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The Spectator's Notes

Our spies have stopped chasing subversives. That's why we're in so much trouble

Plus: The reshuffle muddle gets deeper, the BBC's Israel problem, and Parliament's crisis of legitimacy

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

Peter Clarke’s powerful report on the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools is confirmation of the weakness of David Cameron in demoting Michael Gove. When Mr Gove appointed Mr Clarke to conduct the inquiry, there was execration — even from the local police chief — about how wickedly provocative it was to put a policeman with counter-terrorism experience into the role. But Mr Clarke was just the man and his inquiry has swiftly and efficiently uncovered serious problems of Islamist bullying and infiltration. Too late to reap a political reward, Mr Gove is vindicated. The next time this problem arises — and there undoubtedly will be a next time in another British city — what minister will have the courage to do what he did?

The Clarke report also highlights the error of the ‘securocrats’ in discarding the concept of subversion. MI5 proudly boasts on its website that, since the end of the Cold War, it has not investigated subversion. By concentrating only on actual terrorism, it has failed to understand how Islamist extremism works, particularly its power in intimidating fellow Muslims and preaching a pseudo-religious political narrative in which the West is always in the wrong. The Trojan Horse affair is exactly about subversion. As with the original beast, our own guards failed to spot what was within the gates. When Margaret Thatcher was education secretary in the early 1970s, the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, told her that her job made her ‘the real minister of defence in this country’. Islamists understand that concept, and work ceaselessly to weaken that defence. Mr Cameron has moved the only minister who really understood this. As Prime Minister, he directs the security agencies. If he is proud of the Gove legacy, as he says he is, he should charge them to investigate subversion once more.

Just as we are lazy about extremist ideology, we are overzealous on the more practical side. A friend writes to say that he posted a tin of electrical spray to a friend in Northern Ireland. It never arrived, and when the Post Office was contacted, it admitted destroying it. He also sent a Zippo lighter (still in its packaging) as a birthday present. The parcel arrived minus the lighter, with a note saying it had been destroyed because it contravened the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. Apparently the Post Office now even proscribes the sending of ordinary scent. Delivery firms happily take on such tasks, so it is destroying its own business as well as its customers’ property.


In my column in the Daily Telegraph last week, I teased the government’s website for not reporting its own reshuffle accurately. Actually, the confusion was deeper than I had understood. Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office Minister, was made Lord Privy Seal. Lady Stowell was made Leader of the House of Lords, but — disgracefully — without a seat in Cabinet. Her salary gap was to be made up — also disgracefully — from Conservative party funds. In addition, she was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Only afterwards did someone discover that the Chancellorship of the Duchy is a royal appointment and therefore cannot be held by someone paid by a political party. So poor Mr Letwin had the Privy Seal taken from him before it had even reached his hands. Lady Stowell is Lord Privy Seal: Mr Letwin is Chancellor of the Duchy. Now Lady Stowell has decided not to take the party money after all. Should she and Mr Letwin swap jobs again? These errors are small versions of the New Labour confusions when Tony Blair tried to abolish the Lord Chancellorship over a weekend. There do not seem to be officials around any more with the courage or knowledge to point out the difficulties in advance. It is a style of government which manages to be sloppy and arrogant at the same time.

One of the Downing Street claims put out in defence of the Lords having no representative in the Cabinet for the first time in British history was that Lord Carrington, when leader, had not been in the Cabinet. This is not true, as could have been established by one call to the person concerned, who, though 95, is alive and well. ‘Of course I was in the Cabinet,’ he says.

If, as polls suggest with slightly greater force after the exciting reshuffle, Labour win the next general election, how few votes can they do it with? It has been a strange feature of 21st-century British general elections that a party can win them with historically tiny numbers of votes. After getting a decent 13.5 million votes to win in 1997, Tony Blair won almost as big in 2001, with 10.7 million. He won again, in 2005, with a mere 9.5 million. No one had won an overall majority with so few votes since the Conservatives in 1924, when the electorate was more than 50 per cent smaller. In 2010, nobody won, but David Cameron’s Conservatives got 10.7 million to win 307 seats, whereas Blair’s 9.5 million had won his party 413 seats in 2005. If one party can rule supported by less than 25 per cent of the electorate, how long will legitimacy survive?

In what must have been a spoof, protestors recently marched on Broadcasting House to attack the BBC’s bias in favour of Israel. On the Today programme on Tuesday, the corporation exhibited this evil tendency by putting on two Jews, one of whom condemned Israel unreservedly for its Gaza incursions, and the other of whom thought we should be sad about the deaths on both sides. It would have been unthinkable for the BBC to have run a similar item in which two Arabs discussed exactly how wicked Hamas was. But my real complaint is not so much about the allocation of moral blame as about the lack of explanation. Large parts of the Arab world — Egypt, the Arab League and so on — are fiercely critical of what Hamas is doing. This is hardly mentioned on the BBC, which can cope only with a simple story of Palestinians versus Israelis.


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