The Spectator's Notes

What would you save, Marmite or the planet?

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

In his very long letter to Jeremy Corbyn about why, after all, he will stay out of the Labour party instead of fighting his expulsion, Alastair Campbell complains that Britain has been the victim of a ‘right-wing coup’. Boris Johnson’s government has no ‘real democratic mandate’, he says, and Mr Corbyn should be fighting it much harder. You hear this argument a lot — we have a new prime minister and so we must have a general election. In my lifetime (born 1956), seven prime ministers — Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Callaghan, Major, Brown, May and Johnson — have come into office without a general election before or immediately ensuing; in that sense, without a democratic mandate. In May 1940, Winston Churchill became prime minister and fought the second world war without an election of any kind. When he did finally call an election, after victory in Europe in 1945, he and his party were defeated. There is something uncomfortable about the fact that when a party is in office, the purely party choice of a leader all but automatically makes him or her prime minister. But when you think about it, it is not so silly. In a parliamentary system, the prime minister is the leader who can command a majority in the House of Commons. If that majority is commanded, surely it should not be compulsory to call a general election before the normal term of the parliament. If it cannot be commanded, the problem solves itself. By 31 October, we shall know which of these two situations confronts us.

Photographs of Theresa May attending a cricket match as soon as she left office last week were supposed to tell us what a well-balanced person she is. In reality, they were highly political pictures. With her were her former chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, and her former cabinet ministers Greg Clark and David Gauke, both strong Remainers, who are not in Boris Johnson’s new cabinet. The snaps made two points. The first looks back. If these men are her preferred company, that suggests that Mrs May was not, as she presented herself at the time, an almost neutral balancer of opinion within her government, working hard to fulfil the referendum mandate, but someone who, like Mr Clark and Mr Gauke, was contriving to leave in name only, making sure Britain remained in the customs union and (sort of) in the single market. The second looks forward: it implies that Mrs May, instead of helping her successor, is preparing to obstruct a Boris Brexit.

It is said that flying is going out of fashion, with trains preferred. This is attributed to people’s feelings of guilt about creating global warming. That probably has something to do with it, but there are stronger explanations. One is that cheap flights are no longer very cheap. Another is that delays and queues are frightful because security systems for checking passengers remain so cumbersome. A third is that airports are extortion machines with a vested interest in making you wait so that you buy things you do not want. Therefore trains, which are so much easier to board, start to look good again, and one is reminded of the almost miraculous pleasure of being delivered right to the middle of cities instead of struggling to buses, metros or taxis at peripheral airports. All it needs, however, is for one terrorist incident to take place at a metropolitan railway station and then the glorious freedom of rail travel will vanish. I hope the fact that we have been so far spared is due to subtle security vigilance, rather than luck.

The woke businessman, like the woke prince and princess, is an ambiguous figure. Being woke, after all, involves a contempt for profits and big business, as for social hierarchy. I first noticed this uneasy phenomenon many years ago when I attended a lunch in the City at which Paul Polman, the then chief executive of Unilever, read us a moralistic lecture about European integration, greenery and how ‘I agree with Mahatma Gandhi: you must be the change you want to see in the world’. I found it intensely annoying to be told how to be good by someone much richer than myself. Last year, the change Mr Polman wanted to see of moving Unilever’s HQ from London to Rotterdam failed, and he was out. Now his successor, Alan Jope, is using a similar patter. He is keen on what he calls ‘purpose’ in brands, by which he seems to mean persuading young people that things his company makes are virtuous. If brands do not ‘contribute meaningfully to the world or society in a way that will last for decades’, they must go. This doctrine may apply to Unilever’s Marmite. Surely Marmite’s meaningful contribution to the world since its invention in 1902 is that people like it and find it cheering. It may also be true that, as it used to say rather cautiously on the pot, ‘Within the limits of the amount consumed, Marmite is a useful source of natural protein’, but this is not the secret of its success. If it is a choice between saving Marmite and ‘saving the planet’, one instinctively favours the former. ‘Principles are only principles,’ Mr Jope goes on, ‘when they cost you something.’ If I were a shareholder of Unilever, I would remind him of the principle of maximising value for the people who own the company. How much are Mr Jope’s principles costing him? At present, he earns €1.45 million a year, plus a targeted annual bonus of 150 per cent of fixed pay (which could go up to 225 per cent), plus share arrangements.

It is no good Rochester Cathedral turning its nave into a crazy golf course for August. Such offences against the sacred are so common that they have lost their intended power to shock. Much bolder to do it the other way round and erect a temporary cathedral in the middle of the fairway at Wentworth or Royal St George’s. Such a desecration of the hallowed turf really would shock people.

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