To interview people for my biography of Lady Thatcher, I often go the House of Lords, where many of the best witnesses lurk. Recently, the place has become so crowded that queues form at the Peers’ Entrance and mobs of petitioners are kettled beside the coat-racks. The reason is that New Labour created more peers than any government since Lloyd George, so the coalition felt it had to balance the numbers. As controversial legislation, such as the Alternative Vote referendum, is debated, three-line whips have become frequent. This week, we had the great sleep-in. The place is an ermine slum. Now reformers are saying that it is disgraceful that some peers do not attend the House much. But why should they? They are not paid unless they do, and if they judge that they are rarely needed, they are almost certainly right. Besides, my companion last week pointed out as we weaved our way through the throng in the Royal Gallery, if you threaten the absentees, they will all start turning up. Then proceedings will be impossible.
The most common private complaint I hear from ministers in the coalition government is about the illiteracy of their civil servants. Those who were ministers before 1997 and have now returned note a huge change. In the old days, the quality of written expression was high. Government white papers were usually boring, but never incomprehensible. Internal memos were clear, accurately spelt and punctuated, sometimes even elegant. Today, departments have literally dozens of press officers but no one who can write good English. Outside drafting help sometimes has to be called in. Illiteracy has even reached ministerial private offices, where the most able young civil servants traditionally work. Letters present a particularly acute problem. Labour ministers rarely wrote to thank their hosts on ministerial visits; private secretaries often do not know how to express thanks in writing. Titles get muddled up — Sir Joe Bloggs being addressed as ‘Sir Bloggs’ etc. The difficulties created by all this are great. Conscientious ministers now find themselves wasting precious hours redrafting. Worse, it is such an embarrassing matter to raise with one’s staff. To tell a civil servant he or she has poor English is to humiliate them — the office equivalent of being told you are bad in bed. And if you say it to a black person, or someone for whom English is not a first language, you could be accused of racism. Yet clear expression is as vital for good government as probity and good accounting. What is to be done, ‘going [as modern memos always say] forward’?
Last Friday afternoon, I drove from Sussex to north Shropshire. Because the traffic was bad, I took the M6 toll road. Every time I do this, I am fascinated by the power of price. It costs £5 at peak times. This is a serious sum for a lot of people if one has to pay it often, but not, now and again, beyond the reach of anyone who can afford to drive a car. You might think, then, that the toll road would be crowded, but it never is. The majority weighs price against speed, decides that speed is not worth £5 and sticks to the free M6. Obviously, the system is better for the rich than for the poor, but it does make the journey quicker for both than it would otherwise have been. It is strange how controversial this fact is if you apply it to more serious matters of public service — schools, GPs, hospitals. Our public culture prefers services which are equal and bad to ones which are less equal, but better for all. It is not so clear that this is what people themselves prefer.
It cost £92 to fill my petrol tank for the journey. A snobbish cachet will soon attach to having a ‘three-figure’ tank. But, once again, the power of price is making itself felt, and the politics of fuel is about to turn nasty. As energy costs go up, people will get even crosser about extra exactions in the name of the environment. Politicians spend so much time focus-grouping policies, but not enough literally road-testing them.
In A Double Thread, the memoir of John Gross, who died last week, the author notes that his fellow Jewish boys in the Forties were often given Scottish names, but not Irish or Welsh ones: ‘A Malcolm Greenberg or an Ian Greenberg might easily have been encountered; a Patrick Greenberg or a Llewellyn Greenberg, in my experience, never.’ Gross does not speculate on why this should be so, but it is surely not random. It probably has something to do with which cultures welcomed Jews. Wild Welsh romantics had little place for Judaism in their Celtic mists. The Irish Catholic record was not, on the whole, impressive: even today, ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland tend to take the Unionist side, fearing that Irish nationalism is a ‘cold house’ for them. Scottish Protestantism, on the other hand, has always been close to the Jewish idea of a covenanted relationship with God. I suspect that this was subliminally in the minds of Jewish parents: they were complimenting those bits of British culture that they admired.
Out of the Guardian falls one of those advertorial leaflets which infest newspapers, called Executive Chef. Cooks like Tom Aikens (rendered here as ‘Aitkin’) and Raymond Blanc offer recipes, sponsored by Sainsbury’s, which is promoting its ‘MSC certified sustainable fish’. Here is part of the recipe from the famed Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak: ‘To each other to rub well all grains of pepper. To recover single the skins and to mix them with the oil. To reserve.’ The recipe is called ‘Pretty in bonfire of grudges’, which sounds like the title of a poem. So ‘menu English’, that staple of old-fashioned, desperate ‘Smile Please’ sections in magazines, has a new lease of life through computer technology. I suppose that Mr Arzak, or at least his company, invented the dish and wrote it up in Spanish (or Basque), but that, from then on, no human hand, eye or brain had anything to do with its translation, production or sub-editing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 22, 2011