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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

1 June 2013

9:00 AM

1 June 2013

9:00 AM

The website of the Security Service (MI5) says that since the end of the Cold War, the threat of subversion is ‘now considered to be negligible’. Isn’t this a mistake? It seems likely that many Muslim organisations — university Islamic societies, for example — are subverted by jihadists. The infiltrators whip up hatred against the West and create networks, rudimentary but often powerful, of the like-minded. When they have done their work well, they do not need to give direct orders to people like the Woolwich murderers to kill: they have primed their human device, and left it to explode. Such subversion may not be backed by foreign state power, but it still resembles communism in its ability to infiltrate minds and organisations at the same time.

It is pointed out that opposition to same-sex marriage is strong among those over 60 and weak among those under 25. No doubt this is true, but does it prove that the oldies are wrong? The generation over 60 is the last to have had a virtually universal experience of marriage. And so — for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer — it knows what it is talking about. The majority of those campaigning for same-sex marriage have not experienced the married state, nor ever said anything nice about marriage before. So it seems reasonable to guess that it is not marriage which interests them, but their idea of equality. Only one in six of the peerage is under 60, so I hold out some hope for sense in the House of Lords when it debates the bill next week.

In the United States last week for the publication there of my biography of Margaret Thatcher, I was interested by how most Americans see her story. They fasten on the obvious question which — like many obvious questions — is the most important: how did someone from the ‘wrong’ sex and class rise, through the more supposedly reactionary of the parties, to become Britain’s first woman prime minister? For them, it is so clear that Mrs Thatcher is a uniquely valuable role model for women that there is no great political division about her. You have be a really seriously active liberal (in the American sense of that word) to share British-style resentments about her. Even on National Public Radio — where the political ethos is similar to that of the BBC — my friendly and well-informed interviewer chatted with me for an hour without getting anywhere near the ‘Ding-dong! The witch is dead’ territory. All the odder, then, that President Obama was not represented at Lady Thatcher’s funeral by anyone in his administration higher than the chargé d’affaires in London. He could surely have sent the Vice-President or the Secretary of State to say farewell to the woman who had spoken (on a tape because of ill health) over President Reagan’s coffin at his funeral. There is a disappointingly sectarian quality to Obama’s presidency.


When the phone-in bit of NPR’s Diane Rehm Show began, however, I did recognise one line of attack long prepared by Lady Thatcher’s opponents — that she had called Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist’. I have heard this on virtually every Thatcher-related programme since 8 April. I can find no such quotation. Mrs Thatcher worked hard to get Mandela released: she did not do that sort of thing for people she believed to be terrorists. The nearest I can find is that at the Commonwealth Summit in Vancouver in 1987, she called the ANC ‘a terrorist organisation’. She was reacting to reports that the ANC had now decided to target British companies in South Africa for attack because of her refusal to impose sanctions. How many British prime ministers would have wished to say that such attacks were not terrorist?

On returning from the United States, I went straight from Heathrow to chair a meeting at the Charleston literary festival, one of the nicest and best-run in the country. Charleston, of course, was the Sussex house of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. Before we went on stage, I was given a tour of the place. It helped to confirm my view that the main significance of the Bloomsberries is that they were the forerunners of the Sunday colour supplements: they excelled at gardens, interior decor and love triangles. They had reasonable amounts of private income and protected their privileges by espousing dreary left-wing views. Working my way through the rooms, I took malicious satisfaction in the cramped quarters — there is barely space for a conscientious objector to swing both ways. But as I was inwardly sneering, my guide reminded me that we were standing in the bedroom in which Maynard Keynes wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace. That really is something to boast about. The only great thing to come out of all that artistic egotism and revolt against Victorianism was, oddly, a work of economics.

The Today programme runs an interview, on Syria, with ‘the head of arms control at Oxfam’. Why does Oxfam have a head of arms control? Is it an organ of the state? Does it have the power to control any weapons? If so, who gave it that power? Many charities today are so political that they give themselves all the trappings and pretensions of government, without the boredom of having to seek a democratic mandate.

The Tate Gallery has secured the great ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, by Constable, in a deal with the family of Lord Ashton of Hyde. It is the one with the rainbow above the cathedral spire. The Moores were friends of the first Lord Ashton more than 100 years ago and have continued so with some of each generation of his descendants. When I was a boy, I remember hearing that Raymond, the second Lord Ashton, had shown the picture to the huntsman of the Heythrop, of which he was Master. The huntsman studied it in silence for a bit, and then said: ‘Rotten day for a scent, my lord.’ Such art criticism is properly attentive, and rare at the Tate.


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