Peel increased the burden of taxation on the rich – perhaps Sunak and Johnson will too

8 Jan

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History edited by Iain Dale

The brief life can be one of the most delightful of all literary forms. While putting off the awkward task of writing this review, I turned for purposes of comparison to Alan Watkins’ volume, Brief Lives, a book it is impossible to open without within a few paragraphs bursting out laughing.

Here is Watkins on Anthony Crosland, who died in 1977 while serving as Foreign Secretary:

“He could also be very rude indeed. Tony Benn once publicly announced that he was concerned to lose the stigma of the intellectual. Crosland replied that, in order to lose a stigma, it was first necessary to acquire one. For some reason – maybe sexual, but it is profitless to speculate – he could be very rude to young and attractive women who intended no harm but were merely trying to make serious conversation to the best of their ability.”

We feel at once that we begin to know what Crosland was like. This is something a brief life can do better than a long one.

A pencil sketch often conveys a likeness, character, personality, better than the massive official portrait in oils. What a relief for the writer, and for the reader too, not to try to say everything.

Winston Churchill wrote brilliant brief lives in Great Contemporaries, as did Roy Jenkins in The Chancellors and elsewhere. Here is Jenkins on Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, but a crucial political figure from 1911, when he became Tory leader:

“he was the first leader to exhibit some aspect of the ‘poor white’ mentality which has been a growing and marked feature of the Conservative Party in much more recent times. He was a partisan, sometimes a bitter leader, with a stronger sense of ‘we was cheated’ than of the natural (and sometimes tolerant) authority of an assured right to govern…

“On the long march back to the Commons after listening to the King’s Speech which opened his first session as leader, Law was reported as saying: ‘I am afraid I shall have to show myself very vicious, Mr Asquith, this session, I hope you will understand.’ Whether or not Asquith ‘understood’, Law certainly succeeded in being ‘vicious’…”

Again, one begins to get an idea of Law, and indeed of Jenkins.

But to write a brief life can be even harder work than to write a long one. I know this from personal experience, having written brief lives of the 40 Kings and Queens since 1066, the 55 Prime Ministers since 1721, and the 44 American Presidents from George Washington, inaugurated in 1789, to Donald Trump (known as the 45th President, but the Americans double-count Grover Cleveland, President in 1885-89 and 1893-97, as both the 22nd and the 24th President).

Iain Dale had the bright idea, on the 300th anniverary of Sir Robert Walpole becoming Prime Minister, of getting 55 writers to take one Prime Minister each.

He has recruited an eclectic mixture of academics, historians, politicians and journalists. Looking down his list, one thinks repeatedly, “I’d like to see what he makes of him”.

Each entry begins with a drawing of the Prime Minister in question by Zoom Rockman, which should have been printed larger, for they are generally more accomplished than the words that follow.

Few of the 55 authors have given much thought to the art of writing a brief life, or appear to have devoted much time to the task of doing so. It is one thing to recruit good people, quite another to get them to do their best work.

The liberation of being able to throw away 99 per cent of what one knows, keeping only the most vivid and characteristic material, has itself been thrown away by those writers who conceived it their duty to provide a digest of every not very exciting transaction in which their Prime Minister was involved.

Many of the authors suffer from a tendency to exaggerate the importance, or lament the obscurity, of whichever Prime Minister they have agreed to cover. Nor could the entanglement of these careers – for many PMs have done more remarkable things during the ascent than when they reached Downing Street – have been sorted out except by a prodigal application of editorial time.

But there are wonderful things in the book. Robert Saunders brings the stiff figure of Sir Robert Peel to life:

“Peel grew up under the shadow of the French Revolution, and was perhaps the last British statesman to hear the whirr of the guillotine in his dreams… For Peel, the ‘Dantons, and the Marats, and the Robespierres’ of revolutionary history were not ‘monsters peculiar to France’. They were ‘the foul, but legitimate spawn of circumstances’, born of the same volcanic passions that boiled beneath British society too. At any moment, a breakdown of political authority could produce ‘the same consequences, the same men, and the same crimes, here as in France’.

This strikes home in part because it uses Peel’s own words. He is allowed to speak directly to us, without, as happens in so many of the entries, the writer substituting a banal paraphrase of the original. We are given the story of how this Prime Minister strove to avert revolution:

“Peel took office in the summer of 1841, amid some of the worst economic conditions of the century. A prolonged industrial depression was producing horrifying levels of suffering: in just one Scottish town, Paisley, 17,000 workers were at risk of starvation. Chartism was resurgent, and in 1842 an attempted general strike swept across the north. A year later, Peel’s secretary was shot dead by an assassin, who had mistaken him for the Prime Minister…

“Peel began with a daring financial stroke: the reintroduction of the income tax. This had previously been thought of as a wartime measure, and its introduction in time of peace was hugely controversial. Since it was only levied on the highest earners, it marked a significant shift in the burden of taxation towards the Government’s own supporters. Yet Peel insisted it was ‘for the interest of property that property should bear the burden’. The goal was not simply to close the deficit, but to send a signal about the willingness of the propertied elite to make sacrifices for the public good. Accepted ‘voluntarily and with a good grace’, the tax would be ‘a cheap purchase of future security’.

This is interesting both for its own sake, and for the light it throws on what Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson might decide to do about the burden of taxation on the rich. I hazard a guess that they will decide to increase it, while at the same time bringing in, as Peel did, measures to promote growth, and to relieve the burdens on the poor, so that, as Peel put it, “thoughts of the dissolution of our institutions should be forgotten in the midst of physical enjoyment”.

The one thing most Conservatives remember about Peel is that he split the party by repealing the Corn Laws. Saunders conveys the mentality which estranged the Prime Minister from his followers:

“As relations with his party deteriorated, Peel became increasingly contemptuous of his own backbenchers: ‘men with great possessions and little foresight…whose only chance of safety is that their counsels shall not be followed’. After a collision with his party in 1845, he boasted privately that ‘people like a certain degree of obstinacy and presumption in a minister. They abuse him for dictation and arrogance, but they like being governed.’ It was an approach that would soon bring the destruction of his government.”

There are many other good things in the book. Julia Langdon describes what it was like travelling as a journalist with Margaret Thatcher:

“In the course of her years in office, she attended 32 European summits, 12 Group of Seven (G7) summits of the leading economic nations, seven Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) – ‘This place Choggum,’ said one of my colleagues, arriving in the Bahamas, ‘is it the capital?'”

That is worthy of Evelyn Waugh. The parliamentary lobby “once went round the world backwards in six days” with Thatcher. Before another extraordinary expedition, with no more than one night anywhere for about ten days, Langdon asked the Prime Minister what she thought of the schedule that lay ahead. Thatcher replied: “We can’t do any laundry until Bangkok!”

Such small touches bring the stateswomen closer to us. She too thought about laundry, and about the difficulties that not being able to wash clothes would inflict on her staff, and even on the accompanying journalists.

Dale himself has dashed off a life of Johnson, whom he describes as “the most intellectually capable Prime Minister Britain has seen”. That sounds unfair to Peel, Derby, Gladstone, Salisbury and quite a few others.

Britain’s relationship with the EU: no love affair, followed by a bad marriage and a stormy divorce

12 Dec

Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to Brexit by Stephen Wall

This book could also be called “Life as a Continuous Negotiation”. It shows with great clarity that when Britain entered the European Economic Community, as it was then known, the advocates of joining indulged in wishful thinking, as more recently did the advocates of Brexit.

There was no love affair before this marriage, no honeymoon after it, and the divorce is proving pretty painful too.

In 1979 Helmut Schmidt, an anglophile German Chancellor, asked Oliver Wright, the British Ambassador in Bonn, why the British had spent the six years since we joined haggling like Italians about sums of money which ought to have been beneath our notice.

