What a strange country this is. On the same day that we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the coronation, a mystical rite founded for the ancient kings of Israel and continuous here for a thousand years, our almost equally venerable House of Lords voted to undermine the basis of the oldest of all human relationships recognised in law. The new Archbishop of Canterbury spoke very well on both subjects. In Westminster Abbey, he praised the Queen’s ‘servant leadership’, and reminded the congregation that Jesus ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled Himself and took the form of a slave’. But in Parliament, equality was greedily grasped.
As the Same Sex Marriage result shows, the doctrine of Equality now carries all — family, religion, tradition, freedom — before it. Lots of Conservatives prate in favour of it without realising that Equality is the most essentially left-wing of all doctrines and will do for them in the end. Watching the Derby on television on Saturday, I found myself treated to ten minutes of how wonderful Emily Davison was for throwing herself under the King’s horse at Epsom 100 years ago. Dr Helen Pankhurst, of the suffragette dynasty, was interviewed at the racecourse by Clare Balding. She praised the racing establishment for putting its ‘tribute’ to Davison on the big screen there, thus recognising its own past error and saluting ‘acts of militancy … by incredibly courageous women’. No one said that Emily Davison’s ambush was an act of cruel selfishness towards the horse and its rider. (It was not mentioned that the horse’s jockey, Herbert Jones, eventually committed suicide.) My great-aunt Kathleen, who was a suffragette and once helped hijack a horse-drawn fire engine and drive it fast, bell clanging, to protest outside the Home Office, always said that Emily Davison was regarded by most suffragists as a menace who had perpetrated wanton violence against the innocent. What struck me most about the Channel 4 coverage was its hypocrisy. Suppose that, on Saturday, someone — an Islamist, say, or an animal rights activist — had hurled him- or herself at the horses, would Clare Balding or anyone else present have saluted his ‘courage’?
Now that it has become commonplace for the media to entrap MPs and peers, why don’t our legislators try to turn the tables? I suggest that ministers sidle up to journalists (secretly filming them the while) and offer them honours. They should hint that the honour is conditional on favourable coverage, and agree to meet again in six months. In between, they should track what the journalists write, and then, when they have trapped their victims, expose the pattern. Another trick would be for politicians to get friends to pretend to be businessmen offering journalists money or freebies to place products in their stories and features. These tactics would get interesting results.
John Gilbert, who has just died, was the toughest of that declining species, the Labour right-winger. Most of the Labour right tended, by association with Roy Jenkins, to be pro-European, but Gilbert always opposed entry to the EEC. His chief concern was that the working man should have a better chance, and so the left in the trade unions and the Soviet threat (and the link between the two) should be broken. He supported nuclear weapons against huge party pressure, and knew that the Atlantic alliance, not the European Union, would secure our strength in defence. People like him had to be stronger in their views than any Conservative, because otherwise they would buckle under the assault of the left. Although Gilbert continued in old age to sit on the Labour benches in the House of Lords, in those elections in which he could vote (peers may not vote in general elections), he voted for Ukip.
A year ago, I complained in this column that no one covers Turkey, yet ‘neo-Ottomanism is on the move, and the Islamist version of the Sublime Porte urgently requires our wary attention’. Now the place is the scene of riots — partly about a neo-Ottoman building project which will destroy a park in Istanbul — and still there is hardly anyone in our media who seems to know a thing about it. Many in the West have held up Recep Erdogan as the model of ‘moderate’ Islamic politics. Certainly he has proved cunning and able, but he has long been conducting a culture war — preventing air-hostesses wearing lipstick, banning alcohol etc — which tends in only one direction. I suspect that Turkey is merely the latest place in the near-Orient where those citizens who most strongly believe in western freedoms will be least supported by western governments.
I am, of course, thrilled that my biography of Mrs Thatcher came out top in the bestseller lists of hardback non-fiction for May. I am scarcely less pleased that its nearest competitor was not yet another cookery book, but Gwynne’s Grammar. This curious and brilliant production is by my friend N.M. Gwynne. Its success is a proper reward for courage. With an almost crazy disregard for how the modern world works, Gwynne, who is now over 70, has plugged on for years, arguing that grammar is the structure without which human expression is impossible. Milton aspired that he would ‘fit audience find, though few’. Until recently, Gwynne found barely any audience at all. It is wonderful that his crisp, lucid book has at last been embraced by the many. Denied a proper education, they thirst for one.
Because the March-like cold only left our bit of England last week, the recent sunny days have had a peculiar beauty. The woods round us still have the haze of bluebells, which I never remember in June before, and the blossom is still on the apple trees. Though the longest day approaches, Larkin’s thought about beginning ‘afresh, afresh, afresh’ applies right now.
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