn’t — that it is automatically wrong for the Queen to benefit financially from funds invested offshore. Let us agree — though we shouldn’t — to declare ourselves shocked that the Duchy of Lancaster put money on her behalf into funds in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, and later, Guernsey. Let us forget — though it is difficult — that she is the Queen of all those places, and therefore that it is almost as strange to complain about her money being in them as it would be to complain about it being invested in Britain. Let us accept — though no evidence has been produced — that tax-dodging is involved. Let us pretend — though it is a strain — to be appalled that the Queen has a stake worth £3,208 in a firm, BrightHouse, which has been criticised for overcharging customers. Having done all of the above, let us notice that these investments were initiated by the Duchy’s financial advisers in 2004 and 2005. Let us recall that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster always sits in the Cabinet, is responsible for its investment policies and appoints a council to oversee them. And then let us note that, in those years, Britain had a Labour government and that the Chancellors of the Duchy were, until May 2005, Alan Milburn and, after that, John Hutton. Did one or both of these men approve, or at least ignore these heinous acts? Should they, as Jeremy Corbyn puts it, ‘not just apologise’ but also ‘recognise what it does to our society’?

Charlie Elphicke, a Tory MP, had the whip removed from him last week, without being told what were the ‘serious allegations’ made against him. The press were informed of his suspension before he was. He is, at the time of writing, still alive. But Carl Sargeant is dead. Mr Sargeant was a minister in the Welsh government. He too was punished — sacked from the administration last week — without being told what he was accused of. Four days later, he was found dead, reportedly by his own hand. The craven readiness with which the political parties jettison their elected candidates in the face of rumour is disgusting. Meanwhile, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, unable to muster evidence against the late Lord Janner, but too cowardly to drop the matter, has just announced that it now will not investigate his case till 2019. The inquiry was set up by Theresa May, in a panic.

I wonder if a factor additional to those widely mentioned lies behind differing attitudes to the ‘Pestminster’ scandal. It is well known in every generation that the young find it disgusting that old people (by which they mean anyone over 40) should have sex at all. In his own youth, the late Auberon Waugh wrote an article on this theme which enraged the now forgotten but distinguished novelist William Cooper (who used to write a column for this paper called Scenes from Science). Cooper was a passionate advocate and (uxorious) practitioner of sex for the old, and used to curse Waugh at every opportunity. Waugh, however, was probably more in tune with the zeitgeist. Recent descriptions by those who say they have been inappropriately touched, kissed or propositioned by some of our elected representatives, often direct part of their outrage at the alleged predator’s teeth, baldness, fatness, etc. I understand why they say this — and might have said it myself at their age — but it resembles a little the disgust people used to express in the past about interracial sex: it is more atavistic than moral, and can be cruel. In the minds of the accusers, the inappropriateness is made automatic by the age gap.

Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Schools, is right that little children should start learning nursery rhymes again. She emphasises their role as a collective experience. Many of us remember the fun of shouting ‘Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down’ at children’s parties, and then doing so with as loud a bump as possible. Actually, the power of nursery rhymes runs deeper still. They are proof that meaning is not the first thing about language. You don’t have to know why I had a little nut tree, or what a silver nutmeg is, or why the King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me for the tree’s sake, in order to love the song-poem that contains all these things. The simple, beautiful words, repetitions, rhythms and rhymes make you skip over water and dance over sea. They make you ready for the meaning, which comes later. My sister, Charlotte, has two autistic sons. Both loved nursery rhymes, and Sam, the less verbal of the two, still loves them, aged 25. He particularly likes the ones with the bounciest rhymes and clearest noises — ‘Pop goes the weasel’, ‘Baa baa black sheep’. Although he probably can’t read, he recognises Humpty Dumpty in any picture book, and can recite it. His mother believes that the rhymes provide Sam with his best way of ‘exercising the language muscle’. All of us need such exercise. Our age prides itself on open expression, in contrast to the taboos of the past. But in some ways we are less articulate than our ancestors. From the nursery, they were much better versed in song, poetry and dance than we are.

A friend draws my attention to the fact that the US edition of my biography of Margaret Thatcher is now billed on Amazon as being ‘by Captain Charles Moore’. This is an error — I hold no rank — but a pleasing one, because the real Captain Charles Moore is a glamorous oceanographer and racing boat captain who now explores for the Algalita Marine Research Station. The old sea dog largely discovered and now navigates the grim wastes of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where millions of plastic bottles have accumulated. His TED talk on the subject, which begins with the words, ‘Let’s talk trash’, has had more than a million views online. I hereby thank any of his fans who are buying my book, and I hope they are not disappointed by it.

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