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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

It may well be true that some equipment given to British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan is inadequate.

15 July 2009

12:00 AM

15 July 2009

12:00 AM

It may well be true that some equipment given to British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan is inadequate. It almost certainly is the case that the government has willed ends without willing means, and it deserves to be criticised for that. But it is a mistake to encourage bereaved parents to think that their sons’ deaths were essentially avoidable. All wars are difficult. No army is perfectly provided for. The fundamental reason that soldiers die in wars is because wars are dangerous. Soldiers know this when they join up, and though they complain (grumbling being the sacred right of the soldier throughout history), they accept it. Their poor parents would gain much greater psychological strength, as many do, by being proud of their children’s courage and service, rather than getting furious with our government. I feel that the press, by stirring up these grievances, is advancing our wretched blame and compensation culture under the guise of patriotism, and making the main aim of the Taleban — breaking our will — much easier.

In his Dimbleby Lecture last week, the Prince of Wales reminded his audience that, in Brazil in March, he had said that ‘we had 100 months left to take the necessary steps to avert irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse’; so now, he pointed out, we have only 96 months left. By early July 2017, therefore, irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse will be certain. If Prince Charles is right, his claim in the same lecture that, by 2050, there will be nine billion people on the planet, mostly consuming at western levels, must surely be wrong. How could nine billion people survive and flourish 33 years after the beginning of ‘irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse’? So does he really believe what he says? Since his remedies — ‘a much more integrated way of thinking’, the use of Nature’s processes as ‘the basis of a new form of economics’ — are so vague and require such vast changes in the government of the entire world, he must know that the ‘necessary steps’ will not have been taken by 2017. We should hold HRH to his prediction, and then, when his deadline passes and we continue to live happily, implore him to talk about something else.

Sometimes it is possible to spot the usage of a word on the turn. This year, the English word ‘maths’ is being supplanted by the American ‘math’. You can hear radio presenters veering between the two, wondering which they are supposed to be using. It is mysterious why such changes come about at any particular moment, but once they have started, they are oddly inevitable.

Gordon Brown is said not to understand women. In my view, this underrates by almost 50 per cent the proportion of the human race that he does not understand, but anyway there was a Radio 4 programme on the theme on Sunday. Several Labour women made the point that the ‘equality agenda’ developed since the 1970s has never interested the Prime Minister very much. To put it sexistly, he has always been more interested in the means of production than the means of reproduction. This is important politically, because the equality agenda is almost the only piece of ideology about which Labour activists still feel passionately. To accuse their leader of falling short on the subject is as damaging for him within Labour as it would be for a Tory leader to be accused of Euroenthusiasm within his own party. It is for this reason that observers neglect the Labour deputy leader, Harriet Harman, at their peril. She is very, very serious and correct about such matters (she always refers to a ‘snowperson’, for example), and she is in charge of the Equality Bill. She is better placed than outsiders can easily conceive to be the next leader.

In the course of last month, I have met two people with injuries requiring emergency hospital treatment. One was an MP with a bad cut, the other a senior clergyman with a broken leg. Both sustained their injuries on equipment intended for the disabled.

At the weekend, I went to speak at the Way with Words literary festival at Dartington. Across the aisle from me on the train was a very fat woman with her teenage son, eating sweets. For two hours or so, she engaged the couple opposite to her in unsolicited conversation. She was going down to Devon to collect her 15-year-old daughter, who had been sent there for several weeks ‘because of her behaviour’. The girl had run away from home and fallen in with a group of very bad boys. One of the gang was now in prison for rape and attempted murder. When she had split from the gang, and returned home, they had come round and broken her windows, so she had run away again. In Devon, though, her daughter was ‘doing her nut’, her mother said. A cow had come and looked in her bedroom window one morning, scaring her terribly: she was longing to return to the safety of good old south London.

Reaching Dartington, I took part in a debate with Gillian Reynolds, the radio critic of the Daily Telegraph, about the BBC. Gillian was ‘pro’, and I, refusing to renew my licence fee unless they sack Jonathan Ross, was ‘anti’. There were more than 400 people, highly intelligent and respectable, mostly grey-haired. With such audiences, I notice a change since I first started speaking to them about 25 years ago. At that time, their natural conservatism made them strongly in favour of the BBC and the National Health Service: they believed in the morality underpinning both organisations. Today, that belief is still present — and people remain highly suspicious of purely ‘market’ arguments for reform — but, in both cases, they feel that the institutions have strayed from their purpose, and so they are more open to new ideas. Gillian, who knows and loves the bit of the BBC that such an audience likes best (Radios 3 and 4), beguiled everyone, and she won the show of hands at the end, but not by anything like the margin her cause would once have commanded. Those of us who want to change matters need to think harder about arrangements which preserve the core of quality — most of it on radio — which still, rightly, commands such loyalty, and jettison the dross and pus. We are pushing at a door which is beginning to open.

Nicholas Penny, the Director of the National Gallery, has courageously spoken out against the endless noise in Trafalgar Square. It is horrible to have to work or even walk in places which arts administrators describe as ‘vibrant’. Why can’t they just erect a statue of a great airman on the fourth plinth and shut all the fun down? Only by filling the square with representations of men of war will we attain peace.

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