Maybe the world is not going to hell in a handcart after all

3 Jun

It is always tempting for a conservative to believe the world is going to hell in a handcart, but are things just now as bad as all that?

On my last visit to Oxford, I took the trouble to stop outside the University Church, on the north side of the High Street, and gaze up at the statue of Cecil Rhodes.

My hosts assured me that Oriel College was about to remove the statue of its benefactor, so this would be my last chance to see it.

Instead of which, the statue is to remain in place, and the college is going to promote “educational equality, diversity and inclusion amongst its student cohort”.

The announcement was made in the most tactful possible terms. Oriel’s governing body insists it still wishes to remove the statue, but has discovered that “the regulatory and financial challenges” which stand in the way of doing so are too great.

In plainer language, the college authorities have realised the whole thing would a grotesque waste of money.

Over at Jesus College, Cambridge, it seems a similar realisation may be dawning.

As Charles Moore reports in The SpectatorJesus wants to remove Grinling Gibbons’s bust of its 17th-century benefactor, Tobias Rustat, from the college chapel, because of his connections to the slave trade.

Here too, the likely costs of removal turn out to be considerable, and hard to reconcile with the college’s “charitable aims of education, learning, research and religion”.

Moore chronicles, in the cover piece of this week’s Spectator, how the National Trust’s charitable purposes were subverted after those running the organisation allowed Black Lives Matter to set a different agenda.

A body called Restore Trust has launched a campaign to get the NT “to return to its original principles”, and the NT’s Chairman, Tim Parker, has resigned.

In all three cases, the leaders of a long-established institution succumbed to an outburst of moral panic, and gave a hasty yet unconditional assent to changes which had not been thought through, and which turned out to be incompatible with the institution’s purposes.

Only the most bone-headed conservative would contend that institutions do not need to change, in order to adapt themselves to new conditions.

The problem here is the bone-headedness not of conservatives, but of certain glib and irresponsible progressives who convince themselves, with ineffable self-righteousness, that after a short period of study, or indeed after no study at all, they have arrived at the one true view of history, and are entitled to impose it on everyone else.

No institution should allow itself to be imposed upon in this way. If the history which is being urged is true, prolonged and careful study will confirm this.

When a statue has stood for a century without anyone making a serious case against it – indeed without most people noticing its existence – it should not be torn down in a momentary ebullition of moral funk, so those responsible for it can be thought of by others, and think of themselves, as fine fellows.

In the words of Edmund Burke,

“Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”

That can be found in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a sublime work which reminds us that conservatives have often feared with better reason than we now have that the world is going to hell in a handcart.

What Thatcher’s response to the AIDS crisis teaches us about tackling the present pandemic

1 Dec

“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” the soundtrack begins. “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure…”

A volcano erupts, a hail of boulders rains down a cliff, and to the sound of wild, funereal music a pneumatic drill and a chisel carve from the solid rock a tombstone bearing the single word AIDS, on which a bunch of lilies is thrown.

This must be one of the most frightening public information films ever made, directed by Nic Roeg, voiced by John Hurt, and intended to strike fear into viewers and get them to read the “Don’t Die Of Ignorance” leaflet which was distributed to 23 million households.

On World AIDS Day, it is worth recalling that in the 1980s another pandemic struck: a lethal and mysterious illness for which there was no cure.

The parallels between AIDS and Covid-19 should not be pushed too far, but are nevertheless illuminating, and in the fulness of time have even become encouraging, for the HIV Commission today publishes its plan for England to become by 2030 the first country in the world to eliminate the transmission of the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

The Commission’s key recommendation is “test, test, test”, and as one of its members, Steve Brine MP (Con, Winchester), yesterday told ConHome, “in the context of the last nine months, you really get what we’re saying”.

Both pandemics struck during periods of Conservative government, and posed enormous troubles for the Prime Minister of the day.

In August 1975, when there had been 206 confirmed cases of AIDS in the United Kingdom, of whom 114 had died, Margaret Thatcher was told by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson, that it was likely AIDS could be transmitted heterosexually as well as homosexually.

What message was to be given to the public? In his brilliant account, beginning on page 71 of Herself Alone, the third volume of his life of Thatcher, Charles Moore quotes David Willetts, then a member of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, who told her, “We have to walk a difficult tightrope between being accused of bureaucratic inertia, and being so active as to whip up public hysteria,” and went on:

“We simply don’t know whether everybody with the virus will eventually go down with the symptoms of the disease. So we would be telling people that they may get the clinical disease, but we don’t know; and if they have got it, we can’t cure it. That’s not a very satisfactory message, but seems to be the best course out of several unattractive alternatives.”

