At the turn of the year, William Hague, launching the new round of election campaigning, told an interviewer that David Cameron was the sanest party leader whom he had ever met. He has unintentionally put his finger on the only thing that is wrong with Mr Cameron. Most of us regard sanity as an unqualified benefit, and Mr Cameron certainly has that reassuring quality. His character seems rather like the snow in ‘Good King Wenceslas’ — deep and crisp and even. The problem, though, is that politics requires some sort of insanity, especially when there is a crisis, as there is now. The political leader’s belief that he or she (I’ll come to her) can save the nation is a form of madness, but a necessary form. Churchill, De Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher were not what is ordinarily meant by sane. Leaders at such times have to be able to defy the impossibility of events — financial collapse, war etc — and also to eschew sensible advice on the grounds that only they identify with the true yearnings of the voters. It was this evidence-defying belief which enabled Mrs Thatcher to hurl herself into the storm armed only with her handbag. Mr Cameron can see everything too coolly. I find that this common sense is making his potential voters a little uneasy.
There is a parallel between the embarrassments of Peter Robinson, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, and those of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams. Both are ostensibly about sexual misconduct of relations — Mrs Robinson and her 19-year-old lover, Mr Adams’s paedophile brother. But both stories are really about power. In each case, the political leader involved sought to manage the situation by appealing to public sympathy, but in neither case was the public fooled. People want to know what Mr Robinson and Mr Adams knew when, and whether they abused their public positions to cover anything up. Both stories are a protest against the dreadful sectarian gangs which the ‘peace process’ has empowered.
Where did the following comment on Jewish West Bank settlements appear? ‘Sadly, there’s only one way to deal with these religiously motivated maniacs who think their superstitious beliefs trump international law. 1. We ask them to leave their squats, kindly. 2. If they don’t we force them to at gunpoint. 3. If they still refuse they must be slaughtered, every last man, woman and child.’ The answer is not some neo-Nazi or Islamist outlet, but Comment is Free, the website of the Guardian. The comment was posted there on 6 January by one ‘William Bapthorpe’. It was later removed, but apparently Bapthorpe has not been banned from the site, though others quite often are. There is something grimly revealing in his formulation that there is ‘only one way’ to deal with the settlers, before he sets out three. It shows that he does not seriously entertain the first two of his possibilities, but jumps eagerly to his final solution. Something strange has happened on the British left. Its hyper-sensitivity to racism no longer applies to Jews. And its most-read website daily attracts and often publishes this sort of virulence in a way which, so far as I know, does not happen on the websites of the Telegraph or the Times. Websites of this kind are valued by their owners because they create a conversation and a ‘community’. What community is the Guardian creating?
When Joanna Lumley was taking British politics by storm on behalf of the Gurkhas last year, this column tentatively doubted whether her good intentions would have good results, but was a bit too cowardly to push the point hard. Now military charities report that lots of Gurkhas are arriving penniless in Britain, in the belief that they can have lots of money. Those who served before 1997 are trying — but have just failed in the High Court — to get the same pensions as other former members of the British army. The rights of the Gurkhas are actually a highly complicated subject, but one simple point stands out. They have been of use to Britain not only because they have been good soldiers, but because they have been cheap ones. If they become indistinguishable in their rights from our native soldiers, their advantage to us will diminish. Back home in Nepal, they will become ever more the objects of envy and suspicion, and their great privileges will also make life difficult for India, a bigger recruiter of Gurkhas than Britain. Will our kindness make the Gurkhas extinct?
As the snow has moved from glorious, transforming, virginal, to imprisoning, and finally to slushy — and the whole family has been, in sequence, ill — we have beguiled the hours by listening to Handel’s version of Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, juxtaposes passages from each poem (as Milton does not). At one moment, you hear ‘the lark begin his flight/ And singing startle the dull night’; at the next, you hear the nightingale, ‘Sweet bird that shuns the noise of folly,/ Most musical, most melancholy’. The shifts of mood and the delight in the idealised natural world are wonderful, poetically and musically. I was particularly pleased to read in John Eliot Gardiner’s notes that this work first reached its audience in the ‘worst cold in [London’s] recorded history’, in 1740. The promoters could persuade people to come to the five performances at the Theatre Royal, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, only by promising them that it was ‘secur’d against the cold’. More than 250 winters later, the joy survives.
Jennens appended his own short, lamentable verse for Handel, called ‘Il Moderato’, and designed to balance Milton’s two extremes. It is the emotional forerunner of social democracy — ‘Keep, as of old, the middle way,/ Not deeply sad, nor idly gay’. ‘Thy pleasures, Moderation, give,/ In them alone we truly live.’ Why wasn’t this played at Roy Jenkins’s memorial service?
Praising P.D.James last week in her stand against the present state of the BBC, I forgot to mention that she is the Guest of Honour at the forthcoming Annual General Meeting of the Rectory Society, of which I am the Chairman. Lady James feels justified in addressing our society on the apparently unclerical subject of fictional murder because, as she tells me, ‘in the so-called Golden Age of detective stories, the parsonage library was the most lethal room in the country’. The meeting is at the Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street, London W1, on Thursday 21 January. Doors open at six and proceedings start at 6.30. All are welcome. Please email Christine Bland firstname.lastname@example.org for tickets, £10 for non-members.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 16, 2010