The most extraordinary thing about the scandal of Unite at Grangemouth and in Falkirk is how long it took the outside world to notice. Partly, this is an effect of devolution: almost nothing Scottish is now considered news in London, even if it is of kingdom-wide importance. Partly, it results from the loss of media and political attention to trade union affairs. So successful was Mrs Thatcher in taming union political power that newspapers laid off the labour correspondents who, in the 1970s and early 1980s, had been the aristocrats of the news room. As for the Tories, they have forgotten the Cold War arts of keeping dossiers on subversion. But the Reds who were once so plentifully under the bed never completely went away, and those that survived did not lose their ancient craft of entryism. Time to monitor them once again.
Poor, brilliant Tristram Hunt, Labour’s new education shadow, was made to look foolish by Jeremy Paxman about Labour’s insistence on formal qualifications for teachers. But I feel that Paxman did not go far enough. Why not introduce a rule which states that no one with a formal teaching qualification is allowed to teach in any school unless he or she can prove compensatory qualifications from other fields? These could include having worked for at least two years in a private-sector job, or served in the armed forces, or possessing an honours degree from a Russell Group university. After quite a short time, no one would want to apply for formal teaching qualifications any more and the whole system which has guaranteed mediocrity and worse in the state system for 50 years would fall apart.
When I became the editor of this paper in 1984, my name started to appear annually in the ‘Today’s birthdays’ columns of newspapers — hence my knowledge (see last week’s Notes) of the fact that I share a birthday with the late Sir James Savile. At a time when some of those featured had been born in the 19th century, it was pleasing to my vanity to be the youngest entry. For a similar reason, one does not welcome new entrants, unless — like my fellow Hallowe’en babies Dame Zaha Hadid and Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council — they are older than me anyway. Last week, I was 57. In the Telegraph’s list, there were only two below me in age — the film director Sir Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson and Mr Simon Everson, ‘Headmaster, Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood, 48’. The Times, however, has trendily unearthed no fewer than seven youngsters, including Johnny Marr, ‘musician, 50’, Larry Mullen, ‘drummer, 52’ and Sarah Brown, described as ‘founder, PiggyBankKids, 50’, but really known for her demanding role as Mrs Gordon Brown. It will be fun to try to drive them off the page. I am emulous of good old Viscount Falmouth, ‘Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, 1977-94’, who tops the bill aged 94.
The passage of time was sharply brought home to me last week, however, when I went to address the Palmerston Society at Harrow School. At the end of a very pleasant evening, Henry, the charming young man in charge of the society, rushed back to his house and returned, panting, with a book he wanted signed. It was a copy of The Young Fogey Handbook, an embarrassing work from 1985 which I had completely forgotten until that moment. It tried (unsuccessfully) to popularise the idea that people like A.N. Wilson, Gavin Stamp, David Watkin and I were leading an important youth movement. ‘When I found this,’ said Henry, ‘I was so thrilled to discover that people who believed what I believed already existed.’ This was touching. I asked Henry when he was born and he said 1996. So, in terms of dates, it was as if, at school, I had unearthed a copy of the Labour manifesto of 1945 and asked Clement Attlee to sign it.
As I was inspecting ‘Today’s Birthdays’, my eye moved sideways to the Court Circular. The bulletin from Clarence House said that the Prince of Wales had that day attended the inaugural Skills Master Class of the Royal Television Society, and held a reception for the Nursing Times Award Winners. Then he received the Royal Mail Stamp Design Winners, later, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and finally, as Patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Sheikh Khalid Alireza and Sheikh Bakr Bin Laden. If only, years ago, someone had thought of casting some of the lustre of this patronage on Bakr’s kid brother, Osama, how different might life be today.
Late on Saturday afternoon, I was driving across Romney Marsh on the narrow but fast A-road that runs between Rye and the Channel Tunnel. Ahead of me, and just before the road turns extremely sharply before entering Sussex, I could see someone wheeling a motorbike into the middle of the road. I could also see some people standing on the roadside. Had there been an accident? As I slowed right down, I noticed a cameraman, and then an oriental girl wearing hotpants and looking chilly. I realised that I was in the middle of a fashion shoot, chosen because of the ‘edgy’ backdrop of the wind turbines which now defile the marsh. The poor model was being made to risk her life to pose with the bike. Feeling irritated, I drove on, so it was only with esprit d’escalier that I remembered I was in my mud-spattered hunting kit, with my whip at my side. I should have got out of the car and made the fashion shoot edgier than ever.
Two random but interesting facts about new technology I have learnt this week. One is that many fields in Britain are now drilled by satellite. This means that the lines are dead straight: not long before the Parable of the Sower will have to be retold without reference to human beings. The other is that 3D printers will soon be able to make life-size replicas of human beings out of chocolate — edible selfies.