The problem was rendered still more difficult by the close association which emerged between AIDS and homosexuality. Some people seized the chance to express the disgust and hatred they felt for homosexuals: as Willetts warned, there was a danger of fomenting public hysteria.

Some Conservatives, and some religious leaders, urged the Prime Minister to preach the virtues of abstinence.

Thatcher declined to treat AIDS as an opportunity for moralising. For her it was a scientific and medical problem. As Moore writes, she was happiest “when she had a concrete and exact point to advance”.

She was a Tory pragmatist: she wanted to solve the problem, not prate about it. Those who have insisted on understanding her in ideological terms have often overlooked how practical she was.

But part of being practical was framing a public message about the dangers of anal sex, and here she took some persuading, which was done by the Health Secretary, Norman Fowler, who in March 1986 told her that the advice to avoid anal intercourse, “which has been linked with 85 per cent of AIDS cases so far”, must remain in advertisements to be placed in the press, or else these would lose all “medical authority and credibility”.

Lord Fowler, who has worked to this day to reduce and at length eradicate HIV, has recalled how difficult things were in the 1980s, and why at the start of 1987 a yet bigger public health campaign, which included the television advertisements, was warranted:

“We had no knowledge of this disease and no drugs with which to treat it. I was reading a note the other day from the Chief Medical Officer at the time and some of the predictions as to what could happen were terrifying – we were talking millions and millions of people becoming infected. That’s why we launched what is still the biggest public health campaign there’s ever been in this country with leaflets sent out to every home.”

In the 1980s, the predictions of the scientists did not always prove accurate. So too today. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock prefer to present themselves as following the science, than as adherents of a theory of freedom which would allow them to ignore what the scientists were saying.

They too are Tory pragmatists, most interested in what works, even if that has to be discovered by an agonising process of trial and error.

Thatcher was always worried, and with good reason, that although she and her colleagues insisted “the Health Service is safe in our hands”, the voters would not believe them. Johnson can be seen guarding at every turn against that danger.

Caroline Slocock, the first female private secretary at Number Ten, has described a visit Thatcher eventually undertook to an AIDS hospice, without any press in attendance, partly because she did not wish to seem to be competing with the well-known work already done in this field by Diana, Princess of Wales.

The first patient she sees is clearly “very ill and has no hope of recovery”. Slocock goes on:

“I feel out of my depth. I have never been at the bedside of a dying person before and I feel strongly that family and friends should be there at this moment, not us… She [Thatcher] responds by taking a seat by his side, asking questions, expressing sympathy, connecting in a simple and genuine way, to which he responds sweetly. She comes across as more of a mother than a Prime Minister…

“After about ten minutes, we leave him and go into the second room. Inside, sitting in a chair beside his bed, is a young American man, also extremely thin. The virus has attacked his brain too, as it does in the final stages, we are told afterwards, and he is excited and confused. At first he thinks she must be a creation of his own mind, a delusion. But then he begins to believe that she really is Margaret Thatcher, but sent to him miraculously to hear his thoughts and to pass them on to President Bush. He tells her to ring the President. It is imperative that action is taken now to help people like him – that is his message. He is overexcited, it is very difficult to know how to respond, and it is very, very sad.

“I desperately want to get out of the room. I feel responsible for putting them both through this awkward scene. Margaret Thatcher is unfazed and behaves as if she has all the time in the world. She places her hand on his arm, asks him a few questions about his life and listens, in a way that demonstrates that she is real, not a phantom, and is there because she cares and wishes him well. He calms down in response. It is simple, human stuff, but I am in awe of it.

“When we leave them, we ask the staff about their families. It turns out that neither have felt able to tell their parents that they are gay, let alone that they have AIDS, and so they are dying alone.”

For a quite different reason, the need to prevent infection, many sufferers from Covid-19 have lived and died alone.

While reading about the 1980s, it struck me that there was often no correlation between a politician’s views on other questions, and what he or she thought about AIDS.

This elementary point has sometimes been overlooked in coverage of the present pandemic. The urgent need to get things done, in order to avert or relieve suffering, trumps whatever abstract views one may have about the right way to set about this.