There had been years of haggling before we joined, and there was a lot more haggling to come, for Margaret Thatcher was only just beginning her campaign for the British rebate.

Stephen Wall, who joined the Diplomatic Service in 1968, saw much of this haggling at first hand, for he was an adviser to five Foreign Secretaries and three Prime Ministers, and also served for five years as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU.

How did he stand it? This book is intended mainly as a dispassionate account of Britain’s European policy over the last 75 years: an aim it more than meets.

But it also offers hints on how to survive official life. One method is to enjoy the comic side of things. Here is one of the best anecdotes with which Wall enlivens his text:

“My father-in-law [Norman Reddaway], a young diplomat in the post-war British Embassy in Rome, had accompanied his Ambassador in 1950 when the latter, on instructions from London, called on the Italian Foreign Minister to persuade him of the ill-advised nature of the proposed Coal and Steel Community. The Minister, Count Sforza, listened politely. At the end of the Ambassador’s reasoned case, Sforza smiled tolerantly. ‘My dear Ambassador,’ he said. ‘There are times at the opera when you should enjoy the music and not worry about the words.'”

There is much to be said for the Sforza approach. Enjoy the music and don’t bother to translate the lyrics.

It was not, however, an approach which Wall and his colleagues felt able to adopt:

“We British worried intensely about ‘the words’. With no overarching written constitution, the words of Parliamentary Acts were all we (and the courts which interpreted them) had to rely on.”

One detects the note of suppressed hysteria which runs through the story of Britain’s relationship with Europe. It mattered desperately to get it right: here is the principal, and entirely honourable, motive which drove so many members of the Diplomatic Service to devote their careers and very considerable minds to the problem.

And yet, as Wall’s account brings out, brains were not enough to arrive at a solution. He starts in the Frick gallery in New York, staring at the Holbein portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

Here are “the two sides of the schism that was the Reformation”: Cromwell “the piggy-eyed, clever thug”, versus a representative of European civilisation:

“More was a Renaissance scholar… He was the friend of the Dutch philosopher and scholar Erasmus. They both saw themselves as part of an international, and especially European, cultural and spiritual order: that of Christendom. For More, the son of a lawyer, and himself the most senior guardian and dispenser of the law in the England of his day, the Church and State were umbilically linked and the laws of God and the laws of Man had to be in harmony. When Henry VIII sundered that harmony by declaring himself Head of the Church and breaking from the authority of Rome he was not, in More’s eyes, simply rebelling from a pontiff who was more of a temporal ruler than a spiritual one. Henry’s action was, as More saw it, an assault on the very foundations on which the English state was built.”

Wall is descended rather wonderfully from Norman foot soldiers who settled in Derbyshire, where their name “gradually morphed from Du Val to Wall” and they became yeomen farmers.

His mother was a Catholic, he was brought up as a Catholic, and he points out that the EEC was “largely conceived by Catholic Christian Democrats”, who signed the Treaty of Rome on 25th March 1957, the Feast of the Annunciation:

“For Britain, on the other hand, the idea of a supranational authority – beyond the control of national parliaments – was, and remained, conceptually alien and politically nigh on impossible to contemplate. We live with that political reality to that day.”

Wall is too intelligent and fair-minded to suggest that all virtue lies on the European side of the divide. He describes how the six founding members of the EEC created, “in an act of pre-emptive and ruthless self-interest”, the Common Fisheries Policy, before the British, the Danes, the Norwegians and the Irish, all of whom had large stocks of fish, were allowed to join.

The budget was likewise rigged against the British, who found themselves paying for a system of agricultural support for French farmers, an injustice which took many years of haggling to put right.

In 1987, Julian Bullard, the British Ambassador in Bonn, wrote a dispatch to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which included the words:

“I would plead that at least more thought should be given to the style of British policy in Europe. The plain speaking of the House of Commons does not translate well into Continental languages, especially in countries that live by coalition and compromise.”

Over 30 years later, what Bullard said remains true. Abrasive language of the kind often heard in Westminster just doesn’t register in Germany: is politely discounted as simply not serious.

Yet if one adapts one’s tone to take account of German susceptibilities, one is liable to make no impact, and to lose one’s British audience.

Wall admits that Margaret Thatcher made a remarkable impact not only in Europe, especially in that part of the Continent still held by the Soviet Union, but in the United States:

“A visit to Washington by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan rated a few lines in The New York Times. The first visit of Thatcher as Prime Minister, for which I was the gofer late in 1979, dominated the headlines and the TV news. Her address to both Houses of Congress electrified the audience. I spent the first ten years of my Foreign Office career doing my bit to represent a country in visible decline: widely seen as the sick man of Europe. All that changed with Thatcher.”

Tony Blair emerges less well from this account than one might expect. He contributes a single, mendacious paragraph to his memoirs on the subject of joining the euro, is heard by Wall agreeing to misrepresent Jacques Chirac’s views about Saddam Hussein, fatefully promises a referendum on a new European treaty, and pretends that he shares the vision of the EU’s founders.

The moral of this admirable book is that forms of words, however carefully chosen, are not enough to bridge the divide that runs through Britain, and has done since the Reformation.

So although Wall says almost nothing about Boris Johnson, for whom he never worked, he does draw the impassable chasm into which any Prime Minister is in danger of tumbling: one to which the present occupant of Number Ten sometimes seems, with his carefree insistence that politics should be enjoyable, to be applying the wisdom of Count Sforza.

Cardwell is loyal to May and Brokenshire, but does not tell us much about Johnson’s people

28 Nov

The Secret Life of Special Advisers by Peter Cardwell

When Peter Cardwell applied to Fiona Hill, Theresa May’s right-hand woman and in the summer of 2016 suddenly one of the most powerful people in Downing Street, to see if he could become a Special Adviser, he claims he possessed “perhaps the most crucial quality – shamelessness”.

He is wrong about that. Hill took him on, and over the next three and a half years he worked as a SpAd for four different Cabinet ministers, before being summoned to Downing Street in February of this year to be “formally sacked” by the Director of Communications, Lee Cain, who told him: “The Prime Minister no long has confidence in your ability to do your job.”

Cardwell reflects that Boris Johnson is probably “only vaguely aware of my existence”. He is amused that Robbie Gibb, Director of Communications during May’s last two years in office, had not many months before denounced a SpAd who had caused grave annoyance in Number Ten:

“Someone who didn’t play the game. Someone who didn’t stick to the grid. Someone who didn’t keep us informed. Someone who will never set foot in this building again: Lee Cain.”

Since this book was written, Cain has once more left the building, and whether he will ever again set foot there cannot be known.

The reason why Cardwell cannot be called shameless is that he remains loyal to the losing side. He is from Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom where loyalty is a highly esteemed virtue.

Only on page 188 does he confirm that he is a Unionist, who has usually supported the Ulster Unionist Party, now eclipsed (though he does not mention this) by the Democratic Unionists.

Here is Cardwell after Theresa May has wished him “Happy birthday” during the 2017 general election campaign:

“It was a fun moment with a lovely woman, a true public servant and someone who I believe was an excellent Prime Minister despite very trying circumstances.”

The sentiment is admirably unfashionable, but the tone is almost that of John Major. Cardwell has a gaucheness which prevents him from being a good writer. He is, however, a good friend, and forms a particular bond with James Brokenshire, the Cabinet minister for whom he works at the Northern Ireland Office and later at Housing.

Before become a SpAd, Cardwell had spent ten years in broadcast journalism, where at one point Hill offered him Brokenshire as a guest on Newsnight:

“I have a terrible, terrible confession to make… I rejected the offer because I had never heard of him.”

There is nothing terrible about this admission. Cardwell was right to reject Brokenshire as a guest, because Brokenshire is an astoundingly dull performer.

