In Dublin, where I am writing this column, people are watching the Scottish referendum campaign more closely than in London. Despite the polls, they almost expect a Yes vote, but most do not want one. People fear that Yes would weaken the UK and therefore make it a less useful ally for Ireland in the EU. They also think that an independent Scotland might overtake Ireland as a cute little place for foreign investors who like the combination of kilts, bagpipes and general Celtic carry-on with tax breaks and commercial access to the Anglosphere. Finally, they worry that Scottish independence would reopen the Irish question. At present, the Republic enjoys the fact that the settlement in the North has driven the call for a United Ireland into the background. The example of a breakaway Scotland would stir it up all over again. The more one thinks about the Scottish vote, the more multi-dimensionally dangerous it seems.
Appearing on Pat Kenny’s Newstalk show here, I take advantage of the moment to talk a bit about Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela. On the BBC World at One the day after Mandela’s death, a man called Pat Hart representing ‘community radio stations’, such as BCfm, said that Mrs Thatcher had called Mandela a terrorist and a ‘grubby little man’. She didn’t, but of course Hart was uncorrected by the BBC. He said that the remark had been made ‘not that long ago’, and in this, at least, he seems to be right. It was made after her death. It sprang forth in a Daily Mirror blog before her funeral and in an internet poster campaign comparing Mrs Thatcher unfavourably with Clement Attlee. It has been endlessly repeated, without evidence. She was certainly no friend to the ANC (which was why they tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent Mandela from seeing her after he came out of prison), but in fact she, of all foreign leaders, was the one who most often personally pressed the release of Mandela on the white regime. I do not know why David Cameron felt the need, in 2006, to apologise for Conservative policy in the 1980s: much more effectively than the Anti-Apartheid Movement, it persuaded the whites that they must concede majority rule. Great people — like the rest of us — can be caught out by a subsequent shift in the wind of opinion. Churchill, for instance, did indeed describe Gandhi, in 1931, as ‘a seditious Middle Temple lawyer now posing as a fakir’. But, so far as I have been able to discover, Mrs Thatcher is completely in the clear. Last word to Mandela himself: ‘She is an enemy of apartheid.’
It is fitting that three American presidents attended Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa, but also a reminder of how ungenerous the Obama administration was in its attitude to the Thatcher funeral. Since she, unlike Mandela, was not a head of state, protocol would have made it unusual for the President himself to have gone, but the vice-president and/or the secretary of state and an ex-president should have been there. However important Mandela’s example in the history of the world, he did a lot less for the United States than Margaret Thatcher.
During the Iraq war, Tony Blair was often called the ‘poodle’ of George Bush. A similar accusation is not thrown at us for falling in behind Barack Obama, yet it might be more justified. His recent deal with Iran was theoretically structured by the ‘5+1½’, the ‘½’ being the European Union. But in reality, it was strongly dominated by the United States, a fact at which only France publicly protested. The deal is seriously bad because, for the first time, it legitimates Iran as a ‘threshold’ nuclear power without winning anything more than a bit of delay in return. If Mr Obama really does wish to withdraw America from its quasi-imperial global status, his historic allies owe him less loyalty. The logic of his own policy is that there is no longer much he can do for us.
Last year, this column’s Christmas charity was Style for Soldiers, and since it is simultaneously successful and small, I recommend it again. The heart of the enterprise, invented by Emma Willis, who runs the Jermyn Street shirt shop of that name, is still to design elegant handmade shirts, regimental walking sticks etc for young injured servicemen. Every two months, Emma goes to Headley Court to measure them up. Now the male fashion website Mr Porter has got the most glamorous ones to take part in a fashion shoot. She has also discovered that the young men and women who receive lump-sum compensation payments often lack advice about how to invest the money. So she has persuaded four senior investment managers — from Church House, Smith Williamson, Thurleigh and Ruffer — to donate free wisdom on the subject. It is fascinating what some smart clothes can do for the morale of people who can easily lose self-esteem when wrenched suddenly from physical vigour to pain and disability. Please help cheer them up. A regimental stick costs £125 and a bespoke shirt £120. About 180 of each are made in a year. Donations can be made online at www.styleforsoldiers.com or by cheque to Style for Soldiers, 66 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6NY.
In the last decade, the habit of working over the Christmas period has been tacitly dropped. Except in service industries, it has now become quite surprising to come across people who actually have to go to an office or factory between 24 December and the first Monday after New Year’s Day. I don’t know what this change does for the trade figures, but it is a wonderful development. Advent, which should be a time to reflect on the Four Last Things, has become a hectic and unpleasant anticipation of Christmas itself. If Christmas, by secular means, is getting back almost all its Twelve Days, that must be good for our spiritual health. The Spectator, as always, is leading the way. This is a triple issue, so we shall not meet our readers again until 2014. I hope you do not enjoy our absence too much.