In January 2019, when Steve Brine was serving as Public Health Minister, and three charities – The Elton John AIDS Foundation, National AIDS Trust and Terrence Higgins Trust – came to him with proposals for the eradication in England of HIV, he gave the Government’s support and approval to what they wanted to do, as did Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary.

Brine said yesterday:

“We had a policy decision, we had the science that allowed us to approve it. The science of PrEP [Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis], which has been a huge game-changer, now allows us to finish the job.”

A connecting thread of pragmatism links the 1980s to the present day. Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, traces this tradition of unmoralistic pragmatism further back:

“‘Sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas’: Disraeli’s famous misquotation from the fourth century Vulgate in the course of his great three-hour speech in Manchester in April 1872 defining modern conservatism rings down the years. He understood that moral censoriousness had no more place in health policy than in private life. In this respect, Boris Johnson, like successful Tory leaders before him, follows in the great Disraelian tradition.”

Ben Monro-Davies: “I think when women cry, often they are angry.” On this day, 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher resigned

22 Nov

Ben Monro-Davies is an Executive Producer at Sky News and has previously work at the BBC and Channel 4 News. He is the host of the podcast Big Ben History, which discusses the past at Westminster.

All remember it vividly. They arrived not entirely sure what was about to happen, awaiting her in the ante room. Her Principal Private Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, briefly panicked: he’d forgotten to tell ministers the right time, such was the silence as he and the soon to resign Prime Minister approached. But as they turned the corner – he and she saw them all there – in his words, “pressed back, looking at their shoes.”

The meeting was earlier than usual – bought forward not because of the end of an eleven year premiership – but for the memorial service for Libby Douglas Home, the wife of Alec. Many went straight to St Paul’s Cathedral afterwards – William Waldegrave remembers the surreal juxtaposition of them singing All Things Bright and Beautiful with the choir just an hour afterwards.

Some had anticipated what was about to happen. The Cabinet secretary, Robin Butler, realised the night before that it was all over. He was keen to “stage manage” proceedings. “I didn’t want there to be a hiatus with nobody knowing what to do.” On November 21st, he drafted a tribute on behalf of the Cabinet – and asked James Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, to read it. He chose Mackay as someone who was clearly not going to succeed her.

Lord Mackay – today still active in the Lords in his nineties – reflects that he, the son of railway signal man, had “strangely enough become number two in the cabinet, and I was sitting next to the Prime Minister.”

He remembers Thatcher reading her statement and breaking down. Cecil Parkinson spoke up, saying: “the Lord Chancellor will read it for you.” Two members of her staff, Barry Potter and Dominic Morris recall Parkinson adding “you don’t have to do this”. Mackay says he responded firmly: “no : the Lord Chancellor will not read it for you, The Prime Minister will read it herself.” Others recall her stumbling to the end – and then saying “I had better do that again”, and reliving the grief once more.

When I first became interested in this most dramatic of meetings, I’d assumed that was that. With a twenty-first century sensibility towards job termination, it already required imagination to grasp a scenario in which you’d have to read out your resignation to the men who’d called time on your career the day before.

But the meeting was not over. It was still a Cabinet gathering with an agenda. So with some ministers such as the Home Secretary, David Waddington, in tears, the meeting moved on – albeit with some constitutional as well as emotional awkwardness.

Her Party Chairman, Kenneth Baker, remembers a break for coffee, and a revived Iron Lady then telling the cabinet “on no account must Heseltine be elected” – an instruction he calls “inappropriate”. That was exactly what some of those in the meeting did want. Butler felt obliged to “soften” the Cabinet minutes to record a general exhortation to carry on the work of her government.

Tom King, then Defence Secretary, was moved by the scene. He’d found her very supportive during his time in Northern Ireland office, and remembers her kindly taking him aside after his mother died. By contrast, he doubts his previous boss, Ted Heath, ever knew his name. He also considered himself as the possible next Prime Minister. “The truth was at that moment four or five of us could have come through as her successor. That’s the reality. “

But he was also next on the Cabinet agenda – outlining the biggest military deployment since World War II to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. This was effectively a war cabinet meeting, and the British machinery of government was navigating the defenestration of its leader and a massive military engagement at the same time.

The less historic was attended to as well. No-one understandably remembers, but in her memoirs Thatcher describes an item on “an unsuccessful Fisheries Council ruined by incompetent Italian chairmanship”. It’s confirmed in the minutes. The State was remorselessly executing the tasks in hand,

There were only two women in the room: Thatcher, and Caroline Slocock, then a private secretary in Downing St. She was not politically sympathetic to Thatcherism, and to her disappointment had been denied the position on a permanent basis. She later discovered that Thatcher had been behind this.

