Everything in Moderation by Daniel Finkelstein
One of the many merits of Daniel Finkelstein’s collection of his columns from The Times is that it sent me back, for purposes of comparison, to the two other collections by writers for that paper which I happen to possess.
Taking Sides, the first selection of Bernard Levin’s journalism to be published, includes his account of his mother’s troubles with the North Thames Gas Board, written in 1973. Rather to my surprise, it still made me laugh out loud.
Best Seat in the House: The Wit and Parliamentary Chronicles of Frank Johnson, edited by his widow, Virginia Fraser, includes the piece read at his memorial service by David Cameron, which was written in 1981 for Now! Magazine and begins:
“Unsuccessfully, as will now emerge, I had resolved from the outset that there were two subjects which had received sufficient airing on this page and would not be mentioned further: Wagner and Mr Roy Hattersley.
“Concerning the one: nobody in his right mind would deny his capacity for the sublime, his surges of lyricism, his sheer weight and scale, but there is also his torrential prolixity, his essentially outdated nineteenth-century attitude towards his art, his foggy symbolism and an epic tedium which modern audiences should surely not be expected to endure. These are some of the drawbacks of Mr Hattersley.”
Again I laughed out loud. Johnson was an even finer comic writer than Levin. They were among the wittiest figures of their time, gave enormous pleasure to their readers, and are now passing into the obscurity which awaits even the most celebrated journalists.
Finkelstein is not so brilliant a stylist as his two illustrious predecessors, but it is right to place him in this tradition, for since the age of eight, when he started to read The Times for its football coverage, he has been a devoted reader of that paper, and treats it with the high seriousness, one might say the reverence, which is required if one is going to do one’s best work for it.
He is now 58, has contributed to The Times since 2001, and brings to it several qualities which neither Levin nor Johnson possessed. One is a knowledge of politics as conducted on the inside: Finkelstein has worked closely for David Owen, John Major, William Hague, George Osborne and David Cameron.
His columns are informed by his experience of what works, and more importantly, what does not work. On 4th October 2006 he began a piece with the words:
“I am worried about David Cameron. I fear he will have too much policy. I am concerned that there will be too much substance and not enough style.”
Finkelstein proceeds to an exposition of political parties as “identity brands”:
“Voters make choices in order to make statements about themselves, to establish their own identity, as much as they do because of anything the parties offer them.”
I am allergic to the discussion of parties as “brands”, but Finkelstein does it so well that I always read him on the subject. Apart from anything else, he has invariably read some book, on, say, game theory or social psychology, which I know I shall never read myself, and has extracted valuable insights from it, which he proceeds to share with his readers.
The principal task of the social scientist is to establish, by the most laborious research, the truth of propositions which were already known, by anyone with a modicum of common sense, to be true.
Finkelstein gives us the best of this social science, without himself degenerating into a deluded policy wonk. As he goes on to say in his piece about brands:
“Policymaking…is a bit of a con. Manifestos pretend to be an entire programme for government when in reality even the most detailed of them only cover a few items. Voters don’t make judgments based on these programmes and they shouldn’t either.
“What matters is not such bogus ‘substance’, it is the governing style of the prospective rulers. Are they strong or weak? Interferers or liberals? Atlanticists or Europhiles? Moderates or extremists? Localisers or centralisers? Tax cutters or big spenders?”
And he applies this insight to the then Labour Government:
“Labour has spent much of the past five years undoing stupid things it committed itself to in opposition and then did in its first five years. The problem with politicians, you see, is not that they don’t do what they say they will, but the opposite – they try to do what they said they would do, even after realising it wasn’t a good plan.”
I’m sure Boris Johnson – who barely appears in these pages – would agree with every word of that. So would Lord Salisbury, who said “the commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies”.
Like all good columnists, Finkelstein acknowledges his duty to entertain the reader. For New Year’s Eve 2014 he reflects on how much time he spends writing individual replies to emails, and devises a number of standard replies to the most common emails:
“Thank you for your email. I would be happy to help you with your PhD on ‘Idiots who have given the Conservative Party electorally disastrous advice’. Please thank your supervisor for thinking of me. Since you need only four hours of my time, we must fit in a meeting. It might be difficult in the next twelve months, as it is election year, but I will make every effort to organise it. It would certainly be easier for me if I didn’t need to visit you in Sheffield.”
If Finkelstein had wanted to be a comic writer, he might have been in the Stephen Leacock class. But the charm of his columns lies in their mixture of deeply felt politics with a sense of his own absurdity.
Max Beerbohm said Trollope reminds us that sanity need not be philistine. Something similar might be said of Finkelstein. He reminds us that a devotion to compromise, moderation, loving one’s parents and getting on with one’s neighbours need not be philistine: are among the pillars of our civilisation.
He defends the suburbs, including Brent Cross Shopping Centre, and made me feel a bit snobbish for disliking that place so much.
And although he makes almost no references to English literature, not even to that eminently political playwright, William Shakespeare, Finkelstein knows more about our political history, and our 55 Prime Ministers, than just about any other columnist now writing.
When he suggests that “the British voter never gets it wrong”, and the right party has won every election for the last 80 years, he is not indulging in windy idealism, but has at his fingertips the arguments needed to support his case:
“You see, for all that the Conservatives fell apart in the 1992 Parliament, I still think it was clear that a Kinnock government would have been worse. No one needs to tell me how bad things got by 1997, because I was there (I always insist on the retention of that comma). But I still assert with confidence that the voters did the right thing putting the Conservatives back in power.
“Neil Kinnock was entirely unsuited to being prime minister. His endless whirling speeches showed that. As John Major pricelessly commented, as Kinnock didn’t know what he was saying, he never knew when he had finished saying it.”
A collection of newspaper articles is like a box of chocolates: one fears that if one scoffs the whole lot at a sitting, one will end up feeling sick.
But with Finkelstein, I kept on saying to myself “I’ll have just one more”, and didn’t end up feeling sick at all. I felt that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well.