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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes: In defence of Maria Miller

Plus: The need for real contrarians, and the sad fate of Lord Irvine’s wallpaper

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

Maria Miller’s forced resignation is a disgrace. No iniquity was proved against her. Over her expenses, I suspect her motive was innocent: she was trying to work out childcare with her parents in a way compatible with the weird rules, rather than plotting larceny. The parliamentary committee probably understood the circumstances fairly. The press anger was confected because of our (justified) dislike of the post-Leveson Royal Charter. We keep complaining that MPs are ‘marking their own homework’, forgetting that this is exactly what we have done ourselves — incredibly indulgently — for all these years, whenever people have complained about our behaviour. Besides, it is constitutionally wrong for MPs not to mark their own homework. We elect them. If we insist on an unelected body ruling their affairs, we are undermining the authority we have conferred on them. The best system is that MPs should mark their own homework but 100 per cent in public. Then they preserve the power of representative democracy and we can work out what we think of them.

Some experts on the Scottish referendum assure me that negative campaigning works. Polling suggests, they say, that fear of the consequences of independence rather than deep feeling for the Union, will persuade people to vote No. Perhaps, but it is surely important that if people do have strong feelings they should be encouraged to show them. Otherwise their opponents will be emboldened. Good political arguments reach heart as well as head. My impression is that feeling for the Union runs high among all those young people in Scotland who want to remain part of the wider world. Shouldn’t they have a great youth concert or march or something that can get the pipes skirling?

One person who feels very strongly in favour of the Union is Bob Geldof. Last week, I heard that he was preparing to storm Scotland to tell it that Britain loves it and wants it to stay. Such sentiments come well from Irishmen. How sad that his daughter’s tragic death will presumably prevent him.

An email informs me that the Contrarian Prize for 2015 has been awarded to Clive Stafford Smith. The prize goes to ‘individuals in British public life who put their heads above the parapet on grounds of principle’. Mr Stafford Smith has campaigned for 30 years against the death penalty, chiefly in the United States. He has been admirably determined about this, but in what sense has he ‘put his head above the parapet’? Among the classes who award the Contrarian Prize, he will have almost literally 100 per cent support for his views. His position, whether correct or not (I am the only person I know who cannot decide which side to be on about the death penalty), is completely orthodox. A true contrarian must go against those he meets at dinner parties, not distant adversaries like Dixieland rednecks. True contrarians of our time, therefore, are people like Nigel Lawson or Matt Ridley, who powerfully challenge the theories of global climate catastrophe which prevail among the award-conferring elites. So of course they do not get the prizes.

Approaching The Spectator’s offices last week, I noticed a few pennies lying in the street. My eye scanned the tarmac. There were more and more of them — all one penny coins, perhaps a hundred. Presumably they had fallen out of some office cash bag. What to do? Obviously there was no one to return them to. Should I grab them? My mind hesitated between a sense of the dignity supposed to attach to a 57-year-old suited man of the professional classes and a lifelong enthusiasm for unearned income. As I havered, two workmen with no such scruples squatted down in front of me and scooped the coins up.

When I interviewed someone in the House of Lords recently, I was led away to a remote, almost attic corner, up a winding stair. Suddenly, I had that feeling described at the beginning of Brideshead Revisited: ‘I have been here before.’ We were in the former apartments of the Lord Chancellor, I realised, made notorious by the £59,000 wallpaper installed by Lord Irvine of Lairg when he held that office. Typically, Tony Blair first installed his old pal (Lord Irvine) in the job and later, over a weekend, casually abolished the post, the oldest in British government. It turned out that total abolition was not, in fact, possible — the Lord Chancellorship plays a role in church, crown and law which is not easily unscrambled — but the job was permanently downgraded, and is currently occupied by someone who is neither a peer nor a lawyer. How sad the apartments look now, used as little-frequented meeting rooms. The Pugin wallpaper remains, as do the wooden lavatory seats, but half-baked reform has ‘stolen hence the life of the building’. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

Please may I use this column to apologise to all those who invite me to join them on LinkedIn and receive no answer. I have never seen LinkedIn, but I am told it is the office equivalent of Facebook. This leads me to guess that it is full of implausibly positive entries about whatever job the author is doing and then, when — as so often happens nowadays — the author is sacked, of stuff about how he or she is ‘relishing new challenges’. I would find this very depressing to read.

‘Are you part of a tribe or clan?’ asks the form for a US visa which I recently completed. What is the right answer? If you say yes, are you regarded with suspicion because you might try to bring in all your kinsmen, or with special, politically correct tenderness because you can claim group rights? I said no, because that seemed to correspond with reality, but I wish I had known what was expected of me. I would happily dredge up my ancient Irish clan links if that would ease the bureaucratic process.

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