Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet and endorse various aspects of his story. The Annunciation appears in the Koran, and so, in consequence, does the Virgin Birth. In the pains of childbirth, it says, Mary was sustained in the desert by God providing a brook at her feet and a palm-tree which she could shake to get dates. But Muslims deny Jesus’s crucifixion. The Jews said that they killed him but, the Koran declares, they did not: ‘They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did.’ Perhaps this denial is not surprising, since it is from Jesus’s death and resurrection that the claims for his divinity — which Muslims reject — arise, but it is strange nonetheless. The Crucifixion is the best-attested event in the Gospels, a moment of history. The encounter with Pilate reads like a version of a real political event, not a legend. It is another denial, though, which always makes the scene real to me. In all four Gospels, Peter tells Jesus that he will never desert him. Then he follows Jesus when he is arrested and taken to the house of a high priest. He does not enter, but stays outside: ‘And the servants and officers stood there, who had made a fire of coals; for it was cold: and they warmed themselves: and Peter stood with them, and warmed himself’ (John 18:18). Then a ‘damsel’ comes out and accuses Peter of being a friend of Jesus. In Mark’s version, a servant repeats the accusation, because he has noticed Peter’s Galilean accent. After Peter denies his master three times, the cock, as Jesus had foretold, crows. Possibly these details are stylised, typological, but they read like reportage. You can see Peter weeping in the cold dawn.
It is pleasing that Ofcom has fined the BBC £150,000 for the Jonathan Ross/ Russell Brand performance when, for the benefit of the show, the two men rang up the elderly actor Andrew Sachs and boasted into his answering machine about Brand’s sexual exploits with his granddaughter. The Ofcom report emphasises the BBC’s failures of ‘compliance’. Despite its promise, in response to earlier complaints about rigged competitions, that compliance procedures would be scrupulously followed, Radio 2 did not fill in the forms properly in the Ross case, or get them signed off. But is compliance really the problem? What about conscience? Surely the lesson from the affair is that no one in any position of authority thought that what the stars had done was revolting. There is no procedure that can guard against moral imbecility.
If conversation is anything to go by, then the effect of the revelations about MPs’ second-home expenses is even worse than ‘cash for questions’ in lowering the reputation of the House of Commons. When caught claiming for patio tiles and DVD players, or switching around about which is the first and which the second (or third) home, MPs retort that what they are doing is ‘perfectly legitimately allowed’ (Jacqui Smith), and this appears to be true. So instead of disliking individual MPs who have been dishonest, we are coming to dislike all of them. I do not think MPs themselves realise just how bad their standing is. They say that they cannot do their ‘jobs’ without second homes. It is true that constituency associations often demand that they live in the constituency, but there is no need for this to happen. The idea of the MP as the local nanny has gone much too far. If we were serious about localism, we would try to exclude MPs from matters best dealt with by elected councillors. All an MP needs is a place to lay his head (not the same as a ‘home’) in his constituency, and the same in London. If he is a backbencher, what he does should not be full-time. No exterior body should invigilate him (conscience again, not compliance), and since he should have nothing but a modest salary, the wages of a secretary, and perhaps transport to and from constituency business, there should not be much to fiddle. He should earn money in other ways, learning more about real life.
No one has done more than the present Speaker, Michael Martin, to lower the reputation of his House. He has failed to defend parliamentary privilege, defending parliamentary perks instead. Now, I gather, he is so frightened about what others will say of him that he dare not make a decision about the installation of new boilers in the bowels of the building. The old ones, apparently, are coated with asbestos, and so their replacement would involve the evacuation of the Chamber for a year or two. Mr Speaker fears he would be blamed for forcing the Members out. I think he is right to be worried. For the first time in much more than living memory, people are so disillusioned with Parliament that they might ask why, once the wretches have left the building, we need ever bother letting them back in.
Is it residual sexism that the press spent so much time on the style and fashion sense of the G20 wives last week, and not on that of the G20 leaders? Without wishing to be ungallant, I would say that it is not true that Mrs Obama is particularly chic and well-dressed, handsome though she is. She favours unflattering bows. In the Czech Republic, for example, she wore a large white one which made her look like part of the catering corps. It is her husband who is well dressed. His suits hang right on him when buttoned — whereas poor Gordon Brown’s start an argument with his torso — and his shirts are crisp and sit high and hold his smart, simple ties perfectly in their collars. Who dresses the President? We were not told.
The Chinese President, Hu Jintao, was, of course, dressed with impeccable dullness. This is fitting for his role — impersonally powerful, unelected, representing the vast vested interest of the Communist party. Is there any important country today which has stuck so determinedly to a particular political direction for so long? In 1975, Zhou Enlai put forward the idea of the Four Modernisations, and from 1978, when Deng Xiaoping officially promulgated them, they have set the tone. Socialism is to be implemented not by ideology, but by scientific progress. No need to shout about it: just go on doing it until you become the most powerful country on earth. Hence Mr Hu’s silent prominence. By the way, the fourth Modernisation is military might.
Simon Wolfson, who runs Next, told me recently that he went to a dinner on HMS Victory. He was greatly impressed by the pomp, tradition, uniforms, etc, but then he discovered that his chain of clothes shops now employs more people than the Royal Navy. In a century or two, will excited admirals vie for dinner in the former boardroom of Next, eager to witness a bit of great British retailing tradition?