But once he is Brokenshire’s media SpAd, Cardwell becomes “very prickly” about attacks on his boss:

“The press can be merciless, with one particularly poisonous description of James when he was Northern Ireland Secretary suggesting he had ‘the personality of a motorway service station car park’. Ouch.

“The Daily Mail’s sketchwriter Quentin Letts was especially horrible about James. I will not repeat some of the nasty things he wrote in the Mail, but he tweeted in early 2017, ‘Secretary of State James Brokenshire in Northern Ireland today: not so much a statesman as an ink monitor’.”

By early 2019, “for Mayites such as James and me it was bleak”. In the summer of that year, Brokenshire arrives at a decision about the way ahead:

“James, after a lot of thinking and having consulted his three SpAds, had backed Boris for Conservative leader early in the campaign and wrote an excellent op-ed for the Mail on Sunday, although they published only extracts of it, which annoyed  me greatly. To me, it needed to feel like a ‘moment’ when such a May loyalist backed Boris Johnson, and James’s drafted words, which he had sent me to review, were characteristically sincere.”

On become Prime Minister, Johnson sacked Brokenshire, but told him people did sometimes come back into government. In the reshuffle of February 2020, Brokenshire duly came back as Security Minister at the Home Office, so outside the Cabinet.

There is a faint echo in all this of Ferdinand Mount’s defence, in Cold Cream, of Selwyn Lloyd:

“He was used to being patronised. He didn’t care. He was proud of the things he was patronised for being.

“His loyalty was what he was most praised for, but this too was a form of condescension from those who found loyalty a quality of limited value in their own lives. He was loyal to Anthony Eden and never expressed any resentment that he had been led into a course of deceit by that vain, hysterical, serious-minded prima donna (can you be a serious-minded prima donna? Yes, I think you can and Eden certainly was). A few months before Eden married his second wife, the cool and witty Clarissa Churchill, Selwyn had been a guest at a house party given by John Wyndham at Petworth, which included Clarissa. He had been horrified by the way everyone present had said how ghastly Eden was, while Selwyn stuck up loyally for his boss. When the engagement was announced, the others desperately tried to cover their tracks, but Selwyn had no malicious words to swallow,”

In the Tory leadership contest of 1963, Lloyd campaigned energetically and effectively for the surprise winner, Alec Douglas-Home, for he felt, in Mount’s words, that “Home was the only one of them whose judgement was not fatally poisoned by ambition”.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in some future leadership contest, Brokenshire the patronised and disregarded man of government will play a similar role.

If one were contemplating a career as a special adviser, and did not already know what to expect, it would be worth glancing at this book.

There is plenty here about frenetic dealings with the media: nothing much about policy, which at the Northern Ireland Office was in the hands of the vastly more experienced Jonathan Caine.

To say that this account reveals the “secret life” of special advisers is overdoing it. No great secrets are revealed. Most of what happens is trivial, without being particularly amusing.

One gains a sense of the transitoriness of the role of adviser, for as Cardwell says,

“SpAds are political mayflies, lasting on average less than two years in government… Apparently, at the time of my defenestration in February 2020 there were just ten of us, out of some 105 SpAds, who had more than two years’ experience. This was partly due to the fact that in the summer of 2019, when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, so many SpAds had left, taking with them much experience and expertise.”

This is an inexperienced government, which cast aside the knowledge of how Westminster and Whitehall work which had been accumulated by its predecessors.

On arriving in Downing Street, David Cameron was surrounded by a group of professionals who had acquired, like him, a mastery of technique in the Conservative Research Department – a point which escapes Cardwell in his brief and not very illuminating history of SpAds.

Johnson had no such group around him, pursued a daringly unconventional course and in December 2019 won a famous election victory. Cardwell hails Dominic Cummings as “a strategic genius”, but does not have much to say about how all this happened.

For Cardwell belongs to the May interlude, a period about which nothing brilliant has yet been published.

The fullest account yet written of Sunak the rising star

14 Nov

Going For Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak by Michael Ashcroft

In February, Boris Johnson made him Chancellor of the Exchequer, and nine months later the first biography of him has appeared. Here is the fullest account yet written of Rishi Sunak the rising star.

Tories will read the story of his ascent to high office with enormous pleasure, for it amounts to a vindication of the United Kingdom, and of the Conservative Party.

Sunak, born in Southampton General Hospital on 12th May 1980, is descended on both sides from Hindu Punjabis who moved from India to East Africa and from there to Britain in search of a better life not so much for themselves as for their children.

Usually one member of the family would go on ahead, and the others would follow later. In 1966, Michael Ashcroft relates,

“The future Chancellor’s grandmother sold all her wedding jewellery to buy her a one-way ticket, leaving her husband and children behind in Tanzania in the hope – by no means certain – that they would be able to join her later.”

Sraksha Berry rented a room in Leicester, found a job as a bookkeeper and a year later was able to send for her husband, Raghubir, and their three children, including their daughter, Usha, who in 1972 graduated in pharmacology from Aston University.

Raghubir joined the Inland Revenue, where his many years of service were at length recognised by the award of the MBE.

Meanwhile Yashvir Sunak arrived from Kenya in 1966, joining his elder brother, who had got a place at Liverpool University to study electrical engineering.

The boys’ parents arrived in Britain a few years later. Yashvir read medicine at Liverpool, graduating in 1974, and was introduced by family friends to Usha.

They were married in Leicester in 1977 and settled in Southampton, where he worked as a family doctor and she ran a pharmacy. They are remembered with great affection by their neighbours in Spindlewood Close, the leafy suburban cul-de-sac where they bought a modern brick house with six bedrooms and a double garage.

The Sunaks attached enormous importance to the education of their children. The local state primary school would not do: as one of the neighbours says, it was “dire”.

They sent Rishi, their eldest boy, to a local fee-paying school, Oakmount, and after that had closed, to Stroud, a prep school which prepared its pupils for King Edward VI, an independent school in the middle of Southampton.

Olly Case, who went to Stroud and later taught there, said of Rishi:

“He was someone that was talked about; the teachers would say, ‘He’s going to be a Prime Minister.'”

Rishi was made Captain of Cricket and Head Boy. He was very bright, but would never have dreamed of using his intelligence to humiliate the less gifted. He got on well with everyone.

His parents decided to aim higher than King Edward VI. They wished to send him to Winchester College, one of the great schools of England.

Rishi sat the scholarship exam, and had he gone to a prep school such as Ashdown House, which specialised in preparing its most gifted pupils for that tough competition (in 1977 it won three awards – one to Winchester and two, including the present Prime Minister’s scholarship, to Eton), he too would probably have won an award.

He fell short, but his parents tightened their belts, his father took on an extra job, and they sent him to Winchester anyhow, where he thrived, and was made Senior Commoner Prefect, or head boy, though he was not a good enough cricketer to get into the First Eleven.

He talks with enormous enthusiasm about Winchester, as noted in the ConHome profile of him published in February

Sunak does not suffer from the compulsive desire of many members of the Establishment to conceal or at least downplay any privileges they may have enjoyed in early life.

He went on to Lincoln College, Oxford, took a First in PPE and became a leading light in the Oxford University Investment Society. He also worked at an Indian restaurant in Southampton, where the proprietor said of him:

“He was charming with every single person – it was not just customers but every other member of staff that liked him.”

Similar reports have been made at every stage of his career. From Oxford he joined Goldman Sachs, which took only four per cent of those who applied, and after three years as an analyst he decided to do an MBA at Stanford, funded by a Fulbright Scholarship.

He went on to work for various very successful hedge funds, before obtaining before the 2015 general election the safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire, which he took enormous trouble to get to know, informing himself about all sorts of matters, such as agriculture, about which previously he knew nothing.

