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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

If I were New Labour, I would worry

9 April 2005

12:00 AM

9 April 2005

12:00 AM

People sometimes say ‘Easter Saturday’ meaning the day before Easter. In fact, it is the Saturday after Easter, and this year it was the day the Pope died. The first reading in the Missal for that day is from the Acts of the Apostles (iv 13–21). It concerns the reaction of the elders and scribes to the healing by Peter (the first Pope) and John of a lame man in the name of Jesus. The worried Sanhedrin hold a private conference, saying, in the Missal’s version, ‘It is obvious to everybody in Jerusalem that a miracle has been worked through them in public, and we cannot deny it. But to stop the whole thing spreading any further among the people, let us caution them never to speak to anyone in his name again.’ So they call in Peter and John and warn them. To which the Apostles reply, ‘You must judge whether in God’s eyes it is right to listen to you and not to God. We cannot promise to stop repeating what we have seen and heard.’ The elders then release the two men because ‘they could not think of any way to punish them, since all the people were giving glory to God for what had happened’. This was pretty much the pattern when Pope John Paul the Great assailed communism in Eastern Europe. The Gospel reading for the same day (Mark xvi 9–15) details more appearances of the risen Christ and ends with the most famous Biblical instruction to evangelism: ‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation’, which is what the Pope did more effectively than any of his predecessors except the first.

No doubt there will be many excellent suggestions for bodies, buildings, publications, societies, institutes and orders named after John Paul the Great. One possible idea is a movement for the re-Christianising of the West, particularly of Western Europe. (There should also be a parallel movement for rebuilding our social fabric, called Solidarity.) The Pope could see it was the hardest task of all, and thought more and more about it as he grew older. As well as spiritual barrenness, we have to wrestle with our provincialism. There is no important organisation based in Western Europe, other than the Catholic Church, which truly has a global perspective. I wonder if we have ever been more inward-looking since the Renaissance, almost unaware that our continent is becoming one vast protectionist trade union for an ever more elderly culture which prefers sanitised death to new life. Secularists see the destruction of clerical power in the West as one of the great benefits of our times (and, on the whole, funnily enough, I agree with them, clerical and religious being very far from the same thing), but if that is accompanied by the collapse of any idea of truth, life is, literally, hopeless.

As our general election campaign begins, it is time to beg the BBC and ITV to plan their election-night coverage properly. What you need on the night is much less ‘reaction’ — very long film of people counting ballot papers while reporters speculate about what they might contain and representatives of all parties explain how confident they are of victory — and much more information. This does not just mean the statistical data which provide the enjoyable computer projections. It also requires knowledge of particular constituencies — their demography, class breakdown, ethnic mix, local election results, and what has happened there in the past. There needs to be a bank of knowledge about the candidates so that the broadcaster can tell us that X is the only gay ex-Olympic pole-vaulter in the race, or that Y is the only old Harrovian candidate for Labour, etc. There should be much better analysis about the difference made by votes for minor parties, such as Ukip, Respect and the BNP, full results properly projected with the necessary comparisons with the time before, and alertness to new problems that may arise. Regional differences are interesting, for example: what will happen if Labour wins again but the Conservatives have a majority in England?


More news of Denis MacShane, the ‘Minister for Europe’. Despite having met him, I believe him to be a satire devised by Eurosceptics to advance their cause. Last week Denis told the Yorkshire Post, ‘Every morning I wake up to more Euro-myths and I have to get the boots of truth on. But we’ve got a secret weapon — the facts.’ Instead of struggling with footwear that doesn’t fit, please would Denis ensure that the government, if re-elected, issues the most important facts in the most readily available way, by giving a free copy of the full text of the European constitution to every household.

Three weeks ago, I mentioned a poem that David Blunkett recited on Breakfast with Frost. It was about putting your hand into a bucket of water ‘up to the wrist’, then taking it out ‘and the hole that’s remaining/ Is the measure of how you’ll be missed’. I reckoned that these verses had been devised by Mr Blunkett himself, in unconscious debt to W.H. Auden’s ‘As I walked out one evening’. I am grateful to two readers who have put me right. I am afraid the inspiration is less exalted. One reader says that the poem, in the doggerel form Mr Blunkett quoted, appeared in the in-house magazine of Shell Petroleum 45 years ago. Another found it, under the title of ‘The Indispensable Man’, in The A–Z of Sales Management by John Fenton, published in 1979. The author remains unknown. I still think that he must have read the Auden, but it would seem that Mr Blunkett has not.

In the first week of this column’s vigil over the investigation of the murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast, there is sinisterly little to report. Roughly ten people have turned themselves in to the authorities following Sinn Fein’s invitation to do so, but this is a ruse by them and the party. Having handed themselves over, they then exercise their right not to make a statement, so the investigation is no further forward, though Bertie Ahern himself says he knows who committed the crime. As for the British government, it does virtually nothing. I hope the McCartney sisters make their campaign like that of Stephen Lawrence’s parents. If they cannot catch these men, the Police Service of Northern Ireland will deserve a version of the Macpherson report, labelling them ‘institutionally terrorist’.

Mentioning a visit to my old Cambridge college here recently, I forgot to report that there has been a great revival in the desire by undergraduates to wear black tie and other formal dress at the drop, or rather the donning, of a hat. In my experience, this is always a ‘lead indicator’ of political change. If I were New Labour, I would worry.


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