The Spectator's Notes

Does anyone really think HS2 will be good for the country?

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

How depressed should one be about the HS2 go-ahead? The cost is stupefying. The offering to the north — considered so important politically — seems to be unappealing to plenty of northerners and, like a parody of British railway late arrivals, won’t reach its destination until the mid-2030s. Worse, perhaps, is the sense, especially when seen in conjunction with the Huawei go-ahead, that the government is already trapped by the past. It reminds me of Theresa May’s decision to review the Hinkley Point C programme and then let it go ahead after all. In that case, as in that of Huawei, the government reluctantly concluded it could not get out of a troubling China deal sealed in the Cameron/Osborne era. In the case both of HS2 and Hinkley Point, the radical views of the most important political advisers — Dominic Cummings today and Nick Timothy then — were overruled by entrenched interests. Who really rejoices in these decisions? Who can say with clarion conviction that they are much good for the country?

Meanwhile, I try to plan a rail journey from making a speech in Oxford to making a speech in Hull. It seems to take a minimum of five and a half hours and to involve going via London. Some of the times also require changes at Wakefield and Leeds en route. Even after more than £100 billion will have been spent and more than a decade has passed, it is far from clear that all such disconnections will have been improved.

It is obviously true that Sinn Fein’s success in the Irish Republic will increase nationalist pressure for a united Ireland. It does not automatically follow, however, that such pressure will make a united Ireland more likely. A powerful Sinn Fein in the South is a strong recruiter for Unionism in the North. The possibility of nationalists in the North winning a border poll has just receded.

The word ‘buttigieg’ is the Maltese for ‘chicken owner’, but could Pete Buttigieg become the Democrats’ Maltese falcon? We shall know that the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has graduated to high political fame when Donald Trump invents a sobriquet for him. It is an important part of the President’s rhetorical technique to belittle opponents with an epithet. Thus Hillary Clinton is always ‘crooked’, Michael Bloomberg is ‘Mini-Mike’, Joe Biden is ‘Sleepy Joe’, Elizabeth Warren (who tried to claim American Indian roots) is ‘Pocahontas’, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is ‘Evita’, and Senator Sanders is ‘Crazy Bernie’. Last year, Mr Trump compared Mayor Pete to the freckly young Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine’s famous ‘idiot kid’ who has quite often been an unsuccessful write-in candidate for President. Trump has also mocked Buttigieg’s unpronounceability (‘Boot Edge Edge: he’s got a great chance, hasn’t he?’). But we still await the killer nickname. My bet is on ‘Puny Pete’.

The victory of Parasite at the Oscars really is remarkable, because it gives a fuller, better meaning to ‘diversity’. The word is usually applied in the United States, and in Britain, to black people, women and LGBT, specifically to the idea that such groups must be given a sort of quota power. So its meaning in practice is ‘uniformity’ — of policy and political attitudes. Yet the fact that, before Parasite, no foreign-language film had ever won the Oscar for Best Picture shows how much has been excluded in the awards’ 90-year-old history. This year, they finally diversified.

One reason people are disillusioned with the BBC is its obsession with itself. Here is the text of a question asked by the corporation’s deputy political editor, Norman Smith, at a speech last week by the minister responsible for broadcasting, the Culture Secretary, Lady Morgan: ‘You say the BBC needs to adapt to the new streaming era…What I’m not clear about is why you think decriminalising or moving to a civil enforcement scheme in any way assists the BBC in meeting that challenge. Because the view within the corporation is that it weakens the BBC to the tune of £200 million a year, quite possibly more. In other words, it puts us in a worse place to meet the challenge, and doesn’t that just underscore the suspicion that really what is going on here is a bit of a punishment beating for the BBC, from a government that resents the attitude of the BBC, as they see it, in the Brexit referendum and the general election? It’s a bit of political payback.’ It literally does not seem to have occurred to Mr Smith that the Culture Secretary’s first job is to consider the public interest in how, if at all, the licence fee is collected. When an intelligent person prominent on the screens of a public-service broadcaster does not even see this point, the depth of the BBC’s culture problem becomes evident.

Philip Schofield’s declaration that, though married to a woman for many years, he is gay, was exceptionally well choreographed, but was a familiar sort of story. We have heard similar ones for years not only from television personalities, but even from Tory MPs. The assumption behind all these tableaux is that the person coming out is expressing the truth about his (or, more rarely, her) sexual preferences. Given that, historically, the stigma lay all on the side of stating homosexuality, that assumption must almost always be correct. But how long before it reverses? There will be areas of western life in which being gay is almost the norm, and being straight could impede career advancement or social acceptance. Eventually we shall find people confessing that although they have been in a same-sex marriage and remain respectful of their partner, they can no longer live a lie: they are, and always have been, straight. Will they be treated in the same way, hugged on television and praised for their courage; or will they be seen as having betrayed a cause?

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