David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Europe this week falls 50 years to the day after the death of Hugh Gaitskell. Gaitskell, who died in harness, was the last leader of either main party to oppose entry to what people then called the Common Market. In his last party conference speech as Labour leader, in October 1962, he set five conditions for British entry to the EEC (for which the Tory government was then negotiating). These included retaining national economic freedom and an independent foreign policy. Joining would mean ‘the end of Britain as an independent nation state, the end of 1,000 years of history’, he declared. Unusually for that era, he focused even more on the constitutional than the economic point — the British people had a right, he argued, ‘to ask what exactly was involved in the concept of political union’. With Gaitskell’s death, the opportunity to invoke that right passed. Twelve years later, his successor, Harold Wilson, offered a referendum; but by that time we were in, and the massed ranks of the mighty across the parties, big business and the BBC guaranteed the result they sought. As we have seen in the past few weeks, the same interests are trying to coalesce once more, but they are much weaker. After 1,050 years of history, we may at last find out whether Mr Cameron is one of them, or one of us.
Gaitskell did not rule out discarding 1,000 years of history, but warned: ‘You may say, “All right, Let it end!” But, my goodness, it’s a decision which needs a little care and thought.’ On Tuesday, Nick Clegg, with scarcely any care and thought at all, will try to get rid of roughly 1,000 years of history in one day, when he crams the second reading and committee stage of the Succession to the Crown Bill into the Commons’s exciting, modernised ‘fast-track’ procedure, to abolish royal male primogeniture. I notice a curious clause in the Bill — the Act’s provisions ‘come into force … at such time as the Lord President of the Council may by statutory instrument appoint’. The Lord President is Mr Clegg. So he reserves the moment when the monarchy must change sex to his own whim. Is this Tudor-style power grab in the coalition agreement?
I don’t want to be disloyal to the cause, but it strikes me that all four of the judgments by the European Court of Human Rights this week about religious rights at work were correct. The right to express your religion in what you wear at work, for example: not many religions have truly compulsory dress codes, and if the right to such a code is asserted, zealots — particularly Muslim ones — will take power in workplaces and bully their more moderate co-religionists. The court is also correct that a public service — in this case, a register office — must offer what the law provides, so an employee who refused to perform same-sex civil partnerships was in the wrong. The true problem, from a religious point of view, is not the court’s interpretations, but the doctrine of human rights itself. This claims universality for a secular power — an idea which is anti-religious, and ultimately tyrannical.
One should always take the lowest mainstream estimate of numbers on protest marches, so I shall accept the police view that 340,000 marched in Paris on Sunday against gay marriage, rather than the 600,000 that some have claimed. But don’t you think 340,000 is rather a lot? Only two marches in British history — the anti-Iraq war march and the second Countryside March — were bigger than that. If a march of that size had been against Israel, say, or GM crops, you can be sure that it would have been covered for hours by the BBC. If the march had been in favour of gay marriage (it is interesting that the reformers can never muster the numbers on this subject), the coverage would have been wall-to-wall. All I could find on the BBC about Sunday’s march in Paris, however, was one report from Hugh Schofield on the day. There was no ‘Surely President Hollande must respond to this massive expression of feeling?’ from Evan Davis on the next morning’s Today; no excited reports, like the dozens about Moscow’s ‘Pussy Riot’, suggesting that the government was tottering, no next-day follow-up, indeed, anywhere on the BBC domestic services that I could find. When people talk about bias, they tend to fasten on egregious bits of opinion-mongering in news bulletins. But it is the choice of what is news in the first place which counts.
Idly flicking through the latest Sunday Times, I notice the cartoon by Gerald Scarfe. It shows President Assad of Syria, covered with blood, picking the severed head of a child from a mound of corpses. ‘Syria,’ says the caption, ‘60,000 slaughtered and still counting’. It feels as if one has seen this Scarfe cartoon most weeks since the 1960s. Whether it was Biafra, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, or any other faraway conflict, Scarfe has always been fearlessly against tyrants killing the innocent, especially children, and his way of showing this is to depict the tyrants covered with blood and the children, heaps of them, dead. And that is it: no gloss, no wit, no political nuance, no juxtaposition that might tell you something, just an extremely well-paid half century drawing tyrants covered with blood, and a CBE too. We columnists, who have at least to pretend to think of something new each week, can only gasp with envy at the way Scarfe — by being against war, genocide etc — has escaped any editorial attention whatever.
Each year, I exploit this column to advertise the Annual General Meeting of the Rectory Society, of which I am chairman. Our star speaker this year is Jon Snow. The famous broadcaster is the son of a bishop and has strong views on the effect of growing up in a clerical household. The meeting begins with drinks at 7p.m., proceedings at 7.30, at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, 32a Wilton Place SW1. Entry is £20 for non-members. It is not necessary to buy a ticket in advance, but please inform Alison Everington — firstname.lastname@example.org — of your interest.
My inbox greets me with this piece of despair-inducing spam: ‘info@PESTILENT.nl I want to meet you’.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 19 January 2013