The Spectator's Notes

What the Windrush scandal reveals about Theresa May

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

Everyone speaks about the Windrush. The boat was actually called the Empire Windrush. The full name reveals what the story was about. The boat was one of a series called Empire X, X being the name of a British river, as if each were a tributary to a common stream. Mass coloured immigration to Britain was the act of an imperial power — almost, one might say, an imperialist act. In 1948, a Labour government (Attlee’s) created a common ‘Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies’. Just as we wanted the raw materials of our colonies, so — later in the day — we wanted their labour. This also explains the context of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech 50 years ago this week. Enoch had been a fervent imperialist, but he believed, with the loss of India, that the Empire was no more, so he opposed persisting with imperial pretensions. The entity of ‘our great imperial family’ to which the present Queen pledged her lifelong service in Cape Town on her 21st birthday in 1947, had ceased to exist, he argued, and therefore its citizenship was a fiction. Thus did the right become the anti-imperialist reformers and the pro-immigration left the imperialist diehards — an irony so great that it has passed almost unnoticed.

The row about the ‘Windrush generation’ which has embarrassed Mrs May this week is an example of her administration’s strange attitude to presentation. Defenders of her method say that she considers substance not spin, but a truer description would be that she does not foresee presentation problems enough. When they come tumbling out before the public gaze, she spins like mad, as she did with her abject Windrush apology. The same applies even to her much more successful adventure, the bombing of the Syrian chemical warfare sites. When she at last emerged to speak about this on Saturday, she did very well, but in the days before, her silence created an unnecessary vacuum which allowed Jeremy Corbyn, the Russians and much of the media to spread alarm and despondency. Supporters of the government in Parliament could get no ‘line to take’, no spokesman to lead. For all its temptations, spin has the justified purpose of getting your story in first. If it comes in second, it is lame.

There has been a good deal of speculation about how Mr Putin will hit back after the West’s attack. I notice that talk of it all being like 1914 has fallen away, as has the Russians’ claim that they would shoot down American planes. Attention is rightly paid to threats of cyber-warfare. A subset of this worth watching is Russia-as-defender-of-the-environment. Because Russia’s international earnings are so heavily dependent on its fossil fuels, it very much wants all countries — except, of course, itself — to be as green as possible. Then they will have to buy Russian gas, oil and coal to keep the lights on when the wind-farms fail. The Russians are desperate about this, because shale, especially in the United States, is destroying their dominance of fossil fuels. Last year, the US became a net energy exporter. In March, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology found that Russian agents had used social media outlets to oppose American energy production. It tracked accounts linked to a Russian ‘troll farm’, the Internet Research Agency, which from 2015-2017 had published 9,097 social media posts attacking US energy policies and projects. I hope all the relevant agencies here in Britain are keeping an eye on the funding of anti-fracking groups. It would be just the sort of cynicism which Mr Putin enjoys if his Big Oil and Big Gas were to stand behind western Greens.

In David Goodhart’s justly famous distinction between Anywheres and Somewheres, I consider myself a Somewhere. We Somewheres, however, should be grateful for the fact that Anywhere is at least available. It would be much less fun if we all had to be Somewhere and Nowhere Else, which even today is the fate of most of humanity. This is one of the reasons I like going to London, though I never saw it as home even when I lived there. One day this week, I travelled up, had my hair cut by a Moroccan, and then got stuck trying to cross the Mall, because the way to St James’s was blocked by the presence of what we mustn’t any longer call our great imperial family gathering for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference (CHOGM). Late, I reached my club for lunch, which was full of mostly British, mostly white men. Twenty minutes afterwards, I was in a ward of Guy’s Hospital visiting a friend with cancer. The nurses, physios and orderlies I talked to were Irish, New Zealand, central European and African. During my visit, I heard only one person speak English with an English accent. Such experiences are, of course, entirely usual in big modern cities, but when you come there from Somewhere, you notice them. Such juxtapositions, such cheek-by-jowl lives, create problems, of course, but they are nevertheless wonders of the world.

On Tuesday, Parliament debated anti-Semitism. It is hard to get over the oddness of the situation. It is 150 years ago since the Conservatives produced their first Jewish leader: Benjamin Disraeli became Prime Minister on 27 February 1868. If the Tory party in the 21st century had a leader who was seen as tolerant of anti-Semitism, and was backed by its most anti-Semitic factions, the scandal would bring him and/or it crashing to the ground. Yet with Labour, this is not so. Mr Corbyn is a bit uneasy with his predicament, but not fearing for his political life. How have we got here?

Barbara Bush, who has just died, was a gallant feminist. One day, when she arrived at 10 Downing Street, Denis Thatcher kissed her hand — which was his (surprisingly Continental) habit with women. When she departed, and was saying goodbye outside the famous front door, she grabbed his, and kissed it back.

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