At Westminster, his high ability was soon spotted by good judges such as Oliver Dowden and Sajid Javid. During the Conservative leadership contest of last summer, Dowden, Sunak and Robert Jenrick issued, at a well-chosen moment, a joint declaration of support for Johnson.

All three of them are now in the Cabinet. Javid, whom Johnson made Chancellor, requested and was given Sunak as Chief Secretary.

Sunak made such a good impression on the Tory high command that during the general election at the end of 2019, he was asked to stand in for Johnson during two of the television debates, and acquitted himself well.

In February of this year, when Javid refused, as a condition of remaining Chancellor, the loss of his team of advisers, Johnson replaced him with Sunak.

How has Sunak risen so swiftly and become so popular? The almost unbelievable speed with which he grasps things, the indefatigable industry with which he sets about the “flawless execution” of any given task, and the imperturbable resourcefulness with which since March he has doled out the vast sums needed to avert economic collapse, though all highly impressive, do not constitute a sufficient explanation.

There is something else. While studying at Stanford, he met, on the same course, Akshata Murthy, to whom he is now married. When she was one year old, her father, Narayana, founded a softwear company, Infosys, which in due course was to make him a billionaire.

Ashcroft recounts how Narayana and his wife Sudha, who served for 20 years as CEO of Infosys, handled the change in their circumstances:

“As the couple became richer, they went to great lengths to keep their children grounded. Narayana has said that his lifestyle ‘continues to be simple’ and that when he returns home from work every night, he still cleans his own lavatory.

“‘We have a caste system in India where the so-called lowest class…is a set of people who clean the toilets,’ he has explained. ‘My father believed that the caste system is a wrong one and therefore he made all of us clean our toilets…and that habit has continued, and I want my children to do that. And the best way to make them do it is if you did it yourself.'”

At the end of the book, Ashcroft lists some of the ways in which Sunak has been described by people who dealt with him:

“authentic, humble, approachable, gentle, modest, friendly, empathetic, thoughtful, respectful, sensitive, a listener. These are not the kind of words you hear about politicians every day, to put it at its most charitable. They help to explain not only his success but the lack of resentment it seems to have inspired in the ruthlessly competitive precincts of Westminster.”

Where does this behaviour come from? It must have been inculcated by Sunak’s parents, and before them by their parents. They arrived in England almost penniless, but with a rich store of moral capital.

And this must have something to do with their Hinduism. There are fleeting references to their faith:

“His grandmother’s funeral was a traditional Hindu affair, involving a colourful procession that blocked traffic in that part of Southampton. It was very well attended, on account of the role Suhag’s late husband had played setting up the Vedic Society Hindu temple in Southampton.”

The admirable rapidity with which this account has been produced meant there was no time to look into Sunak’s Hinduism. We learn that he does not drink alcohol, but he says this is because he does not like the taste or the effect of it.

During the pandemic, his advisers became worried that he was not eating:

“‘The day before he announced the furlough scheme, one of our economic advisers put a sandwich on his desk and said, “You must eat,” because he just wasn’t eating,’ says a Treasury source. ‘He was looking thin and faint.’ Another adviser says, ‘He has to be told almost every day to eat. Otherwise he’ll just work and work.’ An insider later revealed that Sunak sometimes goes without food deliberately, fasting on selected days from sunrise to sunset – not for religious reasons, but to ‘re-set after the weekend’.”

Sunak’s brilliant career shows a society whose institutions are open to talent: Winchester, Oxford, the City and the Conservative Party in Yorkshire and Westminster all welcomed him with open arms, perceiving what an asset he would be.

But another attraction of this country is its high regard for privacy. We do not seek to make windows into men’s souls. In the privacy of one’s own home or place of worship, one may practice whatever religion one may have brought with one to the UK.

I nevertheless hope that just as Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, some scholar will in due course offer us The Hindu Ethic and the Spirit of Conservatism.

What next for Sunak? He will in a few months’ time have the opportunity radically to recast the tax system, so that we do not find we have been have been bankrupted by the pandemic.

He will need to raise more revenue while stimulating the entrepreneurship which he so admires, and doing so in the areas adjacent to Richmond which have been neglected for so long.

William Hague, his predecessor in that seat, is given the last words about Sunak in this book:

“From his house, or very nearby, you can see the Tees Valley. You can see the east coast and all that Teesside area that’s been so depressed and has in the last couple of elections gone Conservative. And I think he’s really got clearly in his head that that’s a big litmus test of what he’s doing. Is that area revived in a few years’ time or not? He can literally physically see what he appears to feel very passionately about. So I think that that levelling-up agenda might become whatever Sunakism is. But it’s probably too early to say, isn’t it?”

From Disraeli to Johnson, the Left has never understood the Right, and Fawcett shows us why

31 Oct

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett

Edmund Fawcett, “a left-wing liberal” (his term), here performs, with grace, acuity and good humour, a signal service for conservatives. He introduces us to each other.

Reading his book is like being at a vast family party, where as one glances round the marquee one is struck by the affinities between people who have never met, but have much in common.

Here one encounters cousins of whom one may, perhaps, have heard, but about whom one knows next to nothing.

In one of the most delightful parts of his book, published as Appendix C, Fawcett in under 40 pages gives us brief lives of over 200 conservative politicians and thinkers, drawn from Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom have attained some degree of eminence since the French Revolution.

This brevity is wonderful. It is not difficult to find a long book about any of these people. To find a dozen lines that are worth reading can be almost impossible.

And conservatism is itself an almost impossible subject. As Fawcett remarks in his preface, “A chaos of voices has often made it hard to say what, if anything, conservatives stand for.”

He notes a paradox:

“Puzzling as it sounds, conservatives have largely created and learned to dominate a liberal modern world in which they cannot feel at home.”

He remarks that he is not writing solely or even primarily for the benefit of conservatives:

“Readers on the Left will get a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore.”

And he adds a pointed question for his companions on the Left:

“if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Part of the answer to that question is that the Left often fails to take the Right seriously. Moral condemnation forestalls understanding.

Another part of the answer is that the Right does take the Left seriously, is indeed terrified of the damage it can do. Fawcett begins with two conservative opponents of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Burke is for British and American conservatives a marvellous source of wisdom, endlessly invigorating and enjoyable. Few of us have ever felt at ease with Maistre’s savagery, but Fawcett insists that although “Maistre was never going to sit well in conservatism’s front parlour”, he “belongs in the household as much as Burke”.

We are happier to be told that Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), a Prussian who studied under Kant, worked for the Austrians and took a retainer from the British, translated Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution into German, “teasing out Burke’s thought in long footnotes that tidied up the argument in rationalist spirit”.

Gentz, Fawcett suggests,

“was an early model of a familiar present-day figure, the clever policy intellectual with top degrees circulating between right-wing think tanks, conservative magazines, and political leaders’ private offices.”

And Gentz in his essay “On the Balance of Power”, published in 1806, developed the ideas which would guide the post-Napoleonic settlement, upholding peace between nations while retarding not just revolution but democracy.

Fawcett is excellent at giving us a feeling for his conservatives by quoting remarks which a less worldly Lefty would not find funny, and might therefore be inclined to censor.

So at a dinner at the Congress of Aix in 1818 we get Gentz telling Robert Owen, pioneer of utopian socialism and of the co-operative movement:

“We do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”

But Gentz was not some blinkered reactionary, who supposed the ruling classes could restore to themselves the privileges they had enjoyed before 1789:

“Revolution had to be fought, Gentz insisted, not with nostalgia but with modernity’s own weapons.”

Here is another part of the explanation for conservative incomprehensibility. Intelligent conservatives are at once more attached to the past than their opponents, and more anxious to understand what will work in the future.

This mixture of mixture of emotion and pragmatism cannot be reduced to an ideology – the very thing that leftish commentators consider it a mortal weakness not to possess.