Nevertheless, she remembers the meeting as “pure torture. I was only the other woman in the room. To my shock I started to cry. I hadn’t even brought in a handkerchief. It was the extraordinary loss of power. “

But as a woman, there was another perspective. “It was also the anger. I think when women cry, often they are angry. I think she was probably very angry with these men. The scene has haunted me ever since.” By the end of that day, she recalls there being no tissue paper in the women’s bathroom.

Slocock was right. Thatcher was angry and made little secret of it afterwards. Peter Lilley thinks he was the only cabinet minister present at the launch of her memoirs which eviscerated her former colleagues as “men in lifeboats”.

As to how it had come to this, there are the common observations that longevity breeds detachment. Having so often been proved right at the ballot box, it became harder for her to accept she might be wrong, most notably on the poll tax. Lilley feared she might ask him to rescue it, and warned his wife he would have to return to the backbenches because he believed the policy wrongheaded.

But more bespoke episodes are identified. All bring up a cabinet meeting just a few days before, where she humiliated Geoffrey Howe needlessly over an issue of the parliamentary timetable. Malcom Rifkind says “he was the Deputy Prime Minister and she tore him into as if he were an errant schoolboy. That was a disgrace.”

Howe resigned shortly afterwards, triggering the events that led to a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine. Charles Moore in his authorised biography of Thatcher concludes that Howe was going to resign anyway. But in two Cabinet meetings in November 1990 ministers spent much of it, in Kenneth Baker’s words, “staring at the blotters on their desks.”

And one name forgotten name comes up again and again. Peter Morrison was her Parliamentary Private Secretary who was tasked with her leadership campaign. Michael Howard says: “He was frankly hopeless. I remember ringing Peter up, and asking is there anything I can do to help? ‘No, no, no he said, it’s all under control old boy, there’s nothing you can do.’ It was a disaster.” Morrison was an alcoholic who died five years later, and the current Independent Child Sex Abuse inquiry has heard claims that he was also a sex offender.

Thatcher was forced into a fatal second ballot by a handful of votes – hearing the news In Paris at a conference with world leaders to mark the end of the Cold War. She’d played a crucial role in defeating the Soviet Union, but neglected to appoint the right general to deal with her own troops. Barry Potter blames a weakness for “posh men.” Andrew Turnbull adds she liked them also to be “tall.” Morrison fitted both categories.

And for all the drama of the final cabinet meeting , it’s worth noting the absence of three central actors. Michael Heseltine was of course challenging from the backbenches. Geoffrey Howe was there with him, for the first time since 1979. And the Chancellor of Exchequer was also missing. John Major was at home recuperating from having his wisdom teeth removed. The next cabinet meeting he attended was as Prime Minister.

Iain Dale: If Milling isn’t up to being Party Chairman, why was she appointed in the first place?

9 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I have to admit that I didn’t watch any of the Conservative virtual conference online. Judging by the number of registrations, it can be deemed a success. Twenty thousand people registered, and there were often more than 6,000 people watching.

I’m told fringe meetings proved more popular than the set-piece cabinet minister speeches (wasn’t it ever thus?) with some events, including those hosted by ConHome) attracting online audiences in four figures.

Given that normal fringe meetings might attract a couple of hundred people at most, this ought to give the conference organisers food for thought for the future. CCHQ told me this week that future conferences would almost certainly be hybrid events, and that’s exactly right. The more people who are able to take part, the better.

– – – – – – – – – –

Watching highlights of the US Vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, it almost seemed like normal politics had returned.

For the most part, the debate was conducted with mutual respect, good humour and dignity from both candidates. Yes, there were some interruptions, but that happens in debates. We had none of the abuse, insults and acrimony that characterised the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a week before.

And it wasn’t just the President who was guilty. We don’t know yet whether the next debate, due to take place in Florida next week, will go ahead. If it does, let’s hope that it’s more edifying than the first one.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Tuesday, I deputised for Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph.  I thought long and hard about writing what I did – but it had to be said.

I wrote about the role of the Party Chairman, and how its importance has diminished over the years, and how the present incumbent, Amanda Milling, was performing no useful role, except to travel the country and eat a few rubber chickens

It gave me no pleasure, and in many ways it’s not her fault. She’s performing the role dictated by Number Ten. She has no power to change anything, and scant little influence. Her co-chairman, Ben Elliot, is the one in control and we all know it.

