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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator's Notes: George Osborne's personal recovery

Plus: Alistair McAlpine remembered, and the secrets of the Great Xa

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

Now that the economic statistics are looking better, people are beginning to rediscover the once-fashionable thought that George Osborne is a great strategist. Things are coming together before the 2015 election in a way which makes life uncomfortable for Labour. I am not sure that ‘strategist’ is the right word, but I do think Mr Osborne deserves praise for something else. If you compare this government with the last, you will see that it is not dysfunctional in its internal relations. The coalition has constant frictions, but these are, as it were, built into the system. After nearly four years, there is no serious split or even known personal hatred at the top of the government. The trust between Prime Minister and Chancellor, which collapsed under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown, is unbroken. Osborne is good at being powerful without pushing himself forward excessively. He is also cool-headed enough to realise his own limitations, and therefore does not annoy colleagues by trying to be a media star. Like most politicians that the public do not warm to and unlike most that they do, he is quite nice — humorous, good at absorbing what others say, pleasant to work with. His Treasury team of advisers is unusual in this government in combining policy understanding with media skills — much superior to their Downing Street equivalents, who seem directionless and content-free. And in an election campaign which will centre on the economy, it is worth bearing in mind that it is at the Treasury that horrible memories of the Brown years are most vivid. At a lecture to the Mile End Group last week, the Permanent Secretary, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, who served in his present job for the last five Labour years, set out his ten ‘propositions’ of what the so-called ‘Treasury view’ really is. About seven of them read as implied criticisms of the Brown years. His propositions are certainly not praise-singing for the present government either, but they suggest a certain confidence in the way things are going and a fear of returning to what we had then.

One evening in the 1990s, I attended a Mass in the Chelsea flat of Gordon Reece, the presentational genius who did so much for Margaret Thatcher’s television appearances. Like a lot of extrovert, worldly sinners who know how to celebrate things, Reece was a serious Catholic. As I walked along the street in the direction of his mansion block, I noticed a shuffling figure in a torn overcoat in front of me. A bottle of whisky, already partly consumed, stuck out of his pocket. ‘Poor fellow,’ I thought, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ But the figure surprised me by entering at the same door, and when we reached the lift, I realised that it was Alistair McAlpine, who had quite recently become a Catholic. The whisky, it turned out, was the Macallan, and Alistair explained that he was drinking it and nothing else so that he could measure each day exactly how much he drank. He had a bit more of it after Mass. Everything about McAlpine, who died last week, was unexpected — his faith, his success as Tory treasurer, his tall stories which generally turned out to be true, his appearance (half-bookie, half-Bohemian, half-plutocrat: I know that makes three halves, but it serves the point I am making), his taste in art, his outstanding kindness to so many and his occasional burning animosity towards a few. One of his most unexpected gifts was his ability to recognise in the outwardly conventional Mrs Thatcher a kindred spirit, a complete original.

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A friend who supports this column’s cry to make Radio 3 less babyish sends me a fascinating clip. It is from the BBC’s Blue Peter in 1972. Yehudi Menuhin appears, interviewed by Valerie Singleton. He picks up a 300-year-old violin and talks about its strings and about Paganini. Then Valerie explains that ‘Mr Menuhin will now play an operatic aria “Nel cor più non mi sento”, accompanying himself with the left-hand pizzicato’. Next, he plays the theme from Paganini’s 24th Caprice. He gets a full four minutes of prime-time children’s television for which, I imagine, the average age of the audience was eight or nine. Nothing is dumbed down. It is assumed that children will be inspired if they are treated seriously by a great man. Nowadays, Radio 3 operates more and more on the opposite, unflattering and eventually self-fulfilling principle that its audience can be expected to understand almost nothing, even though we are chiefly adults.

As you get older, it is proverbial that policemen get younger. Eventually, even bishops and law lords do the same. But I was brought up with a start to discover that Alexander Sturgis is to be the new director of the Ashmolean in Oxford. Dr Sturgis, who currently runs the Holburne Museum in Bath, is about to be announced, I gather, as the successor to Dr Christopher Brown. To our family he will always be The Great Xa, a wonderful young professional magician (in his spare time); and we have photographs of him wearing what look like pyjamas and a white tie with big red spots, conjuring for our twins — dressed in chef’s hats, for some reason — at their fourth birthday party. Now he must conjure up money.

Every morning spent at home since I acquired a Blackberry several years ago, I have laid it precariously on the top of the computer screen in my study. This is because it is the only place in the room where I can get a signal from Vodafone. Just recently, the signal has got decidedly worse, as indicated by the little red sign saying ‘SOS’ in the top right corner. I have to walk out into the garden to make contact with the outside world. It is funny how, in the era of presumed consumer sovereignty, some things just are not catered for. One of these is rural life, as one finds out on computer booking forms if one lives in a house which has no street number or, in areas remoter than ours, if you want rural broadband. Is it really economically difficult to provide such services, or is this some sort of culture war?

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