Fawcett’s book is brilliantly organised, so one can without difficulty find what conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States were saying and doing in any particular period.

He himself worked for The Economist as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, and also as its European and literary editor.

As in that magazine, his eye for what is happening overseas is very good, but the texture of British politics is sometimes smoothed away in order to make it fit some editorial analysis.

Fawcett does not get Benjamin Disraeli. Few historians of ideas do, for by the time the butterfly has been pinned to the page, he is dead.

Millions of voters did get Disraeli, loved his patriotism and felt exhilarated by his impudence. He is the only Prime Minister who has inspired the creation of a posthumous cult: the Primrose League.

When he comes to Stanley Baldwin, Fawcett attributes his description of the new Conservative MPs elected in 1918 as “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” to Lloyd George, as if only a Liberal could see how repulsive the Tories were.

Baldwin succeeded in part because he well understood how repulsive the Tories might seem, and took enormous pains to create a more favourable impression.

In 1980, Fawcett introduces us to “the hard right”. It is an unsatisfactory label, for the word “hard” makes it sound more defined, and less yielding, than it really is.

Fawcett knows the term is not satisfactory, for he keeps worrying away at it, and trying to justify it. In the course of a passage about Donald Trump, he writes:

“The hard right, in sum, was not weird or extreme. It was popular and normal. Indeed, it was alarming because it was popular and normal.

“Lest the term ‘hard right’ here sound loaded, and the account of events overdrawn, the passion and dismay with which mainstream conservatives themselves reacted needs recalling. They did not, in detached spirit, dwell confidently on the hard right’s visible weaknesses and incompatibilities. They did not ask if there was here a pantomime villain got up by the liberal left.”

Trump was and is an opportunist, a huckster who has belonged to three different political parties, and who seeks, as American presidential candidates since Andrew Jackson have sought, to get himself elected by expressing the anger of poor white voters who loathe the condescension of the East Coast establishment.

When he comes to consider Boris Johnson, Fawcett quotes The Economist‘s description of him as “indifferent to the truth”, and its advice to voters last December to vote Liberal Democrat – a way, perhaps, of feeling virtuous, but also of opting out of the choice actually facing the country.

Fawcett goes on to attribute a “forceful hard-right style” to Johnson, and a “disregard for familiar liberal-democratic norms”. The author is worried, for as he declares in his preface:

“To survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support… When, as now, the right hesitates or denies its support, liberal democracy’s health is at risk.”

The conservative family is in danger of going to the bad. This is true, but has always been true, and sometimes the warnings have turned out to be exaggerated.

Johnson enjoys teasing liberals, but has lived much among them, craves their approval and himself possesses many liberal characteristics.

Fawcett will know this, for he is the Prime Minister’s uncle: a brother of Johnson’s mother Charlotte.

The near impossibility of defining Johnson, something of which his critics complain, could even be a sign that he is a conservative.

These quibbles about the last part of the book in no way diminish admiration for it as an astonishingly accomplished survey of the last two centuries of conservative thought.

This hatchet man in a hurry casts no new light on Johnson, except to show him as a vulnerable child

17 Oct

Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower

In his Acknowledgements, buried on page 527 of his book, Tom Bower remarks, in the manner of an author broaching a humorous topic: “Readers should be aware that Boris Johnson is not a stranger in my home.”

He adds that “Veronica Wadley, my wife, has known him as a journalist since he joined The Daily Telegraph in 1988.”

Readers are not, however, made aware that during Johnson’s second term as Mayor of London, from 2012-16, Wadley worked for him as a well-paid adviser at City Hall, and now that Johnson is Prime Minister, he has made her a Conservative peer.

These interests really ought to be declared, if only in order for Bower to declare that he has not allowed himself to be swayed by so much as a syllable from what he would have written anyhow.

The peerage is recent news, but not so recent that it could not have been mentioned here. A few pages earlier, Bower has referred to “the government’s mismanagement of the A level and GCSE examinations in mid-August”. His wife’s elevation was announced on 31st July.

Bower is billed on the cover of this book as “Britain’s top investigative author”, yet says of Wadley: “She played no part in researching or writing this book.”

For a top investigative author, that seems a strange omission. Only a third-rate investigative author would have failed to ask the woman he lives with for help in explaining Johnson, whom she has known for 32 years.

And she has in fact given some rather unrevealing help with the question of why Johnson ran for mayor: “At a summer party in Carlton Gardens, she cornered Boris and suggested that he run for mayor. Although surprised, he agreed to consider it.”

Wadley was at this point editor of The Evening Standard, which threw its full support behind Johnson in his closely contested battle with the incumbent mayor, Ken Livingstone.

The chief power possessed by any Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she has hundreds of jobs and honours with which to reward his or her followers. Johnson understands this as well as any previous holder of the post.

The chief power possessed by a writer is the power to tell the truth, or at least to try to tell it. But in order for readers to trust a writer, they have to feel he or she is taking them into his or her confidence.

James Boswell possessed that quality in superabundance. He really wanted to tell us what he thought about Samuel Johnson, and about those round Johnson.

Bower doesn’t have that quality. He doesn’t want to take us into his confidence, and gives us no real sense of what the people round his Johnson are like. For most of the time, he doesn’t sound in the slightest bit interested in them himself.

Anyone can make mistakes, but Bower’s mistakes have the curious effect of rendering vivid material less vivid, funny stories less funny.

So he has James Landale, then of The Times, saying of Johnson as a correspondent in Brussels: “Boris told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp.”

No mention that Landale was adapting “Matilda”, by Hilaire Belloc, for use at a farewell party.

Sonia Purnell, who wrote a generally unfavourable biography of Johnson, has taken to Twitter to dismiss what Bower says about her as “so inaccurate it’s risible”.

My own regret is that while Bower has paid me the compliment of borrowing extensively from my own life of Johnson, the comic element is almost always lost, and with it an essential part of the explanation for Johnson’s ability to reach the wider public.

One can, of course, say that Johnson is beyond a joke. Over the years, many eminent commentators have come round to that view. Bower quotes Max Hastings in The Daily Mail in October 2012:

“If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

So far as one knows, Hastings still lives near Hungerford.

Bower’s book serves as a reminder that more journalists have said Johnson could not, and should not, become Prime Minister than has been written of any other figure in recent times.

These denunciations now read like so many predictions of future success. For one does not bother to contend that someone with no hope of getting to the top will not do so.

Johnson’s critics were trying to suppress the awful realisation that he might actually make it. Matthew Parris has been trying to persuade himself.

Bower casts no light on this curious phenomenon. He made his name writing hatchet jobs about various well-known figures: his last book was an account of Jeremy Corbyn which was so unrelievedly hostile – so disinclined to give credit even where credit might be due – that it rendered Corbyn’s ability to win the support of large numbers of voters incomprehensible.

In this new book, Bower still swings his hatchet, every so often settling scores with various extraneous figures without indicating how in the first place they incurred his displeasure.

He has no understanding of the history, workings and mentality of the Conservative Party, which Johnson saved last year from destruction at the hands of Nigel Farage.

About Johnson himself, Bower is quite often positive, not by appreciating his good qualities, but by sinking the hatchet into others. For example, after relating the unhappy tale of Johnson’s evidence, as Foreign Secretary, about Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, Bower declares:

“The real culprit was the Foreign Office, a failing department.”

Why does he say this? Through his clotted prose, it is impossible to discern his real motives. We are not taken into his confidence. It sounds like pure Johnsonian propaganda.

One wishes Bower would tell us what he is trying to achieve, but the answer may be that even he, a hatchet man in a hurry, does not really know what he is doing, apart from getting the book finished. At the end, he deviates into a appallingly prolonged account of the pandemic which tells us virtually nothing about Johnson.

