The last election in which I voted was that of 1997. On Blair’s brave glad morning I flew to Edinburgh for something, and as we touched down the intercom said, ‘Welcome to Scotland, a Tory-free zone.’ I thought — not a good thing for the national airline to be taking sides. On the way back I ran into Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was looking bloodily unbowed from an attempt to wrest Kirkcaldy from Lewis Moonie. Now he has made the House, and good luck to him. When he was an undergraduate at Oxford he was very good at organising Thatcherite events, which was where we met. Back then — 1988 or so — there was a clear split among the Thatcherites between the Enlightenment and the Romantics, between people such as Kenneth Baker who would have done everything by pie-chart and people such as Norman Tebbit who probably wishes, like me, that nothing — and I mean nothing — had been changed in England since 1 January 1955.
I said ‘England’. There are now tiresome problems as regards the Scots: three quarters public-service Lib-Lab, one quarter nationalist, all of them with more weight in a London parliament than they should have, given the much smaller voting population. The distortion badly affects English politics, and has produced this present strange coalition government: David Cameron saved from his own right by unreliable and no doubt parasitical allies. The Act of Union of 1707 has already been amended, with the abolition, more or less, of the Scottish places in the House of Lords. Time to do it again for the House of Commons, and have constituencies of more or less equal size throughout the land. But those allies would get in the way, and so we will muddle on, maybe with an absurd, independent Scotland at the end of it all. Failure to think creatively about this sort of thing meant that we got an independent Ireland — blessings upon it, but was the journey really necessary?
My next journey to Scotland will be the Edinburgh Festival, where (apart from plugging my new book, The Atlantic and its Enemies) I have to sit on a panel on eastern European literature. This will mean homework but having had, for the Atlantic book, to sludge-gulp endless quantities of beta-plus political science stuff, I am glad to do it. It is curious how some languages, Russian and Czech especially, translate, generally, without trouble, whereas German, on the whole, does not: Kafka, for instance, depends on linguistic tricks that you cannot easily reproduce in English. I know a bit of Hungarian, and can still make sense of a history book, but I’d have to read a novel in English. Fortunately there are Hungarians who wrote not just English but wonderful English. Arthur Koestler is maybe the obvious case in point (Muggeridge said of him, ‘all antennae, no head’), but Penguin are reprinting another classic, Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women, which is a sort of Tom Jones or Felix Krull set in postwar Budapest, and very funny. If you were compiling an anthology of foreign-born writers who make the English-writer canon, it would belong, and it is one of very few that would. Another is obviously Nirad Chaudhuri’s Thy Hand Great Anarch!, which speaks volumes about the relationship of Britain and India. I once sat on the board of the NCR Prize and we ought to have given it to him, only Jeremy Isaacs, our chairman, was absolutely dead against awarding a prize to any book that argued on behalf of empire.
English, says a French ambassador, is the foreign language which it is easiest to speak badly, but to write it must be appallingly difficult. This week I have to go back to Turkey to preside over examinations that will be written in English on the history of communism, that being the language we use. The best will be very good. One of many reasons for shifting to Turkey was an encounter on my first morning there, back in 1995, when a lad, one Bahadir, fierce of mien, whose beard grew as you looked at him, marched out of a crowd of students and said in a thick accent that the first wife of Cyril Connolly had just died and had I seen the obituaries. This was Barbara Skelton, who married everybody, the favoured wedding present being no doubt an egg-timer. Bahadir had read all about England, more or less by candlelight, in a provincial town in western Anatolia, and he knew the language and the background: you could even say, Bahadir, go and write a paragraph in the style of Graham Greene, and out it would come, though Waugh defeated him. Barbara Skelton would have been tickled pink at this.
The best of my Turkish students will be very good, and will survive what must be an awful ordeal. (‘Compare the June Days of 1848 with the Paris Commune of 1871’ is a good one, isn’t it?) The middle ones will survive all right if they follow what is I think the best advice I can give about exams — scribble your first paragraph down on something or other, throw it away, and begin on the second. The others won’t fail unless they try very hard. There was a girl who famously identified the Rigaud portrait of Louis XIV as Gorbachev dressed as a Russian officer. She managed it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 22, 2010