Unpublicised, David Cameron has been conducting some unusual job interviews in Downing Street. In hour-long, one-to-one, informal conversations with each candidate, he is looking for the next head of our armed forces. The man he chooses will replace Sir Jock Stirrup as Chief of the Defence Staff. So far, the Prime Minister has seen the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, and the Vice-Chief of the General Staff, General Nick Houghton. This week, he will see the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards. This way of doing things is unprecedented in peacetime. What normally happens is that the outgoing CDS and the Defence Secretary find the right successor and submit his name to the Prime Minister. You can see why Mr Cameron wants to find out more about the candidates himself. He is new to the job, has just removed Sir Jock and is not on the best of terms with his own Defence Secretary, Liam Fox. But there is a danger that, by using this method, he will select the most pliable and congenial candidate, rather than the one who can best lead the armed forces. In recent years the top brass have not dared tell politicians unwelcome truths. The Cameron interview process is likely to discourage such truth-telling once again.
Another man who is changing the rules of appointment is the Speaker, John Bercow. For 40 years, it has been customary for the Rector of St Margaret’s, Westminster and the Speaker’s chaplain to be the same person. It makes sense, because of the importance of St Margaret’s in the life of Parliament. A committee to appoint the new one was set up by Westminster Abbey (of which St Margaret’s is a part). The committee, including, I gather, Mr Speaker’s representative, Robert Key MP, chose Canon Andrew Tremlett for the job. Flouting his own adviser, Mr Speaker suddenly decided that he was choosing Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Vicar of Hackney, as his chaplain instead. The story, burnishing Mr Bercow’s right-on credentials (Mrs Hudson-Wilkin is black as well as female) made its way to the newspapers, embarrassing Canon Tremlett and Mr Key. Strictly speaking, Mr Bercow is within his rights, but it is sad if the spiritual counsellor to all MPs is appointed by the politically correct whim of the man in the Chair.
I learnt from the late Auberon Waugh that one should never feel silly English fastidiousness about advertising the talents of one’s family. So I want to boast unembarrassedly about the brilliant new book by my sister, Charlotte Moore. It is called Hancox (Penguin), which is the name of the family house she inhabits. It is about what you learn of the past when nobody ever throws anything away. Almost everything in the book is derived from evidence found in the house — diaries, letters, albums, scribbles on the walls, snakes in bottles, toenail clippings (literally) — about the generations of our family that lived there since the 19th century. The book has everything in the way of love, death, madness etc that one could want. How did the phrase ‘normal family’ come into existence? It is a contradiction in terms.
One possible victim of the Coalition era is the repeal of the hunting ban. I spent the weekend in some of the most beautiful parts of the Welsh Borders, and I was asked to explain to a great gathering of the Ludlow Hunt what might happen next. It is not easy to know. Those who study the numbers say that only ten of the 57 current Liberal Democrat MPs can be relied on to vote for repeal. So the sums aren’t good enough, and I should be surprised if anyone were to push for a vote at present. People do not seem downhearted, however, because they can feel the era of persecution ending. It should now be easier to get licensing agreements for legal hunting with the Forestry Commission, the MoD etc, and less likely that the police will waste much time trying to enforce an act which does not work. Nick Clegg’s ‘Great Reform Bill’ may make it harder for people to film one another secretly and hand over the results to the police: this practice by ‘antis’ has led to unsuccessful but wearisome hunt prosecutions. One further reflection on the numbers, though: the reason there may still be a majority for the ban is because of a constitutional anomaly. At present, Scottish MPs can vote on English matters, though not, because of devolution, vice versa. So 59 Scots, who cannot affect the sport in their own country (it is a devolved matter), have the power to ban it in Dorset, Derbyshire and Durham. Yet another reason why the West Lothian Question needs an answer.
Beckford, the first Englishman to write systematically about hunting, declared that ‘it is not less difficult to find a perfect huntsman, than a good Prime Minister’. I quoted to my Ludlow audience his views of what is required for the job: qualities ‘which would not disgrace more brilliant situations — such as a clear head, nice observation, quick apprehension, undaunted courage, strength of constitution, activity of body, a good ear and a good voice’. If Beckford is right, Gordon Brown was clearly unsuitable. If politics ever goes wrong for Mr Cameron, on the other hand, he would have a good chance of a steady job with a shire pack. One example of his ‘quick apprehension’ has been shown in his handling of the Pope’s forthcoming visit to this country. He asked Chris Patten to sort out the administrative logjam on the subject left by the last government. Lord Patten hesitated for a day or two, wondering whether he really wanted to do it. Then he heard that the Prime Minister had already told the Queen that he (Patten) had agreed to take on the task. He was sufficiently impressed by these tactics to give in.
For my Ludlow outing, we stayed with friends nearby. Their house was once a vicarage, and when it was alienated from the Church in the 1960s it took the invented name of ‘priory’. No doubt it sounded good at the time, but years later, when our friends sought to extend the outhouses, a zealous young ‘expert’ from English Heritage forbade them because she had found traces of the original priory. It was a diplomatic task to explain to her that no priory had ever existed.
Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in US history, who died this week, got his foot on the political ladder because he was a champion country fiddler in West Virginia. Many years later, Senator Byrd visited Scotland, and was invited by Joseph Godson, the US consul-general there, to join him at the Edinburgh Festival for a Yehudi Menuhin concert. ‘Who’s he?’ asked Senator Byrd. ‘Then I remembered,’ recalled Godson, ‘that a fiddler is not the same thing as a violinist.’