The one person who speaks truth in this book is Johnson’s mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who says of his father, Stanley Johnson:

“He was always hitting me, and Boris saw it.”

According to Bower, Stanley “feigned ignorance” about the causes of Charlotte’s nervous breakdown in 1974, for which she was treated for eight months at the Maudsley Hospital in south London:

“Charlotte corrects Stanley’s recollection: ‘The doctors at the Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He had hit me. He hit me many times, over many years.’ On one occasion, Stanley had hit Charlotte especially hard. ‘He beat me up and broke my nose,’ she recalls. After that attack, Charlotte was treated in the St John & St Elizabeth Hospital in north-west London. The children were told that a car door had hit their mother’s face. Boris, however, knew the truth.”

This old, unhappy and not very far-off story is related in the first chapter of the book. Here we see a loving mother’s defence of her son against his enemies. Bower, it may be said, has served her purpose.

An excellent book about Johnson has just been published. Unfortunately it is in German. One hopes it will appear in an English translation, but meanwhile anyone who can read the language of Goethe is urged to get hold of Boris Johnson: Porträt eines Störenfrieds by Jan Ross of Die Zeit.

Ross in his Portrait of a Contentious Man – more literally of a disturber of the peace – recognises that Johnson’s fallibility awakens sympathy and a feeling of togetherness, and that by refraining from idealism, Johnson protects himself against the charge of hypocrisy.

Some of Johnson’s own writings sound better in German. The jokes distract one less from the seriousness, and the debt to classical antiquity is more apparent.

Johnson is serious! A provocative thesis, with which few members of the German political establishment will agree, but argued here with perfect lucidity.

Swire’s diaries help show how Johnson entered Downing Street, and has so far managed to remain there

3 Oct

Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power by Sasha Swire

“When the wives get nasty, you know the men have a problem.” So says Sasha Swire after Sarah Vine, wife of Michael Gove, and Samantha Cameron, wife of David, “fur flying, have a set-to” at the 50th birthday party of Andrew Feldman, on 29th February 2016.

For “Dave feels he is being stabbed in the back by Gove”, who has come out for Leave. According to Swire’s friend, Kate Fall, who works at Number Ten, Dave “is taking it very personally”.

What is a trailing spouse to do? The Duke of Edinburgh and Denis Thatcher are among the men who had to work out an answer. In both cases they used humour carried well past the point of self-parody to ease the boredom and insignificance of the role.

But the trailing spouse is still more often a woman, and Swire knows what it is like. Her husband, Hugo Swire, was Conservative MP for East Devon from 2001 to 2019, an early supporter of Cameron and a Minister of State from 2010-16.

Sasha worked for Hugo as his researcher. Towards the end of the diary entry quoted in the first line of this review, she describes what she and H, as she calls him, have been doing down at their house in Devon:

“Meanwhile, down at Chaffcombe we are having difficult conversations about why we are backing remain when our instincts are to leave. I have to somehow justify it to myself as well as convincing H. I spend the whole weekend drafting an article for Hugo for the local press on why he is supporting in, and we finally decide to do it from a foreign affairs perspective.”

This is of some interest, for it reminds one that not everyone who supported Remain really believed in that cause. In Hugo’s case he only does so out of loyalty to Cameron.

It is true that some Remainers argued their case with fanatical zeal. But as Harry Williams remarks in one of his sermons, “All fanaticism is a strategy to prevent doubt from becoming conscious.”

Swire’s diary is not particularly well written. She often lapses into the bland editorialising to which one fears she resorted when drafting articles to appear under her husband’s name.

She is not a new Alan Clark. She is not even a new Chris Mullin, of whom I found myself writing, when reviewing a volume of his diaries:

“Mullin is a gentleman. He avoids inflicting gratuitous pain in his diary. He observes with a keen and even mocking eye the deficiencies of Blair and Gordon Brown, but is never ungenerous about their gifts. He does not betray confidences. The social connotations of the word ‘gentleman’ are foreign to Mullin, who is a plain-living socialist. The Tories who cause him most pain are those who behave in an ungentlemanly way, while the vulgarity of New Labour causes him distress.”

Sasha does not avoid inflicting gratuitous pain, does betray confidences and is often vulgar, though she clearly thinks it is rather grand, and even gentlemanly (a characteristic she attributes to her husband), to behave in this way.

And she has often not actually been at the events she describes. As far as one can tell (but rather irritatingly one can’t at first reading be sure) she was not at the Feldman birthday party. If she had been, she would surely have told us more about it.

On many occasions, she relates what Hugo told her when he got home from some event. There is a second-hand flavour to these reports.

Her diary reminds one of the disappointment which can be seen on the faces of so many MPs. Hugo had hoped to make the Cabinet.

As for Sasha, she is cross that her father, Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary during the Falklands War, has never been made a peer, and she finds that she herself is either ignored, or else reproached for not having a career of her own: “It’s always a weak point for me.”

In other words, like many loud people, she wants to conceal her own insecurities. Her inadequate command of tone springs from a fundamental indecision about how to behave:

“Political wives are deeply involved but have no official status. Do we play submissive? Do we play supportive? Do we get lippy?”

Sasha veers between these different approaches, but is temperamentally inclined to be lippy. She observes with a caustic eye the deficiencies of the men around her. In August 2011, when they stay for three days in Cornwall with the Camerons at Polzeath,

“D talks a lot about sex, as does H – they are typical of a certain type of Englishman who no longer knows how to flirt because they have become terrified of causing offence. What they do instead is become lewd and chauvinistic with each other, which is the safe zone, instead of with us. In fact if a woman actually came on to them I think their eyes would pop out of their heads.”

For all its glaring deficiencies, or in some cases because of them, this is an entertaining and informative book, and will be a valuable source for historians who want to see how opinion changed within the Conservative Party.

How did Boris Johnson become leader? Sasha is quite illuminating about this. In 2012, she is a loyal Cameroon, who writes:

“There seems to be something of a campaign going on at the moment to push Boris back into Parliament… worryingly, it seems to have captured the public imagination… Unfortunately the Olympics have given him a platform to parade his populist touch… The idea of His Blondness with a finger on the nuclear button scares the shit out of me; it also scares the shit out of me that people don’t see him as the calculating machine he really is. This is a man who has no obvious political identity or any proven ability to grasp difficult questions and decisions.”

In March 2016, as the EU Referendum campaign gets under way, Hugo reports back from a dinner in Mayfair that Cameron “is very fired up about Boris and determined to finish him off”.

In October 2017, she says Johnson’s star is sinking: “the past few weeks have highlighted how he is clearly not a leader-in-waiting”.

In November 2018, Hugo is recruited to the Dominic Raab leadership campaign.

In March 2019, she observes that the Johnson leadership campaign is “always shambolic”, an assumption which will prove unsound. She also quotes Rory Stewart going “completely insane” and telling some MPs, “It’s going to be Boris against me, and I’m going to take Boris down.”

In July 2019, by which time Johnson is on course for victory, she says “the odds that he will be the shortest-serving PM are pretty high”.

In August 2019, she goes to a “small and select” dinner at Number Ten and sits on the PM’s right:

“Boris is about the best placement you can get. Cheeky. Flippant. Enthusiastic. Bombastic. Ebullient. Energetic. We have a good laugh…

“I look at his rotund build, thick, creased neck, pale, sweaty face, and characteristic dishevelled appearance; he looks back, as if he is working out if I’m shaggable or past my sell-by date…

“I don’t know what will happen to him, because events make politicians, but I have changed my view of him. Yes, he is an alley cat, but he has a greatness of soul, a generosity of spirit, a desire to believe the best in people, a lack of pettiness and envy which is pretty uncommon in politics, and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition.”

