The Spectator's Notes

This period of British history is like the first months of the second world war

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

A distinguished retired EU diplomat from a small EU member state sends me a thoughtful letter. He complains that Brexit ‘has been handled in the most amateurish way by British politicians’. ‘When one removes something,’ he goes on, ‘one has to be ready with its replacement’: Mrs May ‘is far from clear in her plans, but those who criticise her are not any clearer’. All this is true, and it points to the weirdness of our current situation, which is that Brexit is not being executed by a government that wants it. In conversation, people often say ‘The Brexit supporters promised X’, and then accuse them of breaking that promise. This forgets the fact that they are in no position to break (or fulfil) any promise because, though they won the referendum, they have never controlled the government. Has it ever happened before that the key, destiny-defining policy of a British government has been carried out by leaders most of whose hearts are not in it? Perhaps in the second world war from September 1939 to May 1940. I would not press that comparison so hard as to use it to predict the result of next week’s Commons votes.

Recently, the ‘populist’ (i.e. electorally victorious) new government of Italy wanted to appoint an anti-euro finance minister and was told by the President of the Republic that it couldn’t. This caused outrage in Italy, and it made rational people here assume that there would have to be new elections, or the impeachment of the president. In fact, however, both sides have won, or at least lived to fight another day. Professor Savona is not to be finance minister, but Europe minister instead, and the populists are still in charge, yet not in charge. This should not be surprising if one remembers Professor Savona’s own dictum that the euro is ‘a German cage’. Bravely identifying this fact does not give one the key to escape from it. In the FT this week, Gideon Rachman writes, admiringly, that ‘the cage is inherent in the original design of the currency’. So it is, but that ought, from a Europhile point of view, to be extremely alarming. If a country cannot renounce German control by democratic means, it starts to consider more desperate measures. Ultimately, currencies rest not on compulsion, but on acceptance.

The police said last week they would reopen the Thorpe investigation, but now say they won’t. It is not clear why they even thought about doing so. Renewed interest in a subject is not the same as fresh evidence. Behind the desire for more arrests lies talk of an ‘establishment conspiracy’. I suspect there was one, but an understanding more than a conspiracy, and not unique to Thorpe. In the age when homosexual acts were illegal or, after legalisation, still a source of scandal, a great many people wished to shield homosexuals from exposure. This was particularly true in the circles of power, because the scandal and pain were made greater by the noise. Such cover-ups may, in part, have been self-serving but usually were humane. People did not want colleagues to suffer because of what they regarded, with varying degrees of approval or disapproval, as a private matter. They knew how horrible it is when lives are ruined by blackmail or sexual McCarthyism. So when both Labour and Conservative leaderships heard rumours about Thorpe’s gay assignations, they chose not to broadcast them. Would history think better of the establishment if it had rushed to expose him?

The Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster have launched an ecumenical app which allows users to report car washes if they think they are employing slave workers. The Bishop of Derby, who ‘leads on modern slavery’ for the Church of England, spoke of people who had been ‘kept in conditions like animals’ and even of some whose shoes had become melded to their feet. I would not be surprised if abuse does take place. Whenever I have my car washed in this way (about once a year), I ask the workers where they come from and am amazed by the variety of countries named, though perhaps Albania predominates. The presence of a watchful boss is usually very noticeable. The app may help catch bad actors. But it strikes me how easily this story of compassion could have been presented in the opposite manner. Suppose that, say, Ukip, had started just such an app, the accusation would immediately have been made that it was designed to persecute law-abiding, hard-working immigrants and that — given the background of many of the workers involved — it was Islamophobic. One of many problems with mass immigration is that it makes people (quite often rightly) suspicious about the bona fides of those in their midst. The churches, with the best motives, are inviting us to be snoopers.

Richard Madeley pulled the plug on his interview with Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, last week because Mr Williamson kept avoiding his question. Madeley’s decision seems to have been popular. He did what he did ‘on behalf of the viewers’. There is a false assumption here, which runs deep in our culture and gives interviewers a massive advantage over their subjects. If someone asks us a question, we think it is rude or evasive to refuse to answer. Sometimes it is (and Mr Williamson certainly was evasive), but we do not subject the questioner to the same scrutiny. Why has he picked that particular question? What right has he to set the entire agenda of the encounter? Is his editor whispering in his ear that he must try to ‘get’ X on the subject of Y? Is he exploiting the interviewee to promote his own career? Those interviewed are entitled to use all counter methods to wrestle the interviewer on to the matter they wish to talk about. If they wriggle out of difficult questions, that may well count against them, but it does not justify stopping the interview. Imagine the self-righteous indignation of the broadcasters if the interviewee dared to reverse the process and pull the plug on them.

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