The one role she could perform, but hasn’t got the experience to do, is to get out there on the media and be a lightning rod for the Prime Minister. That’s what Cecil Parkinson did. It’s what Norman Tebbit used to do. It’s what Brian Mawhinney did for John Major. And it’s what Brandon Lewis did for Theresa May.

Amanda Milling went on Any Questions last Friday, and proceeded to read out lines from her briefing notes. It was buttock-clenchingly embarrassing. A programme insider reckoned she was the worst guest they had had on in recent memory.

Again, in many ways, I don’t blame her for that. Everyone tells me that Milling was an excellent Deputy Chief Whip, but we all know that whips don’t do media, and don’t speak in the chamber.

So to appoint someone with little media experience as co-Party Chairman was bizarre to say the least. It did her no favours whatsoever. By all accounts, the Number Ten machine is frustrated by her performance. No shit, Sherlock. Well, they shouldn’t blame her for it, they should apportion the blame to the person who made the appointment.

– – – – – – – – – –

I was disappointed but not surprised to see Liam Fox fail to reach the final two in the race to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation.

The EU was always determined to scupper him, which says far about them than it does about him. He is very well qualified to do the job, which will now be a straight fight between candidates from South Korea and Nigeria. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, has spoken out and said the whole charade has not been “to the greater glory of the European Union”.

– – – – – – – – – –

Just as the Conservative Party has had to put its conference online, so have literary festivals – or at least some of them. I’ve done quite a few on Zoom over the last few months, but appeared in person last Saturday at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, as trailed on this site last week.

The event was organised it very well, ensuring that both speakers and audience were safe. Next Friday ,I’m doing the Bristol Festival of Ideas remotely, but the Wells Festival of Literature in person on the same day.

Then on Sunday October 18, I’m in Twickenham being interviewed on stage by LBC’s Steve Allen, and then on  October 24 in Diss, Norfolk.

On that occasion Brandon Lewis will interview me, which I suspect he’s going to relish, given he tells me I always give him such a hard time when he comes on my show. Ticketing details can be found here.

Daniel Hannan: Clever, inquisitive and, crucially, independent, Charles Moore would be the perfect BBC chairman

30 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Charles Moore is everything a BBC chairman should be: clever, inquisitive, independent, humane, well-read, polite, patriotic, broad-minded and generous to his critics. During the golden age of newspapers – roughly the years between the new technology brought in following the Wapping dispute in the late 1980s and the rise of online journalism in the early 2000s – he led the editorial field. His only rival, though their styles were very different, was The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, now being mooted as the next head of Ofcom.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked for both men. I don’t know Dacre well, but even slight acquaintance is enough to reveal the secret of his success, namely an unparalleled ability to speak to and for ordinary people. At a time when other newspapers were going online or throwing themselves on the generosity of patrons, Dacre’s Mail remained both popular and profitable. A newsman to his fingertips, he filled the editor’s chair with his restless energy and curiosity. With almost all media struggling to make money, he is exactly the regulator we need: fair-minded, diligent and committed in his bones to freedom of speech.

I know Moore rather better, having spent seven years working for him at The Daily Telegraph. He was, as any Telegraph writer of that era will attest, a wonderful boss. Patiently and intelligently, he improved every section of the paper, from the sports pages to the weekly children’s pull-out section. He always stood by his people – he once went to war against the Prince of Wales’s office because it had treated a Telegraph photographer badly – yet he was impervious to flattery. The newspaper he edited reflected his voracious interests. He cared a great deal about accuracy, and hired several Labour-leaning lobby correspondents – perhaps on the principle that a Leftist reporter on a Rightist paper would always strive to be objective.

The BBC stands to gain enormously from his involvement. As he did at each of his newspapers, he will take a benign interest in every aspect of programming, from comedy to cookery. He will ensure that the Corporation gets a sympathetic hearing in Downing Street. He will steer it through a landscape changed utterly by the rise of YouTube and Netflix. He will revive that sense of integrity and high-mindedness that we might loosely call Reithian.

This, naturally, is not the view of most Beeb staff. Have I Got News For You, the quiz show which arguably set Boris on the path to Number 10, Tweeted that if Moore became chairman, the BBC wouldn’t last another five years. One staffer described his mooted appointment as “the Corporation’s Stalingrad.”

