Charles Moore’s reflections on the week
Only connect. Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said that her family house in her Redditch constituency was her second home. This allowed her to claim £116,000 from the taxpayer for it. Then her husband, Richard Timney, who is paid by the taxpayer as her constituency assistant, claimed pornographic films as part of her parliamentary expenses. Nobody seems to have noticed the link. By her own account, Miss Smith spends four nights a week staying with her sister in London. Mr Timney, answering his wife’s constituents’ letters in Redditch, may, therefore, be bored and lonely. His claim for the cost of Raw Meat 3 (why ‘3’? — did he also claim for Raw Meat 1 and Raw Meat 2?) may be his way of getting his wife to pay attention. It is what we psychologists call ‘a cry for help’. Spouses of MPs traditionally feel hard done by — especially, perhaps, husbands. Barbara Castle, Labour’s most successful woman politician, recorded in her diary a sad scene with her husband Ted, the worse for drink, in 1970. He rounded on her: ‘You can’t possibly understand. How could you? You have gone from success to success. I have gone from rejection to rejection. You’ve no time to spare for me. How could you?’ The best way to deal with the role is to accept it and assume that you will get no public money out of it, and get on with life. That was Denis Thatcher’s attitude. He had many evenings alone while his wife ran the country, but I should be very surprised if he resorted to pornography — let alone pornography supplied by the public purse — to beguile the hours. He preferred gin, the Daily Telegraph and rugby on television. He certainly would never have hired Raw Meat 3. The title would have put him off. Denis had a horror of undercooked steak. If a waiter brought him one, he would poke it and say: ‘Take it away, and bring it back when it has stopped mooing.’
By the way, I heard the Liberal MP for Truro, Matthew Taylor, attacking second homes on the BBC last week. I see from the just published chart that in 2007-08 he claimed £23,083 for his second home, the highest annual amount that the rules seem to permit.
It seems that Gordon Brown announced his desire to interfere with the succession to the throne in order to avoid the bad publicity which dogged him as he rushed round the world last week. It is a shaky basis for constitutional reform. Some sensible articles have pointed out that few Catholics are really offended by Prince William’s legal inability to marry us (though he is presumably allowed a civil partnership with a Catholic man, if the Catholic can get that one past the hierarchy). They add that the proposed succession of the eldest child, regardless of sex, would be no more fair than that of male heirs only, and that the nature of monarchy is not an ideal subject for the application of ‘human rights’. All true, but I feel that the strongest of all arguments in favour of leaving this matter alone has been omitted. The most dangerous thing that can happen to a succession is that it be seriously disputed. Its method itself is not so important: it could be by lottery, height, haruspication, monkish divination (as with the Dalai Lama), internet polling, whatever. But the method must be accepted and the result must be unambiguous. Anyone who wishes ill to a kingdom will always try to cast doubt on the succession, and that, of course, is what the current reformers seek to do. They do not want to make the monarchy ‘human rights-compliant’ because they care for the monarchy, but because they don’t. The Act of Settlement of 1701 was so called because it was designed to settle the succession and thus to settle disputes over which many people had died. It has done this very successfully ever since, bringing almost unique blessings to our civil order. Don’t unsettle it.
At our local Catholic church, a document called ‘52 Weeks for Peace’ was on the pews at the beginning of the year. It is from Pax Christi, the left-wing Catholic organisation. It sets out a theme of prayer for each week of the year. This week, the theme is ‘Pray for members of the (new) Scottish Parliament that it will promote justice and peace in the country. Remember that Faslane is the home of the Trident nuclear submarine, a weapon of mass destruction.’ This juxtaposition brought me up sharp. Until now, I have always been pleased to think of Trident slipping in and out of the waters of Gare Loch, and have given thanks to God that she helps protect us all, but if Pax Christi is right in its implication that the members of the Scottish Parliament might somehow get their hands on her, a rethink is called for. When the cry goes up, ‘It’s Scotland’s nuke!’, I shall join CND.
Spectator readers can be pleased that the BBC Trust, which reported on Tuesday, has found in our favour. It says, too mildly, but clearly, that the tone of TV Licensing’s reminder letters is ‘too harsh’ and that households without television sets (there are half a million of us) deserve ‘non-accusatory’ language. I notice from the report that complaints about all of this have risen from roughly 10,000 in 2001-02 to 35,000 this year. This is because the letters from TV Licensing have become more libellous, more frequent, and often impervious to reply. The Trust acknowledges that people feel threatened by letters which imply guilt on the envelope: ‘not appropriate’, it says. And it has spotted — which I had not — that the 084 numbers which you have to use when you ring TV Licensing ‘generate revenue’ for some of the BBC’s crony organisations. It says this should cease. So we are getting somewhere. But the report does not upbraid the BBC for pretending, by using the name TV Licensing, that it somehow has nothing to do with the nasty business of licence fee collection, and that its ‘enforcement officers’ have powers. It should force the BBC to state that it cannot make you tell it whether you have a licence or demand the right to enter your house or even to question you. You can — and should — defy it with impunity.
The City pages of newspapers are made more enjoyable by headlines which do not consider the amazing images the natural and ordinary meaning of their words conjures up. ‘Aluminium giant slumps to loss’, says one poetically. Oil majors eye lingerie arms; bears lash Darling as hedges hit bottoms. Anything can happen. Sometimes what happens is truly unimaginable: ‘Sainsbury’s boosted by red noses and offal’, I read last week.