On the BBC television news on Monday night, the first three items concerned alleged misbehaviour by the famous — Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Lord Rennard and Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of the ex-Cabinet minister, Chris Huhne. I begin to wonder if an accidental revolution is in progress. There is no revolutionary political doctrine, just a wish to believe that anyone in any position of power or fame is corrupt and should be exposed. Sexual misbehaviour is probably the most fun way of doing this, but stuff about money or lying works too. In theory, we should welcome this. The accusations often turn out to be true. Power corrupts. But actually there is something vile about it. It is to do with the righteousness of those doing the exposing. They speak as if any sort of corporate concealment is wicked. Anyone who has worked in any organisation comes across people in positions of authority who abuse it, but are basically good at their job. They may command real respect and affection. Their work may be of great value. It is rarely absolutely obvious that they should be exposed for misbehaviour. Take the man who is an inspiring leader, but is sometimes drunk and lecherous, or the woman who is a superbly efficient manager, but is horrible to younger women. In such cases, most organisations would try their best to cover up/mitigate the faults rather than punish the culprits with career death. Often they would be right to do so. ‘Whistleblowers’ will sometimes be genuinely brave truth-tellers but they may equally well be people with grudges, liars or narcissists who want to bask in a public culture which celebrates them. By being completely merciless, we turn people in power into mere fighters to survive. They therefore lead very badly.
Mario Monti’s party got under 10 per cent of the vote in the Italian elections, which shows how many Italians want to be ruled by Brussels. Mr Monti is an able man, and many Italians approve of his austerity policies. But he was made Italian prime minister in 2011 because the European institutions imposed him without elections, so a vote for him now is a vote against national independence. To understand the point, imagine if, after the start of a triple-dip recession, David Cameron was kicked out by the European Central Bank, which decreed that we should be ruled by Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, the chairman of the Financial Services Authority. Adair Turner, an old university friend of mine, is, like Mr Monti, nice, clever, experienced and economically literate (though insane about the euro). But if Brussels made him our prime minister I would join millions on the streets in protest; and if I got the chance to vote, I would support absolutely any British Beppe Grillo — Jeremy Clarkson, Ken Dodd — rather than the cat’s paw of the European banking-bureaucracy complex.
Since most coverage of ageing nowadays is one long moan that there are too many old people, I should like to celebrate two nonagenarians. The first, Bill Letwin, died last week. He was a distinguished professor of political science at the LSE, and a man of peculiar sweetness and generosity. After his wife Shirley died 20 years ago, he had two severe strokes. In earlier times, he would have died. Bill’s last years provided a lovely example of the benefits of modern medicine. He recovered well enough to see his grandchildren grow up, and give them the blessings that only grandparents can provide. He lived quietly in west Dorset, where his son, Oliver, is the Member of Parliament, and gave pleasure to all who knew him. Yes, there was cost — emotional and financial — for his family to care for him, but it was worth it. There are countless such examples.
The other nonagenarian is my uncle, Norman Moore, who was 90 on Sunday. Norman is a figure of huge influence in the world of nature conservation. His early work revealed how pesticides were killing raptors. Several species of dragonflies are named after him. If you walk with him in the country, he has a curious St-Francis-of-Assisi effect by which wild creatures virtually perch on his shoulder. He too is a man whom everyone loves — modest, kind, honourable. And he, too, is someone who, in earlier ages, would probably have been dead long since. He was blown up by the Germans in the war and suffered terribly in prisoner-of-war camp. His wounds still give him trouble. But he has been able to maintain his scientific interest and even, until a year or two back, his vigorous physical activity, still helping fauna, flora and people. Quite recently, Norman was in hospital after a stroke and the nurses asked him if he wanted one of those ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ notices if he went into a coma. ‘Oh no, thank you,’ he said, ‘You see, I have a very nice family.’ (He meant his immediate family — I am not boasting.) The current sadness about old age is not necessarily that people live too long. It is that too few can truthfully say what Norman said.
To celebrate Norman’s 90th birthday, my sister dug out early letters. One, for his christening, was from his great-aunt, Lucy Cavendish. She was the widow of Lord Frederick Cavendish, murdered by Fenians in Phoenix Park on his first day as Chief Secretary to Ireland in 1882. Born in 1841, she was a pioneer of women’s education, and a college in Cambridge bears her name. Everyone has a story in which you can get back to the distant past in very few generations. I am always a sucker for them. They confirm that living contact with the old is the best history lesson for a child.
This particular generation experienced the war, and so have something special to teach. Bill Letwin was an intelligence officer in the US army and was parachuted behind enemy lines in the far east. He was the first US officer to enter Tokyo, Oliver tells me. He remained so affected by it all that he found the sight of the Japanese almost unbearable. That was a lesson in itself — if this kindest of men felt that way, what on earth must the collective experience have been like?