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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

5 January 2013

9:00 AM

5 January 2013

9:00 AM

‘The rain is ever falling, drip, drip, drip, by day and night… The weather is so very bad, down in Lincolnshire, that the liveliest imagination can scarcely apprehend its ever being fine again.’ That is Dickens in the 1850s (Bleak House). It is a similar story here in Sussex as the year 2013 comes in. I usually have no objection to ‘bad’ weather, but the worst of this is that the land is so saturated that man, motorised vehicle and mounted beast is effectively banned from the fields, as if there were an outbreak of foot-and-mouth. So perhaps I am sitting and brooding too much; but it does seem to me that David Cameron is losing rural support at quite a rate and not realising. In this, the failure to repeal the hunting ban is significant. The Conservatives are, in fact, right, not to press for a vote now — because they failed to win the election, they do not have the numbers to carry repeal. But the situation exposes the problem. Pro-hunting people were the mainstay of Tory activism in a great many seats in the last election. It is calculated that 94 currently sitting Conservative MPs were substantially helped by the ‘Vote OK’ campaign that mobilised hunting people. Unless something happens, they will not get that support next time. A patronising and ignorant leader in the Times last week said that ‘the compromise arrived at seems to be working pretty well’. What compromise would that be? People whose livelihood depends on hunting suffer constant surveillance by ill-natured extremists. Men leading tough and often solitary lives on low wages are harassed by a well-funded charity, the RSPCA, which spends enormous sums on prosecutions, but cannot afford to keep thousands of the animals entrusted to its care and puts them down instead. Hunt staff face the threat of prosecution under a law which is shockingly uncertain in its application. Uncompromisingly bad laws should not survive unaltered. Mr Cameron owes it to his supporters to work out a better legal way through this.

The Times has been wrong (see above), much more often than right, throughout its history. ‘Hang the Kaiser!’, appease Hitler, appease Stalin, Euro-mania, now gay marriage: it can usually be relied on to uphold the erroneous establishment doctrine of the age. William Rees-Mogg, who has just died, was frequently wrong and was also an establishment figure. Why, then, do I except him from the strictures I would generally apply to the newspaper, which he edited from 1967–81? It is because his wrongness (and his rightness too) was the attractive result of thinking for himself rather than the craven consequence of taking his lead from others. When he left the editorship, he wrote that he looked forward to ‘a second adolescency, full of freedom, impertinence and hope’, but in fact he had edited much more in that spirit than his fogey manner suggested. I remember reading with delight his notably batty leading article in February 1981 suggesting that Shirley Williams should be Prime Minister. He predicted that the nation, seeking unity, would take its revenge on Mrs Thatcher at the next election: she won the largest Tory landslide since the 1930s. His writing had a quixotic charm, and you could never quite tell how much he was laughing at himself. He once began an article (have I made this up?) with the words ‘Of the 11 heads of government I have known personally who have been assassinated…’.

Rees-Mogg’s writing was not merely an elegant style: it displayed an intellectually generous cast of mind. Behind it lay the courteous, Augustan assumption that most reasonably bright people could understand most issues if they were clearly expressed. He was unusual among modern masters of prose in having a strong interest in money and economics. He brought to these subjects the lucidity which had been displayed by Adam Smith or Bagehot or Keynes, but which late-20th-century academia frowned on. He was brave — and right — to switch to ‘monetarism’ in the mid-1970s, and he expounded the virtues of an independent central bank to supervise monetary growth 20 years before this came about. When I was 15, I went on holiday in the Lake District and caught a bus to visit a great aunt. I can clearly remember sitting on that bus and reading a long Mogg leader headlined ‘Why We Are In A Crisis’. I have no idea whether he was right, but I cannot think of any other editor who could possibly have persuaded me to do such a thing.

Funnily enough, the one piece for which Mogg has been over-praised is his famous leader — ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’ — advocating modest punishment for Mick Jagger’s drug offence in 1967. (A subeditor had to change the quote from Pope’s original ‘upon a wheel’ because the headline would have ‘bust’.) There has always been a good case for not criminalising drugs, but if the criminal law was ever to work, it had to make an example of the famous. Jagger actually feared jail, and the loss of his career. If this had resulted, the deterrent might have worked on others. But the Times saved him. Even the great Mogg was high on the Summer of Love.

Then, as now, the Times published the birthdays of prominent people. In 1967, Rees-Mogg was moved to send a memo to the social page editor: ‘As you know, many people feel very flattered when they see their birthday mentioned in the Times. I think we are somewhat over-represented among the official classes and under-represented with businessmen…’ He was right. In this New Year’s Honours List, the trend he complained of has surged back. Because there is now an obsessive anxiety about any honour which might be tainted with cronyism, politicians and businessmen are hardly gonged at all. All that are left are sports personalities and the people nowadays put in charge of honours — the civil servants whom Mogg called ‘official classes’ — who happily reward their own.

My autistic nephew has a young friend, with learning difficulties but of high intelligence. Recently, she was asked who Narcissus was. ‘He fell in love with himself,’ she answered. ‘Yes, and then what happened?’ ‘The relationship didn’t work out.’

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