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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator's Notes: If Putin can have a referendum, so can Boris

Plus: Sir Peter Tapsell on appeasement; Roy Jenkins's vague Europhilia; and being kept up by the call to prayer

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

Everyone can see that the West has no idea what to do about Russian power in the Ukraine. Britain, in particular, is at the margins. It is time for the Mayor of London to fulfil his historic role of stealing a march on more conventional politicians. Boris should take a leaf out of President Putin’s book and call a referendum of Londoners. He should ask them whether they would like all Russian housing in London to be seized, and be inhabited, instead, by British families. I predict a Yes vote whose percentage would exceed even that of the recent Crimean plebiscite. Obviously the Mayor, unlike Putin, has no military forces to implement such a measure (which is just as well), but the vote would make us feel a bit better.

In an interview as he announces that he will leave Parliament at the next election, the Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell, says that he started his political life working for Anthony Eden because he admired him as ‘the man who had first stood up against the dictators and opposed appeasement’. At the end of the interview, he says he must hurry back to Parliament to oppose intervention in the Crimea because ‘There is nothing more shameful than for statesmen in their safe offices to encourage idealistic young men to go out and be shot down in the streets by tyrants.’ So when is it shameful to oppose appeasement and when is it shameful to support it? It is a surprisingly hard question to answer, but it is now asking itself more strongly in Europe than since the 1930s.


In his excellent new biography of Roy Jenkins, John Campbell states that his subject had ‘no trace of a Welsh accent’, despite having been born and brought up in Wales. This is not the case. The late Alan Watkins (Welsh himself) claimed that no Welshman could get rid of his native way of pronouncing the word ‘situation’. If Jenkins had consistently maintained his old-fashioned Oxonian accent, he would have said ‘sit-yew-ashun’. In fact, he always said ‘sit-oo-ashun’. You could take Woy out of the valleys, but you couldn’t completely take the valleys out of Woy.

Campbell brings out well how vague Jenkins was about how the European Community should develop. All he wanted was that it should acquire more power and that Britain should be part of it. Even when he was head of the Commission in the early 1980s, he never showed much interest in how Europe was constituted or organised. In this, he was the same as virtually all British Europhiles. People like Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke are positively proud of the fact that they did not read the treaties they supported. Of course it is admirable not to get bogged down in process, but the Jenkins attitude showed a deep misunderstanding of the project. The EU is not just a series of good (or even bad) ideas promoted by allies, but a developing system of government for most of a continent, and so the way that it is constituted and run will decide its eventual fate. True masters of the subject, such as Jacques Delors, have always understood this, and so they have shaped Europe in the way they wanted. No British Europhile politicians have managed to master the institutions, and so they have been marginalised by the Europe they love.

Last week, the Rectory Society, of which I am chairman, held its Annual General Meeting amidst the simple beauty of the Queen’s Chapel, St James’s Palace. The main gig was a ‘conversation’ between Mervyn King and me (the purpose being to elicit Lord King’s views, not mine). The chapel contains two pulpits, so we talked to one another across the aisle. The subject was what is sometimes called the clerisy. The former Governor of the Bank of England is interested in the lack, in modern culture, of the general, educated conversation once disseminated throughout the land via the rectory, the manse, local learned societies and so on. He believes that the decline of this conversation helps explain why less than ideal public policy decisions get made. People are too hyped up by their own occupations to notice what others think or do, or to study how things went wrong in the past. They also make so much money by concentrating on money itself that talent drains from socially beneficial occupations, such as teaching or manufacturing. All this is true, and it was most interesting to hear it said so eloquently by a great man from the world of money. But what is to be done? It occurred to me afterwards that a modest start would be for every large organisation — banks, government departments, big businesses, professions, churches, armed services — to set an exam for new entrants in the history of the trade they seek to follow.

This month, I have spent time in two Muslim countries and I am completely exhausted. This is because of the call to prayer. It is rather moving that holy words start the public day (it would be nice, on a similar principle, if vicars read out bits of the Psalms from church towers), but the problem is volume. I do not remember it being so noisily amplified on previous visits. The call starts at about 4.30 a.m. and then returns in two more, presumably related bursts in the next 45 minutes. Not content with the first invocation and a recital from a sura, the muezzin sometimes seems to burble extra thoughts as the spirit moves him. By then, I find it impossible to go back to sleep. When we were visiting the astonishing Roman ruins at Jerash in Jordan (not at 4.30 in the morning), the call to prayer started. But I was surprised to hear, through the wailing of the mosque loudspeakers, the unmistakable sound of bagpipes. Eventually, I traced it to the Roman theatre. Two men in military uniform and keffiyehs were playing ‘Speed bonny boat’, ‘The Campbells are coming’, and like numbers. They were ex-Royal Jordanian Army, they told me, and had been trained in the pipes while they served. Drunk with Koran-induced lack of sleep, I found their noises strangely cheering.


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