The PM has seduced her, though she also thinks he “is desperately lonely and unhappy on the inside”. These diaries show how Johnson got where is today, and has so far managed to stay there. He knows how to mend fences.

Dale fails to realise that the right to be rude lies at the heart of the British idea of freedom

19 Sep

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along…Shout Less. Listen More. by Iain Dale

Iain Dale has an acute grasp of the present and a defective sense of history. At the start of this book he laments “the growing trend towards rudeness and hatred”, which has been exacerbated by “the internet, and social media in particular”.

Manners, he insists, have got worse: “Over the years, I have grown hugely frustrated and a little bit angry about the decline in the way we talk to and debate with each other.”

He quotes a tweet in which Simon Schama calls Boris Johnson “fatso”. According to Dale, A.J.P.Taylor or Thomas Babington Macaulay would never have been so rude about the Prime Minister.

But one of the delights of reading Taylor or Macaulay is that they are rude about anyone who incurs their displeasure. It is true  they are wittier than Schama.

The right to be as rude as we like about other people, and especially about people who consider themselves superior to ourselves, is at the heart of our understanding of liberty.

Consider Chaucer: a very rude writer. Or John Wilkes, a libertine who was also one of the fathers of civil liberty, and was so rude about the Scots (whom he actually rather liked) that angry Scots army officers would stop him in the street and challenge him to a duel, and Scottish children would burn him in effigy.

Or recall what The Times wrote of George IV after his death in June 1830:

“There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”

Politics too used to be rougher, and drunker. Just now we are having an argument about Ireland. Before the First World War we were on the brink of civil war about Ireland. Here is Winston Churchill, in his essay on Asquith, published in 1934:

“It was this sinister influence of eighty Irish votes – now happily for ever withdrawn from the House of Commons – making and unmaking Governments, swaying the fortunes of both great British political parties, which poisoned nearly forty years of our public life. The unconstitutional resistance of Ulster will be judged by history in relation to the fact that the Ulster Protestants believed that the Home Rule Bills were driven forward not as a result of British convictions, but by the leverage of this Irish voting power. That the lawless demonstrations in Ulster were the parent of many grievous ills cannot be doubted; but if Ulster had confined herself simply to constitutional agitation, it is extremely improbable that she would have escaped forcible inclusion in a Dublin Parliament.”

One cannot refrain from admiring Churchill both as a writer, and for the loyalty with which he defended his incendiary and almost unbelievably rude father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who in 1886 coined the shockingly unconstitutional words, “Ulster will fight; Ulster will be right”.

Talk about inciting people to break the law. The truth is that we live in an uncommonly polite age. We are more polite than we used to be about the monarchy, our football hooligans have become less violent, our trade unions less able to bring the country to a grinding halt, our book reviewers less keen to tear some respected author limb from limb, Private Eye inspires less fear than it did, foxes roam town and country undisturbed, and there is not a single parliamentarian who is as rude as Lord Randolph was about Gladstone.

Lord Randolph, as his son wrote in his life of him,

“flouted venerable leaders and mocked at constituted authority with a mixture of aristocratic insolence and democratic brutality”

We have lost the aristocratic insolence, suppressed the democratic brutality, and submitted ourselves to a tyranny of virtue organised and policed by the most sensitive members of the middle class.

I am myself a repressed and timid member of the middle class, who strives not to inflict unnecessary pain. But I cannot help feeling we have lost something.

What a neutered people we have become, terrified of giving offence to just about anyone, and forbidden by law from being rude about various groups of people who in my youth (I am 62) were the subject of wounding but not always malicious jibes, some to be found in the rhymes we were taught in the nursery.

Those rhymes have since been purified, to bring them into strict conformity with modern standards. We think of ourselves as free, and ignore the censorship to which we have consented, which in later ages may come to seem as ridiculous as anything Thomas Bowdler did to Shakespeare’s plays in order to make them fit to be read to children.

Then came the internet, and social media. The censorship collapsed, no one was in charge, and every brute who wanted to have his say could do so.

No sooner had we hailed a new birth of freedom than we witnessed, with horror, a tidal wave of filth and cruelty sweeping through the internet.

A comparable horror was felt at the end of the Victorian period, when high-minded advocates of universal literacy found that by teaching people to read they had paved the way for the yellow press.

The previous repression had been so effective that when a new outlet – the internet – became available, it became a sewer, anything pure contaminated by contact with muck.

What is do be done about Twitter? This is where Dale comes in. He says he is not writing “an intellectual book” but “from experience” and “from the heart”.

These qualities are familiar to readers of his Friday Diary on this site, and make him a successful broadcaster. When he started in radio, he relates, “for the first time in my life I was doing something I felt completely at home with”.

He had “no formal training” as a journalist, but this did not matter, for what he did have was the ability to react instantaneously and with deep emotion to some breaking news story.

His listeners know he shares and expresses their feelings, and ring in to tell him theirs. He enters into what is happening, or what he has just heard is happening.

He is very good on grief, and confesses that “Somewhat bizarrely, I feel more comfortable talking about grief on the radio than I do to people close to me.”

In this book, we get a glimpse of Dale as a student at the University of East Anglia, woken by someone shouting through his door, “Oh, you’re still alive then.”

On waking up and going into the communal kitchen, he sees in The Daily Mail that a Welsh Guardsman, Ian Dale, aged 19 from Pontypridd, has been killed in action in the Falklands:

“It was like being hit in the solar plexus. Tears streamed down my face, as they were to do many times over the next few weeks. Nothing else could have brought home to me the terrible waste of war like this did. I was the same age. It could have been me.”

Like many of the best journalists, Dale is a bit naive. He is surprised and outraged by events, rather than worldly wise and resigned. He talks the story up.

These invaluable qualities are accompanied by enormous energy and plentiful political experience. He fought North Norfolk for the Conservatives in 2005, despite being warned by Chris Rennard, the Liberal Democrats’ election supremo, that Norman Lamb, who had captured the seat from the Tories in 2001 by 483 votes, would this time “get a majority of 10,000.”

Dale is a gifted and indefatigable campaigner who loves knocking on doors. Lamb gets a majority of 10,606.

In this book, Dale claims that in 2018 “political discourse…plumbed poisonous new depths”. He complains that Question Time has become “a bear pit” which is “almost unwatchable”, and that interviewers are so intent on achieving some “Gotcha” moment that the interview becomes more about them than about the politician whose views they are supposed to be discovering.

Brexit has divided us into opposing camps which will not listen to each other, and Twitter is roamed by mobs who, for example, attacked with repulsive virulence the female Labour MPs who dared to make a stand against anti-semitism.

Many people will agree with all this. Such horrible things happen on social media that there is a temptation to avoid it altogether.

But I have the impression that the worst outrages have in the last few years prompted a reaction in favour of the decency and good manners which most readers, listeners, viewers and voters would for most of the time prefer, and that it has become easier to avoid various kinds of obscenity.

Dale himself detects “a real appetite for respectful debate nowadays, in a way that maybe there wasn’t in years gone by”.

Actually, the two appetites, for dignified and undignified behaviour, have always co-existed. I can’t be alone in having enjoyed the sight of Dale some years ago rolling around on the seafront at Brighton with a protester whom he was trying to stop interfering with a television interview – an event to which several pages are devoted in this book.

It was not the most elevated piece of footage we had ever seen, but for a day or two it took its place in the national pantomime and put a smile on people’s faces, not least because we recognised the unavailing sincerity of what Dale was trying to do.

At the end of his book, Dale offers a list of “50 Ways to Improve Public Discourse”. Many of these are sensible. He would like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube “to ban anonymous accounts and ensure all accounts are verified”.

What he doesn’t quite say is that if you want to purify social media, you have somehow to reintroduce the editorial function, enforce a house style and suppress antisocial behaviour.

