The Spectator's Notes

Nigel Farage had better hurry up and settle for a peerage

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

Last week, an angry Telegraph reader asked me why I had got through a whole column on Brexit without mentioning Nigel Farage. My exact answer is that the column was about MPs in relation to Brexit and Mr Farage and his Brexit party have no MPs. But there is a more general answer too. It is that the Brexit party’s irreducible core is now clearly shown to be small. The rest of its vote is entirely dependent on the behaviour of whoever is the Conservative leader. Mrs May’s behaviour swelled its ranks; Boris Johnson’s has reduced them. It really is as simple as that. Now that Boris has actually got a deal — which critics said was impossible — and got it approved in principle by parliament — which critics also said was impossible — we can see that the supporters of no deal at all costs are quite few. Most Brexiteers regard no deal as their backstop, not their goal, and so they are positively pleased with Boris, even though his deal is highly imperfect. It sounds odd to say this of someone seen by many as a scoundrel, but the Prime Minister has acquired some moral prestige in office by clearly maintaining his declared aim. Therefore one can more safely write a whole article about Brexit without mentioning Mr Farage. He’d better hurry up and settle for the peerage I mentioned here last week. Soon he may have no cards to play. Like everyone, I have predicted many things wrong in this saga, but I stick by this column’s claim that Boris is no good at any job except the top one.

Charles Powell, the longest-lasting of Mrs Thatcher’s private secretaries, makes the interesting point that my life of Margaret Thatcher will be ‘the last political biography to be written from such an abundance of records and documents, given the onset of the email age’. This is probably not quite true, since traditional records were kept in the John Major era, but it certainly applies from Tony Blair onwards. The internet age plus Alastair Campbell plus, more arguably, the Freedom of Information Act, have combined to replace the iterative and informed decision-making process with ‘sofa government’. This makes accurate, document-based history impossible. Although it is a very modern phenomenon, its effect is pre-Victorian, indeed almost medieval. No one really knows any more — not even at the time — how government works. It has become a thing of courtiers, jousts, whispers, occasional pageants and the knife behind the arras.

Over the past fortnight, hunts in many parts of the country have reported a welcome absence of ‘antis’ (hunt saboteurs) from their meets. The best explanation must be that the joys of Extinction Rebellion have distracted them. Like hunting, protest is a minority sport but one which attracts fervent devotion. So the Master of Foxhounds Association has a strong, if selfish interest in encouraging XR protestors to glue themselves to Tube trains, commuters and police officers, and stay in town for the weekend. Saving the planet thus is surely much more fun than chasing after a small group of riders and hounds in cold and wet as they dutifully hunt within the law.

The other day, I went to be interviewed in the Savoy hotel. Goodness what a depressing place it has become. Opulent, garish — a style which is probably trying to cater for what it thinks is Arab taste but actually pleases no one. The point about grand hotels is not only that they must have tous conforts, but that they must create a world of their own. The old Savoy did this — the Gilbert and Sullivan connection, the relatively feminine atmosphere of the River Room and bandstand contrasted with the unadorned masculinity of the Grill, with the omniscient Mr Maresca in his morning coat, the rotund, limping sommelier with a silver cup and chain jangling on his wide waistcoat and, on one of the more discreet banquettes, Denis Thatcher looking with disfavour at his undercooked steak and exclaiming: ‘Take it away and bring it back when it’s stopped mooing.’

Sitting in what the Savoy now calls the Thames Foyer was Alice Thomson of the Times, a terrifying interviewer because she is so charming. She made me play the game, which she claims I invented, of offering her interviewee a series of choices which one must make (e.g. tea or coffee, town or country). Alice offered me ‘Greta Thunberg or David Attenborough’. I felt I had to break the rules and say ‘Neither’. There is now a small but growing number of people, myself included, who are fed up with the latter. His early days were wonderful — he was an adventurous zoological and ethnographic broadcaster and then a great controller (the first) of BBC2. But in recent times his role as a National — even Global — Treasure has gone to his head. Now the exotic creatures he presents to us have all become unpaid, co-opted actors in his unending propaganda melodrama against the growth of the human race. What I long for is a human version of Life on Earth, devoted to the ingenuity, beauty and majesty of our endeavours. Come to think of it, that is exactly what Attenborough himself did when he commissioned Kenneth Clark to present Civilisation more than 50 years ago. Today’s equivalent would show us the wonders of scientific discovery, industrial development, engineering, computing, AI, markets, trade, supply chains, medicine, transport, media, languages, nature conservation — the millions of things that human beings, and only human beings, can do for the planet they inhabit.

In the meantime, how about ending ‘Tweet of the Day’, the by now repetitive two-minute Radio 4 slot just before the 6 a.m. news which plays bird noises, and replacing it with the varieties of the human voice?

Signing a copy of my book this week with a fountain pen, I warned the buyer against shutting it while the ink was wet. ‘Recently,’ she replied, ‘I went to a stationer’s shop. I asked the assistant for blotting paper; and she asked me what that was.’

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