Watching white workers protesting in the snow, I cast my mind back 30 years to the Winter of Discontent. The year 1978/79 is the last time I remember being so cold, and taking such keen pleasure in ‘bad’ weather. It is also the last time that one had a prevailing sense that the country was falling apart. Then, as now, a Labour government whose claim to power was a special ability to deal with difficult economic questions was discredited. There are some differences, though. Thirty years ago, the strikers were much more unreasonable and unpopular than the men in the north today who resent being excluded from British jobs which appear to be reserved for foreigners. Another difference is that the Conservative opposition at that time was more clearly in tune with what was worrying people. I generally resist a class analysis of the modern Tory party, but it is hard for people with the comfortable, protected life of David Cameron and most of his entourage to anticipate and sympathise with the reactions of upper-working-class men from Lindsey or Heysham or Sellafield who feel excluded by a global system which manifestly, at present, is not working. As with the 10 pence tax rate, the Tories have not foreseen the source of discontent, and therefore have few satisfactory remedies. Surely the ‘British jobs’ issue is one where the Tories should expose the impositions of the EU. Peter Mandelson told the Lords on Monday that Total, the employer at Lindsey, made sure that ‘UK workers are considered in the same way as anyone else’. What a paltry assurance. UK workers are UK electors and UK citizens, as foreign workers are not. Is this the best the UK government can say about them?
The denunciation of the Labour peers who tried to take — or did take — money to amend legislation refuses to confront the really difficult question about all this. If errant peers are to be ‘ousted’, those with criminal convictions expelled etc etc, who is to do it? The House of Lords does not have huge powers, but it does have one advantage when confronted with over-mighty government — its members are secure in their positions: they are there for life. They are ‘peers’ — in other words, the equals of all other members of their House. If they can be kicked out by the government, or by some bureaucratic agency established by the government, then they lose the basis of their independence, and their shared equality. An unscrupulous government could trump up criminal charges against them, get them convicted and thrown out. As for the idea that these problems would dissolve if only the upper house were elected, this would only create more opportunity for fiddling the public purse, which is even worse than taking corrupt inducements from companies. That is the story, for example, of the repulsive Derek Conway MP. Nick Clegg, the Liberal leader, says that there should not be ‘one rule for lawmakers and another for everyone else’. That is exactly wrong. In parliamentary government, lawmakers are the supreme authority, which puts them in a different position from the rest of us. Only lawmakers should be able to punish lawmakers for their sins in that capacity. Our present ones consistently refuse to do so, which is why they are held in contempt.
My thanks to readers who have helped me over the words ‘pawk’ and ‘pawky’, though not to the reader who wrote anonymously to tell me to look it up in a dictionary. (Of course I looked it up in a dictionary, but dictionaries are only compendiums of usages, and people’s personal examples are often stronger.) Dr Peter Ritchie, from Edinburgh, confirms that the word underwent a change of meaning. In the 17th century, a pawk was a trick or wile, so being pawky was bad. But since the 19th century, he says, ‘pawky’ has been a word of praise — meaning drily witty. John Tait, however, writes that, in his 1960s Perthshire childhood, ‘pawky’ was ‘an adjective to describe a person with a miserable disposition, for example a shopkeeper who underweighed, overcharged, or sold stale merchandise’. An interesting example, then, of how a word can contain almost opposite implications within itself.
Last week, we were hunting on a hill in Somerset and paused for a moment to survey the vale and look across to Alfred’s Tower rising so romantically out of its great wood. Suddenly, there was a cry just behind me, and a horse fell to the ground, dying of a heart attack. I have seen this happen once before, and it is dangerous for the rider because the dead weight of the animal can kill. In this case, the rider just had time to throw herself clear, and the poor old horse lay convulsed on the ground for a few minutes before expiring. Friends had to hold the owner back as she tried to help him, in case his legs, in spasm, kicked her. Her distress was a sad sight. But, by chance, two of the horse’s former owners were also beside him, and so there was a strangely comforting deathbed scene. A farmer, old enough to be thinking about such things himself, pointed out that the horse, who was 21, died doing what he liked best. We two-legged animals felt almost envious of the old beast.
A touching letter arrives from a reader who supports my campaign against the BBC’s reinstatement of Jonathan Ross, but begs me not to refuse to renew my television licence fee. ‘Render unto Caesar etc’, he says. He encloses a cheque for the full £139.50. I have refused this kind offer, of course, but it prompts me to make clear why refusing to pay my licence seems justified. One must render unto Caesar ‘the things which are Caesar’s’. Why should our television sets be Caesar’s? If, for curious historical reasons, they are, then Caesar must keep his side of the bargain, and make sure that the BBC upholds the Charter which defines its existence. Meanwhile, Jonathan Ross is back on Radio 2, inviting someone to have sexual intercourse with a woman in her eighties with Alzheimer’s, which, when you think about it, is a form of rape. He seems to have an obsessive love of humiliating the old. My own £139.50 will be going to Help the Aged.
Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago, on 12 February 1809. So was Abraham Lincoln. Both were passionate opponents of slavery. But while Lincoln led his country out of slavery, the consequences of Darwin for human freedom have been ambiguous. If the fittest must survive, how should we treat the weaker? Darwin intended nothing of the kind, but his theories, bastardised, have spawned cruelties unimaginable in Lincoln’s religious view of humanity.