The BBC loves nothing better than a narrative in which Tory anti-European eccentrics split their party, and a bewildered public votes Labour. It is certainly the case that some of the Tory sceptics are half-crazed by dislike of David Cameron. But the reason the subject keeps coming up is because it matters, and it remains unresolved. The Tory rebels understand this in straightforward electoral terms: the rise of Ukip threatens their seats, so they must do something about it. What is maddening is not so much Mr Cameron’s actual policy on Europe, but his patent longing to avoid the subject. His refusal to ‘bang on’ about Europe has brought about more banging on than ever.
Last week, the government put it out that it was cracking down on a (legal) abuse by which the spouses of British citizens who have themselves never lived in this country can nevertheless claim British old age pensions. The press duly accepted the government spin, and commented on how disgraceful this loophole was. Possibly it is. But I have a strong suspicion that something wider is going on. My wife has done only about seven years of full-time work and it is not clear how this might affect her eventual state pension. In January, she received a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions about the new single-tier state pension. In February, she received a letter on the same subject saying ‘Please accept our apologies if the previous letter caused any confusion’. Such was the English of both letters that we remain unclear about what the purport of either was, except that something had gone wrong somewhere. When the foreign spouse pension announcement was made, I noticed from the small print that some of this seemed to apply to British people, like my wife, who had not worked full-time for long. I rather think that the government, in its touchingly inarticulate way, is trying to tell her that she is going to get less than she might previously have expected.
In the endless attacks on Eton and Etonians which fill the media at present (and usually end up with the suggestion that one Etonian prime minister, David Cameron, be replaced by another, Boris Johnson), the one thing the critics do not allege is that Eton is a bad school. Its fault, indeed, would appear to be that it is a good one. I am grateful to the headmaster for letting me quote from a report from a Chinese boy, Zhen Lin, who recently came to Eton on a three-week exchange. It sheds an interesting light on how the place seems to foreigners. ‘Before I arrived at Eton,’ he writes in sophisticated but sometimes unusual English, ‘I …imagined it to be a school full of elite boys who always keep formal and even somewhat aristocratic behaviours. This illusion …lasted till the end of the assembly I had on the night I arrived. After the housemaster left the dining room, boys began to shout aloud to each other and messed around, not like their silent and reserved contemporaries in my city. In the following days, my observation furthered my thought: boys tended to be extremely outgoing and even rollicking.’ He says that in China teenagers are made to ‘act uniformly and formally’, whereas at Eton a boy can have ‘a very natural and even childlike personality …while having a highly educated behaviour whenever he thinks it necessary to act formal’. In class, he noted, pupils can ‘have all kinds of analyses…, even including some which would be regarded as ridiculous in some people’s eyes. Reading is a process colliding, merging and manufacturing of new ideas.’ He was impressed that boys were ‘curious about and even fond of what they were learning’.
Zhen was particularly struck by Eton’s relationship with its nation. In a section which he entitles ‘Patriotism and Objectivism’, he writes: ‘As I walked around the campus of Eton, I happened to discover some memorial stones on the wall of the square that were engraved with those brave Etonians who died in wars. I was awe-struck facing the long list of martyrs from Eton. I unshakably believe that the setting of these memorials will promote the patriotism and sense of honor of Eton boys.’ But what surprised him was that the history teaching about the second world war did not glorify Britain unfairly: ‘…boys and teachers directly pointed out many defects of British foreign policy at the time.’ He goes on: ‘Unlike some countries’ history educations history classes in Eton objectively conclude the achievement of Hitler and the fault of the Allied…I do suppose that Patriotism and Objectivism are not conflicting and should be balanced.’ What he was saying, in essence, was that he had come across a great institution of a free country.
Preparing to go to America for the launch of my Thatcher biography there next week, I suddenly remembered the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution: ‘All those present on US soil must have white teeth.’ My visit will involve a certain amount of television, and I know that Americans refer derisively to ‘English teeth’. Mine fulfil the caricature. The top row is not too bad, but the lower arch, imperfectly arranged by the National Health Service in the late 1960s, resembles the sort of scene which inspired Thomas Gray to compose his ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’. Battered and greying tombstones at crazy angles struggle out of the surrounding moss. Obviously I lack the money, time or courage to have the whole thing rebuilt, but it was a fact that I had been to the dentist only once since 1973. An inspection and a clean were needed. I went. The good news was that I have no holes and my gums are fine. The bad news was that the cleaning demanded the sort of operation usually brought to bear on the walls of medieval cathedrals. Even when the detritus was scraped and blasted away, the remaining objects were not white enough to get me through John Foster Dulles Airport, so I was advised to have ‘trays’ made (at a cost of £240), and to stick them on to my teeth twice daily for a week, filled with little squirts of bleach. My smile grows more confident by the day.