In part, this is simply a howl of anguish from a Leftist establishment used to getting its way. It is striking how many BBC figures cite Moore’s Euroscepticism and Toryism as ipso facto disqualifications – even though the country voted for Brexit and then elected a Conservative Government. Implicit in the criticism is the notion that someone on the Right can’t be disinterested – or, more precisely, that the soft Left positions we associate with the Beeb are statements of objective fact. The ordinary viewer might think the BBC has certain prejudices – feminism good, austerity bad; immigration good, Israel bad; EU good, Trump bad – but to its editors, these are not prejudices but truths.

Moore’s critics display the close-mindedness that they falsely suspect in him. In fact, you won’t find a less partisan man. Moore started out as a Liberal back in the pre-SDP days when that party was still broadly liberal. His liberalism rested, and rests still, on a readiness to question assumptions, to think things through from first principles, to spot what others have missed. Successive Conservative leaders came to fear his pen more than that of any Labour-supporting editor.

His BBC critics, naturally, won’t be convinced by anything I write. A readiness to dismiss views from outside their tribe is part of their problem. But, if he gets the job, they will come to appreciate him.

For the BBC, as it is currently run, is obsolete. The problem is not that it is biased or expensive or out-of-touch. The problem rather, is that it is not feasible to fund a state broadcaster through taxes in an age of streaming. Yes, the BBC’s partiality has weakened it by alienating conservatives. But even if everyone agreed that it was run by the best, wisest and most neutral public servants, it would still not survive in its current form.

Some senior figures within the BBC recognise that change is coming, and want to take ownership of that change. The corporation, after all, has huge advantages. No broadcaster has a stronger global brand. BBC programmes are watched on every continent. Much of what it does would be commercially viable under any dispensation.

People are creatures of habit. Thirty years after privatisation, BT was still by far the largest supplier of landlines, with nearly 40 per cent of the market. Without the licence fee, plenty of viewers will still want to watch Strictly and Planet Earth and Eastenders. The BBC could more than hold its own as a subscription channel. Yes, some parts might be less viable than others – I never understood, for example, why the BBC felt the need to get into local radio, an area amply served by private suppliers. But there is every reason to believe that a more commercial BBC could become more popular as well as more efficient.

The way to ensure that that doesn’t happen, of course, is to resist all reform, to be dragged kicking and screaming into each new change.

A wise BBC will turn technological change to its advantage, aiming to emerge as a more successful and original content-generator while recovering its former place in our national esteem. No one would help it achieve that goal better than Charles Moore.

Dacre, Moore, Neil. Is triple change coming for the BBC?

27 Sep

Each weekday, this site publishes a list of public appointments vacancy highlights, in order to encourage conservatives to apply.  This may just be worth mentioning in the context of the Sunday Times‘ claim today that Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail Editor, and Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph Editor, are tipped to be the next Chairman of Ofcom and the BBC respectively.

We got the list up and running in the wake of the Taxpayers’ Alliance reporting, during the early years of the Coalition, that “in the last year, five times more Labour people were appointed to public bodies than Tories”.

Its findings were followed on ConservativeHome by an occasional back-and-forth between Matthew Elliott, then of the Alliance, and the Cabinet Office, where Francis Maude was in place.  Elliott would write about the latest figures, suggesting that there was still an imbalance.  The Cabinet Office would fight back, arguing that Elliott’s statistics didn’t show the whole picture: for example, many appointments were made on a local and not a national basis.

A number of points became clear over time.  First, the Coalition gradually began to encourage its supporters to apply for posts, and some were appointed: William Shawcross at the Charities Commission, Peter Bazalgette at the Arts Council, David Prior to the Quality Care Commission.

Second, it became clear, as a Policy Exchange report said, that part of the reason there were fewer Conservatives on public bodies is that fewer of them applied in the first place, compared to Labour supporters.  This remains an issue: a further one is the relative inability of those who apply to negotiate diversity requirements – or, rather, the nature of those requirements in the first place.

Third, the reporting criteria has changed.  Candidates for posts now don’t have to declare if they belong to a political party – merely if they’ve been politically active during the past five years.  That’s extremely convenient from a civil service controversy-smothering point of view.

Our sense is that holding office for the last ten years has altered the balance a bit and that the Conservative presence in Downing Street, despite the discontinuity of having three different Tory Prime Ministers in office over five years, is alert to the issues, some of which are beyond its remit.  For example, it’s CCHQ’s job, not Number Ten’s, to take on the party political work of getting conservatives to apply for posts, and training them for interviews.

