Sooner or later, in this trade, one runs out of television historians to antagonise. I am doggedly working my way through the pack — and I don’t think any of the really big ones are left. I began by annoying Mary Beard and then swiftly moved on to David Starkey. Some time passed but eventually I found an opportunity to irritate Simon Schama, on BBC’s Question Time last week. He got very angry and his hands started waving all over the place. Someone on a social media site said he looked like a Thunder-birds puppet controlled by a person with Parkinson’s disease, which is a little cruel, I suppose. Simon ended a splenetic diatribe by calling me ‘suburban’, which raised a few eyebrows and indeed the accusation of snobbery. I do not mind being called suburban, even if I have never lived in the suburbs and I am being called it by someone who actually does (Westchester, in New York State, since you asked). There are many worse things you can call a chap.
As it happens, I enjoy the television programmes through which all three of these luminaries dispense their expertise, especially Mrs Beard’s. I’ve even ordered her new book about the Romans, and I would add that she is excellent company when not spouting blithe bien-pensant drivel about immigration. That was the sort of area which got me into trouble with Mr Schama, who easily out-drivelled Mary. Talking about the ‘refugee’ crisis, the art historian divested himself of a stream of emotionally incontinent non-sequiturs — and it was when I pointed this out that he became incandescent with pique.
The problem, as I saw it, was that Simon had simply not made any sense at all. It seemed to be sufficient to say that these people — the migrants — were ‘human beings’ and that feeling kindly disposed towards them was sufficient, in itself, to solve what many fear is the gravest crisis we have faced since the second world war. Simon — and the others who argue likewise (although technically it is not an argument because they advance no course of action) — insists that our government should ‘do more’. But what precisely, he and the others do not say.
This is not a failing confined to famous television personalities, of course, although as a breed they seem particularly prone to its inanities. What I realised after that edition of Question Time is that the facts, the practicalities, the realities of the situation, do not matter one jot. There is a small minority of British opinion — the polls suggest that the overwhelming majority of the population, suburban scum that they are, do not wish to see more migrants entering the country — which is absolutely impervious to the facts which show that letting more people in the country will make things worse both for them and for us. And clearly anyone who doesn’t agree is unaware that the migrants are ‘human beings’ and is thus a borderline psychopath, as well as being suburban. And yet ask them for a course of action and none is forthcoming.
But it is the imperviousness to reason that is most striking — and which convinces me that in some strange way they are articulating this ectoplasmic rubbish (we must ‘do more’!) in order to make themselves feel better, without any thought of the consequences for either the migrants or our country.
Eight months ago everybody was very worried about the number of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean sea, en route to western Europe in flimsy boats. The very voluble minority started screaming: we must do more! Send more boats! It was clear to me then — and to many others — that this would only exacerbate the problem, for the migrants and for us. More would drown because many more would set sail, expecting to be picked up. A more sensible solution — to deny access and deport any migrants arriving illegally by sea — had already been tried, and had worked, in Australia.
But we listened to the clamorous minority, despite their lack of reason and logic — and many more migrants have drowned as a consequence. We did the wrong thing. Back then, the lefties insisted that the death of every waterlogged migrant was on the hands of the British government. It wasn’t then — but there is a case for saying that they are now. That all those who set sail because they expect to be picked up, but drown instead, are the victims of western governments which did the wrong thing for supposedly the right reasons.
And again, the imperviousness to reason. A largely Muslim charity recently reviewed the work its people had been doing to relieve the misery and squalor on the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais. A worker with the Human Relief Foundation visited the notorious ‘Jungle’ encampment and concluded, with some alarm, that 97 per cent were economic migrants rather than refugees. Further, they were almost exclusively fit young men who were not fleeing danger at all and were not in the least desperate.
An executive added: ‘I thought they had a valid reason [to be there]. They do not have a valid reason.’ The charity immediately curtailed its relief efforts. But present these facts to those who simply scream ‘Let them in!’ and ‘We must do more!’ and it makes not the slightest difference to their point of view; it washes over them without leaving so much as a trace. Because the migrants want to come here, they must be allowed in — regardless of the effect on the poor in our country, or on all those who wish to migrate here and are following the proper channels. So, as I say — this makes me suspect that the issue is more about them than about the migrants. It is virtue signalling, once again.
Still, I suppose I should stop being on the wrong side of history, or the wrong side of TV historians, at any rate. The weathermen are next on my list.