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It’s dawning on me that the Prime Minister can’t listen to criticism.

1 April 2009

12:00 AM

1 April 2009

12:00 AM

It’s dawning on me that the Prime Minister can’t listen to criticism.

It’s dawning on me that the Prime Minister can’t listen to criticism. I don’t just mean that he can’t respond to criticism; I mean that he literally can’t listen to it. When he came to the European Parliament to drum up support for his spending plans, I made a three-minute speech in favour of balanced budgets. As I talked, he pulled his face into what I think was meant to be a disdainful smirk, then ostentatiously chatted to his officials, then pretended to doodle on a piece of paper. I’ve never doubted Gordon Brown’s convictions: he seems genuinely actuated by a desire to help the poor. But, like many people who are satisfied about the purity of their own motives, he refuses to countenance dissent. It has always been his tragedy. Now it is Britain’s, too.

Brown’s response to the banking crisis is a case in point. He spent a great deal of money and, when that didn’t work, he spent more money. That didn’t work either, so he started borrowing. Then, when he had emptied the Treasury and exhausted the nation’s credit, he turned to his fellow G20 leaders and asked them to pony up. I keep wanting to shout, Cromwell-like, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken!’


At the time of writing, 1.8 million people have watched the video of my speech on YouTube. It was briefly the most popular clip in the world, and has become the most watched political clip in Britain to date. Since it has barely featured on television, many bloggers are using the episode to revive their familiar plaint that the ‘MSM’ (mainstream media) are out of touch with public opinion. Frankly, though, if I were a BBC editor, I’d have made the same call. It’s hard to think of five duller words than ‘speech to the European Parliament’.

Coincidentally, I wrote a book six months ago about, inter alia, how the internet would refashion news. The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, which I co-authored with the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, argues that the web pulverises monopolies. Not long ago, a few dozen frontbenchers and lobby correspondents determined the next day’s headlines. Now, millions of online pundits, commentators, bloggers and consumers reach an aggregate view of what is interesting. Some politicians have been slow to see this, and persist in treating the internet simply as one more way to get their message across. Perhaps it’s time to apologise to Newt Gingrich, who wrote about the revolutionary potential of the web in the early 1990s, and was written off in consequence as a geeky obsessive.

It’s not only politicians and journalists who will need to adapt. The internet makes impossible the concentration of knowledge that, until recently, set professionals apart from laymen. Why ask a GP to look up your symptoms when you can do it yourself? Why ask a notary to fill in forms when an online programme can do it for you? Why send your children to school when you can download all the material necessary to teach them the national curriculum in two hours a day?

I often bring my daughters to the European Parliament so that they might appreciate the enormity of the Brussels racket. Instead — how sharper than a serpent’s tooth! — they have become Europhiles. The seven-year old, who is with me in Brussels as I write, adores the place. She hums along to the EU anthem and eagerly points out the gold-star flags when we pass them. Of course, what she really likes about Brussels are the goodies: exploring vast corridors, playing hide-and-seek with security guards who have known her since she was a baby, being allowed to eat frites and dame blanche because Mummy isn’t here. It occurs to me that these are, mutatis mutandis, the main reasons for anyone to support the EU these days. Beyond the 170,000 Eurocrats, millions more depend indirectly on closer integration: think of all those ‘Europe officers’ employed by large corporations, charities, local councils, government agencies and NGOs. The EU may once have been an idealistic — or at any rate ideological — project. Nowadays, it is a handy way to make a living.

The Garrick Club has just celebrated the completion of a decade-long refurbishment, paid for with part of A.A. Milne’s legacy. Members spent a day gawping at the unparalleled collection of theatrical paintings, listening to classical musicians and sitting through lectures. Donald Sinden told anecdotes, Timothy West recited an ode composed specially for the occasion and Geoffrey Palmer read a series of passages about actors’ lives. As I listened, I thought about the way the status of the profession had changed. When Garrick began his career, actors were still legally classed as vagabonds, and could perform only through the dispensation of royal patents. Today, we fawn on them and make them UN ambassadors. Garrick’s great contemporary Dr Johnson regarded players as uniquely immoral: to deceive for a living was, he thought, worse than prostitution. I wonder what the great man would say if he were transported to our present age, to discover that actors are not merely deferred to but treated as experts on political questions.

For as long as I can remember, the Independent has been running stories about bullfighting being in decline — despite the stubborn evidence of rising ticket sales. Sometimes the paper cites opinion poll evidence, sometimes it quotes anti-taurine groups, sometimes it exults in growing abolitionism in Catalonia. This week, the Indie seized on the story that a small town near Madrid could no longer afford to stage its annual taurine spectacle. Deliciously, and presumably unwittingly, the piece was illustrated by a photograph of a pase de pecho from José Tomás, whose comeback in 2007 is one of the reasons that the plazas are heaving. The 37-year-old matador combines a spare, taut, austere style with almost suicidal courage, always remaining erect and motionless. In consequence, he is often gored. I am almost tempted to write, as the critics initially did of the great Juan Belmonte, ‘go and see him while you still can’. But Belmonte confounded the critics, outlived his greatest rival Joselito (who was killed by a half-blind bull in 1920) and survived to the age of 70, when he shot himself after being told by his doctor that he could no longer have sex.


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