At any rate, if Boris Johnson wants Dacre at Ofcom and Moore at the BBC, it’s a sign that he himself understands the importance of appointments.  On the one hand, we think the Sunday Times is correct, about Moore at any rate.  On the other, it would be a mistake to think that Dacre would actually run Ofcom day-to-day if appointed, since it has a Chief Executive, Melanie Dawes, a former civil servant.

Moore would be a similar position at the BBC, where Tim Davie has recently taken over as Director-General.  Furthermore, neither appointment is in the gift of the Prime Minister or of anyone else: there are appointments processes.

Nonetheless, change at the Corporation is coming.  In a sense, it’s already arrived, because the BBC has lost Andrew Neil, its most formidable political interviewer and another former Fleet Street editor, to GB News, a new TV venture – and thus a challenger to the Corporation.

The appointment of either Dacre or Moore would horrify the BBC powers-that-be, but the former has said that he “would die in a ditch defending the BBC as a great civilising force”, while Moore thoroughly grasps the Corporation’s original Reithian mission – to “inform, educate and entertain” (in that order).

As for the Corporation itself, we repeat what we’ve written before: what’s required is fewer BBC TV stations, a reduced number of radio services, a scaled-back website, more spent on the World Service, a bigger presence for the Corporation outside London. In other words, less money plus the right reform – change that would leave a solid core of public service broadcasting with the BBC at its heart.

The next BBC Chairman? Send for Charles Moore.

25 Aug

The BBC’s pusillanimous decision to have not only Rule Britannia!, but Land of Hope and Glory, played rather than sung during Last Night of the Proms is the worst of both worlds.

It won’t do enough to appease a tiny woke minority, but is more than sufficient to anger a lot of people.  The best summary of the decision to date is in today’s Times: “white guys in a panic”.

The decision comes as Boris Johnson broods over the coming decision about the BBC’s next Chairman.  Lots of names are being floated as runners-and-riders. Most look very speculative.

Almost certainly, those writing won’t have much hard information, if any – given the Prime Minister’s propensity to play his cards not so much close to his chest as stuffed up his vest.

All that said, two intriguing names stand out from those punted.  Put them together, and an old rivalry is newly re-ignited.

The first is Andrew Neil – Chairman of Press Holdings Group (which owns the Spectator), founding Chairman of Sky TV, former Editor of the Sunday Times…and the BBC’s most effective political interviewer.

The second is Charles Moore – Former editor of the Spectator, the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Telegraph, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer…and a committed critic not only of the Corporation but of the licence fee itself.

The two men have something of a history: Neil edited the Sunday Times at the same time as Moore did the Sunday Telegraph, the best part of 25 years ago.

Both are right of centre in politics, but of a chalk-and-cheese difference in flavour.  Moore is a high Tory, who can’t see an institution without wanting to shore it up.  Neil is a low one, who can’t see one without itching to tear it down.

It is part of the binding genius of Thatcherism that both men rose with it and were at home with it.  Of the two, the first may be unavailable and the second judged unsuitable.

Neil would know more than a bit about the corporation from the inside, and his energy, intelligence and swagger would shake it up.  But he is reported to be involved in a new centre-right TV enterprise to rival Sky News.

Moore was once fined for refusing to pay the licence fee.  If a Neil appointment would have senior BBC managers heading for the doors, a Moore one would see them running for the hills.

(On the advice of Dominic Cummings and others, the Prime Minister swerved a TV interview with the Neil during last December’s election campaign.

Cummings argued that though the Twitter class might foam itself into a lather, most voters wouldn’t even notice the row.  The election result suggests that he was right.)

ConservativeHome is not in favour of making of making the licence fee voluntary, but believes that the Corporation is losing its way, and urgently needs to re-connect with its Reithian vocation.

As the Last Night of the Proms fiasco shows, the BBC’s problems are not confined to, or even demonstrated by, its news coverage.

Rather, it is of orientating it towards the nation as a whole, including the majority that voted Leave in 2016, and Britain outside central London, where much of the Corporation’s senior management is based.

Like him or not, Moore understands Reith’s inheritance, and would be more than capable of applying its ideals to (especially) education, drama, the regions, and programming as whole.

Finally, being Chairman of the Corporation is not to be confused with being its Director-General. Moore, Neil or whoever would be operating at one remove.

Johnson left the Spectator under Neil but flourished at the Telegraph titles under Moore.  This bit of personal history will of course have no bearing whatsoever on any decision that he will take.

Neave. Berry. Gow. Three Conservative MPs whose murders a new peer believes were justified.

