The news that the government is to fund a board of Islamic theologians to try to advance more moderate interpretations of Islam has been attacked as an unprecedented attempt by the state to shape the doctrine of a religion. It may well be a bad idea, but unprecedented it is not. The establishment of the Church of England meant that, until the 1970s, Parliament had the ultimate authority to determine doctrine and worship. It still has a residual role. Parliament empowered the courts in such matters. In 1850, for example, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council supported a clergyman called Gorham after his bishop had refused to institute him because of his heretical views on baptismal regeneration. The secular overruled the ecclesiastical and decided that his views were consistent with the doctrine of the Church of England. It will be amusing (and incendiary) if Parliament and the courts end up deciding what is Islamic. And yet, if the history of the Church of England is anything to go by, the creation of a Muslim equivalent might eventually (after about 300 years?) calm things down. Like the C of E, this new body will, it is announced, base its scholarly pronouncements on the learning of Oxford and Cambridge. Will something called the Mosque of England emerge? One often castigates Anglican wetness, but there would be an attraction in having more wet, Anglican-style imams who explained that ‘jihad’ really only means things like repainting the Scout hut or running a stall at the village fete.
By the way, Hazel Blears, the Cabinet minister in charge of all of this, is frequently denigrated in the Tory press. I met her for the first time last week, and found her delightful. She is kind and pretty, with the attractive energy that sometimes goes with being small. She is a proper Labour person (which so few of them are). She thinks about how to make life better for the poor and robustly opposes all alliances with any ideology — Islamism being the latest intruder in this country — which would make their life worse.
When I try to track the recent change of mood in political ideas, I trace the history of Policy Exchange. Just before the 2005 general election, I became its chairman. It was then a tiny organisation, dedicated to advancing the forgotten proposition that ideas could come out of the centre-right. Under the founding director, Nicholas Boles, it did this so successfully that it became the biggest and most influential think-tank of its kind. Last year, Nicholas left, and was succeeded by Anthony Browne, who has doubled Policy Exchange’s size in little more than a year. It commands the field. The only drawback of success is that people want our people. Last week, Anthony Browne was stolen from us by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who is in want of policies. So we need a new director. What is required? Nothing much — only the skills to manage creative people, fund-raising enthusiasm, the ability to perform in public and, above all, the gift of intellectual leadership. If you are interested, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate Summerscale’s fascinating book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Bloomsbury), which has just won the Samuel Johnson Prize, is about a child murder in 1860. It is also about how the press reported that murder. The situation was a very modern one. A great many papers were competing furiously for the news. They took sides, some blaming the London detective (Mr Whicher), and some the local constabulary. Some of them suggested that the child’s father was the murderer, others his half-sister, and so on. They mixed expressions of distaste for the details revealed with a supply of such details every bit as explicit as would appear today. They made the murder a talking point throughout the nation. This was a new phenomenon, as Kate Summerscale observes; but there is more to be said about why it all happened. As with so much social change, it was to do with tax. In 1855, the Newspaper Stamp Act had removed the tax charged by the government on all papers that conveyed news. This reform enraged the Times because it feared ‘a cheap class of newspapers giving all the news which we believe to constitute our principal attraction’. This duly happened, and new papers, most notably the Daily Telegraph, sprang up. Their era has continued to this day. But now the internet does the same thing of which the Times complained, and gets there first — cheaply or free — with most of the news, and the print and broadcast media are thrown into convulsions. What is there, today, ripe for abolition, to compare with the stamp charged on newspapers? The BBC licence fee.
In the days when Oxford and Cambridge had proper entrance exams of their own, candidates would stay on at their schools for a seventh term to sit them. This was the term in which educational standards were at their highest. Oxbridge then did away with the exams, in the mistaken belief that this would increase the number of applications from state schools. Today, growing numbers of pupils find that they are not ready to apply for universities in their fourth term of the sixth form (as is the prevailing custom), and so apply after their A levels. As a result, Oxbridge entrants come back to their schools once a week or so from September to December to prepare for their interview and for the small written exams that are now creeping back. As the Charity Commission demands that independent schools prove their worth through ‘public benefit’, might the answer not lie here? The schools could offer seventh-term coaching to pupils who have left state school. This would have the additional merit of confusing those admissions authorities who are trying to discriminate against private school pupils. They would get into terrible trouble if they were to bar, say, a clutch of Harrovians, only to find that they had been educated for 95 per cent of their time at comprehensives.
The Watford Gap is sometimes said to mark the change from north to south, but there are other ways of telling the difference. My wife, who contributes a nature column to our parish news, reveals in the next issue that all slugs north of Manchester are hermaphrodites. It is too cold for them to find sexual partners there, apparently, so they do it alone. Southern slugs, mating freely with others, are genetically stronger, but more at risk. They twine round one another, with the result that: ‘Sometimes, the genitalia of slugs become inextricably entangled in the process’. My wife then explains what happens next in words which may be all right for the parish news. I shall say only that it involves ‘apophallation’. After this, ‘the slug will be able to function sexually, but only as a female’. This account accurately mirrors what the British, north and south, think of each other.