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The Spectator's Notes

Mugabe envy in Scotland

Plus: A bishop deprived of his palace, and a former Tory MP buried in a Palestinian flag

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

Who owns Scotland? The people who most commonly ask this question believe that the land has been wrested from ordinary Scots by evil lairds and rich foreigners (by which they chiefly mean the English). Now the Scottish government is bringing out a report on how to correct this alleged injustice. It may recommend extending community ‘right to buy’ powers and allowing tenants to buy their holdings even if the owners do not want to sell.  This would have the unintended effect of ending all new tenancies. But the SNP’s misunderstanding of the situation is even more radical than that. It believes that big Scottish landowners are rich because they own the land. For a long time now, it has been the other way round. They own the land because they are rich. Once they own it, they tend to become a lot poorer. Then they sell it to new rich people with money to burn, and so on. Hardly any Highland land makes money. Without philanthropists, megalomaniacs and serious sportsmen pouring cash in to maintain these difficult places, their communities, and so the environment, would suffer. You can see this happening already in the islands where crofters’ rights have been exercised. One great independence leader who played this issue politically was Robert Mugabe, dividing the spoils among his followers and ruining the land in the process. Will the next be Alex Salmond?

In the Church of England, the ‘interregnum’ means the long gap between one vicar or bishop and the next. It is a dangerous time, when bureaucrats grab power and local rights are removed. The latest has occurred at Wells. It was reported that the new Bishop of Bath and Wells, Peter Hancock, does not want to live in the astonishing 13th-century moated palace there. Not so. The Church Commissioners decreed it, announcing that they would move the bishop so that he could ‘carry out his ministry and mission in a more sustainable way’. But who should be the judge of ‘sustainability’? Residents and visitors alike prefer bishops in palaces, because they want a leader they can recognise in a place they love. But their views count for nothing. For all the Anglican talk of community, the Commissioners are forever hollowing out these warm hearts of church patrimony. Like medieval pluralists, they live nowhere near the buildings they control (the First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas Whittam Smith, lives mainly in France) and care nothing for them. Their unanswerable power is damaging to the spirit, and requires a mini-Reformation.


The coffin of Sir Cyril Townsend, the former Conservative MP who died at the end of last year, was draped with the Palestinian flag at his funeral service in Tavistock. Sir Cyril was the former Director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, but why would that require a political statement over his dead body, almost like those grisly IRA funerals when men wearing berets stood beside coffins wrapped in the Irish tricolour? I knew Sir Cyril slightly and found him a pleasant and honourable man, but when the talk turned to Israel-Palestine a crazy glint came into his eye and he started shouting. The subject evokes passions on both sides, of course, but in modern Britain pro-Palestinian extremism is given much more of a free pass than pro-Israeli. What abuse would be hurled at a British MP whose coffin was draped in the Israeli flag. Yet Sir Cyril’s strange send-off excites no censure.

Before Chang Song-Thaek was executed in North Korea last month for being a ‘wicked political careerist, trickster and traitor for all ages’, he allegedly confessed to his crimes. ‘I didn’t fix a definite time for the coup,’ he said, ‘But it was my intention to concentrate … all economic organs on the cabinet and become premier when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse …I thought that if I solve the problem of people’s living …by spending an enormous amount of funds …after becoming premier, the people will shout “hurrah” for me and I will succeed in a smooth way.’ Luckily, North Korea is well enough run to have stopped this terrible chain of events. Unhappy Britain, where Gordon Brown’s identical plot was successful!

Over Christmas, I listened often to Radio 3, sometimes introduced by Clemency Burton-Hill, who is its new breakfast presenter. I ruminated on something she said in a recent interview: ‘To be “able” to understand classical music, all you need is open ears, an open mind, and to be able to feel.’ Her good motive in saying this, presumably, is that she does not want people to feel intimidated. But — and I speak on behalf of the ignorant — what she says is simply not true. Of course one can achieve some pleasure just by listening, and trying to feel. If that were not so, I would switch off. But the problem is that there is so much more to understand, and I do not understand it. I cannot read music, expound simple terms like a ‘chord’ or ‘harmony’ or ‘tonal’, or recognise the difference between a contralto and a soprano. This ignorance must be a handicap. Since I can’t go to school and learn, I depend heavily on Radio 3 to improve my education, and thus my pleasure. It must not patronise me by pretending it is all easy. If broadcasters say ‘Come on in, the water’s lovely’, they must also help me learn to swim when I do.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, who died last week, spent her youth in the Sussex village where (nearly 40 years later) I was brought up. The family house there, Home Place, features prominently in The Cazalet Chronicles. I once mentioned this to her former husband Kingsley Amis. He claimed he did not know where she had lived. I said it surprised me that, in 18 years of marriage, he had not asked. ‘Never got round it to somehow’ was his reply. At the time, I assumed he said this only to put down his ex-wife and to change the subject. But afterwards, the even grimmer thought occurred to me that he had been telling the truth.


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