Lynton Crosby will soon be appointed to run the Conservative strategy for the next election, say reports. Unnamed sources accuse him of saying rude things about Muslims; people mutter about the ‘dog whistle’ campaign of 2005. Such stories involve two great subterranean passions — the desire of rival polling groups to make money and the competition among backroom boys to get credit for electoral success. The public should not be unduly concerned about rows in the servants’ hall, so long as the master is in charge. Possibly it is doubt about this which gives the story legs. But what the anti-Crosby stories also reveal is a weird prejudice about Australians. It is assumed that Australian voters are racist, sexist Les Patersons, and so policies which they like are disastrous here. In fact, Australian public culture is even more politically correct than our own, and no saloon bar bigot can win there. John Howard, the great Australian prime minister, won four times. He did so with tough moderation — a mixture of economic liberalism and social conservatism, in which openness and freedom were balanced with continuity and reassurance. He paid a lot of respect to the lower middle classes and not much to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In two of these victories, Lynton Crosby ran his campaign. He then did the same for Boris Johnson, who could not have won in multi-ethnic London on a platform of right-wing extremism. If David Cameron means what he said in his excellent conference speech about restoring growth through the efforts of people rather than government, he is right to hire the Wizard of Oz.
John Howard’s social conservatism should also teach something about the gay marriage question. George Osborne may be right that support for gay marriage makes some anti-Tory voters less hostile to his party. But people have only to see the political calculation involved to lose respect for the politician so calculating. The Osborne tactic gains few gay-friendly votes while offending those who support heterosexual marriage. If you believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman, you cannot change your mind because it might get the Tories a better ‘voter demographic’ in Brighton, and you will be annoyed to be preached at about this by vote-grubbers. Conservatives can legitimately differ on the matter, as they once did over capital punishment. Why make it a shibboleth, forcing voters to choose?
There is no sign so far that the BBC has any intention of improving its diversity (see last week’s Notes) by promoting an Etonian to be its next director-general. It employs hardly any representatives of this minority among its 23,000 staff. Bill Turnbull, whom I nominated last week, does not want the job. So that leaves Cornelius Lysaght, the racing correspondent.
Leo Blair, father of Tony, died last week. He was the illegitimate son of Jimmy Lynton and Celia Ridgeway, travelling players, at one time, in a troupe called The Optimists. They gave Leo up for fostering by a Glasgow couple called Blair — he a communist shipyard rigger in Govan. Later, after they had married, they tried to get him back, even slipping letters to the boy under the door, begging him to come to them. But his foster mother threatened to kill herself if this happened, and Leo stayed with her. Leo must have had some respect for his bloodline, however, because his famous son’s second and third names are Charles Lynton, and those of his elder son, Sir William Blair, are James Lynton. When I saw Tony Blair earlier this year, he told me that his real grandfather used to write a column in The Stage. Following Leo’s death, I looked up the archives of The Stage and found that Tony is mistaken. Jimmy Lynton does indeed appear from time to time. He writes a letter complaining about licences for portable theatres. He is listed in one advertisement as a Gaumont manager, in another as the London representative of Bert Riselli, ‘the hypnotist that confounds the sceptics, with his amazing psychic hands’. But really he is noises off, referred to as a ‘scribe’ for another magazine, World’s Fair, the paper which ‘covers the business of fairs and amusements’. In 1970, The Stage ran a short obituary of Celia Ridgeway, which mentioned that her husband was himself critically ill. He died within weeks of her, without an obituary. The couple had no other children. There is something touching about this history on the margins of theatrical life, and something striking about the fact that the Lyntons lived in the same milieu as the parents of John Major. It also helps explain the intensely theatrical skills of the grandson they never knew, played out, not at the New Pavilion, Cosy Corner, Redcar, but on the world stage.
A less sad death is that of Bal Thackeray. He was an extremist sectarian Hindu and admirer of Hitler who stirred up riots against Muslims and other outsiders. It was because of a racist campaign by Thackeray that Bombay changed its name in the 1990s to Mumbai. It is tragicomic that the West accepted this change as a mark of post-colonial liberation.
Our part of Sussex is famous for its bonfire parades. The last one of the season took place in our neighbouring village last Saturday. Usually someone is burnt in effigy. This year it was Jimmy Savile. His chin blew up and fireworks shot out of his eyes while people hummed the theme tune from Jim’ll Fix It. Almost exactly a year ago, his funeral took place with great pomp in Leeds Roman Catholic cathedral. The eulogy said that he was a man who ‘knew how to find the gold in the shadows’. Human praise and execration are closely allied. That is what celebrity culture means.
Another example, from the BBC, of the shifting vowel: this week, for the first time, I heard the word ‘monkey’ pronounced like ‘donkey’ rather than like ‘funky’.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012