There is much complaint that ‘ageism’ has toppled Sir Menzies Campbell. In theory, one must deplore prejudice against advancing years. Political leadership should come after accumulating decades of wisdom, rather than being treated, as Tony Blair seems to regard the premiership, as something to put on your CV. But the trouble is that Sir Ming’s leadership of the Liberals did exemplify the things that genuinely do get worse with age. He showed a slowness, a lack of mental agility, an imperviousness to new ideas. It was as if he were deaf. However, this column’s main explanation for his fall is the curse of the Iraq war. One should never tire of pointing out that all the leaders, in the English-speaking world at least, who supported it — George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard — were re-elected, whereas politicians who opposed it — Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, John Kerry (sort of), not to mention our own Charles Kennedy — got into trouble. So has Sir Ming. People say that he was marvellous about foreign affairs, less successful on domestic issues. Actually, he was ghastly on foreign policy, somehow managing to be platitudinous and wrong at the same time. Although the Iraq war is unpopular, politicians who denounce it exude smugness, and subliminally seem to have a vested interest in failure.
Ayaan Hirshi Ali lives in daily danger of murder. Since she wrote the script for Submission, the film about Islamic abuse of women directed by the Dutchman Theo Van Gogh, she has been on Islamist death lists. When Van Gogh was stabbed in the street in Amsterdam, her name was mentioned on the note left pinned to his corpse. If you look on jihadi websites, you can see invitations to anyone knowing her whereabouts to post them on the internet. Ayaan Hirshi Ali was spasmodically protected by the Dutch authorities, until the beginning of this month. Now, because she is in the United States and has a green card there, that protection has been withdrawn, even though she is still a Dutch citizen. The Americans refuse to help, saying that such protection cannot be given to private citizens. Only the Danes have stepped forward, offering her a sort of cultural asylum. If you think about it, the Dutch behaviour is scandalous, the American scarcely less so. The authorities considered the threat to her life in the Netherlands there so great that they effectively confined her to a safe house. So a country that upholds free speech refuses, in practice, to defend it, and so makes it impossible for her to make a living there. She is, in effect, a refugee — from a country which prides itself on looking after refugees. Next month, Ayaan Hirshi Ali will visit Britain as the guest of the think tank the Centre for Social Cohesion. Wouldn’t it be an earnest of our government’s commitment to human rights if it offered this brave woman the protection which would enable her to live here?
Now that a small hurricane is plucking at the walls of Gordon Brown’s ‘big tent’, spare an uncharitable thought for those who recently crammed inside it. Digby Jones, the former head of the CBI, now made a peer and a minister, has to defend the abolition of taper relief on capital gains, the first move by this government that seems to have united absolutely all shades of business opinion in opposition. Lord Malloch Brown was persuaded to leave the comfort of the United Nations in return for a title, Cabinet rank (though not Cabinet membership) and some idea of saving Africa. He also managed to wangle a grace-and-favour residence in Admiralty House, but I wonder how long envious Labour MPs, disappointed in the hopes they placed in Gordon, will permit this. They may ask whether the country could not be run just as well if Lord MB lived in a house of his own. Finally, there is poor, dear Quentin Davies, who surrendered the safe Conservative seat of Grantham and Stamford in favour of a promise from Mr Brown to find him an equally safe Labour one. Is there any Labour constituency so abject in its loyalty to the now-tottering regime that it will contemplate Mr Davies, with his Toryish red face, pinstripe suits and fondness for his own speeches, and select him?
‘Did you sleep well?’ It is a kindly question for a host to ask of a guest, but nevertheless it always makes me uneasy. In my case, the answer is usually ‘No’. The combination of drinking not wisely but too well at dinner and then sleeping in an unfamiliar bed often makes me wake up at four in the morning. Obviously, this is my own fault, but if I were to answer truthfully I would worry my host, to no benefit. So I have developed politely evasive answers like, ‘The bed is wonderfully comfortable, thank you.’ Perhaps hosts need to find more indirect ways of asking the same question, so that they can tactfully gain useful information about their guest bedrooms. ‘Was the plumbing too noisy?’ for instance, allows you to say something like ‘There was a bit of a rumbling in the pipes.’ ‘Were you too cold?’ permits you to indicate that actually — a far more common problem nowadays — you nearly died of heat.
Last week, a farmer pointed out to me that this will be the first year ever that more people will have switched back to conventional farming than will have gone organic. I do not know if he is statistically correct, but the trend is certainly there. The huge rise in the price of wheat makes it enticing once again to be a conventional arable farmer: your yield is double the organic one. Part of this rise results from the ecologically correct craze for biofuels, but more relates to the serious problem of feeding the world. Until recently, we were saved from a global food crisis by the technologically induced increase in yields. This has ceased, and will not resume without further technological change, such as GM. Not for the first time, the organic movement is exposed as a game for the rich. When there are hungry mouths, something else is needed.
Perhaps you cannot blame the media for hounding James Lee, the chairman of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells hospital trust, who has resigned after the deaths from C.difficile. But it is nevertheless possible that he is right — that central government denies power to the board and subjects the executives to ludicrous micro-management. He tried to be fair, but he said, in effect, that lots of nurses are useless and very little can be done to improve or get rid of them. This is visibly true. Far from being the ‘angels’ of popular mythology, nurses have become too grand and ‘professional’ to make sure that patients are healthy. They have actually killed people. If they were bus drivers or building workers, they would have been sacked. But because they work for the sacred NHS, the media considers them beyond criticism.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 20, 2007