Girl: Dad, why do people want to punch your face in?
Me: Er, I’m not sure that they do, darling. Where did you get that idea?
Girl: It’s on YouTube. Look, here: ‘When Delingpole does that “air quotes” thing with his fingers I just want to punch him. Actually, I’d quite like to punch him anyway.’
Me: Ah, well, darling, you mustn’t worry about that. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. It means Daddy’s famous.
Actually what I should have said was ‘infamous’. I’d first noticed this a couple of days earlier, at the Caprice, when I stopped by at the table of Daily Mail diarist Richard Kay. As Kay introduced me to his dining companion, I noticed a peculiar expression beginning to appear on the stranger’s face: that same weird mix of appalled horror and amused delight you might experience on meeting, maybe, Jeremy Clarkson or Piers Morgan, or Kim Jong-un. ‘Yep, that’s me,’ I joked. ‘The Notorious James Delingpole.’ Except the moment I said it — and they laughed — I realised it wasn’t a joke at all.
If you wanted to be unkind you could say I’ve become my own caricature. But the way I prefer to see it is that I’ve perfected my brand. I was talking to Toby Young about this the other day, in relation to public speaking. Toby said the thing that tends to go down really badly with his audiences, especially liberal-lefty ones, is when he tries to be reasonable and balanced and moderate. Not only do they despise you for your spinelessness but they feel utterly cheated. They came for the Experience of Toby Young, not the Experience of Having Just Waded Through Another Article In Which Hugo Rifkind Takes A Lighthearted Sideways Look At Something.
Exactly. And it’s in precisely that spirit that I’ve taken a gratuitous swipe just there at Hugo Rifkind. Not because he always seems to be having a pop at me — that would be petty — but because, damn it, when people are on the wrong side of an argument there’s simply no point in trying to make nicey-nice with them in the hope that they’ll treat you more kindly next time or that you’ll swing them round to your point of view. Ain’t gonna happen.
My policy towards my opponents these days is much the same as the Royal Navy’s in the great days of Nelson and Cochrane: when confronted, always attack. This wasn’t because they were all-powerful and could afford to but, on the contrary, because they were often fearfully outgunned and outnumbered. For the last few years I’ve had a similar experience in the great climate wars, a lone frigate commander pitted against the mighty capital ships of the BBC, the Royal Society, the University of Easy Access, the EU and, God help us, most of Cameron’s ‘Conservative’ party. You don’t turn and run when the bastards try to scare you with a shot across the bows — as the UEA did when it took me to the Press Complaints Commission — let me tell you. You fight till the decks are slippery with blood and littered with fallen spars and torn rigging and smashed body parts. Striking your colours can never be an option.
Why not? Well for one thing, the opposition are such a scum-sucking shoal of bottom-feeders that they really don’t deserve it. And for another, if you do, you’re betraying your comrades. Sometimes, on Any Questions, you’ll hear a right-leaning type modifying his views to make them sound less offensive to the inevitably lefty-dominated audience. Sure, he may earn himself more claps (or, more likely, fewer jeers) in so doing. But only at a terrible cost to his soul, his principles and, most importantly, to all those non-lefty listeners at home who were yearning for a red-meat champion, not some lily-livered, milquetoast appeaser. Whenever I’m tempted to head in that direction, I need only mutter two words to nip such skin-salving cravenness in the bud: Michael Portillo.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as though, before I sit down to write an article or before I do TV or radio, I muse: ‘Mm. What outrageously controversial thing can I say in order to make myself as widely loathed as possible?’ It’s just that these days I tend to bother far less with the self-exculpatory preamble designed to show your audience how incredibly bloody nice you are. That’s the only reason the stuff I write sounds extreme: not because it is extreme but because it’s served up straight, without any prettification or apologies or weaselly ambiguities.
Besides, people who set too much store by being seen to be nice, in my experience, are often the most unconscionable shits. (This is almost infallibly true of people’s Twitter self-descriptions: anyone who claims to be ‘nice’ — or ‘passionate’, or involved in anything ‘sustainable’ or ‘renewable’ — is very likely a baby-eating satanist who should be blocked forthwith.) And besides, why would you want to be liked by everyone anyway? What kind of bland, compromising, spineless, glib, two-faced loser sell-out would you have to be to make such a thing even halfway possible?
So no, though I’d be lying if I said my heart leapt every time Girl goes on the internet and reads some twisted troll creature spewing bile and vitriol at her Dad, I’m certainly not asking for one iota of sympathy. When you’re taking flak, it’s a sign that you’re over the target. And as Churchill, of course, once said: ‘You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.’
The Notorious JMCD, that’s me. Yeah. I’m not complaining.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 2, 2012