A good letters editor on a traditional newspaper ensures that merely boorish letters aren’t published, and that the readers get the ten most interesting letters, not hundreds of semi-literate ravings which only a maniac would take the time to read.

The cure can, unfortunately, be worse than the disease. It is expensive, and although it raises the tone, and encourages good writers to think it might be worth contributing their thoughts, it can also reduce freedom of expression.

I recall working for a newspaper where the poor, conscientious letters editor supposed it was his duty to suppress any letter which would upset some member of the paper’s staff.

In the late 1930s, the editor of The Times, a paper of high seriousness, supposed it was his duty to suppress any news which might upset Hitler.

So we are unlikely ever to reach the state of perfection which we imagine to have existed in a past from which we recall only the highlights. In my opinion, only Robin Day was able to make Question Time a pleasure to watch.

But meanwhile Dale’s book will delight his innumerable fans, who relish his throwaway manner and know that he at least understands their dismay at the dismal state of our culture.

“O tempora, O mores!” – “O what times, O what habits!” – as Cicero put it in 63 BC.

Finkelstein shows that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well

5 Sep

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.

The people in whose name liberals act are absent from Applebaum’s defence of liberalism

25 Jul

Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends by Anne Applebaum

Anyone wondering what has gone wrong with democracy over the last 20 years should buy this book. It opens with a New Year’s Eve party thrown on 31st December 1999 by Anne Applebaum and her husband Radek Sikorski at Chobielin, their not yet fully restored manor house in an “obscure piece of Polish countryside”.

It ends with a summer party which they gave there in August 2019:

“Nearly two decades later, I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there. In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half. The estrangements are political, not personal. Poland is now one of the most polarised societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Spanish right, the French right, the Italian right, and with some differences, the British right and the American right, too.”

The guests in 1999 are an eclectic mixture of journalists – Applebaum is an American journalist and historian who has by now already worked for The Economist in Warsaw and The Spectator in London – junior diplomats and politicians – Sikorski is at this point Poland’s deputy foreign minister – along with local friends, “a large group of cousins” and “a handful of Polish journalists…none then particularly famous”.

The party lasted all night,

“and was infused with the optimism I remember from that time. We had rebuilt our ruined house. Our friends were rebuilding the country… Poland was on the cusp of joining the West, it felt as if we were all on the same team. We agreed about democracy, about the road to prosperity, about the way things were going.”

Why are they no longer on the same team? Why has a part of the right – including the Law and Justice party in Poland – yielded to “a different set of ideas, not just xenophobic and paranoid but openly authoritarian”?

For Applebaum, this is a treason of the clerks, or of the educated class: she refers to Julien Benda’s work of 1927, La trahison des clercs, in which he described how intellectuals of both the Left and the Right betrayed their essential task, the search for truth, and became propagandists for Soviet Marxism, or else for “national passion” in the form of fascism.

With admirable brevity – the book is under 200 pages long – Applebaum touches on a wide range of countries, including Poland, Hungary, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, and on an even wider range of writers, some of whom have abandoned liberalism and become apologists for authoritarianism.

She recognises the temptation which an authoritarian regime presents to the disappointed, second-rate writer, who by placing his pen at its service obtains the material rewards and significance which have hitherto eluded him.

The poverty of his talents is made up for by his loyalty to the regime, demonstrated by his willingness to acclaim its lies as truth.

Applebaum is acute on the way a one-party state, a form of political organisation invented by Lenin, can be regarded as more just than a democracy which has competing parties:

“If you believe, as many of my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, people who are loyal to the party leader, people who are…a ‘better sort of Pole’ – then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them deserves to rule? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore truly deserving of wealth?”

She has the humility not to pretend fully to understand what is happening:

“There is no single explanation, and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution. But there is a theme: Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We can never rest on our laurels and suppose that the end of history has arrived. Even the highest forms of civilisation contain within them the seeds of decay.

All that is true, and yet I think Applebaum’s pessimism is overdone. Or to put it another way: this lament for the failure of liberals to live up to their liberalism could have been written at almost any time since 1789.

There is a void in this book. The people in whose name the liberals act are absent. They have occasional walk-on parts: Sikorski knew almost everyone “including the flight attendants” on the plane which crashed at Smolensk in 2010 with the loss of all on board, including the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, and dozens of senior military figures and politicians: an event since exploited by the Polish right to peddle disgraceful conspiracy theories.

At Applebaum and Sikorski’s parties, unimportant people are of course made welcome. As she writes of last year’s summer party:

“At one point, I noticed the local forest ranger engaged in heated discussion with the former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, with whom my husband created the Eastern Partnership between the EU and Ukraine several years earlier.”

We do not, unfortunately, discover what point the local forest ranger was trying to impress on Bildt. The ranger is, as it were, a charming decoration, like one of the small, rustic figures which adorn a classical landscape, whose point is to show the imposing scale of the ruins in which the artist and viewer are really interested.

And here is Applebaum on the difficulty which far-right movements often have in forming alliances with each other:

“Relations between the Italian far right and the Austrian far right, for example, once came unstuck after they started arguing, amusingly, over the national identity of South Tyrol, a German-speaking province in northern Italy that has sometimes been Austrian.”

What a wealth of meaning the word “amusingly” carries here. We find ourselves at a dinner party where the foibles of the natives are dismissed as merely ridiculous.

For those who care about it, South Tyrol is not “amusing”: it speaks to deep emotions and loyalties, and carries a weight of history.

If one wants to prevent demagogues from exploiting those emotions, one shouldn’t start by ignoring or downplaying or declaring illegitimate or laughing at the very existence of such feelings and loyalties, while instructing people to forget any inconvenient bits of history.

Liberals have to show they offer a better way, which quite possibly they do: the abolition of borders. But that project can only work if instead of handing it down from on high, as if to their vassals, the liberals first listen with respect to what the people may be attempting, however inconveniently, to say.

Applebaum knows Boris Johnson: her husband was with him in the Bullingdon Club. In her view,

“Both were playing with the old forms of the English class system, acting out some of the rules because it amused them. They enjoyed the Bullingdon not despite [Evelyn] Waugh’s vicious parody, but because of it.”

That sounds right: the Bullingdon was a joke. But part of the joke was at the expense of the priggish middle class, the Puritans shocked by the club’s hooliganism – a hooliganism which, one cannot help thinking, may have put its members more in touch with the hooliganism found in other classes of society, though not, of course, in the middle-class prigs.

Applebaum one day bumps into Johnson in the City of London:

“He was then mayor; he was riding his bike. I waved at him, he stopped, exclaimed over the amazing coincidence, and suggested that we go into a pub for a quick drink.”

Once inside the pub he is mobbed by people demanding selfies. But then they have a chat. She does not tell us what they said, but here we see a man anxious to mend fences, or if possible not to fall out in the first place.

The Conservative Party has endured because it has avoided, at least with greater success than the Liberals or Labour, “the parting of friends”. Let’s have a quick drink.

And let’s find a leader who can connect with the wider public, however much the liberal intelligentsia may despise him – or her, in the case of Margaret Thatcher.

Applebaum at length takes us to Washington DC, where she was an early and outspoken opponent of Donald Trump. She recognises that he represents “another America”:

“This America has no special democratic spirit of the kind Jefferson described. The unity of this America is created by white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall. This America’s ethnic nationalism resembles the old-fashioned ethnic nationalism of older European nations. This America’s cultural despair resembles their cultural despair.”

All this may be true, but does not do much to penetrate with imagination or sympathy into the hearts and minds of Americans who voted for Trump, many of whom regard themselves as followers of Jefferson, president 1801-09, and of Andrew Jackson, president 1829-37.

Morality gets in the way of understanding. These people are deplorable. As I suggested at the end of a recent piece, “American liberals…will do everything they can for the American people short of spending any time with them.”