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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

Charles Moore's reflections on the week

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

By chance, Mr Speaker had invited me to a party on Tuesday evening. I had decided, rude though it would have been, to attend, but to tell him to his face that he should go. But by the time I got there, he had. All emotions went into reverse. The reception was in aid of St Margaret’s, Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, which needs £2 million. Showing none of the chippy defensiveness which has made him so unpopular, Michael Martin gave a charming little talk about how, despite being a Scottish Roman Catholic, he had been made to feel at home at St Margaret’s when he first arrived 30 years ago. Even pre-Vatican II, he said, his mother had always encouraged him to seek out the Glasgow boys’ clubs organised by Protestant churches. It seemed very ecumenical, ‘but later I realised she just didn’t want all five of us in the kitchen’. He said the Speaker’s Art Fund would contribute £75,000 for the appeal. Then he returned to the Chamber to tell Hon. Members why they no longer claim for gardeners, grooms, personal trainers, chauffeurs and the rest. Some people are saying that the departure of the Speaker is a side-show. I don’t agree. The fact that this rather dear, but utterly useless man ever got the post was a symptom of the great problem. The fact that he can be forced out is the symptom of a great change.

Mr Martin’s fate confirms this column’s theory that nothing but trouble results when the holder of an ancient office tries to scale down the costume. They do so in the vain (in both senses of the word) idea that they will command greater respect if they can be seen ‘for themselves’, rather than as pompous and remote figures in silly outfits. In fact, the Speaker, like judges, is much safer half-hidden under wigs: the office predominates over the man. I predict that Mr Martin’s replacement — almost whoever he or she is — will overmodernise the outfit and undermodernise the nature of the office.

It has proved impossible to defend the claim that ‘the vast majority’ of MPs are guiltless of any wrongdoing in the expenses scandal. But given that the rules are impossible to fulfil — how can house maintenance for a family be ‘wholly’ carried out for the fulfilment of parliamentary duties? — MPs who stuck to reasonable house or garden maintenance and avoided anything which could be considered a capital cost surely did nothing wrong. David Heathcoat-Amory, who is notoriously careful about public money, charged for manure. Surely that is no worse than charging for plain crockery: it is just more memorable. Barbara Follett presumably did need her chimneys cleaned (cost £384), and it is no more heinous to charge for that than for vacuum-cleaning (her astonishing claim for bodyguards is something else). As for poor Oliver Letwin, it seems to be universally believed that we paid to repair his tennis court. Not so; we paid to mend his water pipe, a normal piece of maintenance. The only reason the terrible phrase ‘tennis court’ featured was that his builder’s receipt identified the work as having taken place near it.

The second-home scandal arose from the mistaken idea that MPs need to live in their constituencies. In the early Eighties, my friend Henry Keswick, the taipan of Jardines, was interviewed for a safe Conservative seat in Wiltshire. The chairman of the association kept pressing him to say that he would buy a house in the constituency. Henry thought this unreasonable since his existing house was only ten miles away. Eventually, exasperated, he said: ‘Madam, if you insist, I will buy a house in every village in the constituency.’ This brave answer naturally lost him the selection.

The fact that the Daily Telegraph has published this huge story is a reminder that newspapers can still do things in a way that others cannot. The BBC, despite its huge resources, would never have dared to do such a thing. It would have been much too frightened of legal threats and political disapproval. Enterprising buccaneers on the internet could certainly have pushed the data into the public domain, but they would not have had the resources to present it properly and, above all, to check it methodically with the people exposed and run their self-justifications, which have often been the most absurd and revealing aspect of the whole thing. Only a newspaper — and perhaps only a national daily newspaper — could provide the reporters, the lawyers, the snappers, the editors, the independence, the analysis and the necessary projection.

Once they have rejigged their system of allowances, MPs will wish to turn their minds to their own pay. They will not find the public sympathetic. Is there a partial answer to the problem in the last amendment to the United States Constitution: ‘No law, varying the compensation for the services of Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.’

The passage of time, though, lends enchantment to past corruption. Last week, the Rectory Society, of which I am chairman, had one of its lovely days out. We went first to Englefield, where the Benyon family (see last week’s Notes) built a Victorian Gothic rectory to house one of its members when it had made him rector of the village which it owned. Then we drove to Farnborough, whose Georgian old rectory was eventually inhabited by John Betjeman, but which earlier, when still occupied by rectors, passed through several generations of the Price family. these arrangements for the cure of souls would not pass many ethics committees today, yet the aesthetic results of such stewardship are wonderful to behold. Our next trip is the Great Vicarage Tea-party. Lord and Lady Archer have kindly permitted us to join them in the garden of the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, made immortal by Rupert Brooke, who lived there. Spectator readers are welcome to come. The visit, with excellent tea and a short theatrical performance of Brooke’s life and work, starts at ‘ten to three’ on Monday 6 July. It costs £25 per head (no limit on numbers of each application). Cheques should be made out to The Rectory Society and sent to Virginia Utley, 111 Sugden Road, London SW11 5ED.

Most of us, including myself, are sadly vague about the long and horrible conflict in Sri Lanka, which has just ended at last. But it does seem worth pointing out that the fact that it has ended is an achievement of sorts. It is surely a good thing for world order that a terrorist insurgency can be unequivocally defeated.

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