2 Aug

When next the Prime Minister takes to the despatch box, he may if he has a few moments cast his eyes around the edge of the House of Commons. If he does, he may note that some of the decorative shields around walls have been painted in.

These are tributes to Members of Parliament who have been killed whilst serving in that role. With pre-emptive apologies for butchering the proper heraldic terminology, three of them in particular should weigh on his conscience.

Of these, one sports a black cross and five golden fleurs-de-lys on a white field, topped with a crown. This represents Airey Neave, Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary and Conservative MP for Abingdon. Murdered by the IRA in 1979.

The next has a field of red and gold stripes, on which is displayed a white triangle containing three black birds. This represents Sir Anthony Berry, Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate. Murdered by the IRA in 1984.

Finally, the third features a simple blue field, on which is displayed a golden monogram of the letters IREG, in a laurel wreath. This represents Ian Gow, PPS to the Prime Minister and Conservative MP for Eastbourne. Murdered by the IRA in 1990.

(Depending on how you assess the relationship between the parties at the time of his assassination, we might also count the shield of Robert Bradford, Unionist MP for South Belfast. Murdered by the IRA in 1981.)

These memorials invite us to reflect. On the individuals the commemorate. On the causes they served. On why their careers ended with a painted shield in the House of Commons, rather than retirement. Especially today, when a Conservative Government has elevated to the peerage a woman who believes that the people who killed Neave, Berry, and Gow were right.

Claire Fox is no stranger to this controversy, which Sunder Katwala has thoughtfully outlined on Twitter. It already received plenty of coverage when she stood to become a Brexit Party MEP for Warrington, despite her defence of the 1993 IRA bombing in the town which killed two people – one of them the 12-year-old son of a fellow Brexit Party activist.

The arguments are the same. Fox does not support republican terrorism post-1998. But she believes it was justified before 1998. That these MPs, and the IRA’s many other victims, were legitimate targets.

She believes this belongs in the past. And to an extent, that’s right. It is a nasty but inescapable reality of any peace process that it involves a certain amount of letting go. Fox is an engaging speaker, energetic activist, and a popular figure on the libertarian right. She runs a successful think-tank, was returned to the European Parliament, and enjoys a high media profile.

But there ought, surely, to be some limits, if not to Fox’s ambitions for public life then at least to a Conservative Prime Minister’s willingness to facilitate it. The limits of justifiable rapprochement do not extend to a seat in the House of Lords.

There is a strange symmetry to the fact that the only other ‘Non-affiliated’ political peerage has gone to Charles Moore, Thatcher’s great biographer and one of the most anti-IRA journalists in Britain. How he feels about this pairing is anyone’s guess, but it symbolises – in a more visceral way than Boris Johnson’s u-turn over the Irish Backstop – just how much of a gulf there really is between today’s Party, or at least its leadership, and that which fought the IRA to the table between 1979 and 1997.

Airey Neave. Anthony Berry. Ian Gow. Three elected Conservatives who paid the ultimate price for our Party’s commitment to defending the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland’s place in it, from republican terrorism. If there is any good to come from this appointment, let it be that it prompts us to remember their sacrifice and their cause.

If the Prime Minister looks a smaller man today than before, it is because he stands in the shadows of giants.

Lords 2) Hammond, Stuart, Davidson, Hoey. Johnson, Fox… but no Bercow. The new peerages.

1 Aug

Dissolution Peerages

Conservative:

  • Sir Henry Bellingham
  • Kenneth Clarke
  • Ruth Davidson
  • Philip Hammond
  • Nick Herbert
  • Jo Johnson
  • Mark Lancaster
  • Sir Patrick McLoughlin
  • Aamer Sarfraz
  • Ed Vaizey

Labour:

  • Kathryn Clark
  • Brinley Davies

Democratic Unionist:

  • Nigel Dodds

Non-affiliated:

  • Frank Field
  • Kate Hoey
  • Ian Austen
  • Gisela Stuart
  • John Woodcock

Political Peerages

Conservative:

  • Lorraine Fullbrook
  • Ed Udny-Lister
  • Daniel Moylan
  • Andrew Sharpe
  • Michael Spencer
  • Veronica Wadley
  • James Wharton
  • Dame Helena Morrissey
  • Neil Mendoza

Labour:

  • Susan Hayman
  • Prem Sikka
  • Anthony Woodley

Non-affiliated:

  • Claire Fox
  • Charles Moore